A queer exploration of all things gender

This post is particularly exciting for me, because of how important I feel it is. Also because of how unexpected its formation has been.

The other day, I was talking to one of my queer companions-in-arms about an idea I had. I expressed how keen I was to write a piece explaining what ‘transgender’ actually is. I wanted to carefully explain out definitions of words and terms like ‘MtF’, ‘FtM’, ‘cis-gendered’, and other terms that may leave the average Jo(e) mystified. As I try my best to be a good ally to the transgendered population, I hoped that my little platform might be good in raising some awareness, and I expected my friend to agree with me.

I was being a bit mentally lazy at the time, and rather narcissistically was looking for a verbal pat on the back, but this wasn’t what I got.

I was a little surprised when she ‘ummed’ at me, and seemed rather uncomfortable about the idea. Her concern was that in speaking about trans people, for trans people, I risked preaching in a way which didn’t offer room for variation – seriously problematic for any trans person who could have a hypothetical problem with what I might’ve said. I’m not trans. I’m not a member of that group of marginalised people. I possess what is termed ‘cis-privilege’ – certain automatic social advantages simply due to not being trans.

It’s not up to me just to do a job of writing. It’s up to me to do a good job. Or I just put stuff out there that it’s then up to someone else to fix.

This obviously isn’t something I have any control over. It also isn’t something to get upset about if someone points out that it’s something I possess and should bear in mind. Indeed, the usefulness and fairness about what is said about trans issues by a non-trans person can only be improved by the recognition of cis-privilege. Whilst LOADS of people still don’t know about this sort of stuff very much, I’m sure there are plenty of trans people who are pretty tired of non-trans people trying to tell an audience who and what they are – either because they do a crappy job, or because of the principle of having someone speak as though they are ‘the expert on you’ – when you might want, er, a voice of your own, thanks.

This made me really worried! I didn’t want my good intentions to go unrealised because of a property about myself that I cannot help. So I decided to change how the post was going to be written. Welcome to the first collaborative post on GenderBen!

Below you will find two accounts, submitted very kindly by Amy Boyd (whose G+ page can be found here), and Jack Pinder, who is also one half of the up-and-coming Indie Rock duo Silence Kid. You can check them and their music out on Facebook, Tumblr, and if you like what you see and hear and wish to support some young, impoverished, queer musicians, they have a kickstarter project here.

Everything written by these individuals is entirely their own, and has not been edited by me in any way.

First, we have Amy’s post.


What Does “Transgender” Mean?

At first, I didn’t know where to start. How do I explain to people who might never have heard of transgender people what it is like to be transgender. I thought, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be transgender!”.

And it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt unhappy with being male.

To not be transgender, like the vast majority of people, is just how life is. They are born with male genitals and assigned male. They are born with female genitals and assigned female. They grow up as that gender assigned to them on day one. For them, everything is great and nothing feels wrong.

Transgender people aren’t like that. Nobody stops to think, “what if the baby has male genitals but actually has a female brain”? For millions of people, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It is reality. Transgender people have the brain of the opposite sex. Brain scans show it. Those unlucky babies are brought up how society expects them to be brought up, based on their genitals at birth, not their brain.

Some feel from a very early age – 5 or less in some cases – that their brain is different to their body. For others, it takes a while for the feelings to develop – as late as the teenage years.

It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to want to be a girl or a girl to want to be a boy… It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to play with barbies or a girl to play with action men… It’s not OK, says society, to be different to everyone else…

So we hide those feelings, or try to for as long as possible. Hiding these feelings hurts. To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?

Trans-girls and trans-women are born with male genitals and a female brain, assigned male, later feel these feelings of not being right, and finally transition to female. Trans-men are the opposite case: babies born with female genitals and a male brain, assigned female, and transition to male.

My Transition

It took a while for me to understand that I was transgender, because until I was 19, I didn’t know what the word meant. Sure, I have saw drag queens, and what movies and TV shows portray as “men in dresses”. But a man actually becoming a woman? That is such a taboo topic that nobody ever speaks about it. Certainly, nobody spoke about it in front of me.

It was my luck, I suppose, to stumble upon an article about transgender people. Suddenly I realised, I’m reading about myself. The people in the article echoed my own thoughts: “I hate manly things. I hate sports. I hate cars. I hate getting dirty. I hate not being able to express myself in the way I want to because I’ll be laughed at and told to stop, I hate having this stupid penis attached to me… I hate being male. I’m not even tall enough or strong enough to be considered a man. My name “Michael” doesn’t suit me. Everyone is Michael. I want to be unique. Why can’t I have a nice short feminine name? I like feminine clothes. I liked those two guys at school… wait, am I gay? Were those feelings of attraction? I thought I just liked them because they were nice people. I always wanted to be a girl anyway.”

And that was when it stuck me. “I always wanted to be a girl anyway.” So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?!

I needed more information first to be sure I wasn’t utterly deranged. I needed to know that being transgender was different to being a drag queen or a cross-dresser or one of those people you see on Britain’s Got Talent with 10-foot-high hair and a dress and a full beard.

I turned to Google searches, Wikipedia, YouTube and studies. They all confirmed that how I felt is a real thing – Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria. And the only “cure”, if it can be called as such, is transitioning.

Within a few days, I ordered hormones drugs over the Internet. About three weeks later they were delivered and I started taking them.

It only took a few weeks for me to notice something amazing: the suicidal feelings I had been feeling, dating back to when puberty began, disappeared. Actually, nobody knows this, but before I started “hormone replacement therapy”, I was completely suicidal and had only two options left: kill myself, or travel the world for as long as possible on my savings and then kill myself at the end. I was going to do the second option. I got passport photos taken. I printed out the passport renewal form. I had figured out to where I would go first: Khao San Road, Thailand. Thank you, luck, for letting me run across that article on the Internet about transgender people before I followed through. I have those passport photos in my safe at home. Every time I look at them, all I see is an extremely depressed version of me.

Transition – It’s A Gradual Process, Not An Instant Change

I would like to think I had a realistic timeline of how long it would take to “pass” as a female. I’m still not there yet, but 14 months of hormone replacement therapy has had a big effect, physically and mentally.Mentally I am much happier, more stable, more confident and stronger. On the flip-side, I cry more and have mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy really is like going through puberty a second time.

Physically my face and body have changed to have female “secondary sex characteristics” like fatter cheeks, wider hips, needing to pee every five minutes, softer skin, less body hair, lighter body hair, and so on.

I’ve also done things that drugs can’t do like permanent facial hair removal (expensive!), growing my hair out, making my eyebrows more feminine, generally taking care of myself, making my wardrobe more androgynous, and most of all learning. There is a lot to learn about this whole “being female” business.

Today, I am 20 years old. I recently moved back to London and since then have felt free enough to try making lots of progress in my transition.

I don’t know how much longer it will take. 14 months of hormones got me to the androgynous phase. I hope another 14 months will get me to the “definitely looks like a girl” phase.

And then I can be Amy.


Transgressive Gender for Dummies: An Anti-“Trans 101”

Hey! My name’s Jack, and I’m a 22 year old trans guy from Baltimore. Ben asked me to write a “trans 101” of sorts for this blog, so here goes.

There are probably a million and one reasons why someone would want to read, or find themselves reading, a “Trans 101”, or an introductory guide to transgender issues. Maybe you’re grappling with, settling into, or exploring your own gender identity. Maybe you’re a confused parent, or a friend of a trans person who you want to be a better ally to. I’m hardly the first person to create an introductory guide like this but the way I’m going to go about doing this isn’t exactly typical. I don’t plan on making an easy list of definitions of jargon or some kind of handy cheat sheet to refer to when you forget what MtF means. Instead, I’m going to strike at the root of the problem, the very reason you don’t know these words in the first place: everything you know about gender is fundamentally wrong.

Sex=/=Gender=/=Sexual Orientation

First, let’s talk about why sex and gender are not the same thing. Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender:

Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.


People say things like this with the best intentions, and probably genuinely believe that this is a progressive framework for understanding gender identity. Really think about this, though. How many variables make up what we think of as sex and what we think of as gender? Biology itself doesn’t even play by the rules of the gender binary—check out Ben’s amazing post about the genetics behind intersexed individuals. There’s your internal genitalia, external genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones, the pitch and tonality of your voice, your wardrobe, hair, mannerisms, and a million other factors that decide whether or not the guy at the deli calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. If every single one of these variables lines up as exclusively “male” or exclusively “female”, you are cisgender and pretty dramatically socially privileged over people who are not because of that. If not, congrats! Your very existence reveals the fallacy of the socially constructed gender binary. You can call yourself whatever you damn well please, but others in this category use words like transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, ftm, mtf, mtm, ftf, genderfluid, agender, pangender, and neutrois. This is hardly intended to be an exhaustive list on non-cis gender identities; the point is that if you aren’t cis, and even if you don’t think of yourself as male or female, your identity is legitimate and real and it is up to you, and only you, to label it.

Now let’s talk about gender versus sexual orientation. To put it simply, gender is what you are, whereas sexual orientation is about who you like. Sexual orientation can of course be extremely complex and nuanced and a ton can be written about it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here, because an individual’s sexual orientation has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THEIR GENDER IDENTITY.

I make this point because you may be approaching this Trans 101 with the idea that trans-ness is some sort of extension or expression of homosexuality. This isn’t true but it’s a pretty understandable misconception, thanks to what has become the generally accepted lexicon of these issues. When people talk about LGBT (that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues, 99% of the time, they’re really only talking about the LBG. The word “queer” also has a tendency to complicate and confuse things because it is an umbrella term that encompasses both non-heteronormative sexuality (Queer for You-The Degenerettes),and gender expression. Personally, it’s a word that I like and identify with because I’m queer in both senses of the word.

Another reason why I’m abstaining from creating a list of definitions with this post is that when it comes to gender, words are personal and powerful. To define the term FtM, for example, as “Female to Male”, or “an individual who was assigned female at birth who now identifies/has transitioned to/lives as male” is terribly incorrect and erasing to people who identify with that term but that definition does not apply to, as well as people who that definition applies to but do not identify with that term.

Think about every film or tv show you’ve ever seen about a transgender person. They all had the same plot, right? We’re used to hearing transpeople say “I’ve always known,” and something about this seems to be comforting to cisgendered people. If you’re cisgendered, chances are that YOU’VE always known what you are, so this makes sense to you. The expectation of gender consistency throughout one’s life is easy to take for granted. It’s a part of the trans narrative, and it’s actually pretty harmful and repressive. Cut-and-dried definitions of very nuanced and complex human identities reinforce this oppressive narrative.

Consider all the ways it is possible for a non-cisgendered person to deviate from this narrative! Anyone can discover new things about their gender identity at any age, and one’s gender journey need not fit cleanly into a Lifetime movie storyline. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-cis person the next time you question the validity of their identity based on the way they’ve chosen to transition or express their gender. Could you afford a $7,000 surgery? Could you ask your family to refer to you by pronouns besides the ones you’ve used since birth? Would you be okay with the side effects and risks associated with hormone replacement therapy? If you realized you weren’t cisgendered, would you come out about it immediately?

As someone who deviates from the gender binary, the trans narrative kept me from coming out to my friends and family and getting the therapy I needed for entirely too long. My fears were completely justified; when I did come out, friends and family refused to believe me and treated my transition like some sort of passing phase I was going through. This is the social function of the trans narrative, to create “symptoms” that are so specific that hardly anyone could fit the bill.

If you want to be a better ally to a trans person, this is what I have to say to you: do everything you can to not reinforce this narrative. Never assume anything, and never police anyone’s gender journey.

Yes, there is jargon you should probably know, but to paraphrase your sixth grade English teacher, if you don’t know what something means, look it the fuck up. More important than words, though, is attitude and understanding, and I hope I was able to at least lay the groundwork for that with this post.


I was going to add my own two cents on this topic, but I really feel like Amy spent one cent and Jack spent the other far better than I could. I hope you found these heartfelt and eloquent accounts as informative and important as I do.


Comments on: "The essentials – Trans 101, but not as you know it" (21)

  1. sediment_and_such said:

    Fabulous writing, folks. My favorite bit of knowledge presented:

    Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

    Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.

    Nicely stated 🙂

  2. @sediment_and_such: Call me crazy if you must, or indeed, simply literate, but the point was that those were misunderstandings of sex and gender.

    • sediment_and_such said:

      I am afraid my sarcasm wasn’t properly relayed via my words…….honestly the idea of something like one’s ‘gender’ being defined by anyone but themselves seems absurd to me. I think you may be ‘simply literate; 🙂

  3. Mike – you are wrong.

    Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head! – This is correct

    • Artoo said:

      In that that is how we use those words, yes, this statement is mostly true. In that sex and gender can be clearly set as this thing and that thing, not so much. I believe jack’s point was that these terms and what they refer to are slippery. So sex means what’s in between your legs? What about your chromosomes? What about the presence of sperm or ovum? What about breasts, facial structure, voice pitch, height, musculature, fat placement..? All of these things indicate sex, as in what your body tells the world you are, but are not mutually exclusive and start to blur the lines between sex and gender. Women have body hair, but also are expected to shave their legs, so does the appearance of smooth legs fall under sex or gender? It’s just that things get confusing, and that is worth paying attention to.

  4. “Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender”

    This is what Jack wrote, not me.

  5. Mike, just because a trans person says something, doesn’t make it true. That’s the same for any group of people – Christians, Jews, gays, transsexuals, white people, black people…

    Notice Jack didn’t actually post any science or citations?

  6. I’m not saying that it had to be true because Jack wrote it. I am saying that sediment_and_such treated the statements as though Jack had written that they were true, when he in fact wrote the opposite.

  7. I profoundly agree with your approach Ben. However well meaning you might be, it is far better to pass the microphone to others and let us hear their voice.

    There is a problem though. Does this mean that you and I who are not trans don’t get to have a voice on this?

    Do I have to shut up in order to stand in solidarity?

    • Reasonable question Paul! My answer to this would be no, however as cis people I feel that we have to take care in not shouting down, silencing, or doing anything to diminish any trans person’s lived experience and identity/ies. I could’ve written more on the issue myself, but the post was already triple my normal average length – and I thought there was more than enough content to ponder!

      It’s a controversial question, and one that is very important (particularly in my line of inquiry!). Might even get a post to itself some time…

  8. I’m not a scientist; my background is in cultural studies and art history. I ventured into the science-y genetics stuff in my post because I’ve learned a lot from Ben; the dude has a degree in genetics from Cambridge, so I don’t think I’m off base in citing him. Even without that, I feel like I set up my argument in such a way that nothing complex or scientific needed to be referenced formally.

    Paul–If you are cis, you are privileged. To be a trans ally you can never let yourself forget that there are issues you don’t have the authority to speak on. There’s a ton that cis allies of transpeople can do through activism, academics, or otherwise where nobody has to “shut up.” Just remember that as an ally, whose issue this really is. It’s easy to have a simplified, binary view of gender when that’s how YOUR gender works, but that’s not how it works for the people you’re trying to be an ally towards.

  9. I’ve looked a bit into the cited studies on spotting „male“ and „female“ brains. The days, when I last looked at literature concerned with this, are long past, so all I’m left with at the moment is an immense feeling of skepticism – back then, what I found after extensive reading was, that people are very quick to say „male“ and „female“ when it comes to brains, whereas when you take a closer look it is not at all that simple, not that straightforward, not the same dichotomous crap all over again.
    Brains are not immovable, set things. They change according to their use (and many other things). So my point is, I’m not actually sure whether anyone is actually born with a specific kind of brain. (And much less, whether there are exactly two different kinds. Because the variation is immense.) Neither do the studies: the first two, which by the by are not too impressive in the number of participants, only dealt with differences in adults, the only one on subadults says itself that the sample size was too small „to identify any gender differences“. And it says also, that they suspect differences to develop „by 2 or 3 years of age“. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m not seeing anyone born with anything.
    Getting back to the male/female brain issue: If there is a foundation for proclaiming that there is a distinct sexual dimorphism in human brains (probably one that does not label differences as masculinizations/feminisations but actually describes them), please share it (I would be hugely interested to feed this old topic of mine with new data), if you do not, don’t ever proclaim that.

    I’m probably not the best person to argue here. I know that. I’m an osteologist. I work with bones.
    So if there are any neuroscientists around —

    • Mirame said:

      A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience will interest you: Sex Differences in Brain Gray and White Matter in Healthy Young Adults: Correlations with Cognitive Performance

      Link: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/19/10/4065

      Sex-related differences in behavior are extensive, but their neuroanatomic substrate is unclear. Indirect perfusion data have suggested a higher percentage of gray matter (GM) in left hemisphere cortex and in women, but differences in volumes of the major cranial compartments have not been examined for the entire brain in association with cognitive performance. We used volumetric segmentation of dual echo (proton density and T2-weighted) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans in healthy volunteers (40 men, 40 women) age 18–45. Supertentorial volume was segmented into GM, white matter (WM), and CSF. We confirmed that women have a higher percentage of GM, whereas men have a higher percentage of WM and of CSF…………..

      • Thank you 🙂

      • could it be that you accidently posted a different article than the one you meant to post? it’s intersting still, (and I’m as thankful, as I can now hunt articles citing that one) but 1999 is hardly recent 🙂

    • Props to Mi for pointing this out. I always get distinctly uncomfortable when people talk about “male” and “female” brains:

      – firstly, they tend to ignore the possibility that any observed differences are due to gendered socialisation (i.e. nurture), trying instead to use them as proof that “men are from Mars” etc…

      – secondly, this approach really limits what “men” and “women” can be. Maybe you could scan my brain and “prove” that I had the sex characteristics of one binary gender and the neurological characteristics of the other, ergo I’m a “true” transsexual, whoopee. But in another world, I could just as easily have very happily been a gender-non-conforming cis person.

      It doesn’t help the case of gender equality and freedom of expression much if cis people who go around saying things like “Look at me, I’m a caring, nurturing man who wants to be a stay-at-home father instead of a businessman” are liable to be attacked with “Well, that’s probably just because you actually have a ‘female’ brain”…

      (Thanks to Mirame for the link, which is a bit beyond my scientific capabilities but I’ll be sure to try and digest it…)

  10. charmonium said:

    I hope this is an okay place to ask this, I’ve been trying and failing to understand it for a while. The explanation of being transgender that Amy gives, and similar explanations I’ve seen elsewhere, make no sense to me:
    “To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?”

    I’m a cis-woman (at least I think so) but I love getting muddy, playing sports (and indeed dating girls, as I’m pansexual, but I realise that sexuality is a different thing from gender). I study a predominantly male field, wear dresses occasionally but am equally happy in a drysuit white-water kayaking. Vogue and cheer-leading hold little appeal for me. I feel it’s fine for a woman to like all these things, but statements like Amy’s seem to imply that I’m actually male. It seems sexist and narrows down the ways in which women and men can behave.

    Perhaps this all means that I’m somewhat trans* by Amy’s definition (can you be ‘somewhat’ trans*? Is there a scale?). I’d hate to be like those homophobes whose fear and dislike of the gay movement is driven by their wish to dismiss their own feelings of same-sex attraction – I don’t want to dismiss trans* viewpoints through some transphobic need to prove myself to be cis.

    But at the moment I think that what boys and girls are supposed to like is socially constructed and far too limiting. Can anyone point me to an explanation of trans* (particularly mtf and ftm) that doesn’t implicitly accept these “women like fashion and dolls, men like sport and cars” type definitions?

    • This is definitely a good place to ask this! Thanks for commenting.

      As you point out through your quotation of Amy’s article in comparison to your own experiences, it is indeed problematic to link stereotypical ‘gendered behaviour’ and trans* identity. There is a great deal of history regarding how gatekeepers and doctors bought into such practices – if you haven’t already, the post about Agnes on this site may give some further background about this.

      Amy and Jack are both world authorities on being trans*. Because they are trans*. But of course, ‘being trans*’ is a hugely broad thing – Amy has no expertise on Jack’s experiences, and vice versa. Anyone making blanket statements, (regardless of their gender identity) about a whole group of people has a lot of room for error.

      Indeed, it would’ve been easy for me (for example) to have gone through an editing process with Amy and Jack before these articles were posted, in order to add my scrutiny as a gender scholar. Would this have made the articles less problematic through an academic lens? Possibly. Would it have erased Amy or Jack’s personal experiences and/or views of being trans*? Definitely. This is part of why there is information from Amy and Jack that are conflicting. This better reflects reality – lots of people disagree about this stuff, including trans* people, whether they be deeply familiar with gender theory and academia or working exclusively from their own experiences.

      Based on how you describe yourself, whether you may be trans* or not depends firstly on what model of understanding you employ for what this term means (for instance, by some definitions, ‘masculine’ women and ‘feminine’ men fall under the trans* umbrella due to experiencing and exhibiting their genders in ways that buck the social norm). When it comes down to it though, only you can decide what label(s) you feel comfortable using to describe yourself. Likewise, no-one can demand that you adopt a prescribed identity label.

      Hopefully you won’t consider me too biased for pointing you towards books I’ve reviewed, but I think you would find ‘Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation’ (Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman) and ‘Whipping Girl’ (Julia Serano) very interesting reads. Perhaps the reviews on GenderBen can give you more info to decide if they would be helpful for you. Certainly both books look beyond traditional behavioural expectations placed on men and women.

      The book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine also deals a lot with the expectations people place on individuals based on their membership of a binary sex category, though from a more neurological angle. I’ll be reviewing this one soon, along with quite a few other books dealing with sex stereotyping – stay tuned!

      • charmonium said:

        Thanks for your detailed reply 🙂 I’ll try to get hold of some of those books. I looked at a preview for Whipping Girl on googlebooks and it looks really interesting.

  11. […] GenderBen: Trans 101, but not as you know it […]

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