Who put the "Trans" in Transgender?
Gender Theory and Everyday Life
Suzanne Kessler (Division of Natural Sciences,
Purchase College, State University of New York) and Wendy
McKenna (Department of Psychology, Barnard College)
theory, transgender is a challenge to the social construction of
gender. In practice, it usually is not. Transgendered people
---in one way or another--- place themselves outside the
conventional female/male dichotomy, yet live in a social world
that recognizes only females and males. How could a
self-identified transgendered person earn and maintain a
transgender attribution, when others are constrained to
attribute an unproblematic "male" or "female" gender to him/her?
Is it possible to alter, in practice, what seems to be the
incorrigibility of the gender attribution process? Is this, in
fact, what transgendered people want to do? In the light of
three possible meanings of trans, we consider whether there is
any point to deconstructing gender.
The prefix "trans" has 3 different meanings.
Trans means change, as in the word "transform." In this first
sense transgendered people change their bodies to fit the gender
they feel they always were. They change from male to female or
vice versa. Transgender in this sense is synonymous with what is
typically meant by the term "transsexual. "Trans means
across as in the word "transcontinental." In this second sense a
transgendered person is one who moves across genders (or maybe
aspects of the person cross genders). This meaning does not
imply being essentially or permanently committed to one or the
other gender and therefore has a more social-constructionist
connotation. Nevertheless, the transgendered person in this
meaning does not leave the realm of two genders. Persons who
assert that although they are "really" the other gender they do
not need to change their genitals, are transgendered in this
sense of "trans." The emphasis is on the crossing and not on any
surgical transformation accompanying it. 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." This type of identity is relatively recent as an open,
public identity, but it does not seem to be an identity separate
from male and female. It is more like a previously unthinkable
combination of male and female. But even a combination of male
and female reflexively gives credence to these categories. There
are still two genders. The third meaning of "trans" is
beyond or through as in the word "transcutaneous." In this third
sense a transgendered person is one who has gotten through
gender, beyond gender. No clear gender attribution can be made,
or is allowed to be made. Gender ceases to exist, both for this
person and those with whom they interact. This third meaning is
the most radical and the one of greatest importance to gender
theorists like us who are interested in the possibility, both
theoretical and real, of eliminating gender.
The Social Construction of Gender:
Over 20 years ago we wrote a book asserting
that all aspects of gender, including the physical/biological
aspects, which people refer to as "sex," are socially
constructed.2 Our point was that the male/female dichotomy is
not essentially given in nature. In developing our argument, we
analyzed the natural attitude toward gender.3 These
taken-for-granted beliefs of the culture include:
- There are two and only two
genders. Apparent violations are not really violations. If you
look long enough, ask enough questions, or do enough medical
tests, the "real" gender will be revealed.
- Gender exists as a
biological "fact" independently of anyone's ideas about
- A person's gender never
Genitals are the essential
defining feature of gender. That is, if you do not have the
right organ between your legs, you cannot be what you say you
are. You are not the "genuine article," even if you have
everything else. (That is why transsexuals, at least
historically, were not really the gender they claimed until
they had surgery, and that is why intersexed infants are
required to have genital "reconstructive" surgery.)
By the mid- 1970's most people, in and out of
academia, were beginning to accept that roles, appearances, and
characteristics (what they called "gender") were socially
defined and culturally varied. However, biological features
(what they called "sex") were considered to be given in nature.
We argued that the biological is as much a construction as the
social is. Although hormones, chromosomes, gonads, and genitals,
are real parts of the body, seeing them as dichotomous and
essential to being a female or male is a social construction.
That is why we believed (and continue to believe) that in
discussions of this topic it is critical to only use "gender"
and never use "sex" (in the conventional meanings). If
anything is primary, it is not some biological sign, but what we
called "gender attribution" --- the decision one makes in every
concrete case that someone is either a male or a female.
Virtually all of the time, gender attribution is made with no
direct knowledge of the genitals or any other biological "sex
It seemed to us in the mid-1970's that
transsexuals exemplified the social construction of gender. We
talked to as many as we could about what their experience was
with gender attributions made to them and how they insured that
"mistakes" were not made. As we pondered our conversations with
them, we were struck by how the immediate and interactive
presentation of gender is impossible to ignore. In a social
setting we do not see one another's chromosomes, genitals, or
gender history. In fact, once we make a gender attribution, we
are able to discount or reinterpret chromosomes, genitals, or
gender history that does not "match" the gender attribution. If
you are "obviously" a man and then you tell new acquaintances
that you were given a female gender assignment at birth and do
not have a penis, they have an adjustment to make, but that will
probably not mean that they will change their minds about
whether you are a man. We asserted that the primacy of gender
attribution benefits transsexuals ---if they make an initial
credible gender presentation --- because other people will
interpret contradictory information (like the gender on a
driver's license) as a clerical error rather than as evidence of
the person's intent to deceive. What we did not consider 25 years
ago was the possibility that someone might not want to make a
credible gender presentation --- might not want to be seen as
clearly either male or female. In addition, although we
advocated that because of the primacy of gender attribution,
persons could be whatever gender they wanted without costly and
dangerous surgery, it did not seem to us that this would happen
for a very long time, if ever. It did not even occur to us that
within 20 years there would be some people who would want to
confront others with the contradiction between their gender
presentation and other "facts" such as their genitals or gender
history. In other words, we did not address what has come to be
called "transgender." Transgender was neither a concept nor a
term 25 years ago. Transsexual was radical enough.
Transgender: Transformation, transfer, or
Recently, we did a Web search for
"transgender," using the Google search engine and found over
3300 matches for that term. Clearly "it" exists, but what is
"it?" And what is the meaning of "gender" now? Realizing that we
needed more information about this, especially from younger
people, in the Fall of 1999 we gave a questionnaire to 83
students in a human sexuality class at a college with a
reputation for attracting and reasonably tolerating all types of
genders and sexualities. The students' answers to our questions
are some indication of what is different now and what is the
same, at least among young, liberal and presumably
gender-progressive people. Our first two questions, "What
is the meaning of the category "gender?" and "How do you know
someone's gender?" were treated as reasonable questions --- not
nonsensical ones. In 1975 we suspect most people would have been
mystified as to why we were asking questions like that. It would
have been like asking "How can you tell if someone is dead or
alive?" a question about a simple, objective fact. The students
still believe there are two genders, but they seem to have more
of a sense that gender is a complex, not a simple, dichotomy;
yet it is still a dichotomy. There is the acknowledgment by some
that gender characteristics can be mixed. (Perhaps we have Jerry
Springer and other purveyors of the atypical to thank for this.)
The answers to "how do you know" in any given case were those
things that we had described as important in gender attribution
like breasts, Adam's apples, body shape, and voice.
Although students rarely wrote that they use
genitals to decide a person's gender, they did write that
genitals are the essential defining feature of what it means to
be a gender. Men have penises and women have vaginas, even if
later on in the questionnaire they said that other combinations
are possible like men with vaginas and women with penises. The
equation gender = genitals is no different from what we found 25
years ago. However, there has been a significant change
regarding genitals. In our original work we provided evidence
that the penis was the only socially real genital. People held
the often unstated belief that males had penises and females had
no penises. In this recent questionnaire though, the vagina was
mentioned almost as often as the penis. It appears that the
vagina and vulva have become more socially real. How and why has
this happened, and what that implies are intriguing areas for
Although these students may consider gender
extremely complex and allow for the possibility that it is not
that important to categorize people by gender, in everyday life
not knowing a person's gender still makes them very
uncomfortable. They try to find out what the person "really" is.
Gender continues to be real and dichotomous, even if an
ambiguous presentation is tolerated.
The students said that what has changed in the
way their generation thinks about gender compared to their
parents is awareness and acceptance of alternatives (mainly
homosexuality) and more flexibility/inclusion in expectations
for women. Whatever changes in expectations there have been for
men, this was not acknowledged by the students. Why has the
"trans" formation only gone in one direction?
In light of the question "Who put the "trans"
in transgender?" of particular interest is the students' answers
to the question, "What does transgendered mean?" Almost none of
the students indicated that they knew what it meant. A few who
did, said that it referred to someone who changes gender, and
then they described what most people mean by "transsexual." One
person said the term referred to someone being "torn between a
physical existence and a mental existence," but only one or two
referred to a person who feels comfortable with physical aspects
of both genders, e.g. having breasts and a penis. Only four of
the students said they knew a transgendered person. However,
there were others who understood that their belief that they did
not know transgendered people only meant that "as far as they
knew" they did not, but they might. We think that in 1975
basically everyone would have believed that they would know if a
person was not "all man or all woman. "Judging from this
one sample, as well as observations and discussions with others,
we could conclude that in the last 25 years the absolute
either/or aspect of biological gender has been reduced, at least
for some people. But just because more people acknowledge that
gender features can be mixed together or that a person can move
more easily between categories, this has not led to an expansion
of or transcendence of the gender categories. There are still
two and only two genders, even if some of the women have penises
and some of the men have vaginas. Twenty-five years ago we
thought that because transsexualism seemed to violate the rule
that you can not change gender, it had revolutionary potential.
Now what seems radical are those who identify as "transgender"
and reject "transsexual" as too restrictive and too diagnostic.
But even if there are transgendered people for whom the gender
dichotomy ceases to exist, of what import is that if
transgendered people live in a world of two conventional
genders? Could a person with a transgendered identity translate
it into a public transgendered attribution, where the attributor
would say "That's neither a woman nor a man," rather than "I
can't tell if that's a woman or a man"?
To cultivate such an attribution in this third
sense of transgender (beyond or through) is extraordinarily
difficult and might be impossible.
Transgendered people (even those who are
publicly "out" on stage, in print, or among trustworthy others)
know that unless they do what it takes to get a male or female
gender attribution, their physical safety may be in jeopardy.
How do we reconcile the desire to radically transform gender
(which some transgenderists and theorists share) with the
practical need to transform the publicly visible body in gender
dichotomous ways? People with a public transgender identity
still have one of the standard gender attributions made about
them by the casual passerby, even if the passerby has questions.
This is because the gender attribution process is an interactive
one, grounded in the attributors' unshakable belief that
everyone can and must be classified as female or male. In
everyday life even gender theorists do not treat the gender
dichotomy as problematic. Twenty-five years of our and others'
theorizing about gender has in many ways unsettled the meaning
of gender, but it has done no damage to the gender dichotomy.
The next challenge is understanding why.
Virginia Prince should probably be credited as
having introduced the term "transgender." Because she needed a
term to describe her decision to become a woman without changing
her genitals (what she would call her "sex,") the term
"transsexual" would not do. C.F. Prince, Virginia. 1979.
"Charles to Virginia: Sex Research as a Personal Experience." In
The Frontiers of Sex Research. ed. Vern Bullough, 167-175.
Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Kessler, Suzanne, and Wendy McKenna. 1978.
Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. New York: Wiley.
This analysis was based on Harold Garfinkel's
description of the natural attitude toward gender. Garfinkel,
Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice Hall.
To Male. A person undergoing a change of
biological gender identity from female to male. They may be at
any stage of the process. The process may include taking male
hormones, breast reduction, creating a penis, speech training
and facial surgery. Such people internally feel male, and may be
sexually attracted to either males, females or both.
describes an individual born as one gender but
living as another. May be pre- or post-operative transsexual.
describes an individual who has undergone
sex-reassignment surgery (SRS)
describes an individual (frequently straight) who
derives sexual or emotional fulfillment from wearing clothes
intended for the opposite sex.
regardless of physical appearance or sexual
orientation, gender identity is the gender an individual
considers his/herself to be
describes an individual's romantic desires for
the same or opposite sex.
International Foundation for Gender Education
The Transgender Day of
Remembrance was set aside to memorialize those who were killed
due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The event is held
in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder in 1998 kicked
off the “Remembering
Our Dead” web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil
in 1999. Since then, the event has grown to encompass memorials
in dozens of cities across the United States and Canada.