Backstory Biernes #9, Friday, July 3rd 2015
Recently there has been a lot of talk in the media about LGBT rights and issues. These rights and issues have always been important to me in different ways throughout my life. I haven’t always been conscious of them, but looking back, they were always there. But that’s a backstory all its own. For this week’s Backstory Biernes, I would like to focus on the backstory of transgenderism.
In some shape or form, transgenderism, transsexualism, transvestitism and cross-dressing have been around since probably the dawn of humanity. It seems that all societies and cultures have featured them and still do.
My main question about transgenderism is this:
What’s the difference between transgenderism, transsexualism, transvestitism and cross-dressing?
As you can probably imagine, these terms were invented to describe human behavior and psychology. And also, as you can probably imagine, they can get quite confusing. So let’s take a look at each term.
Although most of us think of transvestitism as simply “dressing up like the opposite sex,” this word was originally used to describe what we now confusingly call either transgenderism or transsexualism–identifying as the opposite sex and a desire to conform to the gender norms of that sex. This is seen by many as being a psychological state and does not necessarily include sexual reassignment therapy. But it can. That brings us to cross-dressing.
Most people would agree that cross-dressing is a very broad category and can include heterosexuals and homosexuals but does not necessarily involve sexuality. It usually doesn’t involve sexual reassignment or identification with the opposite gender. It is, simply put, dressing in the attire of the opposite gender for any reason.
Transsexualism is usually what people understand as being the state of mind where one desires to physically be changed to the opposite sex (as opposed to gender) through sexual reassignment therapy. The main difference between transsexualism and transvestitism is that with transsexualism, there is a more pronounced desire to live as the opposite sex in a way that is less superficial, i.e., through the use of hormones and surgery. Let it be known that although this term is associated to a large degree with physical sexual transformation, it is not always required, thus adding to the confusion.
This psychological state is often linked to a medical condition called gender dysphoria a.k.a. gender identity disorder. This condition is considered a disease because it is not only a desire to change one’s sex, but a painful discomfort with it as well that can lead to harmful conditions. But to be clear, transsexualism and gender dysphoria are two distinct things.
That brings us to transgenderism.
This word has confused me for a while, but now I am beginning to understand it. Before I go into that, I would like to say a few things about the sociological elephant in the room.
Sex and Gender
In common usage, the terms sex and gender are often treated as synonyms. But they are in fact, two different things. Sex refers to physiology and the physical state of primary and secondary sexual organs. Gender refers to the concepts of masculinity and femininity and is prescribed according to sex by societal norms that have no inherent link to physiology.
An important note is that both sex and gender do not necessarily prescribe a “sexuality” which refers to “who we like to have sexual intercourse with.”
As the term implies, transgenderism refers to the concepts of masculinity and femininity, i.e. gender. The “trans” part is related to “crossing,” or “going across.” Therefore it can be taken to mean crossing over from one gender to another.
The term is particularly confusing because it is often used as a synonym for transsexualism and transvestitism. But as with transvestitism, transgenderism has a lesser connotation of requiring surgery than transsexualism does. Still, there is a lot of overlap between these categories.
Today, I believe that transgenderism can be taken to be a broader category that can actually include transvestitism, cross-dressing and transsexualism.
Choice and Change
None of us get to choose what physical or psychological traits we are born with. But when it comes to gender as defined above, I believe we do have a choice. I believe that women can choose to dress and behave like men. I believe that men can choose to dress and behave like women. I also believe that men can live as a woman with or without sexual reassignment therapy and choose to dress and behave like a man.
You see, it’s because no matter what organs and psyches we are born with, masculinity and femininity (gender) are societal constructs. Gender identity is a state of mind that you are born with. That you can’t change. But high-heels and neckties, we can change those every day.
We can also change what it means to be masculine and feminine. There is nothing inherently feminine about lipstick. And there is nothing inherently masculine about pants.
So, when we talk about transgenderism in this way, it should be easy to see that we are all transgender. And that’s a good thing. Because once we see that we actually create the barriers that divide us, we can choose to stop building them.
In closing, I would like to propose a new definition for transgenderism that even includes non-transgender people (because it’s not confusing enough already).
Transgenderism: n. the notion of transcending gender in society to the point that so-called male-female differences are not emphasized and all people are treated equally.
There is a multitude of details and nuances that I have left out of this post. It is obviously not intended to be comprehensive or an expert text. This is simply a rumination on what the subject means to me, because I think it is important.
Don’t forget to read my other posts and my short stories. As usual, I welcome any comments.