Transgendering: Blurring the Boundaries of Gender

Wendy McKenna & Suzanne Kessler. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Transgender’is a complicated and contested term, whose meaning has considerable historical and situational specificity. This chapter considers the various meanings of transgender over the last thirty years and relates these meanings to some theoretical questions that have emerged from various academic and non-academic discussions, especially as they suggest directions for feminist inquiry. Transgendering radically deconstructs the meaning of gender categories and presents feminist scholars with possibilities for linking theory and practice.

Students recently voted to change the words ‘she’ and ‘he’ to ‘the students’ in the constitution of the student government association of Smith College. The move was instituted by students to make the document more welcoming to those who, although biologically female, do not identify themselves as women, said a representative of the women’s college in Northampton, Mass. (The Journal News, May 26, 2003)


For many years we have been writing about the social construction of gender and how transsexuality and intersexuality—categories that would seem to challenge the gender dichotomy—are paradoxically used to support it by being filtered through the natural attitude toward gender (Kessler, 1998; Kessler and McKenna, 1978). The natural attitude is a phenomenological construct proposed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1931) and later adopted by sociologist Alfred Schutz (1962). It refers to members’ unquestionable axioms about a world that appears to exist independently of particular perceptions or constructions of it. Within the natural attitude, gender exists as a quality independent of any particular example of maleness or femaleness. Harold Garfinkel (1967), in developing ethnomethodology, an offshoot of phenomenology, described how the natural attitude forms the foundation of everyday, as well as scientific, thinking about gender and showed how that thinking both creates and reflexively supports the categories of female and male.

Ethnomethodology was the theoretical perspective through which we began our examination of gender. In developing Garfinkel’s ideas we detailed eight beliefs that constitute the natural attitude about gender (Kessler and Mckenna, 1978: 113-114):

  • There are two and only two genders.
  • One’s gender is invariant.
  • Genitals are the essential sign of gender.
  • Any exceptions to two genders are not to be taken seriously.
  • There are no transfers from one gender to another except for the ceremonial.
  • Everyone must be classified as a member of one gender or another.
  • The male/female dichotomy is a natural one.
  • Membership in one gender or another is natural.

By treating transsexuals and intersexuals as ‘mistakes’ that need to be rectified through various medical treatments and legal remedies, these eight beliefs about gender are ‘proved.’ The assertion that ‘male,’ ‘man,’ ‘female,’ ‘woman,’ are social constructions, inextricably tied to the natural attitude, rather than independently existing categories in nature, has come to be known as the social construction orientation. Social construction, as articulated by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (1972), rests on assumptions that absolute claims should not be made about the world and that social categories like gender have no meaning until they are put in a human context and interpreted through human eyes (Gergen, 1994; Hacking, 1999; Handel, 1982). Social construction does not imply that these categories are irrelevant, arbitrary, or easily eradicated. Rather, it is a critique of essentialism, the assertion that there are objective facts that exist independently of history and culture, and that the way to uncover the facts of this world is through research using the scientific method.

When the term ‘transgender’ was first proposed by Virginia Prince in 1979, she argued that it should replace the term ‘transsexual’ because people could never change their essential biological sex, no matter what they did to their bodies. She believes that genital surgery would not change a person’s sex, and therefore the status of ‘transsexual’ is an impossibility. Prince’s usage of ‘transgender’ reinforces the biological dichotomy of male versus female sex, even if gender (man versus woman) is seen as not so immutable. In 2004, the meaning of ‘transgender’ bears little resemblance to its earliest proposed usage. It is clear that the contemporary usage of ‘transgender’ is increasingly becoming a challenge to, rather than a reinforcement of, the natural attitude.

Our goal in this chapter is to consider what transgender has meant and what it means today, and to give some examples of the theoretical questions that have emerged from various academic and non-academic discussions, especially as they suggest directions for feminist inquiry. Although this chapter contains citations to a number of important writings, we acknowledge that other significant works may not be referenced here, especially since books, articles, and websites on transgender seem to be appearing at an increasing rate. In addition, while our focus is theoretical and academic, we, as authors, and you, as readers, must always be aware that transgender is not just a subject for analysis, any more than race or gender is. Those whose experience we draw on in any discussion of transgender live real lives in real worlds, where their actions and decisions are not merely theoretical. We will return to this point at the end of the chapter. In addition, we must always remember that the origins of feminist, women’s, queer, and gender studies lie in political movements whose goals have not yet been reached, and, therefore, it is our responsibility to always reflect on the ways in which our theory might inform and support action.

The Emergence of Transgender

In the late 1970s, our assertion that the essentialist dichotomy of biological ‘sex’ was not independent of people’s methods for creating the dichotomy was basically ignored by those engaged in studying gender and sexuality. Now, social construction is a taken-for-granted assumption of gender studies. It is important to understand some of the parameters of this transformation. In order to document the emergence of transgender and differences in the term’s usage over time and across disciplines, we searched six academic electronic databases and one general newspaper database. What the searches showed was that something began to happen around 1995 that led to an explosion by the year 2000 in theorizing, scientific and legal research, and personal narratives involving transgender. In addition, these searches provide a general overview of how various fields organize and understand gender and transgender.

MEDLINE archives articles in the field of medicine, including psychiatry. Although there were fifty-eight citations for ‘transsexual’ between 1991 and 1994, there was only one citation for ‘transgender.’ That was in a public health journal and dealt with phalloplasty for a born female. In the last decade, typical topics in articles using the term ‘transgender’ include AIDS care in transgender communities and factors that differentiate kinds of transsexuals and transvestites. For the most part, material indexed by MEDLINE uses transgender as a synonym for transsexual.

The PsycINFO database archives articles in the field of psychology. In the four articles that used the term ‘transgender’ from 1990 to 1994, transgender is a synonym for ‘transsexual.’ In the five years following, the number of citations increased more than twelve-fold and then doubled again from 2000 to 2004. In the more recent articles, largely from clinical psychology and education disciplines, applied issues like treatment and public policy are the main topics. These writings typically add transgendered people to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals as another discrete population that needs to be served or taught about. Transgender is not differentiated from transsexual. It is taken for granted that the reader will understand, at least in general, what is meant by transgender. A smaller subset of articles from thePsycINFO database deals with more theoretical issues like defining transgender and deconstructing identity, and these overlap with citations from humanities and social science databases.

Social Science Index and the Women Studies International database mirror this same pattern of few citations before 1995 and a huge increase after that. Gender Watch Index, a database that archives gay/lesbian academic journals as well as popular/alternative gay-related media, recorded 18 citations between 1990 and 1994,257 from 1995 to 1999, and 304 from 2000 to 2003.

Humanities Abstracts, which includes philosophical and literary analyses (from which the discipline of queer studies emerged), had no citations for transgender before 1995, twenty-nine citations between 1995 and 1999, and thirty between 2000 and 2003. (The relatively low numbers are due to the fact that this database searches key words only and not the text or title.) Because the articles indexed are almost always theoretical, the use of the term ‘transgender’ reflects the expanding interest in transgender as a challenge to essentialism, rather than just signaling a shift in terminology from transsexual to transgender as in the other databases.

Transgender is also a term that has entered popular culture since 1995. An unobtrusive measure of the degree to which this has happened is that a Google search for transgender had no ‘hits’ for 1994,3,300 ‘hits’ in 1999, and 816,000 ‘hits’ in March, 2004. This surge is also reflected in the number of citations in the Newspaper Source Index (of 194 major news sources, including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times). There were no citations for transgender before 1995,9 between 1995 and 1999, and 1,998,382 between 2000 and 2003! In the last five years of the twentieth century, with gay and lesbian issues already having a familiar place in public discourse, with ‘gender’ having replaced ‘sex’ in discussions of being male and female (Haig, 2004), and with the Internet transforming communication networks and information access, what had been thought of and treated as a ‘disorder’ was becoming an identity category that both reflects and shapes changes in theoretical and practical understandings of gender.

In trying to understand the diverse and seemingly contradictory connotations of transgender, we have found it useful to consider the various meanings of the prefix ‘trans’ (McKenna and Kessler, 2000). The first meaning of ‘trans’ is change, as in the word ‘transform.’ In this sense, transgendered people change their bodies from those they were born with to those matching the genders they feel they are. They change from male to female or vice versa. Transgender in this sense is synonymous with ‘transsexual,’ and it would be appropriate to refer to someone as ‘a transgender’ just as it is common to refer to someone as ‘a transsexual.’ As the term transgender entered academic and popular discourse, this was the most common meaning of the term. For example, in 1997, the first year that the International Journal of Transgender was published, seventeen of the articles had transgender in the title and twenty-two had transsexual in the title. Despite this distinction, both terms seemed to refer to the transsexual usage, which is still the meaning implied in much of the medical and psychological literature. Although much of the professional literature on transsexualism has important practical and clinical implications, for the rest of this chapter our focus is on two other meanings of trans—crossing (gender) and moving beyond (gender). As we will argue below, both of those meanings reflect a social construction perspective on gender, unlike the essentialist perspective implied by changing (gender).

Trans as Crossing: Gender Theory and Academic Discourse

Even social construction usages of transgender do not share a uniform meaning. Many writers who use the term transgender are careful to explain what they mean (and do not mean) by it, usually in the first endnote. Some provide a general definition, using words like ‘crossing,’ ‘blending,’ ‘non conformity,’ or ‘discordance.’ For example, Anne Bolin considers transgender ‘[T]hat group of people whose genitals, status, appearance and behaviors are not in congruence with the Western schema that mandates an essential relationship between sex and gender’ (1994: 590). Other writers list categories of people who can be considered transgendered. Here are some typical examples:

Transgenderism…includes people whose gender expression is non-conformant with gender role expectations of males and females in a given territory or society. Cross-dressers, transvestites, and transsexual are all often covered under the trans gender category. Moreover, people of any sexual orientation whose gender expression remains outside of a rigid or gender conformist system often identify as transgenders… I use transgender and transsexual [making no distinction] to refer to individuals who chose to identify with a gender different from that assigned at birth and who have made strides to accommodate to that gender construct…Individual [s who] dress as another gender for erotic purposes, as well as people who are blending gender, or being playful about their gender presentation are excluded from this term’s use. (Vidal-Ortiz, 2002: 224-225)

Those who might fall under the umbrella term of transgender…includ[e] transves-tites, transsexual, crossdressers, transgenderists, gender blenders, gender benders, drag queens, bi-genders, feminine men, androgynes, drag kings, intersexuals, masculine women, passing men, gender dysphorics and others who might consider themselves a ‘gender outlaw.’ (Broad, 2002: 263)

As these definitions point out, there are many categories, identities, and behaviors associated with transgender that force a confrontation with the natural attitude toward gender. Specifically, transgender challenges three major beliefs of the natural attitude: (1) that there are two, and only two, genders; (2) that a person’s gender never changes; and (3) that genitals are the essential sign of gender. Transsexualism, on the other hand, has never created such a challenge because it has been conceptualized as surgically changing a person’s genitals, not changing their (‘real’) gender. The assumption that one could be born into the wrong body supports the belief that there are right bodies and wrong bodies for each of the two essential genders. Thus, transsexualism, although on the surface a rather radical concept, is reconcilable with the belief that gender is invariant and there are no transfers (Kessler and McKenna, 1978). This deep conservatism probably accounts for transsexualism’s relative acceptance.

In the second meaning of ‘trans,’ across (as in the word ‘transcontinental’), the transgendered person moves across genders, or maybe just certain aspects of the person crosses from one gender to another. Gender is no longer packaged as a unity. Because this meaning does not imply surgical intervention or even surgical intent, it has a more fluid connotation than the first meaning of transgender, which equated it with transsexual. Without genital surgery, there is more of a sense that the crossing does not have to be permanent, although it might be. At the time of this writing, the connotation of crossing is the most common meaning of transgender. It names some deviation from dichotomous gender expectations, in dress, behavior, bodily changes (other than genital), and choice of sex partner, but avoids the language of diagnosis and etiology that suffuses discussions of transsexuality and transvestism. This meaning of ‘trans’ has added the phrase non-op or ‘can’t afford’ op to what had been the limited choices of pre-op orpost-op.

In spite of this more social construction perspective, the transgendered person who crosses genders does not leave the realm of two genders. For example, some transgender people assert that, although they are the other gender, they do not need to change their genitals. Such a person might say, ‘I want people to attribute the gender “female” to me, but I’m not going to get my genitals changed. I don’t mind having my penis. Penises do not only belong to men.’ Although the language is still bigendered, there is a radical potential to this stance of not treating the penis as a sign of maleness or the lack of a penis as a sign of femaleness.

The disentangling of genitals from gender has motivated some writers to include intersexuals under the transgender umbrella. Intersexuality (previously known as hermaphroditism) refers to any one of many conditions characterized by a lack of concordance among genitals, gonads, and/or chromosomes or an atypical form of any of those. In cases where the genitals of an infant are atypical, the standard medical treatment has been to ‘correct’ them so that they look normal to the parents and support whatever gender is assigned to the child.

Since 1995, a politicized and organized movement (led by members of the Intersex Society of North America) has argued for a moratorium on infant genital surgeries, except for the rare case when the condition is life-threatening (Kessler, 1998). The basis for that argument is not only that the surgeries create more physical damage than has been acknowledged by medical professionals, but that people do not need to have perfect-looking genitals. They can be male or female with genitals that are atypical. Even if they are not damaging, the surgeries restrict the intersexed person’s options because early surgery would make it difficult to cross from one gender to another as an adult. Many intersexuals see their diagnostic category as socially constructed and identify as transgendered, but not all people with an intersexed condition experience themselves that way.

People who cross from one gender category to another, without necessarily having or wanting the genitals that traditionally signal the crossing, are doing something new. Having a public gender identity that does not depend on the matching genital is new. Having serial genders is new. What is not new is that there is still only male or female, even if one’s lived experience combines both in some way.

Trans as Beyond: Queering Gender

Originally a homophobic slur, the term ‘queer’ was appropriated by young gay and lesbian activists in the 1990s and became part of intellectual discourse within the cultural analysis known as queer theory. To ‘queer’ is to render ‘normal’ sexuality as strange and unsettled (Goldberg, n.d.; Warner, 1993). This challenge to dichotomous sexuality assumes that heterosexuals can be queer and homosexuals are not necessarily queer and that to not feel homosexual does not mean one must feel hetero- or bisexual. Consistent with this fluid view of sexuality, discussions of gender non-conformity began to reflect the concept of queering gender. Those who queer gender raise the issue of not just what kind of sex ‘real’ men or women have, but whether there are ‘real’ men or women in the first place.

By the end of the 1990s, many individuals who had aligned themselves with queer politics began to identify as members of ‘the transgender community.’ These were mainly young people, mainly ‘born women,’ who did not identify as either women or men. Many of them made this transition while in college, within a community of similar and supportive others, referring to themselves as tranny boys, transmen, FtMs, or ‘bois’ (cf. Kaldera, n.d.). Their analyses of gender, which usually come out of their own experiences, have been compelling and reflect a third meaning of ‘trans’: beyond or through, as in the word ‘transcutaneous.’ Many of those who identify as trans-gender in this third meaning commonly display, on a deep level, the understanding that gender is socially constructed, that it is an action, not a noun or an adjective, and that to not feel like a female does not mean to feel like a male. Everything is open to analysis, revision, and rejection. Rather than call them ‘transgenders,’ or ‘transgendered persons,’ the phrase ‘transgendering persons’ best captures this meaning. This is a challenge to the natural attitude because within the natural attitude, not only is moving through (trans) gender impossible, but transgendering is nonsensical, because gender is not an activity that is implied by the ‘ing.’ From the standpoint of the natural attitude, ‘gendering’ is as nonsensical as ‘heighting.’

In this third sense, a transgendering person is one who has gotten through gender—is beyond it, although probably never really ‘over it.’ That no clear gender attribution can be made is not seen as problematic. Gender is refused. It ceases to exist as a cross-situational essential attribute for the person and for those with whom they interact. This meaning of transgender is the least common but the one of greatest importance to gender theorists who are interested in the possibility, both theoretical and real, of eliminating gender oppression.

Transgendering, Feminist Theory, and Women’s Studies

Feminism, grounded in the axiom that the basis for women’s oppression is the reality created by (White) men, can be troubled by transgender. From almost the beginning of the women’s movement, some feminists responded very negatively to the challenge of transsexualism. Their reactions included direct hostility and exclusion (MacDonald, 1998). Most vehement was Janice Raymond’s attack on male-to-female transsexuals (1980). More recently, some feminists have regarded female-to-male transgendered people with suspicion. The ‘womanist’ perspective is that M-to-F people, raised with male privilege, cannot ever be women, and F-to-M people, seduced by the power of patriarchy, have been duped and have defected to the enemy. This perspective has treated transgender as at best irrelevant to feminist causes and at worst a way of deflecting energy from the struggle for gender equality. The resultant feminist separatist activism has been responsible for empowering many women and for redefining how to meet our diverse needs. These needs must be addressed, but the theory that underlies ‘womanism’ is an essentialist one, and, in excluding the possibility of transgender in any of its meanings, this type of feminism misses the opportunity to undermine a gender system whose constitution both creates and sustains the oppression of women.

In the last few decades many postmodern-influenced feminist and queer theorists have embraced transgender as a way of revealing gender as an activity. Gender transgression is characterized as liberating. Many of these theorists are themselves transgendered and have been, with few exceptions, ‘born women.’ Even those theorists who are not transgendered tend to be ‘born women.’ Although a detailed analysis of why awaits future work, we suggest that those who developed their consciousness on the margins are much better positioned to uncover and analyze what is taken for granted in defining the borders of a social reality. ‘If we really want to be free, women must realize that at the end of the struggle, we will not be women anymore. Or at least we will not be women in the way that we understand the term today’ (Califia-Rice, 1997: 90; see also Wittig, 1980).

A common misunderstanding of those who reject transgender’s relevance to feminism is that eradicating gender as a meaningful social category is not the same as asserting that physical bodies do not exist or that bodies do not affect experience and identity. It is the intractable status hierarchy given to gender categories by tying them to dichotomous physical attributes like genitals that is being questioned by feminists like ourselves.

For many years, and in different ways, a case has been made that it is important for feminist activism that gender be destabilized. One might argue that the discipline of women’s studies is predicated on there being women, but surely feminist studies is not. What, then, could those involved in feminist studies do to encourage gender destabilization? We suggest analyzing when and where gender is invoked and then challenging the criteria for determining what ‘female’ and ‘male’ mean in each particular case. In other words, feminists should be uncovering what is revealed by refusing to gloss gender. The following are two examples.

Some people argue that only a man and a woman can marry because the basic purpose of marriage is reproductive. From that argument it would follow, then, that one member of the pair must produce viable sperm and the other must have viable eggs. The absurdity of this requirement is highlighted by the fact that no one has to pass such a test in order to get married, and no one’s marriage license is revoked when they fail to reproduce. In this case (as in all cases where gender is examined rather than glossed), the putative theoretical criteria fail when confronted with gender-as-lived.

Another example comes from the practical management of transgender in society. Colleges are grappling with providing housing for transgender students (Klein, n.d.). The existence of transgender students creates a problem for room assignments and forces an examination of assignment rules. Typically, college students are assigned a ‘same-sex’ roommate. For as long as students have been assigned roommates, this criterion has gone unexamined. Rarely is it asked, ‘What do we mean by “same-sex” and why do we think roommates should be the “same-sex”?’ If the underlying purpose of assigning same-sex roommates is to avoid sexual tension in close quarters, clearly this is based on the false assumption that all college students are heterosexual. If the assumption is that people with more similar bodies are more likely to get along well together, then why not also use criteria of height, weight, and skin, eye, and hair color?

Transgendering: Theory and Practice

The insistence that gender is a natural dichotomy is historically grounded in religion and now also in science; thus, it has been at the core of Western European intellectual inquiry. As gender theorists confront more fluid constructs of gender within our contemporary culture, we should remember and acknowledge that we are not the inventors of gender fluidity. Transgender is a complicated and contested term whose meaning has considerable cultural, historical, and situational specificity, not just over many years and lives but also within a single day and life. In fact, when people use the label transgender to refer to themselves, there is no way of knowing which meaning is being referenced. There is no assumption that the user even intends a particular (limited) meaning. On the one hand, this presents a practical problem. Is this a person who intends to become the other gender—surgically and/or legally—or is this someone who is refusing to be a particular gender and is challenging the gender system? On the other hand, the looseness of the meaning forces us to conceptualize transgender (and by extension, gender) as a fundamentally fluctuating phenomenon.

What does transgendering mean for feminist theorists, researchers, and clinicians, many of whom are not transgendered? First of all, it provides further warrant for questioning an essentialist view of gender. There is a body of provocative writing by transgendering people for non-transgendering people to learn from. Treating this work seriously will help advance gender theory, improve clinical practice, and suggest social action. The last should not be overlooked, since our theoretical discussion is taking place at a time when hate crimes against transgendering people are at an all-time high (Moser, 2003). People whose gender is unconventional have real-life concerns, including better trans medicine, clearer legal strategies, and more supportive psychological interventions. They need help in order to negotiate meaningful and safe lives in a society that is not ready for them. Whether they are changing, crossing or moving beyond gender categories, they are objects of ‘transoppression’ (Feinberg, 1998).

The issues raised by transgendering are not limited to gender alone. Eleanor MacDonald argues that transgendering raises questions about the issue of identity itself: ‘[T]he experience of being transgender problematizes the relationship of the self to the body, and the self to others… [I]t problematizes issues of identity boundaries, stability and coherence’ (1998: 5). Additional questions about physical bodies, social meanings, and individual experience of self are raised in Bernice Hausman’s (2001) analysis of various aspects of transgender in her review of books on that topic.

The social reality of transgendering and the refusal to gloss gender provides many subversive possibilities for those of us engaged in feminist scholarship. The fact that transgendering threatens something basic is a good indication that radical social change can result from it. The ‘warning’ in our closing quote, a quote endorsed by the Traditional Values Coalition, is, from our perspective, a statement of promising possibility.

The promotion of ‘sex changes’ and the normalization of severe gender identity disorders by radical feminists, pro-same-sex-attraction disorder activists, and sexual revolutionaries is part of their larger agenda—namely, the destabilization of the categories of sex and gender. (O’Leary, 2002)