Making the Case, Part 3
In the first part of this series, I proposed that in part two I would discuss some of the terms that might be used or encountered in discussions of trans issues in person, or on-line, or in a group setting. I should tell you that I am purposely writing these articles not having seen any formal training material in the subject so as to avoid potential plagiarizeation considerations and also considerations and also because I expect the reader will more often encounter informal discussions rather than structured lecture type settings. This isn’t meant to be rigorous training material.
One of the difficulties we too often encounter when dealing with critics and skeptics is the lack of a common terminology. It is often said “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and this is particularly true of the subject at hand, because many people want just enough “knowledge” to reinforce the opinion they’ve already formed, but not so much as to challenge it.
The thing to remember here is it’s not just the words you use, but how your opponent uses the words. To effectively defeat a hostile opponent, you cannot let them define the terms. That’s why I’m more rigid in those discussions than I am anywhere else, because they will say literally anything to try and cut your rhetorical legs from under you. Their primary goal is to pain trans people as either (a) mentally ill, or (b) unstable. Preferably both. So the language they use will try and portray a claim of being trans as something that might change from day to day, and therefore not reflective of an ongoing condition that deserves respect. So here are a few notes on the most basic words and phrases.
Trans – I use trans, instead of transgender or transsexual wherever possible, which keeps me from getting pinned to whatever unflattering definition they choose to use. It’s completely defensible as a short for “equivilant to those who say “hetero” for non-homosexual people.
Transsexual (as opposed to transgender) – when my point demands specificity, as when I’m describing the physiological state of being trans, this is the word I use. I’m aware that some people object to the word, I’ve even seen one person claim it was a slur (I think she was thinking of “Tranny” which many find offensive, and I never use but don’t challenge it when my opponents use it because they are only doing so to provoke a negative outburst. I just ignore it). However, in my opinion it is an essential word in these conversations. Non-trans people are sometimes aware that for over a decade, it was fashionable to expand the number of people covered by the “Transgender umbrella” to include absolutely any sort of gender non-conformity. While I have no objection to this in terms of a cultural paradigm, it is FAR to vague and too broad for a discussion of political and legal realities.
Bluntly, a recreational cross-dresser, or a drag queen, or any of the other ways in which people make a conscious choice to not conform to cultural gender expectations are NOT the same thing as transsexual people who’s innate sense of self and their gender is in opposition to their physical appearance and biological function, and to the social reaction that derives from that physicality. To include chosen gender non-conformity in the discussion de-legitimizes the (authentic) claims regarding innate gender identity. This becomes especially trick when the term “gender fluid” arises but I’ll reserve this for later.
I must clarify that the term transsexual, instead of transgender, is NOT meant here to be separatist. I do not hold that one form of being trans is or ought to be privileged over another. However, for clarity of communication when engaging the skeptical, precise words are necessary and there is a distinction – physiological in nature – between what I’ve used the word transsexual to describe, and other manifestations of transgender.
Intersex – Transsexuals are not, academically speaking, classified as intersex persons and for the internal politics of scientific inquiry it’s best not to mingle the two, even if the latter most logically fits as a subset of the former. Rather, it’s best to describe them as parallel conditions. Your opponent will, in almost every case, concede the existence of intersex persons (though sometimes using the outdated term “hermaphrodite”) and when they do, the rational reader (whether your direct opponent or third party observer) has now allowed the door to open for the discussion of the physiological nature of being transsexual. It’s always good to introduce the term and gain that acceptance early in the discussion.
Disorders of Sexual Development – this is a phrase that not so many of the critics will be familiar with, but the use of – and defining of – the phrase lays important groundwork. In layman’s terms, scientists have identified, thanks to modern medical technology (I find it’s an important point to mention the advent of new advanced tech, because it serves as counterweight to arguments based in outdated knowledge – like McHugh’s) the pre-natal processes by which a fetus is masculinized or not by interactions with hormones. We know that these processes can, on rare occasion, be disordered such that the outcome of the child is sexually ambiguous (exhibiting sexual characteristics common to both of the binary sex classifications. This is what the critic would think of as the “birth defect” of being born a “hermaphrodite” described in more academic terms. Again, you’ll find few who object to this description. But once you get DSDs and Intersex into the discussion, you have a road to a point that will stick with the thoughtful reader.
If it is true that DSDs can affect any part of the body that is sexually dimorphic (a term that means typically different in males than in females) – an by definition they can – then logic demands that the brain is not immune to DSDs – so in short, a DSD that affects the gonads, chromosomes, etc, results in an intersex child, while a DSD that affects the brain results in a trans person.
This is, of course, an ongoing exercise, but much of what I’ll share with you in the coming weeks is dependent on a common frame of reference in terms of the words we use. There will be more terms next time, then we can move on and I won’t have to explain myself every time I reference one of these terms.
Image by Chris Dlugosz