The Meaning of Transgender

First published at on April 15, 2011

A friend recently asked, “Do you ever have doubts about the whole transgender thing?”

My friend has a habit of referring to anything she hasn’t wrapped her mind around as a “thing,” which has the unfortunate effect of making whatever it is sound like a trend or fad. (As in, “What do you think of the whole ‘skinny jeans’ thing?”)

At first I was tempted to respond, “I’m a philosophy professor. I have doubts about everything.” But knowing my friend, I recognized that she meant the question sincerely. I thought she deserved a serious response.

Here’s my take on “the transgender thing”: I don’t have “doubts,” but I do have a question. It’s a question that others might share, and that some might misinterpret as a doubt.

First, some preliminaries.

Generally speaking, I think it’s good policy (not to mention good manners) to treat individual adults as the experts on their own lives. As a gay man, I don’t like it when opponents of homosexuality tell me what I “really” am deep down, and I wouldn’t presume to tell others—including transgender people—what they really are deep down. That’s for them to determine, perhaps in dialogue with significant others, friends, or professionals.

I don’t have many transgender friends, although two of my closest lesbian-identified friends are married to trans men. (Lesbians married to men? There’s a reason Facebook invented “It’s complicated.”) Having spent time with these guys, I have no more doubt about their maleness than I do about my own. It strikes me as “natural,” to use a loaded but appropriate term.

I also recognize that gender is more socially constructed than biological sex, which is not to say that gender isn’t “real.” It is also not to say that people can choose gender in the way they choose, say, a pair of skinny jeans. Social reality is just that—“social”—which means that it doesn’t necessarily bend to individual decision.

This explains why, despite the socially constructed nature of gender, most trans people experience their gender identity as more of a discovery than a choice (or so they tell me). Choices emerge later, when they decide whether to take steps to express that identity more publicly. Such steps may—but need not—include medical intervention.

My question concerns what such choices might look like if the world were very different from what it is.

Suppose we lived in a world far more accepting of diverse gender expressions. In particular, suppose this world had more room for assertive women and graceful men, more flexibility about hair, clothing, and makeup, more freedom in terms of careers and vocations, more acceptance of body difference.

I wonder whether, in such a world, some of the people who currently identify as TRANSgender might in fact embrace a different prefix. Or no prefix at all. Or whether some people who DON’T currently identify as transgender might identify differently.

In short, I wonder whether, if there were a greater number of socially comfortable ways to be a woman or to be a man, people would feel more or less impetus to change genders than they currently do.

So, for example, I “get” that my friends’ husbands feel more comfortable as males. So do I. But if maleness meant something different—as it might—would their chosen identifications be different? Would mine?

I wonder about this, but I don’t know. So I’m raising the question.

One might object that such questions involve idle speculation: the world is NOT different from what it is, and as I noted above, social reality doesn’t necessarily—indeed, doesn’t often—bend to individual decision. But I’m a philosopher, and I believe that theoretical questions are legitimate. Besides, many trans people experience this question as far from theoretical. (“Should I transition, or could I just be more of a butch woman or femme man?”)

Others might object that as a cisgender (that is, non-transgender) person, I have no business bringing any of this up. But all of us have genders, me included. And we’re not going to promote mutual understanding if we’re afraid to ask questions.

I recognize, too, that I may be blurring the lines between gender identity and gender expression, not to mention biological sex—things that I personally can’t tease apart easily, especially in an 800-word column.

So at the risk of oversimplification and of stepping on some toes, but with the hope of promoting dialogue, I pose a question about “the whole transgender thing”: How much of it hinges on notions of gender that are temporally bound and potentially—though by no means easily—malleable?

What do you think, readers?