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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)

IJT logoIn 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: Transsexuals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Gender exists as a biological "fact" independently of anyone's ideas about gender.
  3. A person's gender never changes.
  4. 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 marker."

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 transcendence?

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 further inquiry.

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.

The Terms


Female 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.

Gender identity:

regardless of physical appearance or sexual orientation, gender identity is the gender an individual considers his/herself to be

Sexual orientation:

describes an individual's romantic desires for the same or opposite sex.

Source: International Foundation for Gender Education

4th Annual Transgender
Day of Remembrance
November 20th, 2002

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.



Hot Topic:

Yosenio Lewis

Transgendered speaker, Bay Area educator, activist and board chair of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition Yosenio Lewis    Radio interview on GenderTalk

Imani Henry

Trans activist, writer and actor is an award winning slam poet whose work has appeared in Black Rhapsody, Virgin Territory II and the lambda awarding winning Does Your Mama Know, and writer. He currently works as a consultant for the Gender Identity Project, at the L&G Center in NY

Imani Henry's show B4T (Before

was the first play by a trans artist produced by the WOW Café Theatre in July 2002.  ).  B4T looks at race, family, love, violence, and courage among African and Caribbean Americans who cross gender lines.

Kylar Broadus, is a transactivist who serves on the National Stonewall Democrats Board of Directors. Kylar is also an attorney and a professor at Lincoln University, a black college in Missouri. Kylar talked with us about how GLBT people fit into the democratic party, and the importance of GLBT support for Gore and Lieberman.
Stonewall Democrat

Interview Begins At Timestamp 79:44 (1:19:57)



Remembering to "Look Before You Leap"
By Micah Wojcik
I think it is great that the trans community is so full of diversity, but with this diversity comes a responsibility of acknowledging and more importantly respecting others' diversity. There are many different types of transmen, FTM's, transgendered, gender queers, butches, SOFFA's, allies, and the list goes on and on in our community. To set up the belief that one "type" of person or path of experience is "better" or "correct" has detrimental consequences not only to the individual who supposedly doesn't "fit", but also to the community as a whole. For every person that somehow gets pegged as being "less trans," that is one less voice of utmost importance in a developing movement.

Transgender Elders and SOFFAs: A Primer for Service Providers and Advocates (PDF)

This paper is one of very few articles specifically focused on aging trans and SOFFA (significant others, friends, family and allies) issues. The paper covers definitions, the social implications of transition, issues specific to transitioning in later life, the role mental and physical health professionals play in transition, SOFFA issues (focusing specifically on spouses and partners, parents, children, friends, co-workers, neighbors and clerks), health care issues in later life, legal and financial issues in later life, and social concerns.

More and more often, organizations, service providers, and other professionals
are advertising that they serve an “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender)
population or represent “LGBT” interests. Unfortunately, close examination of most of
the offered services and organizational agendas reveals that few are addressing
transgender concerns in any way beyond adding that letter to their name or slogan.
Oftentimes, they are also failing to address aging issues.

Trans-Positioned (PDF)

This ground-breaking article focuses specifically on the challenges and joys of lesbian-identified partners of transitioning female-to-male individuals. Topics include how transitioning affects the partner's identity, the relationship, and the community.

SOFFA Questions and Answers (PDF)

Significant Others, Friends, Family and Allies (SOFFAs) of trans people are an important part of the trans community. This fact sheet outlines their issues and the roles they can play in advancing trans/SOFFA rights.

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