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Having observed numerous conversations predicated on fundamental misunderstandings concerning trans advocacy, I put together this TransAdvocate 101 to compliment our Trans 101. If cis and trans advocate communities wish to better communicate, we need a foundation from which informed conversations may take place. Therefore, I will succinctly:

  • describe the three fundamentals informing our approach to trans advocacy;
  • describe the differences between the cis and trans experience as it relates to “gender identity;”
  • describe the difference between Gender Dysphoria and Gender Identity Disorder; and,
  • describe how trans and cis people talk past each other.

The goal of this TransAdvocate 101 is to clearly and concisely review some primary sources of misunderstanding that have come to shape trans advocacy today.

TransAdvocate Fundamentals

Our trans advocacy is rooted in the following model:

1.) Ontologies are not created by Nature or God(s); ontologies are the product of culture.

2.) Bodies and reproduction are material realities; one’s thoughts about those realities is gender.

3.) “Women” and “men” are political classes defined by their material conditions within a culture.

These three fundamentals define our experience in terms of our material condition and we language this experience gender orientation, expression, and identity:

Gender Orientation: One’s experience of one’s body, including its sexed attributes. In other words, everyone who possesses consciousness will have a private experience of having a body. Part of that private experience will include that body’s primary and secondary sexed attributes. One’s primary experience of that material reality is gender orientation.

Gender Expression: The complex and nuanced ways people communicate gender identity and orientation. This includes spoken and body language, fashion, etc.

Gender Identity: When most trans people speak of gender identity, we mean gender orientation. Gender identity can also mean the contextual labels we use when we socially construct sexed personas. Therefore, “gender identity” within trans discourse may refer to gender orientation, one’s sexed persona or both. NOTE: Within cis discourse, “gender identity” tends to refer to one’s sexed persona, as defined by their phenotype.

Generally, the reasons trans and cis people reshape their bodies are different.

For cis people: body modifications are undertaken in order to better embody one’s gender identity. Each year, cis people spend billions on sculpting, lifting, tucking, and enhancing surgeries, diets, gym memberships, cosmetics, and hair (removal/addition) to construct their bodies in ways that more closely match their sexed persona. In other words, cis people are chiefly concerned with making their body match their gender identity.

For trans people: body modifications are undertaken in order to better embody one’s gender orientation. Physical transition addresses gender dysphoria (see below). In other words, gender dysphoric people are chiefly concerned with making their phenotype match their gender orientation.

For gender dysphoric people, gender orientation tends to be the primary reason for modifying their phenotype. For cis people, maintaining and accentuating culturally constructed sexed personas tend to be the primary issue driving one to modify their body. Cis people can mistakenly believe that trans people modify their phenotypes for the same reasons cis people modify their bodies which may lead cis people to project their complicated feelings about their own body modification impulses upon trans people.

Gender Identity Disorder vs Gender Dysphoria

When the American Psychiatric Association issued the DSM-5, the DSM-IV category, “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID) was removed. Many media outlets wrongly reported that GID was being renamed “Gender Dysphoria” (GD), leading many to believe that GID was basically the same thing as GD. This is a mistaken belief; GID and GD represent two different groups:

GID group: mostly comprised of those who experience anxiety because they are, in some way, gender non-conforming as well as a relative few who are debilitated by a mismatch between their gender orientation and their phenotype.

GD group: comprised of those who are debilitated by a mismatch between their gender orientation and their phenotype.

Cis media has enjoyed proclaiming that around 80% of GD kids will stop having GD based on old GID studies that found that most kids with GID desist in having GID. For an example of the way this claim is used in cis media, please see this article. If you would like to understand how and why anyone thought it would be a good idea to mix gender dysphoric people into a larger group of non-gender dysphoric gender non-conforming people and diagnose them all as having the same “disorder” (GID), a deep dive into how and why this mixed GID group was created can be found here.

Talking Past Each Other

To take one hot-button issue, when trans advocates talk about trans care for trans kids, cis people tend to hear that trans people want to force gender non-conforming kids into a medical transition in order to resolve their gender non-conformity. In the absence of Trans Advocacy 101s like this one, similar misunderstandings, in 1000 variations and iterations, have come to define the state of trans activism today.

There are, by orders of magnitude, more cis people than trans people in the world. When one considers the amount of discourse happening around the trans experience, due to sheer numbers, a cis understanding of “trans issues” is dominant in our society today. This dynamic ensures that the dominant “trans” narrative is also a false narrative that is repeated, analyzed, and criticized ad nauseum by a largely cis audience, reinforcing the validity of this dominant (and factually inaccurate) “trans” narrative. When trans people protest the propagation of the dominant (and factually inaccurate) “trans” narrative about the trans experience, trans people are told that we are stifling free speech, that we are snowflakes, or that we just need to learn to perform better public “debates.” When trans activists express anger, resentment, and/or frustration with this dynamic, cis people can respond with their own anger, resentment, and/or frustration because a lot of cis people have already invested more time and attention into trying to understand the dominant (and factually inaccurate) “trans” narrative than they ever wanted to in the first place and come to perceive trans activists as pushy, bossy, and unreasonable.

Resolving these misunderstandings in the face of an army of trolls who traffic misinformation, civic leaders who attempt to pass anti-trans laws, and cis anger, resentment, and/or frustration while also trying to support equality for cis, trans, and intersex people is the primary purpose of trans advocacy today.

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Submit articles for publication on the TransAdvocate here.

Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter in the South and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice sites TransAdvocate.com and TheTERFs.com, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group.
  • sophiemily

    Sorry, don’t see this as an effective base for advocacy.
    If you want to call it a set of stances from which to deal with some common transphobic critiques, fine, but that, for me, is simply being reactive.
    Beyond that it seems simply to focus on gendered expression, reshaping bodies and a new term of gender orientation which I can’t see as particularly useful, not least because it puts a new meaning on the common term ‘orientation’.
    This pushes forward the notion that our transitions are about altering bodies to fit an interior perception rather than maximising the perceived commonality that lies at the base of gender identity. It ignores the many changes we go through that bring our experiences more into line with the gender we transition to as a social reality. Have always found that such are infinitely more persuasive when it comes to general advocacy with people I meet.

    • You wrote: “If you want to call it a set of stances from which to deal with some common transphobic critiques”

      Is this not the function of a 101-level intro to trans activism?

      Actually, the concept of gender having an “orientation” was around as early as 1966 and can be found in Harry Benjamin’s Trassexual Phenomena. If you’d like to see some evidence for why “orientation” is useful in discourse, see “Gender Discourse: Poisoning the Well” around halfway down this page: http://transadvocate.com/gender-orientation_n_8267.htm

      • sophiemily

        I guess I have a different vision of advocacy in that see all trans people as activists when they seek to explain themselves, their choices and narratives, and ‘political’ activism being a continuation of that in main part. I think that gets a bit lost to the point that this relationship is being minimalised.

        Similarly gender orientation seems a more sophisticated way of expressing feelings of sex embodiment but it isn’t exactly user friendly despite its history, and not a useful help in discussing with cis people I’d have thought.
        Maybe it’s just a difference in view – don’t see gender orientation as that important and view socially constructed realities as having a neuro-hormonal base, prefer to talk about gendered consciousness.

        • Here, I think you’re confusing trans activism as a whole with an introduction to the fundamentals of trans activism. The fundamentals of any action is to describe the who and what the group is.

          For us, the fundamental problem is the political equivocation of what “identity” means. Most trans activism today –from restroom access to name changes– turn on demystifying what “identity” means for
          the trans experience. Therefore, this 101-level fundamentals article concisely explicates what is meant and why trans and cis people talk past each other.

          An article that focuses on something beyond the fundamentals of what we mean when we speak would contain specifics about how to respond to our material conditions; however, the fundamentals of activism is
          language one’s identity, struggle, and material condition.

          For more info on why this is the starting point of any and all activism, check out the classic activist’s handbook
          Pedagogy of the Oppressed
          by Paulo Freire.

  • Sophia

    Thank you so much. This is really helpful. Esp. ‘gender orientation’.