Can We All Fit Under One Transgender Umbrella? / by Dr. Natalia P Zhikhareva


Lately, I have been hearing a controversy from the trans community about the use of terminology to describe the trans experience.  The word up for debate is transgender, an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity or expression does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Under such a broad description, individuals who identify as gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, genderqueer, or agender to name a few, are clustered together.  For those considering or in the process of gender transition from one binary to another, having to share an umbrella with others who have no interest in transition, is confusing. 

Those individuals who strongly identify with the sex opposite of the one assigned at birth, place great emphasis on the desire to modify one’s body.  Viewing transition as some form of physical body modification via hormones and surgery, these people undergo transition in order to fully live as a different gender, the gender on the extreme opposite end of the binary.  These individuals are not interested landing somewhere in between of the gender spectrum, nor are they interested in partial transition (HRT but no surgery or partial surgery). 

To clarify, this discussion is strictly aimed at those individuals who strongly do not identity with the sex assigned at birth, strongly feel the opposite of that sex within the dual binary of our society, and go through medical and surgical transition to achieve the desired result.  The end goal is not only to pass but fully live their lives on the opposite spectrum of gender.

Of course not all people who refer to themselves as transgender, choose to make surgical body modification, and here is where the problem lies.  Perhaps the term transgender is being used too broadly to describe individuals anywhere on the spectrum, including those who have transitioned and now living within a binary of their choice.

Historically, the term transsexual, introduced in 1923 by a German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, referred to individuals wishing to become members of the sex to which they do not belong.  David Oliver Coldwell, was the first author to use the term in reference to individuals desiring physical sex change.  The term was then disseminate by Harry Benjamin and by 1980 entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a psychological disorder.  Today, the term transsexual has been clustered under the umbrella designation transgender as a concept of describing a sense of incongruence between one’s gender expression and assigned gender at birth.  The problem is, the term transgender also includes individuals who do not wish to undergo physical transition.

Is it surprising that the term transgender has been rejected by some individuals who have undergone physical transitioning and view their transition as a process of aligning their bodies with their sense of gender identity?  If anything, the controversies around the terminology reveal the shifting ways of understanding the relations between gender identity, gender expression, and gender diversity

Thus I ponder, can and should, the term transsexual be rescued from its earliest history?  

Over the coarse of a long history, the term transsexual, has acquired a negative connotation in trans communities.  To some, the word transsexual is burdened with the history of medical pathologization of gender non-conformance since its introduction to the DSM in 1980.  Interestingly, the term is currently in widespread use among clinicians and medical professionals in Europe and also by some in US.  As I write this, among other books on my desk I spot “Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning; A Lacanian approach,” and “Current Critical Debates in the Field of Transsexual Studies,” published 2015 and 2018 respectively.

If you are wondering why would any professional use a term deemed as being pathologizing by members of its community, let me clarify.  In Europe, psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic thought predominates other modalities.  As such, the notion of sexuality, as in transsexual, is conceived not in biological terms, sex assigned at birth, but rather is seen from psychoanalytic perspective as drives.  Therefore, along psychoanalytic thinking, sexuality does not equate with physical sex but rather conceived as a drive for life and death.  

While some trans members see the word transsexual as being pathologizing, others see it compromised by dichotomous gender thinking and argue the term stands in the way of deconstructive efforts to overcome the binary.  Does it really?   Is it possible that the term embraces the effort to overcome the binary, and that is precisely the point, for those individuals, and only those, seeking to transition from one binary to another!  Transsexual is not a term used to describe individuals who are comfortable dipping into each binary, who enjoy bypassing society’s rules and social constructs of gender expression, or those identifying as being without a gender. As such, this term does not compromise the wide range of gender spectrum, if anything, by removing itself from the clustering of genders under transgender umbrella, it enables clear advocacy for those who are comfortable along the gender spectrum and are not interested in going from one binary to another.

Perhaps the term transsexual can not be and should not be rescued from its earliest history given the negative perception it has acquired over the years.  Perhaps what we need is a new word to help identify those individuals who are interested in transitioning from one binary to another and are not comfortable to be clumped under the word transgender.  

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