Trying to explain the term “transgender” to my mother

My mother will be 70 years young next year and, in all those years on the planet, the number of trans people she has met/knows of, you can count on the fingers of one hand. So, this is not a subject that is familiar to her. It is not a subject that is familiar to most people. So, I thought I’d try and explain using my patented gender pyramid and the help of some famous faces.

In order that I don’t find myself with a law suit on my hands, I should say that I have no idea how the famous faces I have used on the pyramid actually identify. That is a matter for them personally. I have simply made a judgement on how they present themselves. Bearing in mind that all the famous faces (with the possible exception of Mr. Bush) are likely to be very liberal in their outlook and highly supportive of the point I am trying to make, I feel sure they won’t mind being used in this way.

Vic Tanner Davy’s patented pyramid to describe sex, gender, and presentation

The first distinction to be drawn is between sex and gender. According to the OED, sex is “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”. A look at the reproductive organs of an animal will scientifically prove what sex they are. (I am aware that there are a number of rare and specialist medical conditions where this is not the case, but I’m not about to get into that here.)

Sex is at the top of pyramid because it is so deeply embedded. It is shown as either blue or pink – male or female. (I know blue and pink are a cliché, but had I used yellow and green, you would have had to remember that men were yellow and women were green, so I went with the accepted norm!) Currently, it is impossible to completely change your sex. You can go some way towards altering physical/cosmetic aspects, but no male can yet have a functioning uterus and ovaries implanted, and no female can yet have functioning testes implanted.

There are many discourses about this and feel free to disagree, but, for me, the definition of transsexual is someone who has taken, or is taking, steps to change their body physically to that of the other sex. This usually means, in the first instance, taking hormones.

The OED defines gender as “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)”. I’ve called this being a man or a woman. It is not quite as deeply embedded as sex and there is more blurring of the line between blue and pink on the pyramid.

To find out whether someone is a man or a woman, you have to ask them. Where sex is a physical state, gender is a mental state. It is about how you feel. Do you feel like a man or a woman? The answer to this question will, of course, be informed by the individual’s definition of what a man and a woman are, their life experiences, the society in which they live, etc.

Again, this one can be argued, but my definition of transgender is someone who is the opposite sex to the gender they feel themselves to be. A transgender person may or may not decide to become transsexual. It is not a given and being transgender is not a stepping stone on the way to becoming transsexual. However, I would argue that people who have decided to transition and are, by my definition, transsexual must also be transgendered.

(I do not wish to offend anyone so I should say that this point can be strongly argued against. The argument being that, once you transition, you become that sex, ie. your mind and body match, so you can no longer be transgendered. I disagree with this because, as I said earlier, medical science cannot actually change a person’s sex yet.)

The third layer of the pyramid I have called presentation. By this, I mean the way that an individual presents themselves to the world. Do they act, react, dress, in a more feminine or masculine way? It is the most fluid of all the layers, with a spectrum of pink to blue on which an individual may fall at any point.

This is all about society’s definition of what constitutes masculine/feminine behaviour and it changes as one moves around the world through other countries, tribes, and cultures. For a man to wear a skirt in Edinburgh is acceptable masculine behaviour, but may not be so in Chelsea! It is about how an individual confirms to society’s norms for masculine/feminine behaviour, or chooses not to conform, and how other members of that society receive that individual’s presentation.

So, let’s take a look at some famous faces and start a debate! I’ve selected Marilyn Monroe (A) and George W. Bush (H) as polar opposites on the feminine-masculine scale. There is no doubt in the mind of the onlooker that their presentation, gender, and sex are aligned.

Moving in from them on the scale, I have selected Sharon Cohen (B) and Ian Harvie (G). Sharon is a glamorous, curvaceous brunette who won Eurovision in 1998. There is no doubt that she is a very feminine woman, but she was born male. Ian is a bearded, stand-up comedian who grew up in a rural mountain town in Maine. He is a masculine man, but he was born female. They are both transsexual.

Next on the scale are singers George O’Dowd (C) and k.d. Lang (F). When both singers first appeared on the music scene the fact that their presentation was at odds with their gender and sex caused confusion for the public at large. However, just because society was confused, it doesn’t mean that they are, and so cannot be considered transgender. As far as I am aware, they identify happily as homosexual, which by definition means George is a man who loves men and k.d. is a woman who loves women. They both happen to be homosexual, but, as someone like Grayson Perry proves, this is not a given when you queer presentation and gender/sex.

Finally, converging in the centre are Sue Perkins (D) and David Beckham (E). Sitting centrally on the scale indicates a level of androgyny in a person’s presentation. There is no doubt about Sue and David’s gender or sex, unlike that of George and k.d. However, David’s light voice, attention to his grooming, and soft features are, arguably, more feminine characteristics. Sue’s career, style of dress, and forthright views are, arguably, more masculine characteristics. It’s a grey area, but that’s the point.

Take a moment and consider where you sit on the sex, gender, and presentation scales. Are you a straight down the line Marilyn or George, or does your sex/gender/presentation line weave about a bit?

My line starts around k.d., skews off to the right in gender, and veers back to the left in sex. And that, is what makes me transgendered. How’s that for an explanation, Mum?

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