Focus: Trans and the contradictions of gender

Focus: Trans and the contradictions of gender

Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott

In this article we will consider issues for sociological understandings of gender in the context of recent debates about transgender, for example the issues raised by an article by Jenni Murray in the Sunday Times Magazine in March 2017. Jenni Murray made it clear that she does not see herself as transphobic and is against any discrimination against trans women, but she did state that she does not consider trans women to be ‘real women’ and it was this that caused the outrage on the part of some trans women; it also drew wider support from other trans women as well as a number of feminists. This was just one incident in a wider set of recent controversies including the no platforming of prominent feminists who are critical of trans and calls to ban books by such feminists. Recently an article by Rebecca Tuvel in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia caused a furore in which she was accused of transphobia for ‘dead naming’,[1] and for talking about ‘male genitalia’ and the past male privilege of trans women. This resulted in an apology from the editorial board of the journal and the editing of the online version of the article.

The term transgender can be used to replace the earlier term ‘transsexual’, but can also cover a much wider set of phenomena including those who choose to inhabit an ambiguous gender position or who reject the gender binary altogether. As used by most trans activists a trans woman is anyone who was labeled as male at birth, but has come to identify as a woman regardless of whether they have been through a medical reassignment process. The term gender, in sociological usage, originally emerged in contradistinction to ‘sex’ – as defined through external anatomical characteristics, hormones and chromosomes. Gender refers to the cultural and social aspects of being male and female as well as to the distinction between them – the, so-called, binary divide.

While the ‘T’ has been included in LBGT since the early 1990s in the UK the Gender Recognition Act, which allowed people to be officially reclassified, as the gender to which they had transitioned, provided that they met particular conditions, was only passed in 2004. There has been an increasing social acceptance of trans individuals in recent years, but rejection, bullying and violence still continue and situations such as trans women being sent to male prisons continue to arise sometimes with tragic consequences, as in the recent death of Vikki Thompson. Trans activists have been successful in campaigning for changes and also mobilizing against those who are critical of them – for example the ‘no platforming’ of feminist public figures who refuse to accept trans women as women.   As Delilah Campbell (2013) said, in relation to an earlier controversy: ‘the expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross’

This situation has made it difficult to speak and write about transgender in any other way than as an advocate for trans rights. As sociologists, however, we consider it important not to only focus on individual rights, but to attempt to explain the wider social context, implications and contradictions arising from all questions of gender, including transgender. Such explanations are not in themselves criticisms of trans individuals. It does seem, however, that some trans activists interpret raising any questions about trans, sometimes even arguing for the social construction of gender, as transphobic. As sociologists we need also to analyse this reaction and understand why the debate has become so polarized.

While some feminists clearly are transphobic their position is personal and/or political but not a sociological. Equally an uncritical endorsement of trans identity politics is a political but not a sociological stance. For the record our own political stance is that we fully accept an individual’s right to change their gender and to have that new identity recognized, but we consider it to be crucial to engage in analysis of how the current debates around and responses to trans are shaped historically, socially and in everyday practice.

Trans and Gender Histories
The concept of gender has developed via a number of perspectives (Jackson and Scott 2000). Early research on intersex and ‘transexualism’ provided a basis for de-coupling sociocultural gender from biological ‘sex’ and ultimately for questioning the binary itself. A significant piece of sociological work on this issue was Garfinkel’s 1967 essay on Agnes, which made it possible to explore more fully gender as social rather than natural. He used the example of someone who was designated as male at birth passing as female to illustrate how, for all of us, ‘sex’ is accomplished rather than given. At the time it was written the term gender had yet to become part of the conceptual vocabulary of feminism and social science. While Agnes’ experiences demonstrated that gender was accomplished rather than given, what is most striking, in Garfinkel’s argument, is the emphasis on how difficult it is to disrupt taken for granted assumptions about the binary. Indeed it is still widely assumed that ‘normally’ ‘there are two sexes and only two sexes’ and everyone must fit into one or the other. ‘Cultural genitals’, the genitals someone ‘ought’ to have, continue to be read from external appearances and it is assumed that outward appearance map readily onto internal physical and psychological states: if someone looks like a woman it is taken for granted that she will have an anatomy, physiology and genetic make up to match and will identify as and feel herself to be a woman. Even though the existence of trans individuals is more widely accepted many, if not most people, still go about their everyday lives as if everybody must fit into one of two gender categories.

In academic circles, however, it is widely assumed that those whose bodies do not match this dichotomous classification, or who cross gender boundaries or who bend or blend definitions of gender, have something to teach us about the ways in which gender is constructed and its significance within contemporary society and culture. This issue has been approached from a number of different feminist sociological perspectives and the importance of thinking about how the binary itself works has been crucial to most of them.

Gender is produced both in everyday meanings and practices for example the ways in which we attribute gender to others or expect men and women to behave, and through social structure for example the continued gendered division of labour in the workplace and the home. The binary divide is social rather than natural but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. The materiality of the gender divide is not based in bodies and biology, but rather in social structure and practice. These structures and practices are, of course, both historically and culturally variable.

Cis v Trans
Discussions of trans and what it means to be trans have produced a new binary divide: that between cis gender and trans gender. Those who are cis gendered have remained in the gender category to which they were assigned at birth as opposed to those who have at some stage adopted a different gender from that to which they were originally assigned. The cis/trans distinction cuts across the gender binary. Cis actually disappears gender as men and women are equally cis

When considering cis privilege in the context of gender politics it should be remembered that gender itself is a hierarchy. To understand cis women as automatically privileged when their gender is intersected with class and race and age is highly problematic.

The setting up of this opposition has some strange effects in that the gender binary appears to be crossable, and therefore not fixed, but yet the adopted/avowed gender identity is seen as real/authentic – as ontologically who one is. Trans activists claim the right to be treated as ‘real’ women or men and yet use cis/trans distinction. Thus trans cuts across the gender binary and paradoxically seems to be both attempting to erase and reinforce it.

These ideas seem to run counter to the notion of gender queer, the position of gender outlaws, and any aspiration to destabilise the binary. As Delilah Campbell notes, the trans politics of the 1990s was dominated by activists who shared the feminist view that gender was ‘socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of transformation through collective action.’ This early Queer activism has been overtaken, in recent years, by a much more essentialist view of gender as natural rather then social constructed and/or individualistic identity politics, a politics of personal choice. Neither of these positions embraces the desire to move entirely beyond gender.

Who counts as a ‘real’ woman?
The notion of who is a ‘real’ woman is at the heart of the recent controversies. It is important not to define womanhood as biological though it clearly is embodied and embodied differently by cis and trans women, not least because the later often undergo complex medical procedures. We should not deny trans women their status as women on the basis of biology. Appealing to the body as a site of authentic womanhood not only risks a slide into essentialism, thus undermining the radical promise of the concept of gender, but also risks homogenizing (cis) women who do not all experience their bodies in the same way.

Legal and social recognition in relation to gender reassignment now depends on particular criteria, which may vary from one country to another.

‘To receive legal and medical gender validation, trans-people have had to follow particular protocols, such as genital reconstructive surgery, that symbolically repatriate them from one side of the gender binary to the other. These criteria, which reflect dominant understandings of sex/gender/sexuality, allowed liberal values of self determination to co-exist with beliefs about the innateness of the gender binary’ (Westbrook and Schilt,2013: 36-7)

What we see here is the basic contradiction between the liberal idea of choice and self-determination existing side by side with the immutability of the gender binary. It is crossable, but cannot be dissolved – everyone must have one of only two genders.

Even when trans women have conformed to all the necessary procedures to accomplish re definition their right to be considered ‘real’ women is contested as it was by Jenni Murray.

We would suggest that arguing about who is as ‘real’ woman is to look at the issue from the wrong end. If we take gender seriously, think about it sociologically, then no one is a ‘real’ woman – there is no such thing as ‘real’ womanhood, because it is in itself a social construct. Moreover there is a huge variation in what it means to be male or female and in the lived experience of such. Nonetheless, there is a difference between staying with the gender assigned at birth and changing that gender. So what difference does this biographical difference make?

While many trans individuals give accounts of growing up feeling that they were designated as the wrong gender it is nevertheless the case that they would have been experienced by others as being of the gender assigned to them at birth and they will have been shaped by this experience. Gender is relational and relationships with others will be shaped by pre transition interaction, and experiences, no matter how accepting friends, family and colleagues may be of the change. It is important to think of biography not just in individual terms, but as something which, following C. Wright Mills, is embedded in history and social structural context. In this case a history in which gender transition is a possibility, and a social structure in which gender remains a hierarchical binary and not simply a matter of identity.

One consequence of the wider recognition of trans and the increased availability of support for transition, alongside a wider context in which essentialist views hold a good deal of sway, is that a small but increasing number of children are being defined as trans. Being trans is a more visible and available both as an identity and an explanation of gender atypical behavior and this increases the possibility of children being defined as trans and indeed of children themselves seeing changing gender as an option.

A further issue that is often raised is that of the male privilege which trans women are deemed to have benefited from prior to their transition. The degree to which this is the case, however, is mediated by, among other things, class, ethnicity and the age at which they made the transition. Trans women have made a decision, which results in them becoming downwardly mobile within the gender order, and in this process ‘they are shedding the patriarchal dividend that accrues to men as a group’ (Connell). Some trans women are shocked to be treated as ‘sex objects’ or not taken seriously in discussions with men some also loose out in material and interpersonal terms. Nonetheless, there are also some trans women who carry the ‘patriarchal dividend’ with them in the shape of resources and/or career advantages. For example Jenny Roberts, as quoted in Jenni Murray’s article, acknowledges the masculine attributes that she continues to carry with her.

Within current trans politics there appear to be two distinct strands, which have a tendency to become muddled. On the one hand is the idea captured in the old trope of a woman trapped in a male body, or more recently having a female brain in a male body, in this case transitioning restores the individual to what she was all along. On the other hand is the current ideal of personal choice and individuals having right to be whoever they want to be, leading to the view that anybody who identifies as a woman is a woman. In both cases these ideas can be accommodated within a notion of respect for diversity, which means that there is little pressure on the majority of people to seriously question who they are. Thus the gendered and heteronormative order remains unchallenged as is the case with the idea that gay and lesbian people are born that way, and therefore heterosexuals must be too. In both cases gender is seen as an individual characteristic rather then a social division.

This muddle results in trans being simultaneously seen as undermining of the rigid gender binary and also enabling the claim that trans people are authentically, really, intrinsically on the side of their reassigned gender. This is how trans can be seen as unsettling the binary and reinforcing it at the same time. Some versions of this choice seem to hark back to the earlier queer politics of multiple genders as Halberstam (2012: 337). put it ‘a kind of neo-liberal model of gender queerness in which we are supposed to see as many genders and sexes as there are bodies’.

The problem is the binary
The underlying issue here is the intransigence of the gender binary. Gender is so foundational to who we are, to being human, and the binary is so entrenched that those who are at odds with their assigned gender might see no other option but to cross it in order to find a liveable place to be. There is a minority who identify as non-binary, but this is difficult to sustain and may only be possible in the context of specific support networks and queer communities.

In our view gender should not be understood as an individual attribute, but rather as a social division and cultural distinction. The feminist sociologist Christine Delphy discussed this confusion in relation to the variability of the ‘content’ of gender, individually, historically and cross-culturally alongside the constancy of the container – the binary categories of male and female, themselves. The container’s boundaries remain even if they are elastic enough to cope with varying and overlapping content. The gender binary continues to be immutable at the level of both structure and practice and it continues to be extremely difficult to think outside of this binary.

We need to remember, in general and specifically in the context of trans, to think, not only about gendered identities but also about gendered inequalities and gendered structures and therefore about the materiality of socially constructed gender. Thinking about gender only as a matter of individual identity undermines both the feminist project, which aims to deal with systematic oppression, and also sociology, which seeks to explain personal troubles as public issues rather then seeing them as matters to be resolved primarily through individual choices.

The gender binary continues to seem intractable and the polarisation between trans and cis paradoxically serves to reinforce it. As Christine Delphy (1993: 9) says ‘Perhaps we shall only really be able to think about gender when we can imagine non gender’

[1] Dead naming refers to the act of drawing attention to a trans person’s pre transition name and thus indicating that they were once the other gender. For some trans people this contradicts their position that they were always the gender they are now and had been wrongly designated as the opposite gender. This is complicated by the fact that for other trans individuals their previous gender is acknowledged as important – a famous example being Caitlin Jenner’s continued recognition of her past self and life as Bruce – ironically it was Jenner who Tuvel was castigated for of ‘dead naming’.


Campbell, D. (2013) ‘Who Owns GenderTrouble & Strife.
Connell, R. (2012) ‘Transexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics’ Signs 37:4 pp 857-881.
Delphy, C. (1993) ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’, Women’s Studies International Forum.
Garfinkel, H (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Halberstam, J. (2012) ‘Global Female Masculinities, Sexualities’ 15:3/4 pp336-354.
Jackson, S. and Scott, S. (2000) Gender and Sociology: A Reader, London: Routledge.
Westbrook, L. and Schilt, K. (2014) Doing gender, determining gender: transgender people, gender panics, and the maintenance of the sex/gender/sexuality system, Gender and Society 28:1 pp 32-57.

 Stevi Jackson is Professor of Women’s Studies at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York, UK. Her research areas are currently: theorising sexuality, especially heterosexuality; theories of self and subjectivity; modernity, gender and intimacy in Asia and Europe. She has published widely in these areas. Sue Scott is a sociologist. She is Honorary Professor in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, and Visiting Professor at the University of Helsinki. With John Holmwood and Gurminer K Bhambra she is a founder and Managing Editor of Discover Society. She has published widely on sexuality, gender risk and childhood and sex education, often with Stevi Jackson.