Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

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Transgender, Transsexual, and Trans Identity, Labels, and Language

For as long as I can remember, I have found the way that trans* issues are discussed has been wholly unhelpful in describing my own reality and personal story. I’m sure this is true for many people that are lumped into categories by social scientists, but I can only speak on this from personal perspective. While I have noticed heads nodding in agreement many times when I have given voice to these thoughts and theories, I can only talk about how the language around trans* issues has impacted my life, and how it continues to impact my story.

Because I will only be talking about how the language affects me personally, I won’t be commenting much, if at all, on the history and etymology of these terms; I simply don’t care where they came from – I care what they mean (and have meant) to me. Likewise, I will attempt to tackle this language in a way that still leaves plenty of room for people who do find these words helpful in telling their own stories. I will be touching on some of what I perceive as some of the politics around this language, but I will try to do that as carefully as possible. I recognize that it’s possible that my use of this language will feel wrong for some people. I’m not sure I have a solution for that. As always, it is my goal that everyone’s story is respected for its own merit.

First, I’d like to say that I will be adhering to a differentiation between sex and gender; I feel like a big part of my problem around this language is the confusion between “sex” and “gender.” My definitions for each will remain at least partially fluid, as the differences between “male and female” and “man and woman” are so loose as to be nearly impossible to define in ways that don’t produce many overlaps to the point that the terms can become nearly meaningless. Indeed, simply trying to define “male,” for instance, leads to many exceptions. These words are all moving targets. As definitions are refined there is often change in the fundamental meanings of the words themselves. I will endeavor at all times to be clear with my meaning, even if the language is, by it’s very nature, imprecise. For simplicity sake, “sex” will refer to the coarse physical differences between “male and female,” and “gender” will refer to the more sociological and cultural differences between “man and woman.”

Next, I’m choosing to tackle this subject now because it seems as though so much of this language is becoming codified in the popular lexicon. People are aware around this language in a way that I never expected even a few years ago. But that very public awareness is exactly why I feel it’s important for me to speak up now. Frankly, this language has never worked for me; it has never felt comfortable, has never truly felt a useful part of telling my story. If there are people it works for, that’s awesome, but I want to find a way to tell my story authentically, and this language is flawed for that purpose. I don’t care what these words mean for other people, I care about what they mean when I hear and use them. If language is an ongoing discussion, I’m engaging that discussion.

One last thought before I actually dive in. If I were just trying to tell my story in the past tense, I might not care so much about this language. However, I remember all too well the confusion that this language caused when I was in a place that my story was more struggle than it is today. This language is important to me when I try to tell people my story, but also because I firmly believe that I am not alone in being poorly served by this language. If just one person finds some truth or similarity in my story to their own, this will all be worth it.



Let me start with the big dog: “transgender.” I hate this word. This word has never felt comfortable, or like it describes my life in anyway. If gender is in anyway who we see ourselves to be, I am exactly the same person I always was. That might seem like an absurdity, but any part of me that is the deepest level of “me” has been here all along. Let me dig in a little: my gender, that is “woman” (or, “girl” when I was younger), has always been what it is now. It is fair to say that for a very long time people ~thought~ I was a boy and then man. I mean, goodness, I went to an all-boys Catholic High School after all. But that really gets to two different concepts in my mind. The first is what I’m going to call “gender perception.” This is that instinctual drive that seems present in so many to instantaneously determine someone’s gender. Indeed, often the first fact people will notice about each other is what they believe each others gender to be. People perceived me as a boy and then a man. When this first started happening, I was very young, and certainly not able to piece everything that was going on together, so I believed people. I mean, why would they lie about that? [I know that it’s not lying as much as it was faulty assumptions, but the effect it had on me was as if people had lied to me.] But that colored my way of dealing with the world. I went along with their assumptions for a very long time. That brings me to my next term, which I’ll call “gender presentation.” I ~presented~ as a boy and then a man. I didn’t have the self-awareness or strength to stand up and say that the way people were perceiving my gender was wrong. Which brings me to the third important term around gender, and that is “gender identity,” which is one’s self perception of gender. My gender identity has always been that of a girl then woman. It’s fair to say that I was very confused about that for quite some time, and that I floated along with others perception of my gender, but I was always who I am today, just younger.

My gender never “trans’ed” anything. Indeed, I’m not completely sure what that means. Any way in which I can understand the word “transgender” it just fails to feel like it fits with my life, my story, and my identity [don’t worry, I’ll get to “identity” in a later post]. At no point along my journey have I positively identified as transgender. I have used the word, to be sure, but I’ll save an explanation of that for the wrap-up. It seems to me that “transgender” is trying encapsulate “gender perception,” “gender presentation,” and “gender identity” all under one tag, and that has just never worked for me. During my social transition, I tried to be clear that I was transitioning my gender presentation, and it took a while for people’s perception of my gender to catch up. But my gender identity was consistent throughout (which for me is kind of the whole point). I find transgender to be wholly unhelpful when trying to tell my story.

The current definition of “transgender” seems to be coalescing around the concept of the gender one was “assigned at birth.” I despise this concept. I believe I have a fair sense of what this concept is trying to get at, but I find the thought that my identity would have anything to do with what some person I don’t even know said about me at a time that I was unable to speak extremely distasteful. The very idea that what someone said about me at my birth would be so hugely important about me forever I refuse to accept. More importantly, though, I feel this definition of “transgender” fails to address two of the three issues in play here, those being gender presentation and gender identity, and worse, confuses “sexual perception” [we’ll get to that one in a moment] with gender perception. I just personally detest the word “transgender.”

Likewise, I find that transgender has politically and publicly become a catch-all to lump lots of people together who may have one or two specific things in common, but aren’t really served by being seen as the same thing. This will be my one divergence into how I see this language in a more macro sense, and how I can see this language not working for more people than just me. The term “trans” or “trans*” seemed like an attempt to broaden the reach even further, though I wonder if having words be such loose associations is truly helpful. More and more the only times I see “trans” is when it’s used as a prefix (as in “trans woman” or “trans man”). I find those problematic because they so aggressively segregate a very broad base of women into a specific type, and then over-emphasize the importance of that one fact. [Ironically, “trans” is one of the few words in this group that has ever felt truly useful in telling my own story, but only because its very vagueness was a jumping off point for further discussion.] I know that sometimes joining people together for common cause is helpful, and there seem to be painfully few people for whom any of these words have any personal meaning, but I worry that by loosening definitions so much these terms lose meaning all together. If a collective of folks is trying to be built to guarantee equal rights and promote equal respect for all, I can totally be apart of that. If the aim is to define “transgender” to cover every single instance in which someone’s gender perception / presentation / identity might seem societally “out of alignment,” even briefly, I have trouble supporting that, and I will continue to resist being dragged under that umbrella.



I feel like now is a reasonable time to bring up “cisgender.” Cisgender is the supposed corollary to transgender, from the Latin prefix “cis-,” meaning “on this side of.” “Trans-” meaning “across from.” When I first heard “cisgender” several years ago, before it’s current usage was so popularly known, it seemed to me that the definition must be that ones gender perception, presentation, and identity were all in alignment (I remember flippantly saying that the brain and the crotch “match”). This is how I used the term for years, and when I do use it, how I continue to use it. Recently though, the word seems to have been codified around being the oppositional state from transgender, that is, it’s all about what someone said when one was born. So, “cisgender” is when someones gender assigned at birth matches their gender identity. Again, I find the concept of “assigned at birth” repugnant, I simply feel it gives an unacceptable amount of weight to one specific instance before someone is self-aware enough to have any say in the matter. I refuse to accept that as a lifelong statement of my reality. Also, I have the same problem with cisgender that I do transgender, that is it focuses totally on sexual perception (and mistakes it as gender perception) and ignores presentation and identity. I feel that makes the word all but unusable when it comes to my own story; there is no point in using a word if I have to so fully explain it any time I use it. On top of all that, many people who are described as “cisgender” feel that the word is a slur (my brief explanation of at least some of the push back is that “cis-” can sound awfully like “sissy” and be triggering and / or offensive to some folks). I understand the need for a term like “cis-;” it’s necessary to have a way to say “not trans” that doesn’t make trans folk out to be perversions of nature. Here’s a place where my desire for the language differs most extremely from some: I prefer the language of medical malady, of pathologization over that of identity. I don’t have a solution to the fact that I see my transsexualism as a medical condition that I sought treatment for and now see as cured while for so many that language feels uncomfortable. For a while I attended a support group for women like me, and we often struggled to find words for “non-trans-folk.” We struggled through “genetic woman,” “natal woman,” “biological woman,” “cis woman,” and many others. None of them satisfied everyone in the group, though, and in frustration I began using “regular” and “irregular” woman. I was only mostly joking. I’m not sure I have yet hit upon a way to refer to folks as “not trans” that works for me. Again, I suspect that is largely because “trans-” can mean so many different things; it becomes nearly impossible to exclude someone from a group that has so poorly defined boundaries.


Assigned at Birth

While I’m here, I want to finish up with “assigned at birth.” I understand the impetus for a term that includes this sort of concept. I think the premise is that the thing that makes trans folk similar is that they spent some time mis-identified in terms of their gender identity or sex identity. I do understand the desire to tie as many people as possible together with seemingly common issues. I understand why that is in some ways politically helpful, though I have found it personally extremely confusing when trying to figure myself out. I feel that the “assigned at birth” paradigm focuses exclusively on ones interaction with society, giving extreme weight to initial (“at birth”) sex perception and gender perception, and ignores ones concept of self and interaction with others.

Finally, it has been extremely unhelpful for me to see the trans part of my story as an integral part of my identity; it is a part of the story, clearly, and is a vital part of my experience and history. However, it has always felt much more comfortable and true to look at the trans part of my story as a medical condition. I know this language decidedly does not work for some people, but thinking of it as a birth defect really works for me. Perhaps a softer way to say it would be that I consider it a congenital neurological issue. I remain unconvinced as to the specific cause, and indeed, I believe that several different issues are at play in various combinations and degrees. I believe that lumping all of these issues into the simplicity of what sex and gender one was assigned at birth causes needless confusion for many.



Which is probably a good place to segue into “transsexual.” It has been helpful for me to use “transsexual” quite a bit in describing my story. Transsexual is almost always used to describe sex perception and sex presentation. “Sex perception” I’m using to mean the sex that one is perceived to be by another, and “sex presentation” I’m using as a very coarse differentiation between the physical male and female. “Sex identity,” which is very different from “sexuality,” means the sex organs one feels they should have. This is exactly why I see my story involving a “cure.” My “sex” is exactly what “trans’ed” (specifically my “sex presentation,” coupled with my “sex perception,” my “sex identity” remained fixed). I was born with what would loosely fall under the definition of ambiguous genitalia and I had my first genital surgery when I was three years old. Having said that, it’s fair to say that early on, I was certainly more physically male. Likewise, proving that there is a lot going on here, I have had my karyotype tested and it is indeed XY.


[I could possibly assert a thin case to use the term “intersex” to describe myself, but there are three reasons I don’t. First, my level of genital ambiguity was fairly low, and while I did have genital surgery when I was three during which an unidentified “mass” was removed, I feel that the majority of intersex folks I have read about go through much more profound physical trauma at a young age than I did. Second, “intersex” has become a very charged political label (perhaps even more so than “transgender”) and I don’t feel like wading into that minefield. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this context, the term has never been overly helpful in telling my story; I sometimes will use it for context, and will sometimes allude to the phrase “neurological intersex” (which is also an extremely touchy phrase for some people), but using “transsexual” in the context of a neurological medical condition has been the most effective language.]


So then, if “sex” is about physicality, I view my genital reconstruction surgery as having cured my transsexualism. It’s true that I believe this makes me a female with XY chromosomes, but there are many conditions that can lead to this situation, and being born with the wrong genitals is hardly the most unusual.

It seems like lots of folks recoil from “transsexual” because it has the letters “s-e-x” in the middle, and that makes some folk uncomfortable. I find that the willingness to talk directly about the issue is very important for me. I have no shame over my story, and I categorically resist the notion that there is anything wrong with speaking frankly about the human condition.


Trans / Trans*

Briefly, I find “trans” and “trans*” to both be so diluted as to be sort of meaningless. They are an attempt to draw everyone who ever uses (or has used) the “trans-” prefix into the same community. I just don’t think that works in a practical sense. The terms are slightly less specific than “human,” but they require so much further clarification and explanation as to make them slow down discussion rather than aid it. They lump everything together: gender and sex, perception, presentation, and identity all into one big commingled lump. I just find it all very confusing.


Trans-masculine / Trans-feminine

Recently I’ve become aware of “trans-” being tacked onto “masculine” and “feminine,” as “trans-masculine” and “trans-feminine.” These feel so much like overly manufactured terms. I get what they’re trying to say, that is that a given person is displaying traits of the “other” gender. I feel like these terms muddle the field even further, though, as they add to the discussion the need to understand the specific relevant cultural rules of what constitutes masculine and feminine traits and mannerisms. This adds one more level to these terms that removes them from lived-world experience. Not only that, these two words seem to strongly reify the gender binary [more on “gender binary” soon]. Making ones trans-ness solely based around the gender binary seems all sorts of problematic. I believe it would be much more helpful to work on expanding the concept of “masculine” and “feminine” until they are freely open to all (in reality, everyone is a mix of masculine and feminine traits anyway). Needless to say, I find these terms useless and confusing, not to mention regressive.


And the rest

There are other terms: “transvestite,” “crossdresser,” “ hermaphrodite,” “bigender,” “intergender,” “two-spirit,” “she-male,” and a million others. Some of them are seen as slurs by some folks, and some are pretty culturally specific. None of these terms have been terribly useful in telling my story, nor have they really felt like “home,” even though I did try on a couple of them for a time. I tried on “bigender” for about thirty seconds before realizing that it wasn’t a good fit. I tried to use “crossdresser” for longer, but it was clearly never a good fit, and during the whole time I was using it my sense of self was extremely confused.



I do want to bring up “tranny,” which is very much a hot-button term. “Tranny” is pretty widely viewed as one of the worst of all slurs to use about trans folk of any kind. The problem is that this is the one term that has felt the most comfortable for me all the while. I suppose it’s possible that some of this is due to my contrarian nature, but really I’ve just always found the word playful and light-hearted. I’m well aware of that irony. For many folks the word “tranny” is one of the most hate-filled, dehumanizing words they can hear. I have a problem with the concept of “bad words,” but I do recognize the power of this word, and I do try to be circumspect around its use, though I do still use it.


Last thoughts

There are three terms / phrases I want to bring up that will later be explored in more depth, but I feel are important to at least mention here. The first is the phrase “born in wrong the body.” This phrase has always resonated with me: my body was broken, and I fixed it to the current ability of medical science. I have a vivid memory of someone saying that this statement was untrue about transsexualism. This was at a time when I was still trying to figure things out, and I remember thinking, “Well, if transsexualism ~doesn’t~ mean ‘born in the wrong body,’ then I must not be a transsexual.” I understand this phrase is anathema to some people, but for me it has been very helpful. Of course, it’s not a perfect or literal phrase, but it helped to figure out what was going on in my head. The next phrase, which is similarly flawed while still being very useful, is “feel like a woman.” This one always held me up; I still don’t know what it means to “feel like a woman,” I just feel like me. However, this over-simplified, fairly corny phrase was actually a useful jumping off point for me; it enabled me to open the door to really get at what was going on. I remember when I was much younger having the thought “I think I’m a girl,” but that was always overwhelming; I just couldn’t process that or ask for help. “Feeling like a woman,” while being an almost silly thought, really was helpful. Lastly is “cure.” Here’s another one that seems to cause a lot of controversy. As I said above, for me, the concept that this was something that was ~wrong~ with me that I needed to “cure” was what made (and makes) the most sense. I understand that the idea of pathology doesn’t work for many people, but it’s the only way of thinking about it that works for me. I’ve heard it said that if one was born trans, then you’ll always be trans. I’m here to say that’s not true. I am not trans anymore.



So, if I’m not trans anymore, if I’m cured of my transsexualism, why talk about this? Shouldn’t I leave it to the people who are either still living their struggle or who see these terms as more of an ongoing identity? No, I don’t believe I should. I have observed so many women like me, that is, post-corrected, hetero-normative, women who blend into society drift away from these discussions. I feel it’s important to have my voice be part of the discussion. Honestly, I firmly believe that there are still little girls and boys as confused as I was, who continue to be under-served by the language as it stands. And I believe the language is only moving away from these kids as well. The language seems to work well for many, but I feel like the language literally held me back, and I think we can do better.

The other reason to continue talking about this part of my story is that it is simply that: a part of my story. I am tired of being scared or ashamed of my past. I’m tired of thinking that if people know about my past that it will change how they feel about me. I’m tired of not talking about certain subjects because I’m not supposed to. I need this language because my ex-wife is still my best friend. I need this language because I refuse to deny my friends from my all-boys Catholic High School. I need this language to tell my story, my whole story.



But, wait, some of those who know me have heard me refer to myself as “trans” or “transgender.” What gives? I was even in a major newspaper letting them call me “transgender.” Am I really that big a hypocrite? Well, maybe. The truth is that sometimes I need to explain certain parts of my story briefly, and the reality is that people are starting to know the words “trans” and “transgender.” Whenever I can, I make it clear to people how uncomfortable I am with those terms. A big part of the reason I’m engaging in this discussion is because I sometimes find myself forced to use these words because there are none better. I’ve used the phrase “woman of transsexual history” before, but, while that feels more accurate, it’s about as inelegant a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. My current approach seems to be to not really talk about it with people too much until I have time to actually explain things fully, in a way that feels authentic.

Finally, I know that my preferred language feels uncomfortable for others. I know that some women and men who choose different or fewer or no surgical options often find the concept of a “post-corrected” woman difficult. I understand that some people refuse to accept that I have been cured. I get that “transgender” seems to work for so many people. I’m not sure what to say about that; I am trying to positively, definitively, and intentionally tell my story. It is not my intention to invalidate the stories of others. I am hoping that this language continues to grow to tell all types of stories.

Transgender Day of Visibility

   So, apparently today is the first “Transgender Day of Visibility.” I say “apparently” because when I google for the phrase, I have very little success in finding anything remotely official or organised-looking. I’ve seen it mentioned in a few places, including on Facebook, but it seems very underground. That’s fine, I guess sometimes I just think that there are more transfolk than there are. I was hoping there’d at least be a domain dedicated to the day (you know: “”) or something. But, whatever, maybe that just proves the point of why a day like this is important. What could be a better example of transfolks’ invisibility?

   I struggle with this sort of thing all the time. I’m pretty comfortable identifying as a woman nowadays, with no prefixes or suffixes, and the rest of the world seems pretty happy with that as well. I didn’t ask for the physical anamoly of my birth, nor am I particularly proud of the fact that I’m transgendered (I’m not the slightest bit ashamed, either, mind you), yet it will always remain a part of the history of my life. That’s one reason I really dig the phrase “woman of transsexual history,” because it puts the fact that I am a woman front and center, but also acknowledges my history. But for most people that I encounter during my day, I’m “just” a woman.

   So, how do I work on my “visibility” as a transperson?

   The real answer is that I’m not sure. I’m out to pretty much everyone who knows me, I blog very openly about things, and I’ll answer even the most prying questions from relative strangers. But I still usually think I could be doing more. I guess today when I went to Walgreen’s I think I was supposed to wear this shirt proclaiming my transsexuality for all the world to see. I can’t help it, when I go about my everyday life, everyone sees me as a woman. As I said in a recent post, I’m not trying anymore, it just is what it is. I don’t know how I could ~more~ visibly trans without handing out business cards to everyone I meet, and I’m not going to do that.

   I think this is one of those issues within the trans-community (such as it is): the folks who integrate and blend well in their “target gender” tend to just sort of recede into the woodwork, so the folks that are left to be “visible” are the folks that have trouble integrating into their target gender, or the folks who have less interest in blending anyway (genderqueer people, androgynes, and the like). Women who are like me seem to be much less visible, especially post-surgery. Sometimes there’s an argument in the trans-community that in the popular vernacular most people think that “transgender” and “transsexual” are synonymous (they’re not). I am both transgendered and transsexual, but one can be transgendered without being transsexual (my boyfriend, as a crossdresser, would be an example of that, actually). But, lots of people think that since I’ve had my surgery I’m not any sort of “trans” anymore (I’ve had a few of my cisgendered friends ask me that, actually). For the record, I will always have a transsexual history, so I still include “transsexual” in the littany that is my identity (“woman” comes before “drummer,” and “drummer” comes before “transsexual,” and “transsexual” comes before “Swedish,” and so on). It gets so confusing, so many folks that are visible as transgendered people are visible only because they feel they have no choice, and many people that can blend just do (wouldn’t you? it’s pretty tiring sometimes being the “visible transperson” in a room full of cisgendered folks).

   And I have mixed feelings about women like me being totally invisible when people think of transgendered folks. Most transfolk I know are just everyday folks, going about their lives, but in the popular imagination transfolk are the extremists of gender transgression. Sometimes I feel invisible both as a transsexual living in a cisgendered world, but also as a very gender-conforming woman in a world which considers transgendered folks as gender-rebels. 


   This seems like one of those posts wherein I ask a lot more questions than I find answers. I’m never sure if I’m visible enough. I’ll talk to almost anyone about my life and my story, but I don’t run around screaming that I have a transsexual history in crowded restaurants either. It’s a very fine line. I just want to live my life; I’m a woman with a fairly interesting history, and I’m part of a very small and very misunderstood minority. I guess I just do the best I can.

   Happy First Transgender Day of Visibility.


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