The uses and limitations of transsexual categories

As I discuss in my section on definitions, a definition by nature is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. There's a lot at stake any time someone tries to include or exclude a person or group.

The same is true for categories used to describe types or groups of transsexuals. You will find very strong opinions any time there's a discussion of categories. They can be helpful in certain kinds of discussions, but they can also be limiting, because categories will always have exceptions that do not fit easily into rigidly defined parameters.

In the beginning: the Benjamin scale

In 1966, Dr. Harry Benjamin published a scale categorizing those with gender identity issues into several types. Dr. Benjamin, an endocrinologist, was one of the first medical professionals to study and treat transsexualism based on standardized principles.

Dr. Benjamin's Scale parallels Dr. Alfred Kinsey's sexual orientation scale. The relationship between gender identity (Benjamin's Scale) and sexual orientation (Kinsey's Scale) is probably a result of the researchers' biases. At one time you couldn't transition if you weren't completely 'homosexual' because *obviously* a 'real' female is completely heterosexual. As transsexual people discovered this bias, they lied in order to get surgery. Fortunately today the few remaining gender clinics accept sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct, and most people receive services outside that antiquated system.

Kinsey's sexual orientation scale

Type 0: Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual experience
Type 1: Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
Type 2: Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
Type 3: Equally heterosexual and homosexual
Type 4: Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
Type 5: Predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual
Type 6: Exclusively homosexual, with no heterosexual experience

Benjamin gender identity scale

Type 1 - Transvestite - (Pseudo)
Type 2 - Transvestite - (Fetishistic)
Type 3 - Transvestite - (True)
Type 4 - Transsexual - (Non-Surgical)
Type 5 - Transsexual - (Moderate Intensity)
Type 6 - Transsexual - (High Intensity)

Gender categories: how do you classify a rainbow?

Gender expression can be measured along a continuum. As I'm fond of saying, it's a spectrum. When we divide a spectrum into categories, we're painting with a very broad brush.

Let's say I come up with an arbitrary way to classify colors and give it an acronym-- Andrea's Color Orientation scale (ACO):

Type 1: Red
Type 2: Orange
Type 3: Yellow
Type 4: Green
Type 5: Blue
Type 6: Indigo
Type 7: Violet

It's as limiting as saying "A rainbow is classified into seven colors," or "There are seven types of colors in a rainbow." You can define a rainbow into seven arbitrary categories, but there are countless colors that don't fit into those neat little categories. It effaces the individuality of each of the millions of colors out there. Also, it leaves out all sorts of things: all colors combined (white), absence of color (black), etc.

See also my note on gender tests.

Some common transgender categories

There are several ways to categorize those with gender issues, and all of them have their flaws. The main problem is that some people consider these categories to be hierarchical. They think post-op is better than non-op, or that someone who transitions at 17 is better than someone who transitions at 43. While these types are obviously different, different doesn't mean better.

Surgical status: "____ - op"

Perhaps the most troubling way in which transsexuals are categorized is by surgical status. I feel vaginoplasty is vastly overrated by many of its advocates in terms of therapeutic effect. The fact that one of the main taxonomies for transgender people is pre-op/post-op/non-op shows the overimportance placed on vaginoplasty.

It's like the term "pre-marital sex," which artificially elevates marriage into some sort of primary defining characteristic of sex. It's a false construction. Sex is no more dependent on marriage than transition is dependent on vaginoplasty.

While defining transsexual based on surgical status can be helpful for determining the applicability of someone's advice for you, personally, I feel that defining transsexual women solely by the presence or absence of a penis doesn't tell very much of the picture. I know women who never intend to have surgery whom I'd consider transsexual, and I know men who had vaginoplasty and reverted back to living as male whom I'd not consider transsexual.

"Autogynephilia" and sexual taxonomies

Ascribing sex as the primary motivating factor for transition and vaginoplasty is very controversial. One model uses terms like androphilia (attraction to males as sexual partners), gynephilia (attraction to females), transphilia (attraction to other transgender people), aphilia (no sexual attraction), and "autogynephilia" (the propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as a woman).

I am not saying that my transition was devoid of sexual motivation. I like sex and enjoy my sexuality and the changes in my physical appearance. I also know there are certainly transgender women who are aroused by the idea of themselves as female. However, to imply that sexuality (or the lack of it) is the most useful way to categorize transsexuals or the fundamental motivation plays into a lot of problematic stereotypes.

First, classifying transsexualism as a paraphilia is fraught with social implications. The cinematic image of the transvestic fetishist whose fetish doesn't distinguish women's clothing from women's bodies is one of the most onerous cliches faced by transsexuals. Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre might all be based on the same disturbed killer, but these three films have inexorably linked the general public's view of transgenderism with deeply disturbed individuals committing unspeakably misogynistic sexualized violence.

Second, gender variance is already extremely sexualized by the pornography industry. As I noted, sexuality is an important part of all humans, but I'm concerned that a sexual taxonomy gives the impression that sex is more important for transsexuals than it is for non-transsexuals. I'm not convinced that's true.

For a little comic relief, I recommend reading the 7DS Theory of Transsexuality.

Age at transition

Many people talk about "early transitioners" and "late transitioners," which sometimes correspond with other problematic terms, like "primary" and "secondary" transsexual. Early transitioners are also sometimes called "classic" or "true" transsexuals. Every transsexual I've ever talked to said they wished they'd started sooner, which adds to the idea that those who do are somehow "more" transsexual.

I do suspect there is a rough correlation between degree of dysphoria and age of transition. However, this correlation can be negated by all kinds of factors, most notably denial.

I also feel that there are a few useful generalizations which can be made about age at transition. Younger people must give more weight to coming out to parents, especially if they are still financially dependent on them. Younger women usually have fewer financial options to pay for transition. Younger people usually get better effects from hormones, and are more likely to be attracted to males. However, these generalizations are just that, and they cannot be used across the board.

But where is the line drawn? My arbitrary definition is 25 or younger. However, a lot of people draw the line to include themselves, even if they're well into their 30's or older.

While age at transition is useful, there are important distinctions effaced by a simple age category. For instance, many of the youngest members of the community come up through different "systems." The queer community is a starting place for many, especially those who are forced out of home or school by intolerance. They seem to be different in notable ways from the women I know who transitioned with parental involvement, and their motivations often seem to be very different.


Although these are often talked about as if they were a binary, they are actually a spectrum or points along an axis. I don't know any transsexual woman who lives 100% out, and I don't know any transsexual woman who lives 100% stealth. Someone always knows. Those who divide our world into stealth or out make an arbitrary dividing line where there really is none.

Everyone has to decide how out or stealth they want to be, although for some, they have no choice by to be out because of their level of passing (see below).

Various levels of stealth have advantages and drawbacks, and one isn't better than the other. It's a very personal decision that must be based on your individual needs.


Again, this is often posed as a binary, but most women inhabit the area between always passing and never passing.

Passing has benefits and drawbacks, as does not passing. Many people in the community consider passing to be very important, and feel those who pass are better than those who don't. This is unfortunate, but it is a prevailing prejudice, and one I find myself guilty of on occasion. I feel very uncomfortable being in public with someone who doesn't pass in certain situations.

Those who pass aren't better or worse than those who don't. I would contend they are luckier, because they are empowered to decide when to share this piece of private information.

Brain sex: the pitfalls of physiology

Many people very much want to prove that transsexualism has a biological cause. This discovery would have enormous political implications. The notion that this is a "lifestyle choice" would no longer be relevant, and they might be able to come up with a way to determine someone is transsexual much sooner and begin addressing their specific health needs.

At this point the limited amount of information sometimes suggests a biological cause such as hormonal influences in fetal development. There have also been limited observations of physiological differences in transsexuals. However, none of this has proven anything conclusive yet.

One of the more enduring concepts to capture the imagination of some in the trans community was the idea of brain sex, popularized in the 1990's by Moir and Jessel in their pop science book Brain Sex. The idea of a female mind trapped in a male body seems to be an extension of the cliche of women trapped in men's bodies. While the idea of brain sex is brought up frequently, the premise and its connection to transsexuality is a tenuous one. I discuss the book Brain Sex and its highly controversial conclusions in my note on gender tests.