Trans refers to identities, gender expression, and embodied traits that do not conform to typical sex-gender identities of “woman” and “man.”
Trans identities have been traditionally classified into three categories: transsexual, transgender, and transvestite.
Transsexual: A medical term for those who fully identify with a non-assigned gender. When seeking to identify a transsexual on the internet, the most common abbreviations used are MTF (Male To Female) or FTM (Female To Male). “Transsexual” implies complete physiological transformation, or on the way to complete transformation.
Transgender: People whose gender assignment at birth does not match their internal gender concept. They feel as if they were meant to be female or male despite not being assigned the gender of their choice, and tend to follow suit according to their own feelings in their lifestyle and appearance. Sexual reassignment surgery is not a prerequisite. “Transgender” is also an umbrella term that encompasses all people who do not follow the rigid gender roles or dress assigned to them in most modern societies. These include drag queens (MTF), drag kings (FTM), and androgynous people in general.
Transvestite: people who prefer to wear clothing of the gender not typically associated with them.
Like “transgender,” “trans” is a blanket term for non-typical gender identity and performance. A hallmark of those who identify as trans is flexibility in personal definition of identity. In addition, how a transperson is labeled by society may have no bearing on how that person self-identifies. Those who feel they were born in the wrong body and who may transition from female to male may identify as transmen, trans men, Trans (a member of the community of transpeople), or simply as men. The same may be said about those who may transition from male to female to become transwomen, trans women, Trans, or women. In both cases, the person may choose more than one label, a different label entirely, or no label at all.
Transition may be accomplished by any combination of the following: outward appearance, the performance of self, and medical intervention through hormonal treatment and sexual reassignment surgery. Transpeople may choose to blend genders and transform at will without subjecting their bodies to any physical changes, and without commitment to one gender.
Transpeople can be found in the historical record and in cultures around the world. People have changed gender for political reasons, as did the rulers Hatshepsut (1400s BCE), an Egyptian pharaoh who had herself portrayed as a man as a means for asserting patriarchal authority, and King Nzinga of Angola (1600s CE), who also reportedly kept a harem of men-wives dressed as women to enhance her status. Sometimes gender transformation from male-masculine to neutral-feminine (or just neutral) was accomplished by castrating the male body, as was the case for the eunuchs of Mesopotamian, Persian, Egyptian, and Chinese empires. This tradition of transition to neutral-feminine is still an option for some hijras of South Asia.
Encouraged by medical advances in the twentieth century, some transpeople choose to immerse themselves in a new identity and attempt to hide the old one, as did the first recorded FTM person, Michael Dillon, in the early twentieth century. The success of such immersion, however, is always in jeopardy and the secret could become public, which is what happened to Dillon, much to his dismay. Or the person may be largely successful in keeping the transformation secret without surgery, as did musician Billy Tipton in the mid- to late twentieth century until just before he died, and medical personnel discovered he was anatomically female. After Stonewall (June 1969 uprising that launched the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement), however, others have been public about their transformation, such as Bulent Ersoy of Turkey, Maryam Khatoon Molkara of Iran, Crystal Love (Crystal Johnson Kerinaiua) of the Tiwi Islands in Australia, and American adult video star Buck Angel (who rejects transman status and asserts that he is a man while still having a vagina).
With improved medical knowledge, genital modification may be accompanied with further physical changes that give the person a different set of visible genitalia. A broad range of secondary sexual characteristics have become available through hormonal treatment, such as body hair, deeper voice, and more muscle for female-to-male or FTM, enlarged mammary glands, reduced body hair, and possibly higher voice for male-to-female or MTF. Generally, hormones will not affect the male voice.
There are a couple of genital surgeries that can be done on FTMs. One involves construction of a penis by using skin from another part of the body. Another surgery frees the clitoris from the ligaments that hold it in place in the female vulva. This creates a tiny penis that will become erect as it is made of the same erectile tissue as a male penis. Many FTMs do not have genital surgery because the outcomes have the risk of serious complications. There has been more success with the MTF reassignment surgery with the construction of a vagina from the penile tissue.
Trans-Related Identities in Religion
In myth and religion, some gods and other figures have Trans-related identities, including those in Hindu (Shiva and Vishnu), Greek (Hermaphrodite and Tiresias), and Yoruba-based (Brazilian: Oxumaré, Ossain, Yemanjá, and Xangô) religious traditions. For Jains, the all-encompassing love that the savior Mahavira has for all beings has inspired his followers to describe him as Mother. In addition, an earlier savior, Mallinath, is considered by one sect of Jainism to be a male who, due to pride, was reborn as female.
There are also religious customs that sanctify Trans-related identities. Hijras of South Asia, if born with male sex organs, traditionally cut off their genitalia (though not all of them do so). They often describe themselves as neither male nor female, yet dress and behave as women, an identity they assume as an act of devotion to the Goddess Bahuchara Mata. For transpeople in Iran, the justification for government support of sexual reassignment surgery is religious: if Allah put a soul in the wrong body (which can happen, just like any other birth defect), the person in question is nevertheless responsible to follow the rules for either a man or a woman, and the body should be modified to fit the gendered soul.
In the classical religions of Greater Africa, Trans-related identities come forth in trance that takes over worshippers when the gods manifest themselves. Women may become male gods, and men may become goddesses. In Santería-Lukumí, the link made between the gods and Catholic saints also includes Trans-related identification: the male ocha (Yoruba deity) Obatalá is linked to La Virgen, and the masculine ocha Chango to Santa Bárbara. In Brazilian Candomblé, the orixas Yemanjá, Logun-Ede, and Oxumaré have trans forms.
There are also examples of Trans-related identities in Christianity. Saint Francis of Assissi (1100s-1200s CE) had a dear friend, Brother Jacoba, a widow who he insisted be treated as a man of his order. Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz, 1500s CE) wrote a poem, “Noche oscura” (Spanish: “Dark Night”), in which he speaks in first person as a woman who sneaks out of her home to meet her man. Like the Jains with Mahavira, English mystic Julian of Norwich (1300s-1400s CE) writes about “our precious Mother Jesus.” When attacking Juana Inés de la Cruz (1600s CE), a Mexican nun who criticized men, Bishop Manuel Fernández presented himself in print as “Sor Filotea” (Spanish: “Sister Philotea”). Joan of Arc (1400s) is a Trans-related saint who led the French peasant population in throwing off the rule of the British Empire. One part of her legend that resonates with the post-Stonewall Trans community is that she was ultimately burned at the stake because she wore men’s clothing.
There are several variations concerning Trans-related identities worldwide. In theocratic Iran, homosexuality has been outlawed, but transpeople have been given a degree of legitimacy. This has not necessarily meant greater acceptance, however, since many people in the country still discriminate against them. Discrimination against transwomen tends to be worse than transmen because some families welcome the addition of a son, while a man who becomes a woman is considered a step down in status and is therefore disgraceful. Nevertheless, Iranian transmen still face transphobia in their homeland.
In Canadian-American culture, females behaving and dressing in a masculine manner has been traditionally more acceptable than males behaving and dressing in a feminine manner. In the Balkans, a family with no man to lead it may have one of its girls or women become a sworn virgin, never to marry, dressing as a man, and conducting the family’s business as its titular head. Juchitán in Mexico has muxes, effeminate males who traditionally do women’s work and live in their parent’s homes. In First Nation-Native American folklife, Two-Spirit identities cover a range of transperson configurations as well as same-sex orientation. In Australia’s Tiwi Islands, there are yipininni (“boy-girl,” also known as sistergirls or sistagirls) who have been reaffirming their identity after years of being silenced and erased by Christian missionaries. Sistergirl identity (which may also refer to Gay men in general) has been extended to include any Australian Aboriginal transwoman, and brotherboy to Aboriginal transmen. In Hawai‘i, options for trans identities for Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) are mahukane (FTM) and mahuwahine (MTF).
A major concern for the Trans community has been healthways. Treatments for embodied transformation may result in serious health problems, especially if the doctors in question do not have access to the best protocols and facilities. But all these factors must be weighed against the psychological trauma faced by some members of the Trans community who deal with censure, misconceptions, and ridicule from family, co-workers, and the general public. Organizations created by the Trans community, as well as allies in the LGBTQ collective and the Straight community, have worked to alleviate the problems that come with Trans identities. Visibility of the Trans community in movies and television has also helped non-transpeople become more accepting and even supportive.
Transwomen’s Rights and Beauty Pageants
One means for transwomen to gain recognition and respect has been beauty pageants. More transwomen around the world have been holding beauty pageants in places such as Mexico (La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro in Juchitán), India (including the national Miss India pageant, first held in 2009 in Chennai), Thailand (Miss Tiffany’s Universe, among others), and even the conservative Muslim state Banda Aceh in Indonesia (Miss Transsexual Aceh).
In the English language, importance is placed on gender as a marker for being human. Neutral third person singular pronouns “it” and “its” are considered insulting when applied to a person other than an infant (and not always acceptable in that case either), with the insinuation that the referent is a thing and not a human being. Trans activist Leslie Feinberg addresses this issue in Transgender Warriors:
I don’t have a personal stake in whether the trans liberation movement results in a new third pronoun, or gender-neutral pronouns, like the ones, such as ze (she/he) and hir (her/his), being experimented with in cyberspace. It is not the words in and of themselves that are important to me — it’s our lives. The struggle of trans people over the centuries is not his-story or her-story. It is our-story.
Director Tom Murray made a documentary on transwomen entitled Almost Myself. The documentary includes the story of Josef Kirshner, a man who became a woman (Judy) for twenty years, then accepted the teachings of an ex-gay ministry and put up a site on the internet called “Help Me Reverse My Sex Change.ORG” to raise money from Christians so she could transition back to Josef (www.almostmyself.com/Director.html). Transitioning from Judy to Josef, he became a Straight man only to realize his identity as a Gay man, which included a physical training regimen to put on more muscle.
Feinberg, Leslie. Trans Liberation Beyond Pink or Blue. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon, 1996.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University, 2005.
Shelley, Christopher. Transpeople: Repudiation, Trauma, Healing. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2008.
Tanis, Justin Edward. Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2003.