Explainer: The Trans Debate

By Jonah Berman, Anu Jain, Sofia de Martin and Andrea Chow

Pride as a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community was in large part founded and promoted by transgender black women, most famous of which is Marsha P. Johnson, looking to raise awareness of the issues and discriminations they face for who they are.

The term transgender refers to people for whose personal idea of gender does not match the assigned gender they were given at birth.

Some of these people seek surgeries to match their bodies to the gender they identify with, others might be content with recognition in the form of the use of the pronouns they feel most comfortable with. Others take years to recognise why they don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies or might not tell the people around them how they feel due to fear of discrimination. Despite this, the transgender community continues to be misunderstood and ostracized by many in society. Prejudices caused by a lack of information impact the lives of many within the community and lead to a perpetuation of inequality of rights.

What are the key issues we need to know about the trans debate?

Sex, gender and identity

Transgenderism highlights the distinction between gender identity, socially constructed gender and sex, concepts traditionally understood in the West to be coextensive - this view is known as biological determinism.

More recently a distinction between sex and gender has been drawn: sex is a biological concept referring to chromosomes and genitalia, and gender is the behaviours and expectations socially held to correspond to someone’s sex.

Concepts such as masculinity and femininity relate to gender, not sex, since they refer to behaviours. In this way, gender might be understood as performative, meaning that it captures what we do rather than what we are.

However, theorists are yet to agree upon an analytical framework for gender and gender identities - transgender identities compel us to rethink the categories biological sex, gender and gender identity.

A: “I don’t think that post-operative transgender men - i.e. M to F [male-to female] transgender people - are women… I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, what I’m saying is it doesn’t make them a woman” - Germaine Greer

Greer suggests that an alteration of biological sex features is not sufficient to change someone’s gender. For Greer, gender - womanhood in particular - is a product of historical socialisation: it “wasn’t fair” that Caitlyn Jenner, “who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the services, the unpaid services, of a wife, which most women will never know… then decides that the whole time he has been a woman.”

Greer echoes gender realism, the view that gender, in this case womanhood, is defined by a particular feature that distinguishes all women from all men. In the case cited by Greer, it is directly suffering the effects of patriarchal social structures that defines a woman.

Gender realism is rejected by feminists such as Judith Butler for failing to understand the way gender structures (e.g. patriarchal structures) intersect with race and class, for example, and that a fixed concept ‘woman’ implies there is a ‘right’ way to be a woman, excluding those who do not conform.

B: “We are not what other people say we are. We are who we know ourselves to be, and we are what we love.” - Laverne Cox

Here, Cox suggests that gender identity is distinct from both biological sex and socially produced gender: it corresponds to an inner awareness of self that is independent of our physical embodiment and socialisation.

This is associated with a rejection of gender realism: it allows for openness and flexibility in how we define ourselves and does not give others license to define our identity.

Accepting Cox’s view might mean rejecting the notion that gender is performative, taking gender identity as a matter of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. Cox’s perspective is also consistent with a more radical rejection of gender classifications altogether.

C: “Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled.” - Judith Butler

Butler here historically locates the feminist tradition as challenging dominant narratives on what is considered ‘normal’ for people exhibiting particular biological and social characteristics. She thinks “we depend on gender as a historical category,” meaning we cannot abandon it as an analytical tool, but that we must be open to its interpretation in new and different ways.

Butler’s primary concern is that the ways people understand their own gender identity are respected and treated with dignity.

Different understandings of transgender identities arise from different interpretations of the relationships between sex, gender and gender identity. The key distinction between the views discussed here is whether gender is something that individuals themselves can define, or whether it is something that is socially imposed and thus more rigid.

It is interesting to note none of these views follow biological determinism in identifying sex as determining gender, rather it is socialisation as Greer argues, or an inner authentic feeling as Cox suggests. Butler offers a third perspective, pointing to a tension between socialisation and individual authenticity that would imply gender concepts ought to be flexible and open.

Sexism and Transphobia

Transphobia encompasses the negative emotions, attitudes and feelings towards transgender people. It includes the fear, hatred, discomfort, and mistrust of the transgender community and of those not conforming to social gender expectations. In the western world, policies have been increasingly used to target transphobia, and to induce more equal opportunities for trans people.

A. The origins of transphobia are rooted in “oppositional sexism” - the belief that male and female are “rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.” - Julia Serano

Oppositional sexism is a driving force behind transphobia, homophobia, and sexism. This is the belief that men should not have the attributes, aptitudes, and desires commonly associated with women, and vice versa.

People who do not fit into these rigid categories may be dismissed or even punished for disobeying the so-called “natural” social order whereby the two genders are mutually exclusive opposites. In addition to this, society often develops a hierarchy in which men and masculinity are seen as superior to women and femininity.

Other groups claim that all trans women are really men, the ultimate oppressors of women and another form of the patriarchy. The term “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs) is used to describe these groups, and is applied to feminists supporting transphobic perspectives. A big debate in this field is the exclusion of transgender women from female spaces. For example, allowing transgender women to use bathrooms matching their gender identity may be seen as a threat to the safety of cisgender women .

B. “Transgender people subjected to violence, in a range of cultural contexts, frequently report that transphobic violence is expressed in homophobic terms.” - Thomas Spijkerboe

Many transgender people experience homophobia as people often associate trans people’s gender identity with homosexuality. People may come to associate homosexuality with the transgender community due to reinforced negative stereotypes associated with media depictions of transgender individuals. In reality, this link is not clear as sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated.

Discriminating against someone on the basis of their gender identity rather than their sexual orientation is known as “trans bashing”. Trans bashing refers to emotional, physical, sexual and verbal abuse directed towards transgender people.

C. “No definition of human sex is complete without recognising people’s lived, affirmed sexual identities.” - Sarah Richardson

Scientific arguments are used by some to justify transphobia. These arguments imply that birth sex, genes and chromosomes determine gender identity. Common understandings of gender may assume that ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories should be clear and unambiguous from a biological perspective: the chromosomal makeup for males are XY, and females are XX.

However, authors such as Sarah Richardson claim that this is a tired simplification, and biology is not the only determinant of gender identity. Instead, decades of scientific research has shown that human sex is a multidimensional trait that varies over time. In fact, other chromosomal combinations such as XO and XXY may have their own distinct biologies. Therefore the scientific argument for gender identity falls flat as clear categories may not hold in reality.

Propositions urging government agencies to recognise sexual identity as defined by genital diagnosis at birth do not recognise other definitions of gender identity, and are therefore a form of transphobia.

Legacies of Colonialism

In the West, transgenderism is regarded as a relatively contemporary or liberal idea. However, many indigenous cultures across the world incorporated more than two genders prior to periods of colonization. Scholar Susan Stryker writes in her book, “because most people have great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender, the gender-changing person can evoke in others a primordial fear of monstrosity, or loss of humanness.” This loss of humanness, by categorizing people as transgender and therefore Other, enables the dehumanization and therefore colonization of subjugated societies. Pre-colonial gender roles were often based on social function, not sexual preference, enabling us to look historically at the birth of transphobia in the modern world and different modes of defining gender.

A - “The earliest colonizers in the Americas looked to the existing sexual and gender variance of Indigenous people as a means of marking them as racially inferior and uncivilized: a justification for a forever unjustified genocidal conquest.” - Scott Lauria Morgensen, Associate Professor in Gender Studies and the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at University of California at Santa Cruz

Morgensen argues in his book that when European colonizers arrived on other continents and discovered that other cultures did not adhere to traditional, patriarchal man/woman gender binaries, they leveraged this knowledge to justify colonization. Transphobia was strategically used as a basis for legitimizing violent colonization, since they used gender systems as proof that the societies they were colonizing were less civilized. Today, transphobia continues to be used against indigenous societies that have preserved their gender roles as justifications for exploitation and colonization.

B - “On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as “transgender” and “gay” are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).” -Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, PBS

PBS documents a map of the world, locating the physical spaces where long-lasting traditions have not adhered to the gender binary. Some examples include Two-Spirit or nádleehí in Navajo culture, Mahu in Hawaiian culture, Muxe of Zapotec culture, and many more (view the extensive map here). We see that “the transgender debate” is one that is unique to Western civilizations, as there is no debate in many cultures about gender variance when they simply adhere to a broader definition of what gender is. This map also combats the concept that transgender identities are “liberal” or uniquely contemporary.

C - “Gender systems were also an object of colonization, and that colonization as a historical process also involved the modification of the specific indigenous gender arrangements of the regions it affected.” - Lucas Ballestin, a PhD Student, Philosophy and Historical Studies, at the New School for Social Research.

Ballestin argues in his research that binary gender systems actually served a purpose in economic gain for colonizing powers. In order to exploit the resources of colonized countries, Europeans would leverage traditional gender roles such as masculinity/work which did not already exist in many of these societies, and further justify colonization through forcefully imposing heterosexual/cisgender idenity norms on these other cultures.

Determining the validity of transgender identity depends on cultural and historical viewpoints as well as whether or not the audience views colonialism as a legitimate process. At its core, transphobia is a tool of dehumanization, and contemporary identity politics show us that dehumanization against one group of people can be leveraged against another group (ex: the Holocaust expanding to persecute minorities other than the Jews, all Asians being targeted during Japanese internment, non-Black people being swept into mass incarceration). History shines a new light on transphobia as closely intertwined with colonial legacies and potentially reifying the oppression of all marginalized communities.


Politics is another area where transgender rights and equality has taken centre stage. This has meant that transgender issues have been exaggerated on both sides of the political spectrum, and the transgender community is bearing the brunt of it.

Political parties use debates about the transgender community to either fear monger or showcase their inclusivity. Liberals generally perceive the issue of transgender acceptance and equality as a basic human right. They advocate for an acknowledgement of the differences in treatment and opportunities of transgender people and to move towards what they see as a more just society. On the other hand, conservatives look at the cost to society as a whole. Many value the status quo over those changes they consider costly and, in some cases, unnecessary.

A - “After consulting with our Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” – Donald Trump

Even as recently as 2017, studies showed that 54% of Americans believe gender is determined by sex at birth. People who hold this view are likely to misunderstand the transgender community and what they stand for. Though these views are closely linked with political party alignment.

The Trump administration and many US conservatives see the transgender community as one which costs the country too much money and is promoting the liberal agenda. For many conservatives, transgender people, and the LGBTQ+ poses a threat to their way of life and their religious and traditional values, leading them to reject the movement in it’s entirety. This has resulted in the ban on transgender military personnel and the controversies surrounding the much talked about “bathroom bill”.

The bathroom bill, or the Transgender Public Accommodation bill, passed in 2016, allows transgender people to use the restroom with aligns with the gender they identify with, not the one they were assigned at birth. This law has received some pushback from conservative states who argue that this could endanger women and children. There has been no evidence of this being the case.

B. “We’re not asking for free ponies … We’re asking or our lives, or liberty, for freedom, for the American promise. We are one of the very many groups who have received that check and wasn’t able to cash it.” Mara Keisling, Executive Director of NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality)

Only 24 states in the US have explicit non-discrimination protections for sexual minorities, most of them including transgender people. The transgender community is looking for legal reforms not empty words as a show of support. They are looking to politicians to introduce measures of equality across the country. That is because studies show this community performs worse in most economic and well-being measures.

Transgender people are more likely to be unemployed or live in poverty than their cis-gendered counterparts. This occurs in large part due to the discrimination many transgender people face within their communities and in the job market. Mental health conditions caused by the stress and fear of rejection and alienation have also been linked to these higher levels of poverty and unemployment, though these continue to be a symptom of systemic discrimination and misunderstanding which ought to be corrected.

C. “First start by not using the term Latinx.” Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.

But has woke culture gone too far? A Pew Research poll found about a third of Americans believe society’s acceptance of transgender people has gone too far. This is also cut along party lines, with 57% of Republicans and only 12% of Democrats holding these views. This poll encompasses many views, but it highlights the drawbacks of a progressive mentality taken to the extreme. This idea that politicians and major companies are so focused on, being the most progressive they can be, makes them lose sight of what the core of the movement is. What do people want to be called? The term “latinx” has been gaining popularity among politicians and advertising strategies, yet only 2% of the demographic feel it describes them. In the fight to become inclusive, the term alienates the very people it seeks to describe. Inclusivity is a worthy goal to aspire to, but we must keep in mind how people want to be addressed, not turn politics into a battle over which of us is the most inclusive.


Whether historical, biological, racial or political, the debates about the transgender community do not fail to bring controversy. But how should these views move us forward?

How we see LGBTQ+ issues is changing rapidly, how do we make sure this change is for the better?

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This page was last edited on Wednesday, 9 Dec 2020 at 20:27 UTC