Transgender, transvestite, transsexual… what do they have in common? Gender variance? Sure, but I’m thinking of the Latin word “trans” and I would like to continue thinking about what it means to transit (i.e. cross locations from one place to another).

I have really come to find “trans” unfit to describe gender variance, and not that I have anything against “trans” — it works great in transgression and transform and transmit and a bunch of other handy words, but in matters of sex and gender and clothing, I just think it doesn’t work metaphorically.

As I write in my Trans101 page, it seems to me that the key things we are interested in are sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, and that all four of these variables are a spectrum, rather than a binary. It’s the gender binary that gives rise to “trans” words, and that’s what I have a problem with. If gender were a binary, to take one example, with “feminine” actions, beliefs, mannerisms, clothing, and so on on one side, and “masculine” ones on the other side, and there were absolutely no overlap and nowhere to stand in between the two poles, then “trans-gendering” would make sense. The term would mean that a feminine individual would cross the great divide to take on all of the attributes of the other gender. In that case, “trans-ing” is a good metaphor — it’s like trans-Atlantic voyage, starting on one side (Europe) and ending on the other side (America). You can’t call it Trans-Atlantic if you travel from Callais to Dublin, or New York to Nova Scotia, can you?

These variables (sex, gender, clothing) are not binaries in any sense of the word — they’re spectrums where the value of masculine gender can be anywhere from 0% to 100% on any given day — the same goes for sex and clothing. If that’s the case, then “trans-ing” is simply the wrong concept.

A person can

  • trans – sex
  • trans – vest
  • trans – gender

Conventionally thinking, we’d take this list to mean something like this, but it’s far, far more complex, as we shall see below:

  • trans – sex ( becoming women and women becoming men)
  • trans – vest ( wearing bras and women wearing jock straps)
  • trans – gender ( being feminine and women being masculine)

Sex (and trans-sexing)

We can start with sex, since it’s the category most easily argued about. There’s males and females, and nothing in between, right?. Well, I hate to break it to you, but no, that’s not the case, at all. Sex can be defined by genitals, by chromosomes, by biochemical hormone balance, by the presence or absence of internal organs. Any combination you can think of is biologically viable (penis + ovaries, XX chromosomes + lots of testosterone, and so on). I am not intersexed, or at least I don’t think I am, but many people are and may not even be aware of it. So sex may be defined as these previously-mentioned things, along with secondary sex characteristics, such as body appearance, body hair, breasts, and so on.

So when we trans-sex, just how many of those characteristics do we think we’re changing? What if you add breasts and lose body hair? Is that trans-sexing? I was trying to get at this concept in my “Minimalist Sex Change” post a month or so ago, but the idea is very relevant here. You can change some of these things and not others. What about removal of the beard and no more? Or all body hair and no more? Or growing/removing breasts and no more? Switching your biochemistry from a typical man’s to a typical woman’s, or vice-versa? Sex isn’t one thing, but it’s a lot of things. And even these variables have middle ground, and what do we do about that vast space between male and female, chromosomally, hormonally, emotionally, physically?

There is no clearly-identifiable sex binary outside of what we see in the beautiful people on TV and in advertisements, and thus, there is no trans-sexing. Why? Because there’s nowhere to start the trans-ing, and nowhere to end in the journey. You can’t cross from one place to another if neither place exists.

Gender (and trans-gendering)

I don’t really know anyone who is 100% masculine — or 100% feminine. Who would want to be around such people? If we list everything we can think of to describe masculine and feminine attributes, we’re going to see a lot of great qualities in both lists. I think men who are strong, compromising, nurturing, mechanical, gifted, funny, intelligent, etc. are a lot better than those who are just strong. Characteristics like strength, which isn’t gendered — I would hope that men, women, boys and girls all acquire strength in their lives.

You and I may argue about very small details, about whether they’re masculine or feminine, however, and I suspect we’ll get further in our discussion that way. Let’s start with makeup. It may be gendered or it may not be. Routine eye shadow may indeed be something that we see in western culture as gendered feminine. But not all makeup counts–how do you think Harrison Ford looks all beat up as Indiana Jones? I suspect they put dark makeup on him instead of actually beating him up. In fact, the more I think of it, makeup involves more about performance than about gender. If I want my eyes to be big and pretty, perhaps that desire is feminine-gendered, and I achieve that impression with eye makeup. But the makeup itself isn’t gendered.

Any more than silk or any other fabric is gendered. Or any color. Or a gesture. But even if these are gendered, they must exist on a spectrum from 0 to 100. And anyone trans-gendering wouldn’t really move from 0 to 100 in every single variable, but more likely shift a few variables this way or that. In other words, in gender, as in sex, I don’t think “trans-ing” is quite up to the task of describing just what kinds of shifts are possible, and that’s because gender, like sex, doesn’t exist in a binary, but in a spectrum.

There is no doubt that gender exists on a spectrum, and the levels of granularity are measured in the thousandths, not in halves or thirds. Our gender exists on that spectrum not as a dot, but as a powerful electron, zipping around in an energetic cloud, vectored up this way for a while, tilting down that way for a while, occasionally getting knocked out of orbit by an energy particle, maybe settling down in an oscillation around a relatively new spot on the spectrum.

Clothing (and trans-vesting)

You can in-vest, di-vest, and trans-vest. The first two make sense because in-vest means to clothe yourself and di-vest means to disrobe, or take off your clothes, “vest” coming from the word “dress” in Latin. Even though clothes typically fall under the category of “gender,” since “Trans-vesting” is such a big and taboo thing in our society, I figured I’d treat this one separately. Like sex and gender, above, trans-vesting implies a crossing from one set of vests to another set of vests. It is certainly true in certain periods that clothing is more differentiated in the sexes than in other times. It is also true that manufacturers of clothing make them, market them, and target them to men or women, but usually not to both.

Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s anything particularly gendered about clothing. You’ve got your pants, your shirts, your socks, your shoes. Yes, we have styles that we all say are masculine or feminine, but it’s us who makes them gendered through imbuing them with meaning.

Take brassieres. Clearly feminine clothing, right? Well, hold on. I don’t think bras are necessarily gendered. If we see them as functional garments, then we’d say they support breasts of women (and even men with gynecomastia), and that’s hardly a gendered function, but rather physiological. Bras can serve an artistic function — think of Madonna’s dancers or ask yourself why a garment would have lace on it if it’s strictly functional. Bras may mean torture and bondage to some people, growing up to other people, sexual arousal to yet other people — it’s the meaning we assign to bras that gives these garments their meaning, and not the bras themselves that carry any meaning.

Clothing, like sex and gender, falls over a broad spectrum. Men wear pink, men wear bras, men wear rings and earrings. Women wear blue overalls, cowboy hats, and work boots.

The problem with trans-anything is that the imagery depends on binaries to work because to “trans” requires a movement from one place to another, metaphorically. If gender or sex or clothing aren’t binaries, but spectrums, where exactly does the trans-er transit from and where does she transit to?

Since I don’t believe in these binaries any more, I don’t believe in trans-ing any more. If anything, we should come up with a term more like ‘vector” or “move,” employing the Latin migr (as in migrate) or mov (as in move) or a concept like “change,” using the Latin mut (as in mutate). So instead of getting all tongue-twisted around whether you’re trans-sexing, trans-vesting, or trans-gendering, you could say you’re sex-tweaking or gender-shifting or clothes-mutating. Anything but trans-ing.

The only catch is that it has be catch on, be catchy, be able to be caught by the general public, employers, friends, family, and journalists. After all, it’s one thing to describe yourself in all your complexity and richness and subtlety, but it’s quite another for someone else to get even a fraction of all that. As much as I dislike “sex change” for all its naivety and simplicity, it may be more accurate and easier to understand than trans-ing or any of my experimental words above.

See also “T”