What makes a trans

In an age where gender is often reduced down to both biological essentialism and gender performativity, it is worth considering the three core elements that make up what should be consider a person’s gender identity: internal gender compass, gender expression, and chromosomal biology. Some feminists, along with a vocal minority of politicians, newspapers, and Twitteratti, seek to confine gender, especially whether being trans is a moral sin, into discrete boxes, usually those of biology and gender expression. This then begs the question: what makes a person trans? I would go one step further and flip the question around, what makes a person gender X, Y, or none?

It is easy to get wrapped up in talk about what makes a woman a woman, that a trans woman cannot possibly be a woman because she has not shared a host of tick box lived experiences. This is highly reductive, because for every aspect of womanhood brought to the table, femininity, rape, periods, ability to give birth, pressure under the patriarchy etc., you can easily point to a significant minority of assigned female at birth women who have not had those experiences. Indeed, by simply reducing the female experience to a series of boxes you repeat centuries, millennia, of control that feminism seeks to unbind.

This essentialism then focuses on gender expression, namely that many trans women hyper feminise, and conversely, to be a woman is to uphold some sort of societal beauty standard that most women find exhausting. The deep irony with this is that trans women are forced to hyper feminise due to both the medical community’s outdated notions of what womanhood is and by the knowledge that if you express your gender in more relaxed fashion you could be targeted and possibly killed. However, there is also the need to recognise that a central plank of feminism has been to deconstruct the performative nature of gender, namely that to be a woman is far more than lipstick, heels, and a short skirt. That trans women are judged and critiqued for upholding outdated gender notions by both cis folk who see us as traps and feminists for being patriarchal enemy agents leaves trans women with little space to manoeuvre.

In the fallout from having to defend all aspects of our identities, the remaining aspect of gender, namely a person’s internal gender compass, gets left in the dust. By ignoring this crucial element of triune gender society at large fails to grapple with the most central aspect of gender, namely that gender is societal construct, and that the only way to navigate this constructed world is to use our own internal gender compass to navigate it. Often cis folk will ask a trans person why they identify with the gender they do, and the answer invariably falls into shades of because this is how I feel. Cue reductive conversations about how you can possibly know, and once more the conversation becomes exhausting. Yet, flip the question round onto cis folk, ask them to explain why they feel the gender they do, and watch them shrug their shoulders and say exactly the same answer. Gender identity works both ways, yet it is always trans folk who are on the hook for it.

I will repeat for the back of the audience that being trans is a cis world’s problem, that all of the questions that triune gender brings up are a lens on cis notions of gender, and that as soon as you step outside of the boundaries laid by cis society at large you come under immense pressure to re-conform to their expectations. This is exactly the battle that many feminists have be waging for the last sixty years, that people should be able to express themselves in whatever form they like regardless of biology and societal gender expectation. What works for feminists, especially hard fought and won butch lesbians identities, should easily translate into what works for trans folk. Yet it does not, because biological essentialism gets in the way.

I honestly get why many older feminists are afraid of trans folk, especially trans women, existing in women’s spaces. Those spaces were carved out and hard won, a desire to be free of the suffocating overbearing male society which batters and kills women with seeming impunity. Yet, trans women can be just as marginalised, just as beaten down. It is not a race to the bottom of what ever sordid deeds are thrust upon us. Rather, it should be solidarity and recognition that womanhood comes in 3.6 billion different shades and hues, and that to reduce those lived experiences down to a set of tick boxes benefits no-one but those who seek to control.

What makes a trans person is no more complicated than what makes a cis. We all must navigate societally constructed notions of gender, each of us externalising our gender how we wish. Some pick a feminine approach, others a masculine, yet others eschew these roles entirely and go off on their own unbeaten track. That chromosomal biology gives us a certain canvas through which to project this is a fluke of birth, and to reduce a person down to that fluke of birth is reductive, cruel, and oppressive. Indeed, those who seek to profit from selling us the idealised version of a given gender, and those who use gender as an offensive weapon in continuing the oppression of half the world, are the only beneficiaries of using the fluke of birth as a marker of a person’s gender. What makes a trans is not only the personal decision to cross the gender Rubicon, but societal understanding of what gender is.

In some respects I am being as reductive in situating gender as a triune notion, three elements indivisible from each other, yet without simplifying it to allow for conversation there is always the danger that folk talk at cross purposes. There is much to be admired in fighting against gender being reduced to the clothes and make-up we wear, as much as there is to be breaking down the strict boundaries between masculine and feminine. Feminism has come a long way in a short space of time, and while the battles are more cold war than conflagration, the only victors are those who seek to maintain the status quo. What makes a trans person only matters when you seek to reduce gender, and gender identity, down to base reductive parts. This in turn makes all folks lives harder because they are somehow expected to live up, or down, to whatever gender roles thrust on them. Breaking loose from those bindings should be a celebratory act, not some act of gender sedition, for anyone cis or trans should be free to do it.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Writer, researcher, and generally curious