Reduced to Pilgrims: The Oppressive Foundations of the Word “Transgender”

It’s time, obviously, for a radical rethinking of how we understand transgender people and lives.  There, I haven’t set the bar very high for this little piece with that opener, right?  Or the super pretentious title?  Good, good.

Well, part of how we can tell it’s time for a restructuring this major is how often we fight about language within our own community.  Transgender vs. transgendered, FAAB vs. CAFAB, male-bodied vs. male-assigned—none of these words lack detractors and supporters, including myself.  (For the record, I use transgender, FAAB, and male-assigned, though I think that last one is passing into common usage.)  It’s surprising to me, though, that no one has rethought this in the following terms.

Our language is handed down to us by our oppressors, and while we are initially delighted to have it (having been without any language for our lives before), we soon realize that this language is inadequate.  Of course it is.  It was built to be so, built not to allow for complicated identities or liberating self-concepts, because they want to keep us self-loathing and simple.

As far as I can tell, the word transvestite came first in terms of “official” language to describe transgender people.  Before it was coined, a world existed where the prefix “trans” did not immediately make young gender variant people giggle in the grocery store when products boasted “no trans fats.”  Obviously before this many different cultures had words for gender-variant people—hijira springs to mind, and fa’afafine—but transvestite was the first word created for us in a Western context, which is, regrettably, the dominant and prescriptive one.  In any case, transvestite was coined by Magnus Hirschfield, the German sexologist, who used it to refer to a whole host of people, some of whom we’d now consider non-binary, transsexual, butch, and an array of other things.  I want to mention here that Hirschfield was a courageous queer man who made enormous contributions to the community, but that didn’t prevent him, with his unchecked cis privilege, from laying the groundwork for an oppressive linguistic system.

From the beginning in the language he coined we see the reduction of trans genders to superficiality.  We simply “dress”  (-vestite) “over, across, or beyond” (trans-).  The coining and usage of “transvestite” as an umbrella term was the beginning of the codification of trans genders as disguises—things that can be put on or taken off, things that can be seen through, pretenses, costumes.

The word transsexual came next, hot on the heels of transvestite and complete with a confusing suffix that made it sound like an orientation.  It had the effect of reducing us to our bodies and compartmentalizing us into the socially constructed idea of two impermeable biological sexes, in some ways affirming and in some ways creating the cissexist “trapped in the wrong body” paradigm.  (This is not to say that some trans people do not feel trapped in the wrong body, or that their experience is invalid, but that the paradigm dictating that all trans people feel this way is cissexist.)  All transgender people were assumed to be transsexual; if they did not desire medical transition, their gender was assumed to be invalid and false because they were not “adequately trans.”  And all of this of course effectively erased bunches on non-op people, non-binary people, and of course transsexuals who weren’t “proper transsexuals.”  Now we were all positioned as “over, across, or beyond” biological sex—just as problematic and untenable a position.

Finally, transgender arrived in the progressive 1970s, like a wish granted for a word appropriate to all of us without prescriptive and limiting nonsense built in.  But we were building on a bedrock foundation of language imposed onto us by our cis keepers, the people who had measured our genitalia and asked about our fathers so they could diagnose us with this or that, and perhaps provide us with the medical care some of us required if we adhered to their strict standards.

Here is my central question.  When we moved into “transgender” as a better word for our community, why did we retain “trans”?  ”Gender,” certainly, but why has our community retained such an attachment to the prefix?  When did we consent to be forever “over, across, or beyond”?  When did we agree to forever live in motion, always on a journey to our true bodies and selves, rather than simply being ourselves as cis people are allowed to do?

That is why this prefix has been made a part of us.  It is because an essential part of the cissupremacist project is to reduce trans people to pilgrims.

As transgender people, we are always moving “across, over, or beyond.”  When we are defined by moving “across” gender, we are sentenced to continue that movement all our lives—and since “across” implies something to be crossed, it is always assumed that our goal is one end of the line or the other: maleness or femaleness, erasing non-binary experience.  As for binary-identifed trans people, we are placed journeying in perpetuity.  We will never reach maleness or femaleness.  If we did we would not betransgender: we would discard the prefix of motion.

Cis people, even trans allies, often discuss the “transgender journey,” or make reference to a trans person’s “journey” while discussing the struggles their trans friends and acquaintances experience.  This is partly due to the kind of touchy-feely new age thought with which many people approach any kind of emotional subject these days (“journey,” “follow your bliss,” etc etc) and partly because our language and culture have trained cis people to conceive of trans people as traveling to their identified gender rather than revealing that gender as their true one.

Even the word transition, highly embedded into the language trans people use to describe what happens in their lives and bodies when they reveal their true gender (as opposed to the one they’ve been assigned).  It is not clear to me that “transition” is the only—or the most liberating—way to understand this process.  For different trans people, “transition” can include a name change, hormone treatment, top surgery, bottom surgery, or all or none of these.  The idea of a “transition”—from one’s assigned gender to one’s actual gender—is inherently flawed and self-contradicting.  While it could be a nonproblematic word if we qualified it more—if we understood “social transition” to be distinct from “medical transition” as some of the more liberatory language-focused circles of the trans community do—it is overwhelmingly used (especially by cis people with layman’s knowledge of trans issues) as a catch all term for what happens when a trans person comes out.

Under this linguistic logic, if a trans woman is understood to be transitioning from male to female, she is not “female” until she has completed such a transition.  I believe it is from this idea that comments issue like the cissexist and transphobic classics, “I shouldn’t have to call him a girl until he’s had The Surgery,” and “If she were really serious about the whole ‘I’m a guy’ thing she’d cut off her breasts.”  Under this logic, a trans person cannot be truly their gender until they have completed “transition.”  It is a logic which ignores the lived realities of trans life—not only are surgical procedures, hormones, name changes, etc. the easiest things to obtain, but it erases completely the experiences of trans people who do not seek to transition in a legal or medical form.

Why do we stay in this paradigm of motion—across, over, beyond?  I propose instead a paradigm of revelation.

We do not “cross over” to our genders; we reveal our genders, which people had assumed were the ones assigned to us at birth.  The process of what is now called transition could be liberatingly reconfigured as revelation.  What one’s true name is, what one truly looks like, what one is, having shed the restrictions of an oppressive enforced gender.

Now, as romantic as this idea of radical linguistic change is, it is impractical.  I don’t necessarily argue that we should stop using these words altogether.  They’re useful for lots of people in articulating one’s lived experience.  The word transgender is by now one with a noble history, though as far as its accuracy it refers only to how we exist in a social world that forces to live lives “across, over, or beyond” gender.  But we should not use the word without reflecting on how its etymology came about—from cis people, connecting us for the first time to “trans” with the word “transvestite,” then “transsexual.”  We must remember how its oppressive origins continue to affect us by rendering us creatures in transit, forever approaching our identities.  We must know our history and we must remember who was codifying notions of “us” when “we” were first becoming a united “us.”  It was not “us.”

These oppressive linguistic foundations are still hurting us every day.  They are, I think, helping to cause divisive arguments over language within the trans community.  It may not have been their initial game plan, but I think the cissupremacist bad guys would be delighted to see us fighting amongst ourselves instead of fighting them.  Now, any community of intelligent activists is bound to have debates about terminology, but I believe the level of this in the trans community to be rather extraordinary.  I would not be surprised if it lay in the oppressive foundation of the language we are given to describe the most basic parts of our identities.

19 Responses to “Reduced to Pilgrims: The Oppressive Foundations of the Word “Transgender””

  1. 1 biyuti November 17, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    And some people wonder why I reject the word trans…

    Although, for me, it is usually expressed from an anti-colonial position. Yet, part of my rejection has always been that the whole narrative of movement, of the journey, does not describe my Bakla experience at all. I have never ‘transitioned’ or felt the need to because I have always been Bakla and never really felt any other way.

    • 2 Zanron November 19, 2011 at 12:43 am

      I never gave the term “transition” much thought, but the whole “journey”-meme really rubs me the wrong way. If people want to use it about themselves, good for them, but I see it used ever so often, for instance in phrases like “I wish you the best on your journey towards man-hood” … Pass me the bucket. :/

  2. 3 W. November 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

    I think you said it better than I’ve been thinking it 🙂 Thanks so much for writing this!

  3. 4 Hank November 22, 2011 at 3:48 am

    Actually, the word transgender was originally coined by people in the community to mean someone who lives as their nonassigned gender but does not take any steps to physically change their body. No hormones/no surgery. Crossing gender but not crossing physical sex. It didn’t become a sort of useless umbrella term until later.

  4. 6 Luc November 22, 2011 at 9:49 pm


    Thank you for writing is really good post and making me think deeply about this term. The idea of trans individuals as being portrayed as pilgrims is very interesting, and it’s given be much food for thought. I ran into your blog because of the Chaz Bono post, and I was happy to find a another feminist trans comrade, and in awe after reading some of your posts. It’s awesome to know there are folks like you fighting for social justice!


  5. 7 Quarries & Corridors (@quarridors) November 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    As someone who ‘transitioned’ (twice) in the late 1990s/early 2000s and read and contributed to the radical trans and early genderqueer discourses around at that time, I’ve always seen ‘transgender’ as about those who transgress societal rules, roles and restrictions around gender.

    I have no problem with being portrayed as someone who breaks the rules, crosses the boundaries or moves over or beyond the limited ideas society holds around gender. Transgender liberation should be a positive for all, regardless of how we conceive of or express our gender. The trans- in ‘transgress’ and ‘transcend’ doesn’t imply a pilgrimage, more like rebellion and self revelation.

    • 8 Stephen November 24, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      I think there’s more than one reading of “trans,” and different people are bound to be comfortable with different readings. I’m still comfortable with the word, but I’m very conflicted because of the ideas I’ve outlined above.

      I guess if you read “transgender” as meaning “crossing the boundaries society has constructed around gender,” then that’s a different and much more positive reading. But I worry that the more common reading of “transgender” is “crossing the boundaries of gender itself.”

  6. 11 anon November 28, 2011 at 12:03 am

    I know, only one book by Hirschfeld was translated into English (The Transvestites), but even from that you could learn that Hirschfeld had a much more complex idea about transvestism than you give him credit for.

    • 12 Stephen November 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm

      I’ve read The Transvestites–I mean, sure, it’s more complex than a look at this blog post would suggest, because it’s a book and this is a fairly short blog post, but ultimately I stand by my critique of Hirschfield.

      He was a great man and an incredibly brave one. He thought complexly. In his day he was a stunning ally to the trans community. That doesn’t make him immune to helping the creation of a cissexist paradigm.

  7. 13 Nancy Nangeroni December 5, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    When I first came out into the community of crossdressers and transsexuals – that portion which was affluent enough to attend weekend conferences – in 1990, the popular self-reference was “the gender community”. After reading Leslie Feinberg’s call for a transgender movement, I began using and encouraging others to use “transgender” as an umbrella term, to give us the broadest possible one-word label which might be intelligible to the cis-gendered. I used the term extensively in my activism and on GenderTalk radio starting in 1995 and in my published writings for Sojourner, GCN and more. Clearly it has been a useful term, but I fear that its widespread adoption by the cis-gendered has come to be synonymous with “transsexual”, due both to well-intended efforts to win acceptance by telling our stories, and to the narrow commercial focus of contemporary media which blocks all but simplistic narratives of unthreatening gender content. We’re making progress towards establishing the right for gender self-determination from an early age. Maybe when this is established, the world will finally be ready to consider alternatives to strict binarism.

    • 14 Stephen December 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      I love this comment, and to be honest I’m just having a little bit of a starstruck moment. I’m a longtime GenderTalk listener, and I think you’re pretty awesome. I’m glad you found my blog.

  8. 15 Miri December 14, 2011 at 5:18 am

    This interpretation of the meaning of “trans” is why I don’t particularly like (read: very much dislike) the term transgender. I don’t like it as a label for myself, I don’t like it as an umbrella term. Nobody changes their gender, as far as I’m aware, although certainly there are people who express both or no gender, or something else. This cis view of trans people changing from one gender to another suggests we are somehow changing our identity. That’s why I pretty happily (though not without resevervation) label myself transsexual since at least it’s descriptive of what’s going on, at least in part (in so far as it describes the medical component of transition). After transition though, I don’t know how appropriate it would be, as it describe the past, and not present reality. For the wider community, “the gender community” or even “genderfolk” (although it sounds a bit silly) is far better than transgender, which at once says nothing as it covers too broad a group, and says something that is not really correct.

  9. 16 Jenna Fischetti December 22, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Thank you Stephen.

    I’ve always viewed my process as a reclamation and not a transition. I’m not becoming someone else, I’m reclaim the identity that the world around me tried to beat out of me. (Thankfully they were unsuccessful)

    I am a fan of Julia Serrano and not a fan of “trans” this or that. I borrowed from Julia and used “non cisgender” both as the conversation starter it is and the fact it flows with “nonsense gender”

    Look forward to reading more

  10. 17 julian January 29, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I love the “revelation” instead of “transition” suggestion. I’m an extremely androgynous gay transguy and people are always saying things like, “When you’re done transitioning,” or “when people start thinking you’re a real guy,” as if only then will my identity be affirmed. Gee, I can’t wait to be real… maybe just a few more months. And I totally agree with your excellent analysis of where “trans” comes from and why it is problematic.
    Its kind of like “queer,” which everybody knows literally means “weird” or “different.” I’ve always kind of thought that the idea of “reclaiming” words that were originally directed at a marginalized group in a negative way and using them self-referentially in a positive way was kind of questionable when framed in the larger context of the cis-sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, etc. that those words came from. Some people say its empowering, though, and I guess if they feel that way that’s cool. I’d love to start using an alternative to “trans” in a self-referential way, but I’m not sure I’m smart enough to think of one. Uncis? That doesn’t sound very sexy…

  11. 18 Roz Kaveney August 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    In the world of 90s UK civil rights NGO politics, ‘transgender’ was an incredibly useful term for getting through to cis people that human rights should not depend on a specific medical diagnosis and that everyone who fell under a very big umbrella should have a right to documentation appropriate to how they lived their life. There are problems with it, but it was useful.

  1. 1 Further thoughts on trans* theorizing about the body « biyuti Trackback on June 10, 2012 at 10:50 pm

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