The definition of "transgender" is not universally agreed upon. Some define it very broadly, to include anyone with a history or a hint of gender variance. Women who like sports. Men who like to cook.
Some people take issue with this broad definition. In fact, some transsexual people don't like being included in the definition of transgender. They feel, not without some historical justification, that transsexual people who have sex reassignment surgery were beginning to gain traction in terms of legal rights -- to change gender markers on birth certificates and other government identification, and to enforce those changes in other areas of law, such as marriage. However, there was a move in the late 1980s and 1990s by academics to expand the concept of gender to cover a wider area. That move was largely successful, and many people now see gender and its cousin, gender identity, as covering a very broad swath of territory. The concept of "transgender" now covers every sort of gender variance, including transsexuals, crossdressers, genderqueers and others.
Some people feel that being placed in this catch-all category is obnoxious to them, and detrimental to obtaining their legal rights. You, dear reader, are probably gender-variant in some way, however small. Are you a man who appreciates fashion? Are you a woman who likes fixing her car? Would you have a problem with being called "transgender?"
Fair warning: This is a very contentious topic. If you're thin-skinned or can't restrain yourself from personal attacks, this is not the post for you. In fact, this post originated from a thread on another post, and I was hoping to attach the comments from that post here. But it turns out I can't. I'll put a link to them in the first comment. It was somewhat off topic from the subject of the other post, but it is a discussion that comes up over and over again on Bilerico and other sites. I thought it was time there was a post devoted to discussing this issue. I know that some people are tired of these discussions, and feel that they have been aired enough. But no one is constrained to read this post or its comments if they prefer not to. However, I note that sometimes this discussion becomes rancorous and mean, and I will moderate this post closely. Comments that use personal attacks will be edited or deleted.
Some transsexuals argue that biological studies indicate some differences between the brains of transsexuals and the sex attributed to them at birth. "Classic" or "true" transsexuals is sometimes a term used to refer to people who feel gender variant from a very young age, exhibit behavior and characteristics stereotypically attributed to the opposite sex from a young age (3-6 yrs), and who see to live as the opposite sex as soon as possible. When sex reassignment surgery was in its infancy, these were the only people allowed to access it.
At this point in time, however, many people have come to the realization that one does not necessarily need to exhibit these very specific circumstances in order to be a good candidate for sex reassignment surgery. Others have also expressed the feeling that, even though they do have these characteristics, they do not want or need sex reassignment surgery. They are happy to live part-time or full-time in a different gender role without such surgical intervention. They may or may not take cross-gender hormones. They are perfectly happy the way they are.
This reminds me of the problems that occur with other types of categorization. Is it right to call someone "Hispanic" who does not identify that way, and who has problems being associated with some of the other groups lumped in that category? After all, the term "Hispanic" was a term invented by the government, and it lumps together colonizers and the colonized. Is it right to insist that someone who identifies as multi-racial, but whose complexion is dark, must be okay with being considered "African-American?" If my mother was Jewish, and the traditional Jewish law considers me Jewish, is it right to insist that I am Jewish even if I consider myself a Christian?
The category "transgender" is now used by some to describe all of these identities. Some of the identities put under this umbrella are not happy about that. Is it unfair to lump them into a category of which they do not feel a part?
I myself am somewhat ambivalent about the term "transgender." I identify as a woman of transsexual experience. However, that doesn't compute for many people, and particularly in my work, I deal with a lot of people who need a quick and clear explanation of how to refer to people. Since there are dozens of identities used to describe various kinds of gender variance, I find it much easier simply to give a definition of transgender and then warn people that it's not exactly clear who's included and to use whatever identifier people prefer them to use. But it still causes me problems, because a lot of times when I tell people I'm transgender, the first thing out of their mouths is "what does that mean, exactly?" They have questions about birth sex and surgeries and hormones and birth names, and such.
I also like the term "transgender" because I do feel a kinship with other gender variant people on a political level. I feel that our fight for dignity and rights is the same, even though our identities may be a little different.
At the same time, however, Insisting on using the term "transgender" is a little like telling someone to call everyone who fits into a minority status "people of color." Yes, it's handy sometimes. But it erases people's identities and historical circumstances that are quite different. Insisting that Aleuts and African-Americans and Nigerians and Malays are all the same is not only incorrect, it's insulting.
Should we scrap the term "transgender"?
(Note: I spent a lot of time in my 2004 dissertation discussing these ambiguities. If you want to see it, it's here on page 17. If you have more interest in the subject, you should also read the book "Imagining Transgender" by Dr. David Valentine. )