The History of “Transgender” Identity

Here are the Top Ten things you need to know about the identity Transgender and how it is understood in society…

1. Definition

If it seems like you have been hearing the term “transgender” more in the last couple of years you would be right. The term has only come into conversation within the last few decades and the definition is constantly changing. Susan Stryker defines the term “transgender” on the first page of her book, Transgender History, as, “to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender” (Stryker, 1). The most important part of her definition is the inclusion of culture and how it is used to construct and maintain gender norms in our society. She goes on to discuss how the trans community ultimately feels a need to move away from the gender constructed for them at birth, whether that is fully transitioning to another gender, or finding a space in between. How we identify ourselves in relation to others comes from cultural norms and social practices that have been created to label and define gender boundaries. This listicle will explore how the term transgender has been seen throughout our history and how it is used in academia and pop culture today. While also answering fundamental questions like what makes a man or a woman? And do these definitions actually matter?

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal Studies. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press : Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2008.

2. Key Terms

In order to fully understand the term transgender and how it is used in society, we have to define the common terms also used in its definition. Two commonly misunderstood words that are used to talk about transgender are sex and gender. Keywords for American Cultural Studies defines sex as, “It refers to both the material foundation (male or female) of binary gender difference (masculine or feminine) and the real and imagined acts that ground various sexual identities.” In other words, sex is used to refer to the biological make up of your body. The term sex was first documented in the fourteenth century, and since then how we understand the term has been changing.

On the other hand, Keywords defines gender as, “gender is understood as a marker of social difference, a bodily performance of normativity and the challenges made to it. It names a social relation that subjects often experience as organic, ingrained, “real,” invisible, and immutable; it also names a primary mode of oppression that sorts human bodies into binary categories in order to assign labor, responsibilities, moral attributes, and emotional styles.” Therefor, our cultural practices and everyday life shapes our gender, not our sex. The two terms are commonly interchanged and misused when talking about the transgender community and there is no right way to define someone as trans in relation to these terms. Author Stryker explains that some members of the trans community find it necessary to physically change their sex, while others see their transition purely rooted in gender. Meaning, you do not have to forgo a sex change in order to be considered trans- but we will dive into this concept further down in the list.

Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition. NYU Press, 2014.

3.  Transvestite

In the beginning of the 20th Century Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician, lead the charge in understanding gender in terms of cross dressing. Cross dressing and other transgender practices have been practiced throughout time, from the Middle Ages, in Elizabethan theater, to drag queens and kings today. As a gay man himself, Hirschfeld was always fascinated about sexual orientation and how people that were outside the “norm” functioned in society. In 1910 Hirschfeld found that there was a difference between sexual orientation, gender representation, and your biological make up, and he coined these early transgender practices as “transvestite.” In his essay, The Transvestites: An Investigation of the Erotic Drive to Cross Dress, Hirschfeld wrote, “In the apparel of their own sex they feel confined, bound up, oppressed; they perceive them as something strange, something that does not fit them, does not belong to them; on the other hand, they cannot find enough words to describe the feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being that overcomes them when in the clothing of the other sex.” Hirschfeld’s words have subtle hints of the modern definition transgender in them, but as we learned before, the definition of transgender has, and probably will always change. The terms transvestites and cross dressing would then turn into a bigger conversation about how the transgender community was moving beyond just wearing the other sex’s clothes, but how they were transiting into the other gender through actions, behaviors, and physical make up of bodies. To be considered transgender, or in the trans community, does not mean you have to follow strict rules and practices, as we will come to see there are many different ways to be trans and Hirschfeld lead this charge with his research on transvestites.

Brett Beemyn PhD (2008) Serving the Needs of Transgender College Students, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education, 1:1, 33-50, DOI: 10.1300/J367v01n01_03

4. Transsexual

Transgender practices and identities have been evident throughout centuries of of our collective histories, as Hirshfeld pointed out above. But how we understand transgender today was defined as something else post transvestite and pre transgender. It was known as transsexual and it was coined and popularized within the last century based on medical classifications and the desire to create set groups for everyone to fit in, biologically. In the mid 20th Century doctors, sociologists and psychologists were trying to make sense of the term transsexual and how they should define it. They understood that transsexual was different from transvestitism, the practice of dressing in the opposite genders clothes. In the 1960s transsexual was defined as, “As access to surgical procedures became more readily accessible during the 1960s, the term ‘transsexual’ became restricted to individuals undergoing surgery, while the concept of transvestism was related to practices of cross-dressing” (Hines, 11). According to this definition in order to be considered transgender at this time you had to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. However, in today’s society, identifying as transgender does not mean you had to have sexual reassignment surgery. We know from the definitions of sex and gender that one can identify with the opposite gender, or on a spectrum, because gender is socially and culturally created. Thus, one does not have to have the biological make up of a certain sex to identify or project as one gender. Further proving that the definition of transgender is always changing.

Hines, Sally. “Theorising Transgender.” In TransForming Gender: Transgender Practices of Identity, Intimacy and Care, 9-34. Bristol: Policy Press at the University of Bristol, 2007.

5. Hoes and Heals Club

Also during the mid 20th century, the first trans activist and trans organization was found in 1962 by Virginia Prince, a transwoman born as Arnold Lowman. Prince became an activist for the trans community and helped combat stereotypes or misinformation being said about trans people at the time. She started the Transvestia, a magazine that focused on the lives of transvestites or transsexuals, typically read by white, gay men. After founding the magazine, she arranged for the subscribers to meet in Los Angeles for the first Hoes and Heals Club meeting. Soon after this first meeting in 1962 the group transformed into the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE). Susan Stryker discusses FPE as, “which was explicitly geared toward protecting the privileges of predominately white, middle-class men who used their money and access to private property to create a space in which they could express a stigmatized aspect of themselves in a way that didn’t jeopardize their jobs or social standing” (Stryker, 55).

Although Prince’s FPE was the first group activism that came together around issues in the trans community, they left out large groups of people based on class, race and gender. Meaning, Prince’s idea of the trans community was almost all white and excluded racial and gendered issues for all trans people. The FPE was a major step towards queer activism, specifically for the trans community, but it was not an accurate representation of the group as a whole. Trans people all over the country would not be motivated to join the FPE or have their issues heard by a group that cannot connect or relate to problems outside of the white, patriarchal society. Prince continued to fight for the trans community well into the 1980s, her activism and dedication helped bring light to transgender issues and create a sense of community around them.

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal Studies. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press : Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2008.

6. Transgender Gaze in Film

Judith Halberstam in her book, In a Queer Time and Place, discusses how transgender bodies are perceived and understood in the space of the cinema. She uses the film examples of The Crying Game and Boys Don’t Cry to show how transgender bodies and identities are represented on the screen. She writes, “The transgender character surprises audiences with his/her ability to remain attractive, appealing, and gendered while simultaneously presenting a gender at odds with sex, a sense of self not derived from the body, and an identity that operates within the heterosexual matrix without confirming the inevitability of that system of difference” (Halberstam, 76). When a transgender character is shown on the screen they still have to be presentable in Hollywood standards. Meaning, the trans character has to be considered beautiful through the eyes of Hollywood. The term transgender and the scholarship that surrounds it can be heavily racialized, gendered, and affected by class. How these institutions intersect affects how the transgender body is seen in society. Thus, to have a transgender character on the screen they still have to have the Hollywood glam and sex appeal that all cisgender characters also have.

This can most notably be seen in Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Her memorable performance in the film even won her the 2000 Academy Award for Best Actress. Swank is considered a beautiful actress through the Hollywood lens, and it was important for the actress who ultimately played Teena to fit the standard Hollywood mold. This mold, or uniform image of beauty, can also be seen in our next example of the first “beautiful” transwoman in the 1950s.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place : Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. Sexual Cultures. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

7.  Christine Jorgensen

Christine Jorgensen, born George William Jorgensen Jr, was one of the first people to become famously known for gender reassignment surgery in the United States. She was the first transwomen to become famous and tell her story about  her transition to the world. After serving in World War II as a man, she traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to get her gender reassignment surgery. When she returned to the United States she became an actress, singer, and celebrity. This fame gave her the platform to become an advocate for the trans community, and make her transition open and familiar in the public during the buttoned up culture of the 1950s. Brett Beeyman writes in Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education, “Transsexuality entered public consciousness through the 1952 media sensation over the gender transition of Christine Jorgensen. As the first person from the U.S. to undergo a “sex change” operation, Jorgensen became “the most talked-about girl in the world” when the former World War II soldier returned from surgery in Denmark as what newspaper headlines described as a ‘blonde beauty’” (Beeyman, 37-38). This was the first time in US society that a transwomen was being objectified and sexualized in a way a cisgender woman typically would be at the time.

Jorgensen became not only the first female trans celebrity, but also a sexual icon who was admired by both men and women across the country. Gender roles also played a role in Jorgensen’s story at the time. After WWII, women were sent back to the private sphere of the home after being able to work in the public sphere to help during the war. Jorgensen challenged this idea and took her new role as a female sexual icon into the public sphere and told her story as a woman in post WWII society. She brought her sexuality and gender out into the public space as a woman and challenged the notion that women and their sexuality could only be found in the private sphere, or the home.

Brett Beemyn PhD (2008) Serving the Needs of Transgender College Students, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education, 1:1, 33-50, DOI: 10.1300/J367v01n01_03

8. Laverne Cox

In today’s society we see more examples of transgender celebrities, of the most famous is Ms Laverne Cox. Cox, born male, grew up in Mobile, Alabama wanting to escape the gender norms and constrictions of southern society. In her interview for her Time Magazine cover she reflects back on growing up and her desire to preform and become famous. She discusses the first time she felt trans as, “My third grade teacher called my mom and said ‘Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.’ Up until that point I just thought that I was a girl and that there was no difference between girls and boys. I think in my imagination I thought that I would hit puberty and I would start turning into a girl.” To me this quote showed me that from a young age we are conscious about who we are and who we identify with in society. Cox goes onto to talk about how she just wanted to fit in during school and started to embrace an androgynous identity in high school.


Towards the end of the interview Cox explains why society is still uncomfortable with the trans identity, she says, “We live in an uncertain world and we want to believe that what a man is and what a woman is–I know that. And people don’t want to critically interrogate the world around them. Whenever I’m afraid of something or I’m threatened by something, it’s because it brings up some sort of insecurity in me. I think the reality is that most of us are insecure about our gender… And if we are in a position where we have to begin to question this very basic idea of ‘A man has a penis and a woman has a vagina,’ then that’s a lot of vulnerability.” Cox points out a major flaw in our society, and why the trans community still struggles to fit in. As a society we feel the need to label and categorize everyone, but when someone does not fit into these labels, we struggle to look past that. Cox makes this flaw public by becoming the first transwoman on the cover of Time Magazine and brings these major issues into the light.

9.  Sex Identification

Last summer when I bought my first commuter pass on the Metro North Railroad that would transport me to NYC and back each day, they asked for my gender when I purchased the pass. A practice so normal for my father as he had to buy the pass every month for the last 20 years, but I looked up at him shocked about why the MTA cared. And more importantly why I could not cheat the system by using my dad’s pass some days to save money! Soon I found out that the Metro North wasn’t the only transportation system that required your gender.

Charlene Arcila, an African American transgender woman who lived in Philadelphia tells her story about what it is like to be a transwoman using sex stickers for the public bus. When she would take the public bus the bus driver would question the sex on her card, and say that she does not look like a man, therefore she cannot use the card. But, when she tried using the female sex sticker, she did not look feminine enough for the bus driver either. She was stuck between two genders because of the authority the a bus driver, he was the one deciding her gender in that moment. This desire and need to label society based on gender leaves people who do not fall entirely to one side of the socially created binary in the middle, feeling dehumanized. Author Heather Fogg Davis describes this act as, “The discrimination being pinpointed here, in my view, is more accurately described as sex-identity discrimination because it involves judgments about whether a person belongs to the sex categories of male or female” (Davis, 2). The issue is whether you look enough like one gender or the other. In the eyes of society, you have to preform and look like one of the two genders enough in order to be classified as that gender, and not grouped as “other.” This forces the idea of self expression and identity into a tiny box created by the heteronormative, two gendered community.

Davis, Heath Fogg. Beyond Trans : Does Gender Matter? New York: New York University Press, 2017.

10.  Stereotypes in the Transgender Bathroom Bill

In May 2016 The Justice and Education Departments issued that under Title IX and the Education Amendments of 1972 that all schools that receive federal money cannot discriminate based on a students’ gender status. Most notably where students use the bathroom. Former President Obama heavily supported this bill and made sure that students part of the LGBTQ community would feel safe and comfortable using which ever bathroom they liked. However, this bathroom bill was quickly combatted by different states claiming that it is not safe for members of their community to use the bathroom because trans people would also be using them. This bill was heavily pushed against in states like North Carolina and South Dakota, they argued that people would have to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex given to them at birth. And on February 22nd, 2017, president Trump rescinded the protection for transgender students who would be able to use the bathroom of their choice.

There are many stereotypes and opinions when it comes to transgender politics, most of these opinions play out in the debate for equal bathrooms. Most notably that there could be predators in the bathroom if you let transgender people use the bathroom of their choice. Some people believe that if you have people of different genders, or that they appear different, that this gives predators the opportunity to act trans in order to hurt someone else. Main Human Rights Commission Executive Director, Amy Sneirson, combatted this debate by saying, “I know there is a lot of anxiety associated with this issue, but it seems to be based on fear rather than facts. Given this, it is really disheartening to see so many states (and now our federal government) choose to treat people who are transgender with what looks like hatred.” This fear comes from the unknown and stubbornness to not try to understand people who deviate from the white, heteronormative norm. These stereotypes and bathroom laws add to a negative connotation that surrounds trans people and how the rest of society views them. But more importantly, it leaves members of the trans community feeling unsafe and dehumanized about what bathroom they can and cannot use.



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