13 Myths And Misconceptions About Trans Women

I’m on vacation this week! This post originally appeared in two parts at Skepchick and Queereka. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I’ve chosen to focus this article on trans women only for the sake of brevity and clarity. It is not my intent to contribute to the ongoing cultural erasure of trans men, and I believe their voices, experiences and identities deserve to be heard and understood.  Cis readers please note that much of this can be applied to transsexuality in general.

Debunking myths is one of those things that us skeptics are supposed to do, right?

Okay then…

(my triskaidekaphilia isn’t showing, is it?)

1. Trans women are just really, really, REALLY gay.

This one is impressively persistent, and unbelievably common. It was even pulled out recently while Lance Bass, an openly gay man, was guest-hosting Access Hollywood. The truth is fairly simple: gender identity and sexual orientation have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. A fairly common adage used to address this misunderstanding is “sexual orientation is about who you want to go to bed with, gender identity is about who you want to go to bed as.”

My own preference in addressing it is to simply point out the existence of trans lesbians (that is, trans women who are attracted to other women). Problem solved. Let’s go have tea and scones.

Or so one would hope, anyway.

I think a lot of this confusion stems from how strongly we associate behaviour with gender. The cultural assumption of heterosexuality is so intrinsic, we see gay men as being somehow in defiance of what it is to be a man. They become regarded as female-like or transgender simply by engaging in a mode of sexuality that is more common amongst women than men, even though many gay men express themselves in an almost hyper-masculine way. This misconception is amplified by our overemphasis of sex and sexuality when thinking about gender and what gender means, so we can end up regarding any expression of gender as being about sexuality. Such as the widespread assumption by men that women dress nice or stylishly or sexily primarily as a means of attracting men, rather than simply an expression of their own identity and feelings that day.

This myth is damaging to both trans women and gay men alike. It also often leads to trans issues being swept aside or subsumed within broader discussions of LGBTQ stuff. Such as how this ad that ran in the Canadian newspaper The National Post was largely decried for being homophobic rather than transphobic despite being almost entirely based around promoting fear of transgenderism, and how the narrative of PFC Manning has been written as the story of a gay man in the military, despite the fact that the evidence clearly shows she had been planning to transition immediately upon return to civilian life. She continues to be described even by her supporters in male and masculine terms.

Short answer: sex / gender and sexuality do not have a deterministic relationship to one another. Which is why there are such things as gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the first place.

2. So you’re going to get your penis cut off?

Another impressively common one.

In short, no. That’s not how it works.

I hope I don’t squick you all out too much, but I’ll provide a really rough, basic explanation of one of the common forms of MtF lower surgery (aka SRS, sexual reassignment surgery, aka GRS, genital reconstruction surgery, aka vaginoplasty), using the “inversion method”. The penis is basically split into three pieces. The tip is sort of detached from the bulk of the shaft to be formed into a clitoris. The skin of the shaft is removed and the shaft itself split down the middle. It is then inverted into a vaginal canal such that the exterior circumference of the shaft serves as the vaginal lining. This preserves sensation in the event of penetrative sex as well as allows for a certain degree of natural lubrication during arousal. The testes are indeed discarded but they’re pretty much the only bit of tissue that doesn’t get used. The scrotal tissue is used to form outer labia and create the aesthetic appearance of a typical female vulva. Remaining tissue and skin get used to form a clitoral hood and add additional depth to the vaginal canal as needed.

The procedure is remarkably effective, and has come quite a long way over the decades. Trans women today are able to preserve considerable sensation (often no loss of sensation reported at all), and very many report greatly improved sexual satisfaction and full orgasmic potential. The outward appearance is virtually indistinguishable from any other woman’s vulva. The only two things that are typically at all noticeable are that if your partner is particularly well-endowed, he may notice a slight lack of depth, and the vaginal canal is often a little bit steeper than in cis women, though that can be prevented by a trans woman taking care to exercise proper technique while dilating (a process required to ensure the vaginal canal doesn’t close).

There are a few things that I find particularly troubling about this misconception, or even just casual joking reference to “cutting off your dick”. One is reinforcement of the classic misogynist myth that women are incomplete men. Women are men, minus a few pieces. Female genitals are just the absence of male genitals. Castration anxiety, penis envy, blah blah blah, etc. Clearly, that is not true. Women are their own sex, not simply lesser men. So why should we assume that acquiring girl bits is as simple as lopping off the boy bits and carving a gash?

The other problem is how it reinforces an image of trans women as sexless, mutilated Barbie dolls. It reinforces the idea that we have simply discarded our sex rather than creating for ourselves a new one. It is reductive, and imagines our new state as “less” than our previous one. It reinforces the sense that we’ve rendered ourselves inferior in sacrificing our maleness. The reality is that transition is not a de-sexing of the body, it is a re-sexing of the body. Our genitals are not discarded, they are simply reshaped.

3. So you’ve chosen to get a sex change operation?

SRS is not what changes our sex. That’s only one tiny piece of the puzzle. And many trans women choose not to, or can’t, undergo SRS. A woman is not defined by what’s between her legs.

I lay this one at the feet of the media.

Unless a film or TV show is explicitly about the long, gradual, complex, multifaceted, emotionally harrowing, highly individual process of transition, it is impossible to really portray it accurately or fit it into a plot. Most of the times transition shows up in movies or TV, it’s as a plot device. Why waste time portraying something so complex and gradual when it’s just a little hinge in your narrative?

We’ve all seen it a million times. Bob goes into the hospital as a big, burly, manly dudely dude. Out walks Roberta in her heels and mini-skirt, with her D-cup breasts suddenly magically having appeared out of nowhere, her hair miraculously 12 inches longer, and goes swishing off to sleep with the first unsuspecting guy she can find.

No recovery time! No pain! No blood! No dilation! No bandages and packing! No long, tedious four year process for hormones to do their breast development, skin tone, body hair, fat redistribution thing. No irritating legal hassles with changing name and documentation. No emotional roller-coaster. No spontaneous bursts of tears. No voice training. No re-learning your body language and mannerisms. No anxiety about passing. No joyful revelation the first time you realize you are passing. No crying with happiness the first time you discover you can look in a mirror without hating what you see. No dealing with the scariness and awkwardness of beginning to date again. No re-learning the entire language of fashion and how to dress. No getting accustomed to bras and heels and earrings and annoying nightmarishly fiddly little jewelry clasps. No wondering whether the better orgasms are worth their infrequency. No rediscovering your sexuality. No long, complex process of reacquainting yourself with new genitalia and learning to understand them. No learning what you are and aren’t comfortable wearing. No getting nail polish all over your fingers and eyeliner in your eyeball because you never got a chance to learn how to do that stuff as a little girl. No coming out. No losing friends. No being disowned by family. No growing closer to the people who supported you. No adapting to the loss of male privilege and learning how to deal with cat calls. No nothing. Basically? No transition. None of any of the stuff that makes it such an intense and incredible and traumatic and rewarding and beautiful experience.

And she’s wearing a mini-skirt! After SRS! Which in real life basically amounts to your entire lifetime’s worth of periods condensed into a two month period of recovery. Bloody, hormonal, moody, painful recovery.

And she goes and gets laid, too.

Trivializing? Kinda.

4. “It’s a trap” / Trans women are just gay guys trying to attract straight dudes.

See above about us not being gay guys.

But this one goes a lot deeper, a lot nastier, a lot more demeaning, and a lot more dangerous.

Dangerous in that a great many trans women have lost their lives to sexual partners who felt they were “tricked”.

The concept of “deception” is a tricky one, and it can be very complicated to unpack the various ethical dimensions of disclosure and where a trans person’s responsibility lies in terms of informing her partner. That’s far too big a subject to tackle here, but Zinnia Jones provides a fantastic explanation in this YouTube video. I’d just like to say that I really don’t think it’s our responsibility to give you the opportunity to inflict your bigotry and hang-ups on us; it’s your responsibility to ask (if it’s that big a deal to you). And if a woman was attractive to you one moment and a repulsive, lying whore the next, when all that has changed is that you now know a largely irrelevant detail of her history, the problem is with your perceptions, not her body.

The problematic implications of us being “traps” are a bit too numerous to name them all. A few that come to mind are the basic assumption that we’re “really” men, believing that our decisions all revolve around you and we’re doing this for your sake, not our own (kind of like the earlier example about how men may interpret how a woman dresses), the issues of conflating gender expression with sexual motivations, the concept that femaleness and femininity are artifice and fake, etc.

But I guess the one that I’d most like to unpack is how, like the thoroughly debunked theory of “autogynophilia”, it looks at trans women’s sexuality and motives through a lens of male sexuality and motives. A hypothetical cis male sits on his couch and is absent-mindedly flipping through a porn magazine. He comes across an ad for “shemale” porn. He wonders, “why would anyone ever do that? Why would a man want to become a woman? That’s crazy!” (yeah, let’s put aside the implicit misogyny there… we can talk about that some other time) and rather than think about it in terms of why a woman would want a female body and not a male one, he thinks about it in terms of why a man would want a female body. The conclusions he draws, based upon the assumption that a man is fundamentally a sexual agent and a woman is fundamentally a sexual object, are that the “shemale” is doing it to get laid, to attract men to him with his new hot, curvy, sexual-object of a body. Either that or, as in “autogynophilia”, doing it to have himself as his very own personal sex object.

Never mind what happens to a trans woman’s libido during HRT. Never mind that for very many trans women, that period of time, exactly when the libido starts diminishing, happens to be when commitment often deepens, and any remaining doubts and questions are resolved. Forget that. It MUST be about sex. Because that’s all the female body is good for: sex.


5.  Aren’t you sort of reinforcing stereotypical gender roles? Aren’t you just going along with the idea that having a feminine personality means you must be female? Doesn’t that perpetuate the idea that there are certain ways women and men are “supposed” to be like?

Much like the existence of trans lesbians serves to disprove the “really, really gay” myth, in this case we can point to the existence of butch or tomboy trans women. Ta da! Myth vanishes in a puff of logic. But to explain further…

This is about a very basic confusion: lack of understanding the difference between gender identity and gender expression.

Gender identity is an internal sense of self and what one fundamentally is. It’s the sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither, or in-between, or something else). It is divorced from concepts of what a man or woman is or isn’t supposed to be like, and appears to be very much innate and unchanging. It also appears to be related to the neurological “body map” and relationship to one’s body- feelings of either comfort or alienation.

Gender expression is the degree to which one’s personality, interests and manner of self-expression is culturally regarded as “masculine” or “feminine” (or “androgynous”). This is heavily culturally and socially mediated. What is regarded as feminine in one culture may be regarded as masculine in another. There seem to be some gendered traits that are in varying degrees innate to an individual but gender expression is an aggregation of many, many, many such traits which can occur in an immense variety of combinations.

An imperfect but very helpful breakdown from the Center For Gender Sanity (which I think I’ve used before, actually) can be found here.

What makes a person transsexual, and motivates one to pursue physical transition, is typically a conflict of gender identity with physical, assigned sex. It is not a conflict of gender expression or role with physical, assigned sex. We transition not because we feel we’re too feminine to be men, or that the presence of feminine characteristics means we must be female. The motivation is far deeper and far less analytical than that. We transition simply because we know ourselves to be female… totally independently of how well we do or do not fit into female stereotypes.

Hence we are not simply basing this off of an overly strict concept of gender roles where we need to get our bodies to conform to a socially mandated binary. We are only seeking to get our bodies to conform to our sense of self so that we can feel that they are our own rather than a creepy gross alien thingy that happens to be attached to us. And our existence does not in any way support, perpetuate or rely upon those binaries… we are fundamentally transgressing them and asserting that they may be broken, and sometimes must.

6. If our culture didn’t have such strict gender roles, there would be no need for transition.

This is another mistake stemming from the confusion of gender identity with gender expression, and also again the belief that a trans woman makes her decision because she is uncomfortable with the male gender role rather than the male body.

The argument runs that, basically, if we were to break down the socially arbitrated binary and “gender straitjacket” we would no longer feel any sense of conflict between our selves and our assigned sex.

But, again, we do not transition out of discomfort with the male gender role. We transition out of discomfort with the male body.

No matter how open, enlightened and non-gendered our society could be, most women would go right on feeling just as alienated and disturbed by having a penis, a pair of testicles pumping her full of testosterone, a hairy face and body, a masculine distribution of muscle and fat, a flat chest, that acidic male locker room smell, ruddy oily skin, etc. And most men would go right on feeling creeped out and appalled by having a vagina, menstruating every month, having breasts, soft and smooth skin, no beard, a feminine shape, wide hips, the rising and falling cycle of estrogen and progesterone, etc.

Transsexuality is first and foremost about us and our bodies and our right to be happy within them, not all about social conventions or the politics of gender or what you think society should be or what you think is best for us. People whose gender identity is in conflict with their physiological sex will continue to exist no matter how well we accommodate for variation in gender expression. Solving society’s problems of gender won’t solve all the problems of sex.

Please, take it as a reasonable assumption that we’ve thought this stuff through, our decisions are our own, and we haven’t just been duped by the patriarchy or whatever. It sucks to have people who are ostensibly your allies tell you you’re living your life wrong and that the biggest, most important, most difficult, most thought-through decision you ever made was just a result of being brainwashed by the system, maannnn.

7. You’re so brave!

No. That’s a lovely idea, it is, and thank you. I do appreciate the sentiment and we often enjoy hearing that kind of thing. It’s an enormously tempting  idea, too, and hard to give up. It would be terrific to believe that I’m this wonderfully brave, courageous, strong woman who overcame unimaginable odds to assert her true self without compromise to a hostile, bigoted world. But it just isn’t true. We aren’t brave. We’re scared shitless and in tremendous pain and desperate for a way out, and don’t really have much of a choice.

Imagine you’re being chased by a pack of snarling wolves through a darkened, stormy forest. They’re nipping at your heels, just behind, barking and growling with long strings of saliva dangling from their bared fangs. Your body is aching and sore and straining against the exhaustion, just barely maintaining your sprint through a combination of adrenaline and the terrifying certainty of death should you give in.

Somewhere in the darkness and gloom you suddenly catch a glimpse of light. You run towards it, screaming for help as best you can through your bursting, panting lungs. It is a cabin. You finally make it to the door, you throw it open, and just in nick of time as one of the wolves lunges for your throat, you slam the door shut behind you. At last you’ve escaped. You’re safe.

Inside the cabin sits a friendly old man smoking a pipe and mulling some wine.  As you stand there, shaking and gasping for breath and crying and terrified out of your wits, he smiles and says, “wow, you’re really brave.”

Some of us are brave. Some of us are strong. But that’s not always the case, and can’t necessarily be inferred from our transition. We do what we have to do, however we can, no matter how scared we are.

But on the other hand, as it was articulated in Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, one of my favourite novels:

“Courage is being scared shitless and doing it anyway.”

8. You’re appropriating the female body.

Appropriation is about co-opting someone else’s identity. We’re not doing that. We’re expressing our identity. It is not an act of attempting to emulate or express ourselves as The Other, we are attempting to more accurately and honestly express The Self. We don’t transition into being a new or different person. We become more ourselves. We don’t put on a mask, we take one off. We don’t another cliché metaphor, we just cliché metaphor.

It is not YOUR body or sex that is being in any way appropriated or affected. We are making decisions about our own bodies, our own sex, specifically just trying to feel at home within them…. Which is our choice to make. Our bodies, our choices, yeah?

9. Why can’t you just accept yourself? Why not just learn to be comfortable with who you are?

This one is usually based on analogy to cosmetic surgery and eating disorders.

After all, we do teach people to do their best to accept their bodies and not treat themselves with loathing. We rightly teach people that self-acceptance is of great importance to one’s mental and emotional well-being. The appropriate response to body-image issues is therapy, and to reinforce self-acceptance, not to facilitate an obsession with cosmetic surgery or enable an eating disorder.

But gender dysphoria is not as simple as a “body-image issue”, and has been proven unresponsive to therapy and psychotropic medication. There are certain reasonable expectations a person can have for their body, and there are certain conflicts between body map or self image and physical configuration of the body that deserve to be addressed through medical means.

Consider, for instance, the case of skin grafts for a burn victim, plastic surgery for someone with an extreme socially and psychologically debilitating deformity, or prosthesis for an amputee. In these cases, we don’t simply teach self-acceptance. That is part of the process, sure (as it is with gender transition), but we do provide medical intervention and don’t question or belittle their desire for it. They are only asking for a relatively basic level of bodily integrity. That line is subjective but it is present.

If you’re cisgender, ask yourself: were your genitals to be lost or disfigured in an accident, would you want someone to chastise you for wanting a prosthesis or cosmetic surgery? A body consistent with one’s internal conception of sex and gender is a perfectly reasonable thing to want and a very difficult thing to live without.

Furthermore, these kinds of procedures, and gender transition, have specific, defined end-points and goals. Eating disorders and cosmetic surgery do not. Someone with a severe psychological body-image disorder will, presumably, never feel pretty or thin enough. They will remain unhappy, and the physical changes won’t solve the underlying issue. In the case of gender transition, and cosmetic procedures for burns and deformities, there is an end-point and the procedures consistently produce a great deal of psychological and emotional benefit with significant improvements in the patient’s well-being.

Most medical procedures are not simply about sustaining life. They are about maintaining well-being and improving quality of life. That is what transition provides… a quality of life an individual may reasonably expect. No other procedure or treatment has ever been proven effective or helpful in addressing the extreme detriment to mental health caused by Gender Identity Disorder.

10. You don’t really become female. The process is only cosmetic. You’re still technically a man.

I addressed much of this a few weeks ago in this article. It has chickens!

To summarize: there is no particularly valid reason to prioritize the genetic definition of sex above all other aspects of physical sex: hormones, secondary sexual characteristics, genital configuration, etc. Chromosomes actually don’t play nearly as much of a role in human sexual differentiation as we often think they do. The Y chromosome is mostly deteriorating junk DNA that’s only real function is to turn the gonads into testes. In an XX cell, one of the X chromosomes is deactivated. As such, there’s no real functional difference between a “female” cell and a “male” cell. The process of sexual differentiation in humans is not genetic in nature, but hormonal.

As for the matter of being “cosmetically” female… a trans woman’s secondary sexual characteristics are in no substantial way different from that of a cis woman and are formed through the exact same physical processes. If my breasts are to be deemed “cosmetic”, so too must the breasts of any woman at all.

There is no single variable we can point to that suggests someone is “really” female or not. Doing so for any individual trait will necessarily require excluding some cis women from the category. There are some traits that no trans woman possesses, but there will always be cis women who don’t possess those traits either. As such, there is no definitive way that you can suggest trans women are outside of the category “woman” but all cis women are in. At least not without going into tautologies like “only cis women are really women because trans women aren’t really women”. In so far as the term “woman” is to be at all meaningful and consistent, trans women must be included.

11. Drag queens, transsexuals, transgenders, cross-dressers, what’s the difference?

First, don’t say “transgenders”. Nouning-the-adjective places the category above the person. Say “transgender women/men/people”.

Transgender is an umbrella term that includes all significant deviation from the norms of gender and sex. Drag queens, transsexual people, cross-dressers, transvestic fetishists, people who identity as trans-masculine or trans-feminine, people who are genderqueer, etc. are all included.

Transsexual refers specifically to people who permanently transition from one sex to another, usually through one or more medical treatments such as hormone replacement therapy and/or genital reconstruction surgery, usually along with legal and social changes such as change of legal name and documentation, alternate gender presentation (clothing, make-up, etc.), voice training and so on.

The adjective “trans”, as in “trans woman”, usually means transsexual but sometimes means transgender. It’s usually clear from context. This article, for instance, has been about transsexual women.

Drag queens are men (typically but not always gay) who dress in an exaggeratedly, campily female way for the sake of performance or entertainment. There is typically very little emphasis placed on actually passing as female but instead on having a particularly ostentatious and fun outfit. This is an act of playing with gender roles, not an act based on expression of a deeper internal sense of self. A drag queen adopts a female persona but will (almost always) have a male gender identity.

Cross-dressers are men with a male gender identity who, for a variety of possible reasons, choose to occasionally dress in women’s clothing and accessories and present as female. The acts of cross-sex presentation are temporary and do not reflect their “true self”.

A transvestic fetishist is a cross-dresser who does so for sexual motivations, due to being aroused or getting an erotic thrill from the cross-sex presentation. They also maintain a male gender identity and the cross-sex presentation is temporary.

These distinctions are important. Seriously.

12. Transsexuality is just an invention of the modern medical establishment, a symptom of Western culture.

Hormone replacement therapy and genital reconstruction surgery are modern medical treatments developed to address and accommodate a long-standing human issue.

Gender variance, although it may vary in its particular iteration, will not always be socially accepted or accommodated, and is sometimes only accommodated in very specific ways, occurs in pretty much all cultures and societies throughout human history.

Many cultures were actually fairly accepting and tolerant. Some even imagined transgendered identities to be especially blessed, lucky or powerful… such as a shamanic role for certain North American First Nations “two spirit” identities, the Galli priestesses of Cybele in ancient Greece, the paradoxically respected-and-stigmatized social status of Kathoey in Thailand, the positive social standing of Hjira in India prior to British colonial rule (which brought with it British attitudes towards gender variance), etc.

Gender variance has existed as long as human beings have. Transsexuality is simply a relatively new option for addressing it and meeting the needs of people with a sense of strong disharmony between gender identity and physical sex. It didn’t create us, it is just a means of allowing us to live full, happy, meaningful lives and feel comfortable and at home in our bodies.

13. You’re infiltrating women’s spaces and making them unsafe.

First of all, we are women. So there’s that.

I’m not sure why whatever discomfort may arise from a cis woman’s hang-ups about the thought of a trans woman in the same bathroom or changing room or whatever, and the perceived risk, should take precedence over the extreme discomfort and actual physical risk that a trans woman would be forced to endure in using men’s facilities.

An argument I’ve encountered repeatedly is “well what’s to stop some male rapist or child molester or voyeur from putting on some lipstick, claiming to be transgender, and then sexually assaulting your daughters!”  (Ominous scary organ chord!).

Well… there has never, ever been such an incident. No man has ever disguised himself as transgender for the sake of perpetrating such a crime. And if what you are worried about is sexual assault and voyeurism then those are the issues you should be targeting, enacting policies against, and the people whom you should be demonizing. Don’t demonize and punish innocent trans people over some wild, imagined hypothetical.

Would you ban lesbians from women’s facilities on the possibility of their voyeurism? No, probably not, and it’s extremely statistically unlikely for lesbians to commit sexual assault in such a setting. But… it’s just as unlikely for trans women to do so. And remember that stuff about our libidos? Our difficulty achieving erection if we even have a penis?

If prevention of sexual assault is something you’re keenly interested in then please start by focusing on dismantling a misogynistic culture that objectifies and devalues women and places their humanity as secondary to their bodies.

There is also a lot of anger and controversy within the feminist community about other types of women’s spaces. A particularly prominent example is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which enforces a trans-exclusionist “Womyn-Born-Womyn” policy (though they allow trans men to attend and perform).  Many of the justifications are parallel to those of the Christian right in forbidding us access to women’s bathrooms and changing rooms: we’re really men, it makes the environment unsafe (again, there is absolutely no data whatsoever to support this), what’s to stop men from attending under the pretense of being trans, etc.

But there are additionally complex issues. One is the general transphobic attitudes within certain branches of feminism (particularly radical feminism)…. The notion that we’re enforcing the gender binary (which relates to the “why can’t you just accept yourselves” thing and the confusion of gender identity with gender expression), the weird hypocritically gender-essentialist insistence that although gender is “just a social construct” we are nonetheless completely bound to our assigned sex and may not transcend it, many bio-essentialist claims (such as, literally: “rape is encoded on the Y chromosome”… I’ve actually come across that claim), etc.

It is also sometimes insisted that because we lacked female childhoods and the concomitant gender-socialization that we can’t possibly understand the female experience. That’s true in a sense… there are many aspects of a female life I did not experience and some I never shall. But this is true of every woman. There is no universal, unwavering female narrative that everyone experiences exactly alike. There are as many stories as there are women. To act like any particular thing being absent means someone isn’t “really” a woman and can’t understand womanhood would necessarily mean excluding a whole lot of cis women, too.

All of these notions seem to be acts of bending over backwards and performing intellectual acrobatics to try to disguise their transphobia as being somehow an extension of their feminism when it in fact runs directly contrary to several the fundamental tenets of feminism… that our lives, choices, identities and what we do with our bodies should not be dictated by external forces or forced upon us to conform with what society tells us those with our particular anatomy are supposed to be.

Biology is not destiny. Remember?

In summary, almost all of these misconceptions stem from the assumption that we’re really men, and considering us, our lives, our implications and our choices through a male frame of reference. A woman who is attracted to men is not gay. The existence of a woman as a woman does not reinforce traditional gender roles, nor would the breakdown of those roles cause her to disappear. A woman would not be asked to simply accept a male body.  A woman would not be accused of appropriating womanhood, or infiltrating women’s spaces. A woman’s body, and the aspects of it that render it female, are not simply cosmetic.

If there is one myth to debunk from which all others would perish, it’s the notion that our gender is not legitimate. We are women. Just think of us as such, and you’ll get it.

ETA: When I said that a cross-dresser’s acts of cross-sex presentation do not reflect their “true self”, I should have been more clear: in the case of a CD (as opposed to a trans woman in denial who simply believes herself to be CD), the female presentation / persona isn’t MORE true than the male identity. Both are aspects of that individual’s sense of self. But the primary difference between a genuine CD and a trans woman is that the male identity is not held to be false while the female identity is held to be genuine. Instead, the male identity is still the primary expression of self that is inevitably returned to.


  1. Anders says

    Regarding ‘genetical’ sex, I can easily come up with three or four more ways in which hiccups in genetics can cause atypical combinations of male and female characteristics. Also, the sex-determining chromosome in all animals who have one are degenerate… it’s easy to see why – if there was important non-sex related stuff there then half the species would miss out. In fact, in certain insect species there is no sex-determining chromosome at all. If you have one X you’re male, if you have two Xs you’re female.

  2. says

    I’m not really sure about no. 6. It’s a bit like saying “If we were all born in France, we’d be French”. Those of us who haven’t experienced growing up French in France can’t fully understand what that must be like (et pardonnez-moi l’analogie terrible, s’il vous plait, mes ami[e]s Français[es]).

    I think I could be totally happy with being considered a “person” and addressed as “they”, if only “maleness” didn’t have such negative connotations in my mind. And those connotations are only there because of my own experience; which in its turn is coloured by the way society treats people differently based on what is between their legs (and which none of us asked for).

    But the point is, we haven’t got a perfectly non-sexist society yet, so none of us knows for sure what life in such a society would really be like.

    And yeah — I used to think that transitioning was somehow cheating, letting everybody else down — changing yourself because it was easier than trying to change the rest of the world, which is the real problem. But maybe that was just my own excuse for trying to deny reality to myself. Actually meeting real people who have transitioned — in real life and through the Internet — opened my eyes. Because ….. Well, who the hell would put themselves through that voluntarily, if there was any other way?

    Anyway, changing yourself doesn’t mean you can’t carry on trying to change the rest of the world. Nor that you won’t actually end up in a better position to do so afterwards.

    So ….. now I’m presenting whenever and wherever I feel safe, I’m loving it so far, daring myself to do more, and Natalie — you need to know this — you have helped. Thank you.

  3. says

    This is a rather useful — and nearly comprehensive — assessment of society’s confused attitudes towards trans* issues in general. I missed it the first time around, so it’s good to see it re-posted here.

  4. Alice Magnus says

    Regarding chromosomes and sex there was an interesting case a few years ago…

    A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis. (Source: J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jan;93(1):182-9)

  5. Rilian says

    Bravery is doing what you have to do even if you are afraid.

    Why is transsexual a noun, but transgender is an adjective? Transgender looks like a noun. (But I say transgendered.) Transsexual also looks like an adjective.

    • says

      Transgender is an adjective; the reason you may be thinking of it as a noun is mistaking it for an exact parallel with gender (noun) and gendered (adjective). The -ed suffix for transgendered is accepted as an alternate, but it reinforces the confusion. (And there is at least one dictionary out there that thinks transgender is a noun… facepalm.)

      On the other hand, usage seems to indicate transsexual functions as noun in some contexts, adjective in others (among the dictionaries I consulted, all but one gave noun as the primary definition and the adjective as a secondary; the exception only had a primary noun definition.)

      This is where I rant that I hate the ambiguities of English and the prescriptiveness of dictionaries. The precedent here on this blog is to drop the -ed suffix and use transgender as an adjective.

      • says

        Whoops, should have added, it’s Natalie’s stated preference for transsexual also to be an adjective, not a noun. (If you want to “nounify” TG and TS, add the -ism suffix; TS also admits an -ity suffix.)

        • Rilian says

          It makes sense for them to both be adjectives, though “transgender” without the -ed bothers me, kinda like when people say “holepunch” instead of holepuncher.

          • Transilhouette says

            Regarding “transgendered”: it suggests that some kind of process verbed a transgender person into their “transgendered” state. Etymologically, the roots mean “beyond gender”, so putting that together with “-ed” doesn’t seem to make sense anyway.

            However you interpret it, some people don’t like “transgendered” (for those reasons and others). I’ve never heard of anyone trans who would be bothered by “transgender” and would insist on the suffixed form, so you’re better off sticking with the unsuffixed form, “transgender”.

          • rilian says

            I guess it wasn’t clear, but *I* am bothered by the form without the -ed. So that’s one.

  6. TBS says

    Interesting post.

    I admit I have modeled many of these problmatic reactions.myself.

    Particularly guilty of the “you are so brave”. For me, in my relationship, I felt and still feel, it was rather brave. Given I am really cis and knew nothing of transgender anything. I could have freaked the heck out. Now I think she knew at that point I was a good person, but I realized she takes that chance with everyone she meets. And yes I used the word brave, once or twice.

    Thanks for an engaging post.


    • Robin says

      Mothers of transwomen(I am one) are also often referred to as brave. I admit, like Natalie, that I preen a little at that adjective, but immediately explain to the person saying it that I am not brave. I cried, I wished for “it” to all go away, I hoped my daughter would change her mind – but throughout all of it, I knew that it was no more a choice for me than it was for her.
      This is an excellent post for people who already understand something about transgenderism (and can deal with big words.)I, too, am guilty of many of the thoughts expressed and still struggle with some of it.
      While with my daughter during SRS surgery, I met a transgendering female (I think that might be using an adjective as a verb) and in the course of our conversations I mentioned that I had hoped “it would just go away.” Her answer will always stay with me – she said “we all did.” Simple, from the heart, and so true for both parent and transchild.

  7. says

    Any blog post that mentions the word triskaidekaphilia is automatically awesome. So there.

    As for which of these misconceptions I’ve personally run into in the last four months: 1, 5, 7, and 9. (And discreet attempts to ask 2/3 without being so totally douchey as to blurt it out directly.) These myths are out there in the wild, alive and kicking, and need to be jumped on and squelched into oblivion with steel-capped Wellies.

  8. Eris says

    For those who are interested in genetic syndromes in humans that result in people who don’t really fit the XY = Male XX = female catagories:

    Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Natalie talks about this in one of her linked articles). XY individuals who may have the (general) phenotype of a female (or not, depending on the degree of the syndrom).

    Turner Syndrome. XO Females.

    Klinefelter’s syndrome: XXY (or even more Xs) males.

    XX male syndrome/de la Chapelle syndrome: Individuals who had crossover between the X and the Y chromosome, resulting in a XX individual with the SRY gene. From this, an XX individual with a male phenotype (although he is also sterile).

    There are more, but those are the ones I find most engaging.

  9. Jackson says

    Until I read this, I had assumed that most trans women’s breasts were implanted.

    Is this something you come up against a lot, and does it bother you?

      • Jackson says

        I really don’t know. I guess it just didn’t occur to me that there was another option. I still have a lot to learn about the process, clearly.

        • says

          Just out of curiosity:

          Did you know that trans people usually take hormones? Were you aware of the fact that men can develop breasts as a result of hormonal fluctuations, steroid abuse, etc.?

          • Tex says

            I too had been under the impression that many trans women did get implants just because its a faster route to go and most people are into going the quick route. I was aware of the hormone route though and did know that trans people do take hormones to get all the other little differences sorted out.

          • says

            It really depends. For some it’s the only option, because for whatever reason, HRT doesn’t give very good results in the breast department. In other cases, the results are considerably better. For example, at nearly 5 months, I’d be fine if they stopped at the size they are now (although, if not, I wouldn’t argue 😀 ), and won’t even consider BAS… it’s just not necessary or desirable in a lot of cases…

    • TBS says


      My fiancee has implanted breasts. My understanding is you work with a team over a long period, The idea is as few surgical interventions as possible.

      I don’t think it is unreasonable to think a trans woman might have had cosmetic breast surgery. I would say it isn’t always the same.



  10. Sebor says

    Very interesting list, although I do have one minor problem with it.
    Your treatment of number 13 is mostly from a trans person’s perspective, which is of course valid but maybe the issue of safety deserves consideration from the perspective of those trying to provide safe spaces.

    From their perspective, a person who does not pass as a woman can be either a trans woman or a rapist in disguise, so it is very interesting to consider the numbers.
    Granted my research on this was very superficial, but it should be easy to incorporate different numbers.

    According to what I have read the estimate for prevalence of male to female
    transsexuals of 1 in 10.000 men is probably too small but it will do for the moment.

    If you assume that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 men are rapists and only 1 in 10 rapes is actually a rape by a stranger the only missing number is the amount of rapists who disguise themselves as women.
    Assuming that 1 in 100 rapists (only considering strangers) choose this approach (which is ridiculously high) trans women would outnumber disguised rapists 2 to 1.
    However at 90.000 rapes reported per year in the USA you would expect about 90 rapes per year by strangers disguised as women.
    This is not what we see.
    I can’t remember a single report of this, so the real number is probably less than 1 in 10.000, which would still mean that we should have seen at least one report come up in the last decade.

    However using this estimate trans women already outnumber disguised rapists 200 to 1, so it becomes safe to assume that the hypothetical person not quite passing is a lot more likely to be a trans woman than a rapist. As to people actually capable of passing, are they going to require birth certificates or DNA tests?

    If you are really concerned about safety, the odd chance of “womyn-born-womyn” (SCNR) being rapists (about 1 in 1.000) cannot be neglected compared to the chance of a male rapist disguising himself as a woman. So making something “womyn-born-womyn only” does not automatically make it safe. Go figure.

    This does not even take into account the feasibility of disguising oneself as a woman in order to rape. I don’t want to give advice on how to be a better rapist, so I will just say that the reasons why this is a stupid tactic should be obvious to anyone who reads Natalie’s blog occasionally.

    But it is important not to forget that both cis women and trans women need safe places. Figuring out a way to provide these without engaging in oppression olympics is still an important task.

    • says

      Um… so basically you’re saying “you’re only one-sidedly arguing from the rational perspective, but not including this completely preposterous, absurd perspective that relies on a wild, ridiculous hypothetical that has apparently never actually occurred”?

      The “rapists disguised as trans women” thing DOESN’T FUCKING HAPPEN. And even if there WERE some slim, improbable chance of that happening, there’s absolutely no reason to take it out on innocent trans people.

      • Sebor says

        That’s not what I’m trying to say.
        I thought I made it clear that I consider it a stupid idea to begin with, but by assuming that it does happen I tried to show that the numbers do not agree and that the risk is overstated even if you try to take their hypothetical situation at face value.
        However I try not to assume malice when stupidity would be a sufficient explanation, so trying to consider their perspective fairly is my attempt to separate the wilful from the accidental ignorance.

    • TBS says

      Well Sebor, i statiscically have almost no chance of being raped.

      36 male. White.Run the numbers.

      This will not happen to my fiancee.

      If you can help with that I support you,

      • Sebor says

        If I knew how to stop it I wouldn’t be commenting here.
        All I can say is excluding trans people most likely doesn’t help, and that Natalie is probably right that changing the cultural attitudes towards women is the thing to do.
        Sadly I don’t know how to bring about this change, that’s why I’m still here and not leading a crusade.

    • says

      From their perspective, a person who does not pass as a woman can be either a trans woman or a rapist in disguise, so it is very interesting to consider the numbers.

      What. The. Hell, Sebor?

      But hey, if you want to “consider the numbers”, sure. Let’s ask Richard Carrier over here pronto so he can explain his use of Bayesian statistics methods to find realistic probabilities. In this case we have prior expectation of finding cross-dressing rapists more or less equal to… zero. Cis men certainly do disguise themselves as women occasionally, for reasons other than to cross dress for its own sake; and not to commit rape. I assert the consequent probabilities strongly favour a lack of evidence since there is a suspicious absence of reports of this type of rape (like Carrier’s example of dogs eating student’s homework). After plugging in the numbers from out of your ass, I’m guessing the probability will still be… more or less equal to zero.

      • Sebor says

        Wow, why the hostility? It was certainly not my intention to offend, and I pretty much came to the same conclusion as you did, so I really don’t get where the problem is.

        • says

          What got me was the seeming lack of incredulity expressed at having to make a case for such a position. It looks like a ridiculous example of hyper-scepticism – make up a ludicrous claim but treat it as reasonable.

        • says

          Or to cut a bit closer to the chase than my first flip response just above: I don’t actually see what is “very interesting” about “considering the numbers” when the proposition under consideration appears to be complete BS, not to put too fine a point on it.

          Sorry for the hostility, Sebor, I obviously didn’t read your post the way you probably meant it to read!

          • Sebor says

            I can see why you read it this way the first time around.
            My lack of incredulity was halfway genuine, I consider the idea stupid, but dismissing fears just because they are irrational is something I’m careful about. So in order to address those fears fairly I felt it necessary to take them at face value at first.
            In this particular case, even if you support the principle of charity with a lot of red wine, it looks like a strawman argument, but this is something I don’t like to claim without examining it first.

      • says

        I think that Sebor was trying to demonstrate exactly how absurd the idea that men will dress up as women for the purposes of rape, but kind of ended up wording it very poorly due to over-enthusiasm…

    • Anders says

      Does anyone know if there’s any such case described? From the way people talk it sounds like this is something that happens every week…

      • says

        To the best of my knowledge, no, no cis male rapist or voyeur has EVER disguised themselves as a trans woman in order to gain “approved” access to female-specific facilities and carry out their nefarious deeds.

  11. Anders says

    Could someone explain something to me? I’ve heard the term HRT (Hormone Replacement Treatment) but I’ve also heard that the term EEI (Exogenous Endocrine Intervention) is more accurate? What is the preferred term?

  12. says

    From their perspective, a person who does not pass as a woman can be either a trans woman or a rapist in disguise, so it is very interesting to consider the numbers.

    A cis lesbian could be a rapist, too. No “disguise” even required to enter a ladies’ room. What was your point again?

    • Sebor says

      My point is, that if you seriously entertain the possibility of rapists in disguise, the otherwise small chance of a cis lesbian being a rapist actually becomes significant by comparison.
      So making places safe by excluding trans women does not work.

      • says

        Yes, indeed.

        I suspect the “rapist in disguise” argument is a straw dummy, which gets wheeled out because some people actually realise just how riduculous and prejudiced they would sound, if they were to say “We just don’t want to be reminded that not everybody is exactly like us”.

        The mention of rape, of course, acts a show-stopper; since any argument can be countered with “But! Possibility of rape!!!1!”

        (And for what it’s worth, on the Continent, bathroom facilities often are not segregated by gender.)

  13. Eris says

    One of the things that pisses me off about the “what if they are rapists?” brouhaha is that it relies on one of the stupidest premises in existence:

    That rapists are prevented from raping by the social more of AFAB bathrooms.

    A sign with a symbol of a little person in a skirt doesn’t act as some kind of Star Trek-like shield that people cannot penetrate if they aren’t wearing a dress. No matter what rules you make up about letting people into women’s bathrooms, people with XY chromosomes (including rapist men dressed as men) are perfectly capable of walking right in. If having a sign with a little skirt on it outside a restroom compelled rapists to wear skirts before they walked into the rest room, women could all just wear little signs that said, “Don’t rape me!” and we’d all be safe from rape. But we don’t do that, because that shit doesn’t work; acting like a sign on a bathroom is any different is stupid beyond all measure.

    If a person feels the need to confirm the above, a quick Google search can show that women currently get raped by men in bathrooms, and those men do not feel the need to wear a dress to do so; they just walk the fuck right in. Given that bathroom rapists do not currently feel the need to wear a dress to get into a bathroom and rape, I fail to see how any reasonable person could conclude that bathroom rape is in any way controlled by dress.

    And even if we did buy the premise that men dressed as women had a better chance of getting away with the rape than men dressed as men (and I have seen NO evidence of this), then making up rules that insist that no XY person may wear a dress and go into a women’s bathroom is stupid because we already have rules against raping women in bathrooms and rapists feel no need to follow said rules. Let me reiterate that: a hypothetical man who is willing to wear a dress, go into a bathroom, and rape a woman will not be deterred by a social more against men walking in to a woman’s bathroom with a dress on because they are already perfectly willing to disregard the rules we already have. The only people we’d end up keeping out are the people who aren’t rapists, because only they might feel that they are constrained by the rules.

    So, yeah, I think the whole thing is stupid.

  14. Tex says

    So going tangent to most of the above conversations, but despite the mention in the article I still consider trans-women living openly and honestly with themselves to be very brave. Tried to write an eloquent explanation but couldn’t get the words to sound right so reverting to the idea of bravery being subjective/anyone facing real adversity and not giving up can be an example of bravery.

    “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

  15. says

    “6. If our culture didn’t have such strict gender roles, there would be no need for transition.”

    I have found that this problem is compounded by the pan sexual community (or at least the community that called itself pan sexual up to a few years ago, I dont know if the meaning of that term has shifted) who dont believe in gender identity at all, and believe that gender is something that society conditions you into (there were also a few psychologists that ascribed to this gender theory, that if you raise a boy “as a girl” or vice versa the child would never know the difference).

    Basically Ive had cishetero friends point to the pan sexuals and say “there! see! a non-conventional gender/sexual community that also say that transsexuality is not an innate thing! Can’t call me ignorant now for not getting it! haha!”


    • Miri says

      Hmm, so, according to them, 1 group of ignorant muggles + 1 group of ignorant muggles = ignorance acceptable due to weight of numbers? Something doesn’t seem right about this… to me, it just seems to equal a whole lot of muggly ignorance…

      • says

        well obviously the argument makes no sense, it is a response to the “you dont get it cause youre ignorant/intolerant” scenario. The fact that pansexuality is a very unorthodox gender/sexual identity community that sometimes is under the umbrella of LGBTQ(etc) community, the defense stems from the concept of “it is a matter of opinion” and not “you dont get it because youre a cishetero homophobe family values guy”. They dont get that the evidence says the idea that gender is not innate is wrong, regardless of the personal opinions of the pansexuals. They also dont get that things are not so rainbow cheery and accepting within the LGBT community sometimes. For example, there are many lesbians that dont believe in bisexuality, and that the bisexuals are greedy/experimenting heteros/homos that dont want to admit their homosexuality to their families or themselves

    • J.P. says

      Uh, I have never really interacted with the pansexual community, so I obviously really can’t say anything about common memes with them, but I consider myself pansexual (and more or less genderqueer) and do not consider transness to be bogus or the like. But that might just be because I can relate too much, even though I’m not trans myself. Maybe I should just start using sapiosexual instead? Ah well.

      • says

        As I said, I do not know if the term’s meaning has shifted somewhat. The community that I am referring to as pansexual here (simply because that is the last term I heard this specific community use) believed that gender was something that society imposed on children from birth, that it is a construct of human culture and something that they reject as not being part of their true nature. They generally dress gender-neutral, choose their partners based on the person and (say they) are indifferent to what “gender” that person supposedly is, because they don’t believe in gender. Obviously this ideology leaves no room for transgendered people.

        As for the idiot psychiatrists, dont know if youve heard of this story

      • says

        although I agree, the more we are coming to terms with the wide, varied spectrum that is sexuality and sexual identity there are so many new terms cropping up (and old ones being reassigned) that it can get quite confusing at times 🙂

  16. Mostly Harmless says

    i read what seemed like endless replies on #13 “You’re infiltrating women’s spaces and making them unsafe.”

    I am not an expert on rape, have not studied rape, have not raped anyone and do not have a degree in rape so i might not be fully informed but would like to throw my 2 cents in. don’t beat me up too hard if you disagree, that’s my pimps job;)

    I suspect most raping is unplanned so planning on cross dressing to gain access the ladies room seems unlikely.

    another item to consider is rapists are using male dominance mentality along with a side of mental unbalance to commit a rape. cross dressing would kind of conflict with the male dominance part.

    Even if a rapist were to cross dress with the intent of raping women in a restroom i think there would be plenty of escape time while the rapist struggles to get his junk out of the pantyhose.

  17. Jane Marie says

    I feel that I was meant to be a woman from the bottom of my soul. I do crossdress but to match my inner self to my external one..If I could I woould live fulltime as a woman. I would not want SRS but would like to have my boobs enlarged and body hair removed. Where do I fit in the transgenered scheme of things?

  18. Ease says

    It is good to see Trans members of the community begining to leave more normal lives with bigotry slowly declinning.
    1 myth and misconception of Trans women however is- that they really are women. On a number of levels your chromosone proposition just doesnt stand up and ultimately you do have that male Chromosone match up . As a Trans-woman has never been a real woman, (they are men on hormones, who in almost every way (ie no menstruation) mimic women as of course you already know all to well) it is actually impossible for you to be certain what a real women experiences. I likewise cannot really know this but I can be certain that you also do not. The main thing that sugests that Transgenders are not genuine women is that after succesful surgery and time the majority of TWs are still battling with the issue at various levels. Reasignment and social acceptance has not given them the total freedom and relief they had dreamed. They are still deeply involved in a comparison of themselves to the genuine article. Writing blogs, doing Mardi Gras etc etc. For many sadly the transition despite surgery remains painfully astheitcally obvious and although denying the obvious might make them feel better. The truth is always the truth.
    TG people perhaps consider me the enemy after reading above though I am not. It is wonderful that people who feel deeply troubled by the (physical) sex they were born with (and defines them at a most basic and unchangable level) have the opportunity to change that and live more fullfiled and happy lives. Acceptance, equal opportunity in all things, the ability to identify oneself as one so choses. This is great. Sadly however, though it may make TG people feel better, or enable them to convince themselves that they are the genuine article; they are not, and can only hypothesis exactly what the genuine article thinks and feels. People who are sure of themselves have no need to write blogs or to atempt to dispel alledged myths.

    • says

      “Genuine article” women don’t universally experience the things you claim they universally experience (like menstruation), and “genuine article” women can likewise “only hypothesize” what other “genuine article” women experience. They can’t KNOW one another’s experience and feelings anymore than I (or you) can. Consequently, you’re begging the question: you’re defining me and other trans women as not real women, and then USING the fact that you’ve defined us as such to support your claim for the definition. “You’re not real, because I said so and that means you’re different, and because you’re different, you’re not real”. It’s circular, and idiotic, and completely without any substance. Nice try, but no.

      And shut the fuck up with the whole “I totally support equality you know, and am against bigotry, so you can’t get mad at me for all the incredibly bigoted, stupid, shitty things I’m saying!” routine. It’s pathetic and disingenuous as hell. GTFO.


  1. […] *This is going to be deeply from the perspective of a heterosexual guy, not because I’m ignorant of prejudices regarding sexual assault involving trans/gay/other sexually oriented people, but because I could hardly do it justice. Other folks have done a much better job of that than I ever could. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *