I'm A 'Male-Bodied' Trans Woman, But Saying So Is Not Okay

In Depth

In the last few years, terminology around gender identity (and to a lesser degree sexual orientation) has really modified quickly. Many of the terms I learned in 2003 about how to refer to myself and others were no longer acceptable by 2010. Yet many of the terms I replaced them with in 2010 are now, themselves, considered horribly anachronistic in 2014. These terms are changing too fast for me, and as someone in the community, I’m starting to feel as though I no longer have control over my own labels. In a lifetime of being defined by others… I am feeling like I am being defined by others again.

In 2003, when I was first diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (which now no longer exists, instead gender dysphoria, itself not a new concept, replaces it in the DSM V), transsexual still seemed to be the most common term used in cases like me (which we now, or at least I now, call the “classic transsexual narrative”) and transgendered (with the ed!) was a more umbrella term to cover a wide variety of gender variant behaviors. Trans (without the asterisk, which I will come back to, as it did not exist at this time) was gaining traction, but it was usually simply used as a way to avoid writing the entire word. Cisgender didn’t exist at all really, and wouldn’t really appear in the discourse until almost 2010, and usually people who were not trans were called not trans or non-trans. Being called a transgender was a lot more common than it is now, but I would say being called a transsexual was even more common. Transgenderism is a word that seems to survive, although more among cisgender people than transgender people.

In 2006 and 2007, the years I tried transitioning really as far as I could go until I ran out of money, in day to day life, there did not seem to be much change to the way terminology had been used in 2003. But starting with my engagement in discourse in feminism in 2008/2009, and a trans inclusive feminism at that, I began to see changes. Transsexual dropped away quickly. The word is largely considered to be full of baggage and overly restrictive amongst all but many folks who transitioned several years ago. If you are in a relatively young crowd, it isn’t really spoken much at all. There has been a furious debate over the use of transgenderED. I was never bothered by the ED, but I’ve advocated its disuse based on the people who are bothered by it.

In the time between 2010 and 2014, I have modified my language considerably. Most notably I used to refer to myself and other trans women as transwomen (no space), but then I read an excellent piece by Julia Serano in Ms. Magazine:

*Many trans feminists prefer spelling “trans feminism” as two separate words, where trans is an adjective that modifies feminism. The single-word version—”transfeminism”—looks somewhat alien, and seems to suggest that this is not actually a strand of feminism but something else entirely (just as the single word “transwomen” suggests that trans women are something other than women). Along similar lines, we do not describe people as Catholicwomen or lesbianwomen.

And I agree with her, and given the othering effect of no space, I now advocate the use of trans and woman being separated by a space. I am, after all, a woman first, and a trans person second. If it were up to me, and it were not so damn cumbersome, I might instead refer to myself as a woman who is transgender, but… That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I would expect the same of trans men (space!), and expect that there are men who would prefer to think of themselves men who happen to be transgender. Their gender coming first and foremost.

As to the issue of the asterisk… I’m completely befuddled by it. I have read no good arguments of just why the asterisk is supposed to be more inclusive than the word transgender itself, which is already an umbrella term. I’ve read numerous descriptions of the necessity of the asterisk, but I just can’t find one I feel is compelling. I don’t see how its non-use is in any way exclusive, and so I have repeatedly chosen (and will continue to choose, barring a compelling argument) to not use the asterisk in my own writing, even though it is quite commonly used in the commenting sections.

One of the most contentious issues within the transgender community is how we refer to our biological differences with cisgender folks and how we refer to our “before.” Truth is, I believe many of the options for discussing these aspects of our lived experiences seem to offend or not cover everyone, no matter which you choose. I recently had a conversation with Samantha Allen and Parker Marie Molloy about the issue of “female-bodied” and “male-bodied,” which I do not find offensive, but many others do. It started with a tweet from Samantha Allen, and my question about that tweet:

And I think what happened here was a conflict of philosophy concerning the importance of one’s biology versus the primacy of one’s gender identity. Molloy asked me why female assigned at birth and male assigned at birth weren’t sufficient. Well, the answer to this is really two-fold. The first is that I think they’re significantly clumsier and less intuitive than “female-bodied” and “male-bodied” and I also think that FAAB and MAAB deny a lived experience of not having a total rejection (or any rejection!) of your assigned sex. Truth is, the more I think about it, the more the idea of an assigned sex for non-intersex folks doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

It’s my gender assignment I reject and have always rejected. I reject not so much being labeled male, I reject being labeled boy. I was never boy. I was girl. Now I am woman. If it were up to me, my passport/residency card/driver’s license wouldn’t have an F on it either, it would have a W for woman. I don’t really think of myself as female, just as I don’t think of myself as cisgender or as FAAB. I mean, if male was an incorrect designation, why would I have benefited from male privilege? Provisional as it may have been? That sends me for some mental loops and I would need to sit down and explore these ideas. If there was never any truth to my maleness, then there would seem to be no truth to the idea of my male privilege… And that is anathema to my feminism. That would be a hard mental row to hoe.

I think I’ve also been influenced by Yuuka, my “main squeeze” as it were. She is not cisgender. She is genderqueer, and her pronoun usage signifies more convenience than it does comfort. I don’t fully agree with her definition of female, which I think is a bit too narrowly defined, but she also clearly separates her femaleness, the fact that she is “female-bodied,” from her gender identity, which is, for her, “a very feminine man, and a very masculine woman.” She is neither wholly contained in the woman box or the man box. She is not a woman, stop. She is not a man, stop. But is she “female-bodied?” She would say yes, and I would agree with her.

However, it became clear to me from discussions on twitter with Molloy, Allen, and others that many are offended by the “-bodied” terminology. So what can I do? I guess I have to let go of terminology that works for me and helps me describe others because it is now safer to assume that these others consider themselves male or female and to have male or female bodies in a way which I do not consider myself to have. It’s our discussion to have, and it appears I’m on the losing side of it, barring other trans folks coming to my defense and arguing they are not offended by its use.

But you know who needs to keep out of this discussion? Cis people. It’s not your discussion. You can’t “help.” As transgender people, we need to figure out this shit for ourselves.

Image via Shutterstock.

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