February is LGBT+ History Month and Conor Wilman, from the IP Out committee, is treating us to a series of articles – one every Friday this month – to mark the occasion. His post today is about the T in LGBT+. He provides valuable insight into the words used to describe people’s sex, gender identity and gender expression, emphasising that none of these are the same as, or even linked to, sexuality. This is valuable stuff for those who want to be allies but aren’t sure about the language they can use. (But here’s a spoiler alert: it’s OK to ask.)
Here’s what Conor says:
Language is incredibly important, not only in terms of communicating between people, but also as a means of representing cultural identities and for personal expression. The concept of the gender binary as based on genitalia has been enforced particularly through the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Gender roles were cemented over millennia in the Western world, culminating in the various gender stereotypes that are enforced in society today.
This left little room in most societies for people who did not conform to traditional gender roles and who subverted the gender binary, and especially for those who wanted to transition from one sex to the other. But people who exist outside the traditional gender binary are not a new phenomenon. In fact, “third genders” exist in numerous cultures documented across the Middle East, Indian sub-continent, South East Asia, in some First Nations, and in some island cultures such as Hawaii and Tahiti. That is, before colonial nations largely destroyed local cultures and supplanted them with their own traditions and religious customs.
Medical techniques had only advanced sufficiently in the 20th century to allow sex reassignment surgery to be successfully carried out to relieve what we now call gender dysphoria, with early successful operations taking place in the late 1910s. As surgical techniques were developed and more surgeons were able to offer the various surgeries to aid in a physical transition, the language also developed. Transsexual was a term used to describe those who desired a change of physiological sex. This was distinct from transvestite, which was also coined in the 1910s and referred to those that wore clothes or acted in a manner that was attributed to that of the opposite sex. Both of these terms were incorporated into the medical vernacular to diagnose medical disorders, including mental health disorders.
Transgender was coined later, in 1965, by psychiatrist Dr John F. Oliven, but he used the term with the same meaning for which transsexual was being used by the medical community. The term transgender was popularised in 1969 by Virginia Prince in her pioneering publication Transvestia, in which she also discussed people who lived as full-time women but who had no intention of undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Prince used her publication to publicly discuss cross-dressing and transvestitism, but her support for conventional societal norms such as marriage and the traditional family model, as well as the portrayal of traditional gender stereotypes, led to criticism from other trans people.
Transgender developed broadly into an umbrella term in the 1980s, and, by 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy defined transgender as an expansive umbrella term including “transsexuals, transgenderists, cross dressers”, and anyone transitioning. But regardless of the expansion in meaning for the term transgender and its prevalent use within the transgender community, some people still preferred to define themselves as transsexual and as being outside of this broad umbrella.
Up to now, many terms have been used interchangeably by the medical and transgender communities and definitions have changed and warped. Current definitions can be understood to fall roughly into three groups: biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression.
Biological sex relates to physical characteristics and itself has three categories: male, female, and intersex. Transsexual is considered to fall into this group as its strict medical definition related to people who undergo sex reassignment surgery. That said, the term has a complicated history and has offensive connotations, and should not be used without permission.
Gender identity is defined as the personal sense of one’s own gender. This may correlate with or differ from one’s biological sex. The term transgender falls into this group, defined as when a person’s gender identity does not correlate to their biological sex or sex assigned at birth.
Gender expression relates to how a person chooses to outwardly express themselves, whether that be through how they act or by the clothes that they wear. Therefore, the term transvestite falls into this group. This word came to have derogatory connotations and the term cross-dresser was created by people in the transgender community to replace its use. Though some people have decided to reclaim it, not everyone who cross-dresses would like being described as a transvestite.
To summarise, a person’s biological sex may not be relevant to their gender identity, and neither may inform their gender expression. And none of these relate to sexuality. All of these aspects of a person can be considered to be independent and distinct from one another.
Modern perceptions of transgender people are broadly changing for the better (despite the wave of anti-trans legislation being pushed in various states in the US), and the next fight in the UK for LGBT+ rights is to remove the legal barriers that exist for transgender people to be even allowed to apply for a legal change in gender. The current limitations set by the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) are described by Stonewall:
“The current process, under the GRA, means trans people have to go through a series of intrusive medical assessments and long, demeaning and bureaucratic interviews with psychiatrists in order to ‘prove’ their gender identity. It requires trans people to have a formal diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria‘, to live in their ‘acquired gender’ for two years, and hand over evidence supporting all of this to a gender recognition panel (composed of clinicians who have never met the applicant) who have the power to approve, or deny, an application.”
The Scottish government is currently undergoing a consultation to potentially lead to reform of the GRA for the better. Anyone is allowed to provide comments on the consultation, the deadline for which is 17 March 2020.
Language debates are still ongoing in the transgender community. The current definition includes anyone outside the gender binary, including non-binary and genderfluid people. This is a progression of the idea that gender and gender roles are constructs by society and may be used as expressions of self, rather than being connected to one’s biological sex.
With all this in mind, it is important for allies to be considerate of the fact that the language of the transgender is still developing and evolving. And, if you are unsure, it’s okay to ask for help.
IP Out Committee Member
Page published on 7th February 2020
Page last modified on
Great article. It can certainly be a difficult set of concepts to wrap your brain around. Your article definitely helps to clarify the differences, nuances and subtleties between sex, identity, and expression, as well as sexual orientation and gender. One useful tool that we at Airbus (in Airbus’ Pride@Airbus LGBT+ employee network group) have found to help people better understand these concepts is the “Genderbread Person”, which can be found online here: https://www.genderbread.org/ I hope this additional resource helps further clarify these concepts.
Yeah, we really need to get away from gender stereotypes.
Thank you, Conor, a useful summary