On the trans identity and the trans body
A personal tale
As an academic, one of the fields I enjoy studying the most is the so-called Queer Theory, within the Cultural Studies area. Because I have always questioned everything and everybody, when I came across a study field that was mostly built based on questioning, I knew I was finally looking to what would become my specialty.
Personally speaking, I have questioned my sexuality through my whole childhood and teenage years. As it was always moving back and forth in terms of feeling attracted to boys or girls, I couldn't say "what I was" - and it took me awhile to step forward and call myself a bisexual. But as I grew older I realized it was much more than simply enjoying relationships with both genders, because ambiguity was the main physical trait in other people to awaken my interest in them.
When I was 15 years old I told my mother I thought I was bisexual. Curiously enough, her dilemma was not about me being attracted by other girls, but the fact I "couldn't decide". At some point, she realized this wasn't a matter of choosing. I'm now 27 and I've been with men, women, effeminate men, butches...
I had a girlfriend about 4 years ago who's now a man and one of my best friends. I've been around him since the beginning of his transition and during the process we both met very interesting and different trans people - and I got to know more about the diversity within the trans universe itself.
I've always been fascinated by multiple possibilities and how one single person is constituted by various identities. For political and social reasons we'll usually label ourselves according to our self-perception and how we are perceived by others; sometimes, that means standing on a marginal, excluded place.
Whether I perceive myself as polysexual or other people think of me as bisexual, I'm aware my sexuality has taken me to that marginal place. What is more, I can come across as "feminine" and "masculine", but I see myself as a mixture of both - including when it comes to the sexual act itself - and, for that reason, I consider myself a genderqueer individual. What does it mean? Roughly speaking, it means that I don't care if you refer to me as "she" or "he" (neutral treatment, such as "Your Highness", "Your Majesty" and so on are also accepted).
My friend, on the other hand, as a male individual, requires everybody to refer to him with male pronouns. Specially in the beginning of his transition, as he didn't have facial hair and because of his short stature, treating him as "he" was an important tool of recognition - a much needed support for those who are going through this process which is full of uncertainties and insecurities.
LGB + T
On a daily basis, transgender people face prejudice, shame, humiliation, and non-validation. From fear of "not passing" as the gender they identify themselves as to a lack of recognition of their gender identity because of their genitalia, the "T" part of the LGBT "community" is sometimes excluded even by homosexuals, who, as an oppressed and misjudged group themselves should be, at the very least, supportive of trans people's condition.
In fact, transgender activists have been a part of the LGBT movement since its very beginning, playing important roles on episodes as the Compton's Cafeteria riot (San Francisco, 1966) and the Stonewall riots (New York City, 1969).
Specifically after the Compton's Cafeteria riot, transgender women who worked (as strippers, dancers, or sex workers) at the Tenderloin District began their journey in proper transition processes: in 1968, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit (NTCU) was created - the first organization in the world to offer social, psychological, and medical support services for transgender people.
The term disseminated back then was "transsexual", a category described by endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin, a pioner on clinical work with transsexuality. Although it is much less used nowadays, the word "transsexual" is preferred by some (with more conservatitve or separatist ideas) to identify people who show a strong desire for undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Psychiatrist John F. Oliven wrote, in 1965, that the term "transsexualism" is actually misleading, "because sexuality is not a major factor in primary transvestism", stating, therefore, that "transgenderism" was a most accurate term. This notion was later reinforced by Christine Jorgensen, the first trans individual to undergo gender reassignment surgery, who, in 1979, publicly rejected the word "transsexual", identifying herself as a "trans-gender" person specifically because her condition was of a gender inconsistency, not a sexuality inconsistency.
It should also be noticed that while "transsexual" is a noun, "transgender" is an adjective.
Disturbing the heterosexual matrix
Living in a western civilization, we're used to think of sex, gender and sexuality as associated terms that obey a heteronormative logic. According to this logic, if you're born with a female genitalia (or at least what looks like one) you're assigned a female gender and is expected to be attracted to men when you grow up. Thus, if you're born with a male genitalia (or at least what looks like one) you're assigned a male gender and is expected to be attracted to women. There's no "in-between" nor a thing such as a thir sex whatsoever - even though intersex conditions are medically recognized and, usually, physically "fixed" right before birth, so that the person can grow as a "normal" man or woman without having to remember the "assignment problem" s/he was born with.
Those who go against at least one of the points forming this sex-gender-sexuality logic cause social anxiety, showing that what Judith Butler calls a "heterosexual matrix" is not as stable as it is imposed to us.
In fact, those elements are so discursively attached people often confuse transgender condition with matters of sexual orientation - it's not rare to hear people addressing trans individuals as "gays who want to become women" or things of that nature.
In general terms, a transgender individual is a person whose biological sex (and gender assigned at birth) differs from his/her self-perceived gender identity. According to Susan Stryker (in GLBTQ Enclyclopedia),
The term [transgender] initially referred to individuals (...) who lived full-time in a social role not typically associated with their natal sex, but who did not resort to genital surgery as a means of supporting their gender presentation. The logic of the term is that, while transvestites episodically change their clothes and transsexuals permanently change their genitals, transgenders make a sustained change of their social gender through non-surgical means.
Of course, the meanings and uses of those terms have changed within time. Since 1992, as defined by the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, "transgender" became an expansive term:
Transgendered persons include transsexuals, transgenderists, and other crossdressers of both sexes, transitioning in either direction (male to female or female to male), of any sexual orientation, and of all races, creeds, religions, ages, and degrees of physical impediment.
Leslie Feinberg also coined "transgender" as an umbrella term, and it has been used to designate cross-dressers (the so-called transvestites, an old-fashioned word), transsexuals, androgynes, non-binary, genderqueer, etc. All those variated forms of gender identity or expression show how gender diversity mustn't be restricted to the mainstream binary formed by male-female only.
The importance of their voices
One thing we must be aware is that sexual identities and sexuality are not experienced in the same way in different cultures and through different times. Therefore, accounts of masculinity, femininity and even of third-genders are not definitive and will never be; they are historically and culturally constructed through and within discourse. Naturalized, though, we live those accounts as if they were natural, as if they were part of our essence as human beings.
While some cultures recognize transgender experiences and don't limit gender to the male/female binary, in Western thought every manifestation beyond the binary logics are seen as deviant or unintelligible. In this sense, transgender people might only be assimilated by following those social rules based on opposites of gender (male/female; man/woman) and sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual).
Nevertheless, each person experiences their trans condition in a particular way, and how they perceive themselves - and want to be perceived by others - might not always fit into this model we're used to. That's why we must pay attention to their voices, instead of trying to speak for them or to ignore them as "freaks".