Defining Identities in North America, Part 2

Reaching the second part of our series exploring the words people in North America have used to describe the experience of being assigned a gender that was not correct, we look at a more well known and discussed term; transgender. To look at the history of a word, as we are about to, it must first be acknowledged that there is a difference between dictionary definitions and community ones. While analyzing how official sources from that mainstream society defined certain words is without a doubt invaluable, it is important to recognize the definition the people who actually used the words gave them, and that is what we will be exploring now.

Within the queer community, it is vitally important to recognize the validity of self-definition. It is especially important considering that the definitions most dictionaries have offered the queer community are clinical at best and offensive at worst. While recording the most popular definitions of words seems like an unbiased pursuit, that has not always been the case. Just because something is popularly believed does not make it correct. In the queer community, you can find some of the most obvious examples of this, like the fact that homosexuality was used as a diagnostic term until 1986, suggesting it was a disease meant to be cured.

So when looking at the history of the word transgender, we should look at the history as our community knows it. To do that, we first must look at a word that came before it; transvestite.

Though the term transvestite did not originate wholly from Magnus Hirschfeld, he had a large part in pushing forwards its popular use by the definition it came to be known by. Because of this, we will again find ourselves talking about our beloved Magnus Hirschfeld again, a man who has his own article, but keeps finding a way to pop into others.

For a reminder, Magnus Hirschfeld was the co-founder of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft and a scientist who played a large role in the queer community in Berlin pre-World War Two. His reach and influence upon our community are still seen today. Something that is important to note about Hirschfeld is that he was, above all, a man of science. His motto was “justice through science”, something that was inscribed in Latin on his tombstone.

Because of this, he viewed and often explained queerness from a very medical point of view. It is important to note that while now portraying queerness as a medical concept is not received well, because of the trauma our community has gone through, this was not always the case. Even today, viewing queerness as something that is in your DNA and is not in your control is still a relatively progressive viewpoint in our social climate. It was Magnus Hirschfeld who played a large part in popularizing this idea. With the word transvestite, it was just another way to do this. But, as we said in the previous article, things change.

Though the word was made to help, it did not stay that way. The word fell out of popularity, soon to be replaced by transsexual and then transgender.

Now we know transgender to mean one thing, but just like all of the other terms we have discussed, it is not the same now as it was then.

While we do not have much access to how individuals used it in their day-to-day lives, we do have some definitions from the queer works that were released at the time. So let us introduce you to how queer people defined transgender and other variations upon that word.

“Who are the transgendered? They include: cross-dressers (also known as transvestites, ninety percent of whom are heterosexual), transsexuals (who generally elect to have surgery to make their bodies conform to the gender with which they identify), gay and lesbian drag queens, transgenderists (who elect to live in a social role of the other sex from which they are born, but do not have surgery), and many others.

They also include men attempting to get in touch with their “feminine” side; women attempting to get in touch with their assertive side; single parents who are “father-mother” (or vice versa) to their children; everyone who considers themselves “androgynous”; gender benders of all kinds, and anyone who has fantasized, even for a moment, about what it would be like to be a member of the “opposite” gender.

In fact, anyone and everyone is transgendered who transgresses gender lines, even slightly in their behavior or attitudes. As one definition current on the Internet puts it, you are transgendered if you “manifest characteristics, behaviors or self-expression,” which in your own mind or someone else’s perception, “is typical of or commonly associated with persons of another gender.”

Looked at from this point of view, everyone is a bit TG, since our bodies manufacture the hormones associated with both sexes. We all possess some of the qualities we associate with being female and being male.”

-Transgender: Periodicals and Magazines, 1995-1997 and undated

Obviously, this definition is a far cry from what most of us think of as transgender now. That is for the best, as there are a lot of problematic attitudes within it. But this, of course, was not the only definition of transgender that existed, and there were still very medical definitions within the queer community.

“When we say that man’s gender identity is psychosexual in essence, we refer not merely to his physical characteristics, but to an intricate, variable complex of mental traits and tendencies, subtle and emphatic. For most of us, there qualities and characteristics resolve themselves into a harmony that declares itself as predominantly masculine or feminine. This psychosexual identity which we present to the world satisfies our cultural definitions, and may comfortably be taken for granted by us and by those around us.

Not so for the transsexual. For him, the apparent sexual balance, as expressed in the primary sex characteristics, is deceptive. It does not reflect, indeed it contradicts, the inner balance he strongly feels, and which to him represents his true psychosexual identity. In some instances of transsexualism, where the secondary sex characteristics shade into those of the opposite sex, the body itself has already begun to bear out this inner conviction. But physical ambiguities are by no means general in every instance in which an individual’s powerful, intimate sense of self-contradicts his sex as recorded at birth.

There are other gender identity disturbances which are sometimes confused with transsexualism but are distinct from it. The homosexual and the transvestite experience some conflict between sex and gender. But neither of these has any desire to change his anatomy. The transsexual, on the other hand, feels that he has been trapped in the body of the wrong sex and he seeks help to be freed from this predicament.”
-Transgender: Erikson Educational Foundation; Early '70s Social-Medical Services/Literature

This is all to say the same thing we said at the beginning of this series, that words change. But it is also to say, a word's definition and connotations are not always as clear as we would like them to be, and that is because history is not as clear as we want it to be.

It would be easy now to say that our language evolves, and we must evolve with it, and that would be true in a way. But it would also suggest that the progress has been linear, which is not the case. Our words, like our history, have contradictions and complexities. It will never be a simple line from point A to point B, and because that exists in our past, it may soon be time for us to realize that it exists within our present and our future as well.

Words have changed, languages have grown from the moment they have been recorded, and it would be monumentally arrogant to assume that would stop with us. While not all the words that have become a part of the queer vernacular now will stand the test of time, that is not a bad thing. It is just another way to grow through the never ending process of trial and error.  

Not everything that we create now will last, but that does not make the creations any less worthwhile. Even if they are forgotten in the coming years, they have an impact, here and now, and that matters. When words inevitably get left behind so we can continue our growth, it should not be looked at as if we passed through a phase, but instead realized that words are what they have always been: a tool. Sometimes, tools fall out of use, but that does not make the growth they assisted in worthless, it just means we have moved forward.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]

Transgender: Periodicals and Magazines, 1995-1997 and undated Collection: Lesbian Herstory Archives: Subject Files Document Type: Report; Article; Newspaper Manuscript Number: Folder No.: 14810 Date: 1995-1997; n.d. Source Library: Lesbian Herstory Archives

Transgender: Erikson Educational Foundation; Early '70s Social-Medical Services/Literature, July, 1971 and undated Collection: Lesbian Herstory Archives: Subject Files Document Type:
Report; Letter Manuscript Number: Folder No.: 14795 Date: 
July, 1971; n.d. Source Library: Lesbian Herstory Archives