In the book Evolution's Rainbow, Joan Roughgarden, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, who also happens to be a transwoman, describes the many ways both sexual orientation and gender identity diversity proliferate in the natural world. From plants to animals, "gayness" and "transness" is far from rare, promoted she suggests by evolution itself. She also recounts the many variations of human sexuality and gender roles in human cultures throughout history and around the world. What emerges is a much clearer perception of the grand diversity of nature, and how we transgender people fit right into the scheme of things.
Yet Roughgarden also succinctly confirms the difference between sex and gender. The "sexuality" of an organism is determined strictly by genetics: guided by chromosomes which trigger hormones and fashion internal and external organs which then facilitate the production and care of offspring. From a biological standpoint, an organism's sex is defined strictly by the gametes it produces. Essentially an organism is biologically programmed to produce either large gametes, eggs, or small gametes, sperm, and the rest of the "sexual" apparatus of the individual is structured to in some way serve these gamete-producing organs. So the basic binary template of male and female morphology is established.
Sometimes, as in an intersex human, the highly complex genetic blueprint gets a bit tangled and produces an individual with non-normative chromosomal combinations and/or ambiguous or dual sexual organs. But for the vast majority of individuals of all higher animal species, the male/female sexual dichotomy is fairly firm (though there are examples of some animals actually changing their sex).
Still, genes do not entirely define our destiny. We are not simply our sexual biology.Our biology extends to many other non-sexual components. Our arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc. have little or nothing to do with sexuality. Certainly the brain is not simply (or mostly) engaged in sexual activities. Within the vast neural network of the brain is where biological sex and gender identity meet, and generally there is a high degree of congruency. But it is here, in the multitude of synapses and their chemical and electrical communications, that grand potentiality may create something very different from what the basic chromosomes intended. This is the realm where "male" and "female" duality translates into "masculine" and "feminine" diversity. Here is where "male" doesn't always equal man, and "female" does not always equal woman. Traits or propensities supposedly belonging to one or the other polarity may now be blended, like the colors of the rainbow, to create something unique and original. Unlike sex, gender is not bound by a strict binary. So it therefore becomes possible for gender identity to conflict with sexual biology.
Modern societies offer some remedy for individuals with this conflict. Though the individual may have lived their life heretofore as the gender mandated by their sexual biology, they may elect to transition their gender socially, legally, and, to a significant degree, physically.
When this happens, the sexual biology of an individual is not fundamentally changed. Modern science cannot yet transform chromosomes or replace a large gamete producing morphology with small gamete organs, or vice-versa. All we can do is tinker with some of the aspects of our innate sexual biology, through hormone regimens or surgical procedures involving the macro manifestations of our micro-genetics. No doubt, we are wonderfully blessed in this day and age to be able to do even this. Never before in history have trans persons been able to take their physical gender transformations as far as we can today. The results can be extremely personally healing and enriching, not to mention sometimes beautiful.
These people TRANSform their physical self, including some of their sexual components, to more closely match their preferred gender identity. They TRANSition from the gender assigned or associated with their biological sex to something closer to the "opposite" gender. They may or may not have previously occupied culturally, socially and historically (and often deeply internally) that original gender. More and more trans children are coming out very early in life, and perhaps they can claim to never have acted upon that original biological sex-based gender role. Yet, historically, the more common trans story involves an individual who did act upon, and at least partially accept, that sex-based gender role for some time. Typically, trans people "come out" (to themselves and others) after many years, perhaps decades, of struggle to fit into that sex-based role. Many transwomen emerge from a background of full-on manhood, having enjoyed sex as a male, fathered children, served in the military, held macho occupations, indulged in typically male hobbies and diversions; while it is not uncommon for transmen to have borne children.
Whether they come out early or late, however, none can claim to be able to change their sex. Though they may now be swimming in different hormones and have a "neo" sex organ, which is all fine and good, their sexual biology is basically the same as it ever was. Nothing has changed at the sex chromosomal level in their 100 Trillion cells. Nothing has changed in their gamete-producing capacity. They still can't create the opposite sex's gametes.
Do many of wish we could change our sex? Of course. But wishing it could be so does not make it reality. The reality is that human beings cannot change their sex.
So the term transsexual is scientifically inaccurate. As the great biologist Edward O. Wilson explained, "the quintessential female is an individual specialized for making eggs.... the male is defined as a manufacturer of sperm."
When a person undergoes Gender Reassignment Surgery (note, it is no longer called "Sex Reassignment Surgery" by medical professionals), they do not come out the other side with the ability to produce the opposite type of gamete, indeed, they come out lacking the ability to produce any gametes at all. But that does not alter their gamete-producing infrastructure. You can castrate a man or provide a hysterectomy for a woman, but that does not negate their essential maleness or femaleness. Someday when a biologically male transwoman can carry an implanted embryo to term within her belly, even that will not refute the fundamental maleness of the host body.
It is true that some animal species can change sex. A few fish, amphibian and reptile species can do this. In these cases an individual actually switches the ability to produce different gametes. But no birds or mammals can do this. Until the time when science and medicine truly can alter one's very sexual biology, we should phase this term out of the language used to describe and define those of us who embark on a very profound gender odyssey.
So the word transsexual is scientifically and medically inappropriate. It is an impossibility for humans at this time. It's also culturally inappropriate.
The term transgender is far more accurate, as well as infinitely more reflective of the wide diversity that comprises all of the organisms, of any species, that do not conform to dualistic gender roles. The vast majority of individuals within the animal kingdom that adopt non-normative gender roles also do not change their sex.
Within the incredibly complex tapestry of human culture the phenonomenon of transgender individuals glistens among the threads dating back into antiquity. We've always been here, and we always will. We should welcome anyone who wishes to join our tribe, even if only for a short while, as they explore their gender identity and blend the magical-mystical male and female essences. So gender queer, butch lesbians, femme gays, cross-dressers, anyone bending gender are welcome. The broader our inclusion and the larger our group the better for all social purposes, including the acquisition of civil rights and recognition.
"Transsexual" is relatively new to language, having been introduced less than 100 years ago, and it is understandable how it has survived since that time. And you can see where the problem starts: with a great deal of confusion over the words sex and gender. Culture at-large has long used the word "sex" when it really means "gender," though rarely vice-versa. The sign-up form asks whether your "sex" is M or F. Usually this is not a problem because sex and gender are most often congruent in an individual. But it is certainly not always, so this is technically incorrect usage of the term. Some modern forms (as well as schools, universities, medical facilities, etc.) are now using the better, more accurate and inclusive term, "gender," instead. Conversely, however, the word "gender" is never used where the word "sex" is appropriate. A beautilicious babe is "sexy" not "gendery." And she may engage in "sex" not "gender" with a hot dude. Though most people don't even realize it, this usage reflects the fact that "gender" correctly applies to the whole person, while proper usage of the term "sex" always refers to some aspect of biological sexuality. Having "sex" is all about that gamete-producing infrastructure; we are engaging in a potential exchange of gametes with the partner. The terms "heterosexual," "homosexual," "bisexual," and "asexual" all refer to someone's sexual orientation -- who they are sexually attracted to - so the word "sex" is perfectly appropriate to these terms.
The term "sex" should always refer to something involving biological sex, and specifically the gamete-producing infrastructure. Any other use of the term is incorrect.
It is strange that many in the transgender community cling to the word "transsexual." In fact a tiny but vocal minority suggest that this word is crucial to distinctly separate those who are "serious" about their "sex" change - usually meaning those who have had or are very near to having their "Sex" Reassignment Surgery (SRS) - from those who are just fooling around - meaning cross-dressers, gender queer, non-operatives and most pre-operatives who may or may not ever cross the crucial surgical gateway. The TS crowd calls all of these wannabes "transgender," while labeling themselves, the real "women" and "men" who have "never changed their gender" as "transsexual."
So their idea is that their gender has never changed... they've always been real "men" and "women"... and now they are changing their "sex" (by which they primarily mean secondary sex attributes: penis, breasts, beard, etc., along with wholly cultural "sex" designations: hair, clothing, shoes, etc.) to match the "gender" which they claim to have always possessed and identified with.
Of course, this is the precise opposite of the way biologists and medical professionals perceive what is going on. Those in the medical community, including most of the doctors now performing the actual surgical procedures, have dropped the "sex" term in favor of "Gender" Reassignment Surgery (GRS), acknowledging the fallaciousness of the earlier term. Likewise, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of medical/psychological conditions, the term "transsexual" has been almost completely displaced by the terms "gender" and "transgender." Even the name for the condition, "Gender Identity Disorder" (DSM-IV), changing to "Gender Incongruence" (DSM-V) emphasizes the psychological source of the condition, rather than any sexual biology.
Meanwhile, the motivation of such exclusionary, self-styled "transsexuals" appears to be fear that they will not be taken seriously, culturally, as a "woman" or a "man," as long as they are lumped in with all these other "freaks" (as they call them) who are running around cross-dressing, gender-queering and "transgendering" while not passing very well. In their minds, these amateurs just muck things up for the pros. Ironically, it's the same argument that many gay, lesbian and intersex people have about the weirdo transsexuals! Many gays and lesbians feel that they would be a lot further along in social acceptance if we weren't held back by transsexuals.
The tenacious ownership of the term "transsexual" speaks loudly of their confusion of sex and gender. By taking hormones and rearranging some of their tissue, many of them really think they are changing their sex. Meanwhile, in their minds, their gender has ever remained oriented toward the opposite "sex." Of course, this contention is blown away by the personal histories of most of them, cavorting sometimes for decades as full-fledged men fulfilling their sexual purpose. Conversely, these "transsexuals" see a "transgender" rabble playing with gender, wobbling back and forth, and not serious about changing their "sex."
A big part of the disconnect is that many of these "transsexuals" wholly buy into the gender binary. They are conservative in their desire and determination to "conserve" the old tradition: that there are only two "sexes" and never the twain shall meet. They see their transition phase as a very temporary (and very awkward and uncomfortable) caterpillar-like phase through which they must pass before they can bloom like a butterfly. So, in their world, the "trans" stands for "TRANSitory," a stage to be rushed through, be done with and never look back. With hormones and a nip and tuck here and there they emerge as the certifiable real "woman" or "man" that they always knew they were... and the "trans" aspect can be dropped altogether. So now they are a man, or a woman, "with a trans history."
The problem is that it's all based on shaky factual ground, if not outright falseness. Those who would erase or deny their history and their biological facticity set themselves up for eternal conflict, within and without. Those who deny the special characteristics of their individual essence and sacred trans journey only denigrate themselves and their comrades by failing to embrace and honor their true uniqueness. Fortunately, this old transsexual/stealth model is giving way to a more enlightened transman/transwoman self identity among trans persons, where the individual is out and proud, at least among their family and closest friends, but often in the wider world as well. It is the blend of masculine and feminine energy and perceptions that is the magical thing, not the "pureness" of some imagined male/female dichotomy. Also, it is the transgender journey that is important, not the arrival at some hoped-for, but mythical, gender destination. This is a much more hopeful and helpful model for both trans individuals, trans community and culture at-large.
The true and large phenomena of the transgender journey can't be summed up by a single word. But the best word we have is, indeed, transgender. Sex and gender are entirely different things. And it is not the person's sex but their gender that is TRANSforming along the transgender journey. While sex is first and foremost a physical, biological structure, gender is a mental construct, and mostly comes into play in juxtaposition not with just a single sex partner but with culture-at-large. It is the role you agree to play: physically, emotionally and intellectually within the framework of your culture. Unlike the cisgender person who is perfectly congruent (and conformist) in both their biological sex and gender identity, the transgender person does not agree with the gender that has been assigned to them on the basis of their biological status, and claims the right to determine their own gender. Thus, a transgender person departs from the normative congruency/conformity of sex/gender and goes forth into the great middle between the presumed binary of sex/gender. So we see the difference between binary and polarity. A binary means either/or, one or the other, no other choice. A polarity has two poles, but there can be a world in-between. The transgender person is a sojourner in that vast, mostly uncharted territory between the poles of gender.
There are certainly differences between those who go further on the gender pathway and those who stick closer to the template of their sexual biology. These differences are easily reconciled, legally and medically, without destroying the over-arching descriptive term: transgender. Almost ALL conditions of the human experience occur along a spectrum, a rainbow, of potentiality. You can be four feet tall or seven feet tall. An adult can weigh 80 pounds or 400 pounds. You can have the blackest black skin or snow white. You can have an IQ of 120 or of 50. You can be slightly bipolar, or autistic, or tragically extreme in these debilitating conditions. The transgender community also exists as a spectrum, with somebody situated at every spot along the continuum between the poles of gender. Casual or occasional cross-dressers (many of whom, it should be noted, deny being "transgender" even as they continually, albeit temporarily, "transition" to the "opposite" gender presentation) occupy one end of the spectrum, while the self-described "transsexuals" are on the other end of the scale, conveniently forgetting that they, themselves, likely passed through an extended phase that an objective observer would accurately describe as "cross-dressing." Some people are now claiming the right to be fluid in their gender identity, or to have no gender identity, or to be both genders. In all of these examples, the biological sex of the individual remains fixed, it cannot be changed, but the gender is transforming, transitioning, transcending, relative to both the interior biology and the cultural/societal expectations.
A modern society can manage to distinguish between those who are casually playing with gender, and those to whom it is important to completely change aspects of their physical self to better match their gender identity. Those transgender people who need and/or want assistance from clinical or legal professionals to facilitate their pathway to holistic health and social balance will find their way to and through increasingly helpful and understanding systems. Of course, these transmen and transwomen (the appropriate terms for them) are different from cross-dressers and gender variants, and culture-at-large is already awakening to these distinctions. Meanwhile, those within the transgender rainbow tribe whose pathway may never include a name or driver's license change, much less surgery, still seek and deserve recognition as valid persons, free to establish their own gender identity and find their spot along the gender continuum. The best way to facilitate this cultural evolution is to present a cogent, united front of all gender variations. Fractures from within this community, especially divisions based upon faulty logic, will not ultimately help anyone.
In saying goodbye to the term "transsexual" we also liberate ourselves from its heavy baggage. Unfortunately, "sex" is the most loaded word in language, capable of distorting and degrading any subject. The "sex" in "transsexual" guarantees sexual objectification of the individual, as well as interjecting an unwelcome degree of non-seriousness to this issue which is of paramount importance to our community. So, again ironically, the term that self-described "transsexuals" wish to preserve in order to separate them out from the "transgenders" in order to be taken more seriously has a fatal flaw that will thwart that very effort.
And they seem blithely unaware of how limiting the term actually is to their holistic (whole) self. By self-describing as "transsexual," they are proclaiming that sex is the end-all/be-all (or at least the very most important component) of what they are all about. Their very being revolves around the concept of not heritage or intelligence or kindness or goodness or skill at something or relatedness to something, but rather, and simply, the concept of sex. What they are, most of all, relates to their sexuality. Wow! Who else says this? No one. Gays and lesbians don't self-describe first and foremost as gay or lesbian; it's just their sexual-orientation, that's all; it's not who they are. How anyone expresses their sexuality may have absolutely nothing to do with their gender identity.
Which brings up yet another incongruent aspect of the word. Other terms involving the compound component "sexual" relate specifically to sexual orientation (who you are sexually aroused by): heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual. By this convention, "transsexual" should be defined as someone who is sexually attracted to transpersons! And sure enough, it turns out that they are out there.
So transsexual might be preserved as sexual-orientation term, like all other similar words, but it abjectly fails the test for use in the ways that it is currently used.
In a sense, the term "transsexual" also reminds of another word that is woefully ill-considered, one that should have been discarded centuries ago: the word "Indian" for the native people of the Americas. Long after everyone had realized that Christopher Columbus did not, in fact, bump into India, the term persisted to describe tens of millions of people and cultures that were anything but Indian.
Today there are some transgender people who claim to reject "transgender" as a describing term but embrace the term "transsexual," just as there are many Native Americans and First Peoples who accept and use for themselves the term "Indian." Acceptance and use/misuse, however, doesn't make a term correct. And there is no good reason why any individual or collective of people should be referred to by terms that are flat-out untrue, even if they don't mind or want to be.
It is time to get rid of these false and misleading terms. If we can't seem to counter the weight and momentum of 500 years of misusing "Indian," we still should be able to overthrow 100 years of misusing "transsexual."
To jettison this incorrect and divisive description of our personhood and pathway cannot help but elevate the discourse and perceptions. Who among us who are currently defined as "transsexuals" regard "sex" as the primary essence of our self or journey? Virtually none. It is the "gender" identity that is of foremost importance. And for trans people the real magic is the blend and the journey, not some perceived purity or destination.
In rallying around a single, broad and inclusive term, transgender, we now have a logical and moral base of perception, a defensible bastion from which to protect ourselves from an often perplexed (if not hostile) general public, though at the same time proclaiming the TransNation, proudly flying the rainbow flag of diversity - both natural and cultural - and welcoming all who would join us, comrade or ally. The greatest precepts of human culture are on our side when we stay on the right side of science and the right side of virtue: Equality, Liberty, Community, Diversity. Put "Gender" in front of these terms and you have the best way forward.
A big step toward this goal is to hasten the demise of the term "transsexual", to perhaps be resurrected when the day comes that human sexual biology itself can be fundamentally altered. When the cells and chromosomes and gamete production apparatus of human sexual biology can be flipped within an individual, then we might say we have changed our sex. Meanwhile, I'm very happy with the gender pathway I have explored, and proud to consider myself transgender and a member of the TransNation.