Trans 101 for Wobblies, part 1: Understanding basic terminology

A member of the Boston IWW drew up this introduction to Trans terms and issues effecting trans people. Part one of an ongoing series. Originally appeared here

As a transsexual/transgender person in the One Big Union, late last year I partnered with another trans Wobbly to put together a basic “trans 101″ workshop to help cis (non-trans) people in the radical labor movement create welcoming, safe environments for trans people. By the request of several Wobs, I’ve been attempting to present this workshop again for union members exclusively; so far I haven’t successfully scheduled something that all interested parties can attend, so I’m adapting the workshop handout for a series of posts here on this blog. Please note that I have made some minor modifications, but some of the content here is still not my own wording, so I can answer many questions you may have about what’s actually written, but not all. I will try to arrange for a formal workshop again at some later date.

Trans Communities & Experiences: An Introduction for Wobblies & All Anti-Capitalists

Trans people (particularly ones who aesthetically, behaviorally or otherwise don’t fit into the dual gender binary) usually feel extremely outcast in heteronormative communities and yet still feel on the periphery of queer and radical outposts for reasons that tend to be very case specific. Many of these cases, however, involve a lack of information about trans people, and systemic cissexism and transphobia— which, once you’ve read this series in its entirety, you will hopefully understand how to combat.

The fact that the DSM-IV estimates that we make up less then 1% of the population and still qualifies transsexual(ism) as a mental disorder likely pushes people back into the closet. In addition to the DSM there are quite a few misrepresenting and inflammatory examples in media that serve as our only casting before the public eye; we are entirely treated in the media as freaks, psychopaths, or tragic victims. Beyond psychiatric and media discrimination, there are still other pervasive reasons why people who feel alien and estranged from their body have incentive to continue to behave in a binary friendly way; suppressing their sexual and gender expression for the sake of avoiding job discrimination, preserving cis privilege, being allowed to stay with or speak to their families, upholding tradition, upholding religious beliefs, etc.— or they just are too afraid of even being out in public, subjected to daily harassment and abuse. Suppressing yourself sucks. Seriously. You know this from your own experience and that’s maybe why you want to be more inclusive of trans people, among other reasons. But how do we get these wonderful people into our communities?

Part 1: Understanding basic terminology

sex = body parts

For absolute clarity, let’s avoid talking about someone “of the female sex” or “of the male sex” because there are strong gender-associations with words like male and female. If we’re going to talk about bodies, let’s talk about them as bodies without gender qualifiers.

gender = depends who you ask

Some gender theorists and/or members of the trans community will tell you:
• it’s an identification that you feel deep inside, independent of other people
• it’s an identification that you feel deep inside corresponding to other people
• it’s a preferred way of styling one’s appearance
• it’s a set of behaviors that you perform more easily than others
• it’s a social role that you feel most comfortable inhabiting as part of your culture
• it’s a grammatical function of language

Not everyone agrees on these things; others would offer other explanations; it is unlikely that any description could apply to all people. What’s indisputable and more productive to think about: some people in this world are largely categorized by other people as “incongruent” in some respect regarding their sex and the gender that this sex is usually assigned at birth.

* Trans people are united, at a bare minimum, by a marginalization we have in common. *

transgender = people whose gender, whether it is innate or adopted, does not align with the sex that other people would say “matches” it; people who, by instinct or choice, have or express a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth

No matter what pronouns they prefer, what their name is, what they wear, how their body looks, who they sleep with, whether they’ve had surgery, whether they want surgery, or whether they actually call themselves transgender, if we wish to speak as inclusively as possible then a person is transgender or is essentially treated as transgender if they have some quality that defies their society’s traditional expectations of gender. No matter what, any of these people are likely to have their gender questioned by other people, and most if not all are likely to experience automatic discrimination, ostracization, misunderstanding, abuse, or violence as a direct consequence.

transsexual = these days, usually someone who specifically wants surgery and/or hormone therapy to change their sex, or at least to wake up one morning with the right combo of chromosomes and body parts

Many transsexual people view themselves as having a medical condition. Transsexual people may feel physically dissociated from certain body parts or experience symptoms akin to phantom limb syndrome with other body parts they’re missing. Many other transsexual people may instead— or additionally— just want surgery and/or hormone therapy in order to be “stealth” about their trans status. Many people may match this exact definition but do not call themselves transsexual, so please be respectful.

transvestite or crossdresser = these days, usually someone who routinely or occasionally dresses as a gender other than their own, or alternately someone who identifies with the gender they dress as but still finds the term appropriate for personal reason

genderqueer = alternately someone who does not have a gender (sometimes using the term agender), who has a different gender than the binary female or male (sometimes using the term third gender), or similar scenarios

genderfuck = usually someone who may have a set gender of male or female (or not) but who actively tailors their appearance to challenge others’ expectations of how that gender ought to look

Some people in the world are also bigender, polygender, pangender, etc. Some non-Western cultures have designated third genders already, like hijras in Pakistan and the surrounding area.

* Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, and other people falling under the general trans (or trans*) umbrella are not all the same thing, but they are facets of similar qualities and are all subject to having their bodies, decisions, and very existence questioned. *

Simple opposites:

cisgender = people whose gender aligns with the sex that other people would say “matches” it; people who, by instinct or by choice, have or express a gender the same as what was assigned to them at birth

cissexual = people who are more or less content with their particular combination of chromosomes and body parts

We usually distinguish less between cisgender and cissexual people because a) they’re both considered “normal,” whatever that means, and b) any differences between them right now can hopefully be extrapolated by logic.

Other terms:

cissexism = the systemic favoring of cis sex/gender alignment over trans alignments

transphobia = fear and/or hatred of trans people

binarism = the systemic tendency to separate sex/gender into male & female

Just like patriarchy sustains itself by misogyny and misogyny is in turn informed by patriarchy, cissexism sustains itself by transphobia and transphobia is in turn informed by cissexism. And if we’re going to untangle ourselves from any of these things, we have to untangle ourselves from binarism as well!