“Trans” is used to refer to the community of people who self-identify across a range of gender identities. Typically, these identities differ in various ways from a person’s assigned sex and/or gender. Regardless of how trans people define themselves, they have faced extensive discrimination derived from their former status as pathological subjects not fit for reproduction under eugenic discourses. To this day, trans people are often denied the resources and community to successfully raise families and engage as parents.
Terminology and Cultural Variation
Within the trans community there are some who identify as “transsexual” or “transgender” meaning they identify as a sex or gender different from their assigned sex or socially prescribed gender. Some trans people reject either or both of these terms and choose instead to identify as “gender non-conforming,” “genderqueer/agender,” “non-binary,” or “third gender/androgynous.” Those who identify as “non-conforming” do not follow prescribed notions of what gender should be or what genders are possible. The terms “genderqueer” and “agender” describe people who do not see themselves as possessing a gender in a traditional sense. “Third gender” or “androgynous” people identify as another gender entirely, or have mixed traits of two or more genders. Those who identify as “non-binary,” in addition to or in exclusion of these other terms, do not identify along a spectrum between female and male or woman and man.
There are important differences in how trans identity is understood globally. People across cultures, ethnographic groups, and regions may identify as trans but may also use other systems entirely to describe themselves. In North America, First Nations peoples use identity systems that often include the word “two-spirit,” derived from the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag , to describe their sex, gender, sexual orientation, and spirituality (Anguksuar [LaFortune], 1998, p. 221). The term “two-spirit” was first confirmed at the Third Annual First Nations Lesbian and Gay Conference in 1990. Anguksuar (1998) describes how it “indicates the presence of both a feminine and a masculine spirit in the same person” and is different from notions of being trans or homosexual that prevail in non-Indigenous society because it does not entail what one should do with their genitals or their social role (p. 221). Rifkin (2011) notes that, as part of a systemic project to replicate the patriarchal nuclear family as the ideal model, the concept of two-spiritedness was erased as much as possible by colonizers in what amounts to a eugenic act (p. 29).
A prominent international example of a gender identity that closely resembles the concept of trans, is the “hijra”. Indian people use the word hijra to describe those who identify as a third gender. Many in the hijra community prefer the label trithiya panthi/prakriti however, meaning third gender/nature (Kalra, 2011, p. 122). In ancient times, hijra were associated with the goddess Bahuchara Mata and bestowed ceremonial blessings. In modern times, trithiya panthi/hijra live at the margins of society without access to resources or civil rights (Ung Loh, 2014, p. 22). The levels of violence committed against them are similar to those committed against transwomen of colour and trans sex-workers in North America, and they are discriminated against as unfit for marriage and reproduction.
A Pathologizing History
The term “trans” derives from the earlier term “invert,” used to describe anyone who would now identify as gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer. In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886 rpt. 1998), Richard von Krafft-Ebing developed the first taxonomical system of inversion. Krafft-Ebing, like many psychiatric writers of his time, treated males as his default subject and believed that any sexual behavior that did not lead to heterosexual reproduction was inappropriate and psychopathic. He regarded women and men as naturally and essentially different in complimentary ways that lead to reproduction, and believed anyone who did not fit the stereotypes of their gender such as inverts should be removed from the reproductive stream. Psychopathia Sexualis addresses inversion much more clearly in the short section it dedicates to female subjects than in the rest of its long catalogues on males. In the female example, he described inversion as a series of potentially progressive states, starting with “women who were available to the attention of masculine inverts but not masculine themselves [to] cross-dressers, [to] fully developed inverts who looked masculine and took a masculine role, [to] degenerative homosexuals who were practically male” (p. 76). Krafft-Ebing believed that the more masculine a female was, the more psychopathic and reproductively unfit she would be.
Havelock Ellis famously naturalized Krafft-Ebing’s psychiatric category of inversion. Ellis was a eugenicist but also believed in both “the creeds of [...] radical secularism and scientific naturalism” (Crozier, 2008, p. 188). Ellis believed in fostering autonomy and independence in individual subjects through encouraging education and secularization, so that people would take care in the future of the so-called human race by determining whether they were fit for reproduction. Although Ellis created new naturalistic terms for trans people, he simultaneously cemented trans identity as unfit for society outside of medical discourses. Ellis’s naturalistic account of inversion eventually led to the creation of the terms “transvestite” by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and “transsexual” by Dr. Harry Benjamin (Stryker, 2006, p. 4). Hirschfeld was the first to differentiate the psychology of those who dressed in clothes of the opposite sex from the more broad and ambiguous category of inversion. Benjamin was the first doctor to perform sex-reassignment surgeries.
Contemporary Identity and Issues
Trans people had no way of referring to themselves without using “transsexual,” “transvestite,” or the terminology of drag until Virginia Prince, an American trans activist, brought “transgender” into popular usage (Stryker, 2006, p. 4). The term “transgender” enabled certain trans people to declare their subjectivity for the first time. Prince’s definition of “transgender” underwent further expansion as Leslie Feinberg called for an alliance between all those who were marginalized due to their gender embodiment in her influential pamphlet Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time has Come (1992).
Stryker (2006) notes that keeping within Feinberg’s definition means that “transgender” may refer to “transsexuals, drag queens, butches, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys, and anybody else willing to be interpolated by [the] term” (p. 4). This definition covers many kinds of people who wish to identify with the word today. Certain groups, however, such as butch or intersex people, may have political reasons not to identify with the term, so it is not exhaustive. Regardless, the movement from inversion to transsexual to transgender charts a steadily improving awareness among the greater community regarding trans identity, with that evolution continuing as diverse and non-Western groups are considered even as serious challenges are still faced.
A recognition of the challenges that currently face the trans community necessarily includes an understanding that it has not escaped the most pathological aspects of its eugenic past. Trans identities that fail to live up to medicalized binary definitions or cultural and social expectations derived from discourses of inversion are all too quickly dismissed. This includes those who seek surgery, but not to become understandable in binaristic terms, and those who wish to exhibit more than one gender identity. Further, transgender people are often not included in conversations about reproductive justice and are not educated as to how they may become parents, or what reproductive options are available for their marginalized bodies. It will be very important going into the future to re-imagine trans identity outside of the context of its pathologizing eugenic past, in order to give a wide array of people the support and resources they need to flourish in society.
Just as the right to parenthood was restricted by means of institutionalization, segregation, and forced sterilization for individuals considered to be “feeble minded,” so the right to parenthood continues to be restricted for trans people as they are still too often denied the necessary resources and community support to successfully raise children and have families.
Anguksuar [Lafortune, R.] (1998). A Postcolonial Colonial Perspective on Western [Mis]Conceptions of the Cosmos and the Restoration of Indigenous Taxonomies. In S. E. Jacobs, W. Thomas, & S. Lang (Eds.), Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality (217-220). Chicago: U of Illinois P.
Crozier, I. (2008). Havelock Ellis, Eugenicist. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science 39, 187-194. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.03.002.
Ellis, H. & Symonds, J. A. (1897). Sexual Inversion . London: Wilson and MacMillon.
Feinburg, L. (1992). Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come . New York: World View Forum Publishers.
Karla G. (2012). Hijras: The Unique Transgender Culture of India. International Journal of Culture and Mental Health , 5(2), 121-126. http://dx.doi.org/0.1080/17542863.2011.570915.
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Rifkin, M. (2011). When did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty . New York: Oxford UP.
Stryker, S. (2006). (De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies. In S. Stryker & S. Whittle (Eds.), The Transgender Studies Reader (1-17). Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
Ung Loh, J. (2014). Narrating Identity: The Employment of Mythological and Literary Narratives in Identity Formation Among Hijras of India. Religion and Gender 4(1), 21-39.