Transgender categories

A definition by nature is both 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 transgender people. 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 reflect the views of the proponent and have exceptions that do not fit easily into rigidly defined parameters.

The Benjamin scale

In 1966, Dr. Harry Benjamin published a scale categorizing those with gender identity and expression into several types. Dr. Benjamin, an endocrinologist, was one of the first medical professionals to study and treat transgender people 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 transgender people discovered this bias, they lied in order to get healthcare. Fortunately today almost all experts accept that 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.”

Proposed 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 transgender people 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 transgender people based on surgical status can be helpful for determining the applicability of someone’s advice for you, personally, I feel that defining transgender people in this way doesn’t tell very much of the picture. Some people transition with no plan to have surgery, and some people have surgery with no plan to transition.

“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 transgender people or the fundamental motivation plays into a lot of problematic stereotypes.

First, classifying gender expression 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 transgender people. 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.

Age at transition

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

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.

Stealth/out

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 transgender people who live 100% out, and I don’t know any transgender people who live 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.

Passing/non-passing

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 being transgender 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 transgender 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 transgender people. 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 transgender peple is a tenuous one. I discuss the book Brain Sex and its highly controversial conclusions in my note on “gender tests.”