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What's in a trans

What's in a trans


Transsexual? Cross-dresser? Gender-queer? Under the "transgender" umbrella are a range of people who deal with gender identity and gender expression in nontraditional ways. A primer on who's who. Part 2 of The Advocate's ongoing transgender series

Back in the 1980s, Billy Crystal's Fernando character on Saturday Night Live claimed, "It's not how you feel, it's how you look!" He was on the right track, except that how one feels can be equally important, as you will see.

What image comes to mind when someone says "transgender"? RuPaul? Klinger from the TV series M*A*S*H? Dr. Frank 'N' Furter from the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Bree, Felicity Huffman's character in the movie Transamerica? Leslie Feinberg or Kate Bornstein?

These are all examples of people whose gender expression (how one looks) and gender identity (how one feels) can be problematic in a "pink or blue" society. Actually, "problematic" is an understatement. Every month more than one person is murdered just for being gender-nonconforming--and those are only the cases we know about. This grim figure represents a strikingly large percentage of a relatively small and little-known population.

In the late 1980s the word transgender was coined as an umbrella term to refer to all gender-variant people. That's one expansive umbrella! It covers drag queens and drag kings, cross-dressers, transsexuals, gender-queer people, and probably some others I don't even know about yet. Even some gay men and lesbians with nontraditional gender expressions may be protected by trans-inclusive nondiscrimination and employment laws.

Recognizing our common struggle for civil rights--and our common enemies--the gay and lesbian movement started adding the T in the mid 1990s. But my experience has shown that the average gay man or lesbian today knows very little about the transgender community and truly wants to know more.

So please allow me shed a little light on trans terminology.

RuPaul is probably the best known example of a "drag queen." "Drag kings"--women who perform in a male persona--are growing in popularity too; Heywood Wakefield is one example. (Drag originally meant "dressed as a girl," but for those dressing as a boy, drab didn't exactly draw an audience!) People who "do drag" do it for fun, entertainment, and sometimes to earn a livelihood. Drag queens and kings can be gay, straight, or bi, but few ever feel the need to medically transition genders as actress Alexis Arquette is doing. So, for the drag community, the issue is their right to their gender expression.

Klinger from M*A*S*H is a widely known example of a "cross-dresser," at least among those of my generation. People cross-dress for various reasons. In Klinger's case he was making a political statement. Dr. Frank 'N' Furter was doing it for fetishistic reasons. Women started wearing men's clothes awhile ago as a fashion statement, and today that is commonplace. But put a guy in a dress and it's still a huge deal! So men who have a yet-to-be-explained need to cross-dress often have to limit their dressing to the privacy of their homes or to one of the various transgender conferences held around the country each year. Cross-dressers can also be gay, straight, or bi, but they don't feel the need to medically transition. Regardless of the reasons why they cross-dress, the issue is their right to their gender expression.

Bree (Felicity Huffman's character) is an example of a "transsexual," as am I. We represent the small part of the transgender population who feels so strongly about being the gender opposite of our 'original' sex organs that--if we can afford it--we take medical steps (hormone therapy and/or surgery) to bring our physical bodies (how we look) into alignment with our gender identity (how we feel).

Many others who have a strong contra-gender identity also "transition" to live in their preferred gender, using clothing, makeup, and mannerisms. These people are "transgender" instead of transsexual. Yes, you read correctly--medically transitioning is only important for a small number of people under the transgender umbrella. (More about that in a future column.)

I identify as a lesbian, but transsexual and transgender people can be lesbian, gay, bi, or straight. Our issue is our right to both our gender expression and gender identity.

Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein are real-life examples of the balance of the transgender population. For them, the gender binary does not work for their daily lives, either in part or in the whole. It happens that both are writers, and Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues and Bornstein's Gender Outlaw are often included in college gender studies curricula these days because they encourage the reader to reconsider the entrenched gender binary.

Perhaps as a result of this, there is an increase in younger people coming out as "gender-queer," which is pretty much defined however the person wants. It can mean some of one gender and part of another, or even none of the above. Their issue is definitely their right to both their gender expression and gender identity.

So what about you? You likely don't consider yourself transgender. But is how you feel and how you look important to you? A butch lesbian does not think of herself as a man (identity) because of her look (expression), nor does a nelly gay man think of himself as a woman because of his actions.

So I say that, unlike what Billy Crystal's character purported, both how one feels and how one acts and looks is critical to one's self-definition. And regardless of whether you consider yourself transgender, we certainly have issues in common that give us a good reason to work together.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Joanne Herman