Just who is transgender, anyway?

A scene from the TV series Transparent:

“We like to cross-dress, but we’re still men,” one guy exclaimed over drinks in a club-like setting. To which several men wearing dresses and other femme garb heartily agreed. “We’re men!” Except for one . . .

That scene stood out for me in the Emmy Award-winning TV series. The lead character, Maura, played by Jeffrey Tabor, and her friend had gone to a femme cross-dressing camp. It was a great liberation for Maura, who had always identified as a woman. She clearly didn’t identify as a man, even if the other cross-dressers in the camp did.

Another scene reinforced that point: When it was time to leave the camp and go back to their suburban lives, Maura wanted to stay en femme for the drive home. But her pal had already changed back to male garb and pleaded with Maura to do the same. “You can’t go back dressed like that. What if you get caught!”

I’m paraphrasing the quotes, but you get the gist. The filmmakers were making a clear distinction between transgender people and cross-dressing males who identify as males.

Still, it left me somewhat confused, and I’ve thought about those two scenes a few times since viewing them this past summer.

Just who is transgender and who isn’t? I know I’m not alone in this: other people have voiced similar questions, notably Senator Don Plett when he struggled with terms like “gender fluidity” last spring in discussions about Bill C-279.

Whether you believe he was being sincere or not, there is a lot of confusion over who should be included under the transgender umbrella and who shouldn’t — and, more important, who should be protected by transgender legislation and who shouldn’t.

I still don’t have all the answers, but an excellent article by Jessica Kean and Benjamin Bolton on the Newsweek site is reminding everyone not to overlook genderqueer people — folks who don’t fit neatly into gender binary boxes and don’t want to fit into them.

The writers define transgender people this way: Transgender traditionally refers to people who are strongly attached to whichever binary gender (boy OR girl, woman OR man) is “opposite” to their biological sex. Someone assigned “male” at birth but who identifies as a woman is often described as a “transgender woman,” while someone assigned “female” at birth but identities as a man is often described as a “transgender man.”

Genderqueer is described this way: Genderqueer remains something of an enigma. This is, in part, because “genderqueer” means different things to different people. Some genderqueer people think of themselves as living between the binary genders; some as living outside the binary genders; and others reject the idea of binary gender altogether, seeing it as something to be challenged, stretched or played with.

So, does that make the “We are men!” cross-dressers in the aforementioned scene from Transparent genderqueer. Well, no, I think. They self-defined as men, so who are we to label them differently. But then, there are people who live as males on weekdays, cross-dress on the weekends and do self-define as transgender people.

And a lot of people will label all cross-dressers as “transgender” whether they like it or not.

So, the only thing that is clear to me this morning is that words like “transgender” and “genderqueer” do, indeed, have different meanings for different people.

And that much of the debate going on these days about gender issues is bogged down by confusing labels, definitions and terminology — points worth keeping in mind when we come across views that are at odds with our definitions, especially if those views appear to be transphobic.

Transphobia, like bigotry, is a strong word. And it is one of those labels used too loosely these days. For example, someone who referred to the cross-dressers in Transparent as “guys in dresses” might be labelled “transphobic” in a social media attack campaign — even though the guys in the show called themselves men.

The real problem might be with labels themselves, but they won’t be going away any time soon. But I like to look at them as trimmings, that we are essentially spirits in the material world, borne out of the same Universal Source, and hence we are all One, no matter how we label each other.

Peace and love . . .

— Jillian Page


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