Transgender 101

Transgender 101
By Pauline Park
Transgender identity is now one of the hottest hot button issues in American politics as state after state enacts law restricting and even criminalizing the free expression of gender identity and access to health care and medical interventions related to gender transition; here are 10 key points to keep in mind when considering what ‘transgender’ is and what it isn’t:
1) Transgender is a neologism that has only come into common usage in the last 30 years or so but contrary to the right-wing transphobic reactionaries who think that there were no transgendered people before the 1960s the phenomenon behind the label is as old as human history, with what I call ‘proto-transgenderal’ identities in every pre-modern society and culture in Asia and the Pacific as well as Europe, the ancient Near East, Africa and the pre-Columbian Americas; my presentation on “Proto-Transgenderal & Homoerotic Traditions in Asia & the Pacific” outlines this history of what we would call ‘transgender’ in pre-modern API societies.
“Farewell My Concubine”
As I note in my presentation, China has homoerotic and proto-transgenderal traditions going back centuries. The ‘passion of the cut sleeve‘ (duànxiù 断袖) — the love of the Han dynasty Emperor Ai (27 BC-1 AD) — for his male favorite, Dong Xian — is the source of the Chinese euphemism for homosexuality (‘cut sleeve’). The other popular Chinese euphemism for homosexuality — the ‘half-eaten peach‘ (yútáo 余桃) — goes back even further, to the Zhou dynasty Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公) (534-403 BC) and his male lover, Mixi Zia(彌子瑕). Ever since Mizi Xia and Dong Xian (董賢), the half-eaten peach and the cut sleeve — yútáo duànxiù (余桃断袖) — have been euphemisms for male homosexuality in China.
2) The term ‘transgender’ has murky origins and has been used differently by different people who identify with the term as well as those who are critical of it but the consensus within the transgender community is that it is best understood as an ‘umbrella’ term that includes a diverse group of different subgroups within it. Most of those who look at the term’s usage trace it to Virginia Prince, who used ‘transgender’ to describe those who identified as women but did not undergo sex reassignment surgergy (‘SRS’) — who back in the day might have been described by some as ‘non-operative transsexuals.’
When I was leading the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002, I developed this diagram to try to explain this extremely heterogeneous community to Council members; the ‘circles diagram‘:
The first circle includes those who might be labeled ‘transsexual’ — those who seek or have obtained SRS (known within the community by a host of different terms, including ‘gender affirmation surgery’): those who have obtained it would be ‘post-operative’ while those who seek it would be ‘pre-op.’ The term ‘non-op’ obviously explodes the category and would include those who transition without surgery.
The second circle describes those I would call ‘transgendered’ and includes those who present fully at least part of the time in the gender identity not associated with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. Terminology is constantly shifting and changing, but this category would include those who identify as or who are identified as ‘transvestites’ and ‘cross dressers’ as well as ‘drag queens’ and ‘drag kings’; these last terms are for the most part used to identify those engaged in either performance of some kind or performative display on festive occasions such as Halloween, costume parties or pride parades; note that ‘doing drag’ is not limited to cross-gender representation — there are female-bodied drag queens.
I label the third and largest circle — which includes the two smaller circles — the ‘gender-variant’ and would include anyone who transgresses conventional gender norms in some way but who does not necessarily identify with a gender not associated with their sex and gender assigned at birth: for example, somewhat feminine males who still identify as boys or men and somewhat masculine females who still identify as girls or women.
In the 1990s, the term ‘genderqueer’ became popular and in the early 21st century, ‘non-binary’ became an increasingly common term of self-identification — indicating those who do not identify as either men or women.
Finally, the ‘square’ is the ‘conventionally gendered’ — those who largely conform to the gender norms of their society; the conventionally gendered are the majority in any society by definition; note that this category includes those who indulge in occasional socially sanctioned gender transgression such as on Halloween, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fasching, etc.
3) I have done literally hundreds of transgender sensitivity trainings for health care and social service providers, corporations, government agencies, colleges and universities and community-based groups and the biggest challenge is to get attendees to understand that gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation: there are heterosexuals in all four of these circles as well as lesbians, gay men and bisexuals; this circles diagram only speaks to gender identity and expression, not to sexual orientation, and one cannot know anything about sexual orientation simply from one’s gender identity or expression just as one cannot necessarily discern gender identity from one’s sexual orientation.
I would argue that it is best to understand homphobia (as well as biphobia) and (trans)gender phobia as mutually supporting discourses of oppression rather attempting to collapse one into the other. One of the curious aspects of the resignification of the word ‘queer’ from a term of homophobic abuse to a label of proud self-identification is that it actually obscures two distinct types of ‘queer’: what one might term ‘sexually queer’ — i.e., lesbian, gay or bisexual (i.e., ‘LGB’) — from ‘genderqueer’ — meaning some form of transgender or gender non-normative identity.
It is also crucially important to note that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not the same thing: consider the phenomenon of ‘intersex’ — the old-fashioned and largely discredited term ‘hermaphrodite’ was in general use until the end of the 20th century — indicating those who were born with one or more of hundreds of conditions that made them neither entirely male nor entirely female at birth.
There are those who have attempted to collapse ‘sex’ into ‘gender,’ but to do so would make it difficult if not impossible to make the very important distinction between the two; conversely, biological essentialism or determinism.
4) A crucial element in understanding transgender is the sex/gender binary: the social construction of both sex and gender as binary.The binary construction of both sex and gender parallels the binary construction of sexuality as hetero/homosexual, excluding the possibility of bisexuality and thus creating the potential for biphobia.
Note that the sex/gender binary excludes intersex — those who are born neither entirely male nor entirely female; the old-fashioned and somewhat offensive term ‘hermaphrodite’ has fallen out of favor.
There are four distinct ways to define sex and gender:
1) legal: what is on your government-issued identification (legal sex designation, ‘gender marker’)
2) anatomical (including genitalia)
3) biological, genetic, chromosomal
4) social (how one identifies)
5) Is it ever appropriate to ask a transgendered or non-binary person about their anatomy or gender identity?
Most interactions that feel ‘transphobic to transgendered people are not the result of deliberate malice but of insensitivity on the part of the heteronormative. It is really never appropriate to ask a transgendered or non-binary person about their anatomy, gender identity or medical interventions (such as hormones and surgery). If someone is non-transgendered (‘cisgendered’ has come into vogue as a term to describe the conventionally gendered), the one question that might not offend a trans or non-binary person is a general question about how ‘transgender’ is defined and how (in a very general sense) trans people go about self-identifying and/or transitioning. One possible approach for the non-transgendered person would be to say something along the lines of, “my pronouns are ‘he/him’ (or ‘she/her’); do you have preferred pronouns…?” Only if the trans, genderqueer or non-binary volunteers personal information would it be appropriate to ask about that person’s personal ‘gender journey.’ And of course, it is never acceptable to ‘out’ someone as trans or non-binary without getting specific permission from that person in advance.
Transphobia — both unwitting and intentional — leads to discrimination in the provision of health care and social services and to various other forms of discrimination, harassment, abuse and violence.
There are many policy areas in which ‘culture wars’ battles over transgender identity are playing out today both in the United States and abroad: in policing and the criminal justice system, in education, in immigration, in sports and in medical interventions for children and youth. Each of these policy areas could be the subject of long discussion; needless to say, it is the obligation of the conventionally gendered to educate themselves on issues of gender identity and expression, not the transgendered and non-binary.

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Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), which she co-founded in 1998, and president of the board of directors as well as acting executive director of Queens Pride House (the LGBT community center in the borough of Queens), which she co-founded in 1997. Dr. Park led the campaign for passage of the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines — adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004 — for implementation of the new statute. Park negotiated inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Dignity for All Students Act, a safe schools law enacted by the New York state legislature in 2010, and the first fully transgender-inclusive legislation enacted by that body, and she is a member of the statewide task force created to implement the statute. She also served on the steering committee of the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act by the New York City Council in September 2004. In 2004, Dr. Park named and helped create the Transgender Health Initiative of New York, a community organizing project established to ensure that transgendered and gender non-conforming people can access health care in a safe, respectful and non-discriminatory manner. And as executive editor, she oversaw the creation and publication in July 2009 of the NYAGRA transgender health care provider directory, the first directory of transgender-sensitive health care providers in the New York City metropolitan area and the first directory of transgender-sensitive health care providers published in print format anywhere in the United States. Dr. Park did her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.Sc. in European Studies at the London School of Economics and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has written widely on LGBT issues and has conducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of organizations, including the New York State Affirmative Action Advisory Council (AAAC), the Association of Vocational Rehabilitation in Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (AVRASA), the Latino Commission on AIDS, the Park Slope Safe Homes Project, and the Queer Health Task Force at Columbia University Medical School. In addition to presenting at the HIV Grand Rounds lecture series of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Park co-facilitated the first transgender sensitivity training sessions for any major hospital in New York City at St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan. In 2005, Dr. Park became the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City Pride March. She was the subject of “Envisioning Justice: The Journey of a Transgendered Woman,” a 32-minute documentary about her life and work by documentarian Larry Tung that premiered at the New York LGBT Film Festival (NewFest) in 2008. In 2009, Dr. Park was designated ‘a leading advocate for transgender rights in New York’ on’s ‘New York 40’ list. In October 2012, Dr. Park was one of 54 individuals named to a list of ‘The Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons’  by the Huffington Post. In November 2012, she was named to a list of ’50 Transgender Icons’ for the Transgender Day of Remembrance 2012.Pauline Park is chair of NYAGRA, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (, a statewide transgender advocacy organization that she co-founded in 1998. She also co-founded Queens Pride House (a center for the LGBT communities of Queens) in 1997 and currently serves as president of the board of directors. Park co-founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997 and served as its coordinator from 1997 to 1999. She also serves as vice-president of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund ( Park led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. In 2005, she became the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City Pride March. She did her B.A. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.Sc. at the London School of Economics and her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Park has written widely on LGBT issues and has conducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of organizations. She was the subject of “Envisioning Justice: The Journey of a Transgendered Woman,” a 32-minute documentary that premiered in 2008.

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