What’s in a Name? – The Labels we Use to Identify as Gender Non-Conforming

As in a kinky game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, ‘transgender’ beats ‘transvestite’.  The latter is just a sartorial hobbyist; a part-time gender-bender who just can’t find the right department in Marks and Spencer.  A transgender person, meanwhile, is much more committed to their new social role, and often has a letter from a qualified psychologist attesting to their determination to defy natal categorisation.  Neither ‘tranny’ nor ‘transgender’ can compete with ‘transsexual’, however, who trumps both with a preparedness to go under the surgeon’s knife in the pursuit of contentment that leaves the other two intimated into submission.  There is a trans- hierarchy, whether we like it or not.  I could not, for example, have gone to work in a dress without being sent home.  In order to present the public face I was comfortable with to the children in my classes, I needed to declare myself ‘transgender’.  Without changing the name in my passport and starting a course of hormones and counselling, I would not have been able to enjoy the legal protections of the gender non-conforming person.  Declaring myself a mere transvestite would not have been enough to protect me from summary dismissal.   Clearly, therefore, how gender non-conforming individuals self-identify has economic, legal and political consequences.  As the UK government announces a review of the Gender Recognition Act this autumn, and Stonewall calls for the introduction of a ‘gender-X’ category for non-binary people in British passports, it seems timely for this month’s post to argue that the best way to describe gender is not to describe it at all.


Two years ago, the security staff at Bucharest International Airport treated me to a strip-search.  What began as a rather enthusiastic frisking led, with surprising rapidity, to an invitation to accompany a group of broad-hipped ladies in three-sizes-too-small uniforms straining the buttons over their amble bosoms, to a small anteroom with anaglypta on the ceiling and only a bare chipboard table by way of furnishing.  My passport has an F in it; I am blessed with a feminine face and an almost invisible Adam’s apple; but when the hand of the hapless security guard had brushed against something unexpected, she had been left discombobulated and embarrassed, and had no idea how to deal with the situation.  Fortunately for me, I had recently brushed-up on the paragraphs of EU law protecting me from such harassment, and, despite the language barrier, I was able to impress upon the three ladies how much trouble there would be if they didn’t let me go.  (And I was able to resist the temptation to tell them I needed to be given what-for for smuggling swollen goods.)

The problem, it seems, had been the temporary bewilderment the security staff had encountered over the apparent discrepancy between the sex in my passport and the contents of my pants.  The staff simply had no mental resources – no experiential precedent – to tell them how to react.  I like to think I am now the subject of ten minutes’ mandatory staff-training at Henri Coandă airport, but, if my passport had contained no gender determination at all, this unpleasant episode would never have occurred.

I’m never comfortable explaining to people how I describe my own gender.  I don’t mean that it embarrasses me: rather, I just don’t get why folk want to know.  If pressed, I suppose ‘female’ would be my preferred moniker (I do, after all, present as a woman), but aspects of masculinity still run through my character like the lettering through a stick of Blackpool rock.  I never get mushy around babies; I can’t stand romantic comedies; I don’t understand why anyone would bother with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ when there is a whole internet full of real porn; and I still, very definitely (despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise), fancy girls.  I describe myself as female for convenience, and only do so when I’m asked by official agencies (like banks and potential employers) because it is required.  I remain acutely aware, however, that the labels ‘male’ or female’ fail to capture the nuance of how I feel about myself: occasionally either, often both, and sometimes neither.

Frame Life Class
Diversity and equal opportunities training for staff at Henri Coandă airport has been dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century

The opportunity transgender people have to describe themselves using continua serves to compound the problem.  On the one hand, I want to applaud academic efforts to achieve definitions of gender that capture how inexact a science it is – how delicate and nonspecific gender can – but, at the same time, I remain unconvinced that it’s necessary.  Do we really need to clarify the extent to which someone is male, female, or something in-between?  Wouldn’t equality be better served if we simply stopped trying to define maleness and femaleness altogether?

Either way, the most progressive thinking about gender holds that it should be determined using a dashboard comprised of four variables.  Each variable takes the form of a continuum, with absolutely male at one end, absolutely female at the other, and all shades of intersex along the way.

The first sliding-scale of self-identification is gender identity, or who an individual thinks they are.  In other words, we interpret the soup of hormones swilling around our vitals to form a way of thinking about ourselves.  This, in turn, interacts with environmental factors and our biological sex, to constitute a gender identity that coalesces (according to common scientific consensus) around the age of three.

Next, our gender is defined according to our gender expression; how we demonstrate who we are on a spectrum from feminine to masculine, via androgynous.  The primary means of gender expression are the way we dress, act, behave, and interact with others, and it can be unintentional or the product of deliberate affectation.  Almost everyone’s gender expression is in a constant state of flux – we change the extent to which we display masculine or feminine traits depending on our mood and choice of company – but, even when our gender expression fluctuates, it does so within predictable (and socially acceptable) parameters.  A man may be allowed to cry, but if he smudges his make-up by doing so, people are apt to disapprove.

The third ingredient of our dashboard description of gender is biological sex, as determined by the sexual organs we are born with, and whether our chromosomes are in the XX or XY configuration.  Biological sex is the default go-to definition of gender for transphobics and the religious right, because common sense dictates that the easiest way to tell if someone is male or female is to examine their reproductive equipment.  As the foul-mouthed cuddly-toy Ted discovered in his 2015 sequel, however, “There are no chicks with dicks, Johnny, only guys with tits!”: not even someone’s junk can provide a reliable yardstick of their gender in every single case.  Research by the Intersex Society of North America found that, between 1955 and 1998, as many as one-in-100 registered births in the USA produced intersex infants, who had bodies that deviated from standard male and female models in one way or another.

The final determiner of gender is sexual orientation, which is a measure of who an individual is attracted to, and encompasses degrees of hetero-, bi- and homosexuality.  Using the gender dashboard, I would describe myself as F(ish)-F-M-F.  That is, with the amount of artificially induced hormones swimming around my system, I feel female feelings; present as female; was born a boy; and am sexually attracted to women.

Frame Genderbread Person
The Genderbread Person – if it helps…


Where does all this sociological theorising leave Nkechi Amare Dolezal – the forty-year-old human rights teacher from Montana, USA, who describes herself as ‘transracial’?  Having insisted on her own black heritage for over a decade, it was revealed in 2015 that Dolezal’s family tree contains no African American ancestry whatsoever.  And that is when Dolezal embraced the term ‘transracial’ to define her own identity, and declared that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness”.

If someone can identify as transgender, then it seems perfectly reasonable for another to demand the right to be transracial, doesn’t it?  Well, that would depend on a couple of things, I suspect.  First, is claiming to be African American when you were born Caucasian offensive in anyway?  Does it show wilful ignorance of the historical and political struggle of black people, and breath-taking naïveté, to attempt to bandwagon the victimhood of an ethnic group?  If it is and if it does, can a similar accusation be levelled at transgender people?  Secondly, what role could biology possibly play in a transracial identity?  To what extent can wanting to be black be the product of environmental factors, and, once again, can transsexuality claim greater legitimacy in this regard?  Thirdly, how accepting should the black community be of Nkeche Dolezal?  Ought they to embrace her as one of their own, and, similarly, what should biological, cisgender men and women make of the transgender people trying to elbow into their ranks?  And, for that matter, should transracial people be allowed to serve in the US military?  Tune in next month, if you think you’re hard enough…



A better article than this one about gender continua can be found here…http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/

To explore the case of Nkechi (née Rachel) Dolezal – the trans-racial teacher from Montana – you could do worse than to start here…http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/rachel-dolezal-white-woman-black-racial-fluidity-accepted-transracial-naacp-a7653131.html

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