Let’s find some linguistic common ground, shall we?
Since this is the introductory post about this sort of thing, it will be a vastly-oversimplified explanation. But it will be a start. (Consider this to be our version of Spanish 101, where you haven’t learned there such a thing as subjunctive case yet. It exists, but you don’t need it to learn how to say, “Where is the library?”, so it can wait a bit. In that way, these are oversimplifications, but let’s get the groundwork laid first.)
Gender identity is the gender you know yourself to be. It’s what you think of yourself as: masculine, feminine, somewhere in-between, genderless, both. For some people, this can change from day to day or moment to moment. For others, it’s an immoveable object.
The idea that there is only male and only female is called the “gender binary”, and it’s a complete myth.
Sex is the set of our bodies, the net result of our chromosomes and secondary sex characteristics and glands and hormones and genitals. It is, simplistically, what your body is—male, female, intersex, etc.—and it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as we are taught. There are variations here, too, some from birth and some which occur throughout a person’s life. There are genetic variations, genital variations, glandular variations… Some people say, “your sex is what bits you have between your legs, and there are only two” but this has been proven incorrect time and again.
“Male body” and “female body” and “biologically male” etc are just as simplistic and misguided as, say, the idea that there can be only gay people and only straight people, and that they never stray across those lines. I mean, really, people can be born intersex, which I think should immediately and without hesitation call into question the myth of binary sex.
Gender performance is how you act out your gender or genders, the complex system of cues and signals used to portray masculine and feminine. I suspect this is what people are more familiar with, and what more people are comfortable with envisioning as a non-binary. The fact is, there aren’t simply “female” ways of being and “male” ways of being. Gender stereotypes are broken at every turn, and they are constantly in flux. Once, women couldn’t wear trousers, and now they do all the time. Victorian infants were associated with pink, and girls with blue. Gender performance rules change over time. These gender stereotypes, gender expectations, also change from culture to culture. And gender performance involves clothing and hairstyle, yes, but it really includes any way in which you outwardly portray your gender. Again, this can be in flux, can be fluid. There are no really good rules here, either; people can perform feminine gender, masculine gender, no gender, all genders, none, something completely new…
Sexual orientation, as you probably already know, is complex, and mostly boils down to to whom you are attracted. With whom you want to have sex. We tend to describe it in relativistic terms: heterosexual, or different-sex, or homosexual, or same-sex. However, when you begin to think about it with regards to these other terms, what are they comparing it to? Sex? Gender identity? Gender performance? It becomes a little problematic, doesn’t it?
As such, some people like to use the terms “androphilia” and “gynephilia”. To that extent, they’re less problematic, and more inclusive, but they still leave out people who are non-binary. So, no good answers here, either, but lots of things to think about.
Sexual orientation may or may not also be related to your affectional orientation, or with whom you tend to fall in love; one can be bisexual but homoromantic—for example, a male attracted to male and female, but with a tendency to fall in love only with other men. Or one can be asexual, but heteroromantic. Or, or…
All these facets exist independently of each other, and in almost infinite variety. Diversity is beautiful, eh?
And with all that variety, I think it’s even more important to let people determine for themselves who they are at any given moment, and respect that decision, and treat them as such.
So, with that in place, allow me to mention a few more key terms.
If neither chromosomes nor genitals nor breasts nor reproductive organs are 100% indicators of what “sex” means, then we need a new way to talk about someone who was, for example, born with the sort of body that made the doctor go “Girl! Smoke a pink cigar!” as well as someone who is comfortable with that assigned gender. “Cisgender” is what I and most people prefer to use to refer to someone who is comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth. Same for cissexual. If you’re comfortable with the sex assigned to you at birth, you’re probably cissexual. Congrats. You have a label too. Woot.
The prefix “cis” comes to us from chemistry, which in turn came from the Latin <i>cis,</i> meaning, “on the same side.” In chemistry the dichotomy is called “cis/trans isomerism”, which leads us nicely into our next definition.
TRANS* and the TRANS* UMBRELLA
Trans, in Latin, means either “on the other side” or “across”. Unlike “cis”, “trans” is still a popular prefix in English. Transport, trans-atlantic, translate…
“Trans” gets a lot of use for our purposes.
But due to the malleable and evolving state of language, just what this means can get a bit confusing. Follow me, here.
First of all, to say people are “transgender” simply indicates that their gender identity does not correspond to the whole or part of the gender assigned to them at birth. (I’ve heard it termed as “coercively-assigned”, since we’re not really given a choice, or generally asked for our opinions on it as we grow up.)
So what’s trans*?
First of all, the asterisk. In computer-land, when generating a boolean search (read: Googling) an asterisk operates as a wildcard. This means, if you put an asterisk at the end of a word, the computer will return anything with that basic term AND anything with characters after it; e.g., inputing “jack*” will give you results which include “jack” as well as “jackson”, “jackie”, “jackdaw”, etc.
So, “trans*” becomes a fuller, more-encompassing term. It becomes an umbrella term that covers all the people for whom the gender or sex assigned to them at birth is either inaccurate, incomplete, both, or none of the above. Under this umbrella are all sorts of people—people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, queer, two-spirited, agender, etc, etc… Again, this is fundamentally anyone who is not cisgender. It also can be someone who is not cissexual; transsexual people often are under the umbrella, too, although there is a population of transsexual people who wish they weren’t. Please spend some time with Mr. Google if you want to know more about that; I’m not getting into that right here, right now. Personally, I like the idea of a wide-open umbrella, because it gives more space for my next point: The myth of rigidity.
A large, inclusive, trans* umbrella is helpful because at any point in a life, a person could identify as any number of things. Some people start off identifying as genderqueer, and eventually decide that they really are more of a transguy. Some may identify as transgender before their physical transition, then identify as genderfluid and transsexual after their sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). Having the term “trans*” as a wide open umbrella term is useful because it gives flexibility, and lets trans*people have some freedom in how they can identify. Freedom and flexibility in self-identification is important, not only for the critical sense of empowerment and self-determination, but because there are so very many facets to a person’s gender identification, gender performance, sex, and sexual orientation. And as these facets have the ability to change from week to week, day to day, moment to moment, our language needs to reflect that.
The bottom line is, these terms are a snapshot of this place, and this time, and the experience of my research as a trans*person. Others may define things slightly differently based on their peer-group or their region or the accepted definitions when they started learning about all this. And that’s fine. It doesn’t invalidate your own education, or the education in this post. One of the best features of language is also its most frustrating; its ability to change and evolve gives us flexibility, but sometimes also requires just a bit more effort to communicate clearly. The key is to just make sure you’re all working from the same lexicon (or that you at least know what your linguistic differences are), to respect each others’ differences, and learn to roll with any changes as time treks onward.