What’s in a Name?

March 2, 2009


“Six Canadian queers,” as Xtra.ca describes them, including the executive director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, Gens Hellquist, have filed a Federal Human Rights Complaint against Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, somewhat secondarily, two spirit people and people who are “gender non-conforming.”

Two spirit people are mentioned in the body of the Complaint, not at the beginning and only as “Aboriginal GLB people.” (p. 6)

The first, explicit claimants of this Complaint of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition–whose mandate nominally includes trans people, but not here–who are gay, lesbian and bisexual are claimants this country has grown accustomed to from the long standing non-inclusive advocacy of Egale Canada. But it is the inclusion of “gender non-conformity” as part of “all things associated” with gays and lesbians and “homosexuality in general” (p. 1) tucked away in the definition of homophobia that is truly significant and possibly novel.

It has allowed the logjam in my own thinking regarding what transgenderism is to break.

Thank you!

This was not my first reaction, however.

I thought this was just the usual imperialism of sexual orientation colonizing trans territory–i.e. transgender identities–while leaving the remaining minority, transsexual people, alone to fend for ourselves. The whole thrust of my advocacy has been to include both transgender and transsexual people, to advocate for both gender expression and gender identity, more or less respectively. Those who have read, listened and truly heard me over the years know this.

My first reaction was anger.

It has always been clear what advocating for transsexual people means; similar clarity with respect to transgender people has previously escaped me. It was an article of faith–as well as practical politics–if not something I could rationally articulate.

A little history.

Discussion at the Trans Issues Committee of Egale Canada in 2004-2005 was marked by a strident refusal by one member to countenance use of the term “gender variant” because, in this member’s belief, “variant” equalled “deviance.” Any space for discussion of gender expression was closed down as a consequence of this stridency. Now, with an undeniably positive turn, and expected wide currency, “gender non-conformity” opens up the discussion again.

Moreover, by their claim to “gender non-conformity” the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition has explicitly, though somewhat secondarily–trans people are always secondary to gay and lesbian people–tied it to sexual orientation: tied sexuality and transgenderism together.

In some ways, this reverses the entire history of the ‘gay rights movement’ which has been one of excluding those perceived to detract from the ability of middle-class, middle-age, white gay and lesbian people from assimilating into society–a policed single-identity movement.

The liberationist wing, somewhat represented by Pink Triangle Press, the Xtra papers and website, has not recently been in ascendance, particularly in the wake of the successes of the assimilationist wing.

This claim has the rather routine effect of leaving transsexual people out in the cold.

There is absolutely no mention of transsexual people in the Complaint as published–and, of course, no mention of transsexual people in Xtra.ca’s rather short piece.

Much routine creativity and energy is being expended on the Egale Canada email list to justify this routine silence. In fact, the spin there is is that this exclusion–not decided by any transsexual people–is really good for trans people–there is yet no comprehension of the inclusion of transgender people.

This is a routine observation on that list.

The Complaint also, interestingly enough, claims two spirit people, declaring quite definitively: “Two-Spirit refers to Aboriginal GLB people.” (p. 6) This counters what I have learned from two spirit teachers who declare their teachings do not concern themselves either with what is between the legs or what is done with it or with whom.

This claim reduces spiritual teachings I have great respect for to mere physicality.

It is true Virginia Prince coined the term “transgender” in the mid-sixties explicitly to counter Harry Benjamin’s articulation, though not invention, of “transsexual.” I would argue–and I believe I’m not alone in doing so–that it wasn’t until the first publication of Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990 that “transgender theory” really took off. For those who understand her, and those who claim they do, Butler provides a strong foundation for both “transgender theory” and “queer theory.”

The notion of performative gender is very useful in arguing there is no necessary or biological basis for gender or sexuality–if not also sex–and provides freedom for those who need it–or need to argue it.

But not all of us seek to leave biology behind.

I believe there was, at that time, a short flirtation with the notion that homosexuals, particularly lesbians, were some sort of third sex. I don’t believe it continues today. On the contrary, in vigorous debate on the Egale Canada email list over the years at least one gay man declared that in sex with men he was never less a man, but hypermasculine. No lesbian was ever so emphatic but it always seemed clear a woman having sex with a woman is no less a woman, either. Neither are some sort of third sex.

Third sex is now a not uncommon repudiation of transsexual men and women.

In my travels across the ‘net I have encountered transsexual women 20 to 30 years post transition/post operation who bring a perspective to current debates often dismissed.

I exchanged comments with one woman who was part of the National Transsexual Counselling Unit out of San Francisco in the late 60’s, early 70’s which was funded in part by Reed Erickson–a transsexual man who was part of early initiatives not only for gay activism, but also for transsexual activism and what is now called New Age.

There is an important essay by Aaron Devor and Nicholas Matte, ONE Inc. and Reed Erickson: The Uneasy Collaboration of Gay and Trans Activism, 1964 – 2003 in Stryker and Whittle’s The Transgender Studies Reader.

Transsexual women such as my correspondent–as well as those who have posted to comments–add further depth, if such is needed, to Namaste’s arguments, particularly in Against Transgender Rights in Sex Change, Social Change. Certainly a polemic title, but a necessary read for those who wish to rationally argue these issues.

The Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition’s human rights Complaint declares the identities–as it claims them–and health needs of sexual orientation and gender non-conformity have been ill-served by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

I would simply make the parallel argument that the identities and health needs of gender identity have not only been ill-served by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, which would, I believe, include transsexual people in the same mandates referred to in the Complaint, but our needs and identities have been ill-served by another organization that has explicitly included us in its mandate but not its advocacy or decision-making.

However, I accept the notion gender non-conformity is an emination, if you will, of sexual orientation, layered on, I would argue, to the sex foundation of identity–layered on to either the cissex or transsex base.

It has always been a commonplace that transsexual people are homosexual (gay, lesbian), bisexual, heterosexual, even asexual in about the same proportions as cissexual people.

Is it any kind of stretch and surely it would be a rational claim that transsexual people are transgender in roughly the same proportions as cissexual people?

This would seem to reverse current arguments of many transgender-identified people that being transsexual is layered on top of being transgender.

I have argued this in Appearances can be deceiving.

I accepted Butler’s argument in her essay on David Reimer that sexual orientation and transgenderism are socially constructed but argued, against Butler, that Reimer’s tragic life demonstrates the persistence of gender identity, including gender identities counter to what is assigned at birth and that, unlike orientation and transgenderism, is not the result of, and is unchanged by, whatever behaviour modification nature or science forces upon us.

I am grateful to the authors of this Complaint for opening another path to this clarity.

A true coalition cannot be formed without a number of conditions being satisfied, among them the laying out with clarity the needs, struggles and embodied lives of the constituents of such a coalition–the precise opposite of policed single-identity movements such as those lead by, historically, Egale Canada and now the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition.

Yet my gratitude knows no bounds for this “coalition” for it has laid out the grounds for their part of the coalition–not in quotes–which includes not only gay, lesbian and bisexual people but also two spirit and transgender people.

The challenge now comes to those whose primary identification is transgender–those whom I would have thought transsexual–who do not also primarily identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the terms of this Complaint to clarify their position, to name themselves as transsexual people have long done, as gay and lesbian people have long done, as two spirit people are doing.

Also as these “six Canadian queers” have now done not only for themselves but also for bisexual people, for transgender people and for two spirit people–whether they will or no.

The choice for those whose primary identification is transgender who do not also primarily identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the terms of this Complaint is either to allow themselves to be claimed by this Complaint and sexual orientation or to name themselves with clarity in preparation to join the coalition.

I encourage them to approach this challenge with the same joy I have.


Butler, J. (2006). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Namaste, V. (2005). Sex change, social change:Reflections on identity, institutions, and imperialism. Toronto: Women’s Press.

Stryker, S. and Whittle, S. (eds.) (2006). The transgender studies reader. New York: Routledge.

UPDATE: Yes, in reply to comments, Prince coined the term “transgenderist.” I have been reading a number of Journal articles and other publications from as recently as the mid/late 90’s and this is the term. In Access Denied, Namaste’s contribution to CLGRO’s System Failure, this is the usage.

I think by the time the Ontario Human Rights Commission Discussion Paper Toward a Commission Policy on Gender Identity, 1999, this had begun/had already disappeared.

It has such a weird sound.

UPDATE II: (March 8, 2009) In the first paragraph of this commentary, I refer to Gens Hellquist, Executive Director of the Canadian Human Rights Coalition who is one of the “six Canadian queers” who have filed this Human Rights Complaint.

In the third paragraph, I refer to the Complaint as the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition’s Human Rights Complaint.

I was wrong.

This is just a Complaint by “six Canadian queers”, one of whom just happens to be the Executive Director of the Coalition. I am curious to know what the relationship of the other five is to the Coalition–or what resources, what knowledge or experience gained through the use of Coalition resources was used in researching, preparing and filing this Complaint.

I am thinking that this was the way for these “six Canadian queers” to get around the mandate of the Coalition which includes “a gender identity that doesn’t conform to the identity assigned at birth.”

This is what some say is the reason Egale Canada created Canadians for Equal Marriage, to avoid its constitutional commitment to intersectionality (see section 2.1; which also requires Egale Canada to be located in Ottawa, not Toronto) and its mandate to include “trans-identified people.”

This now seems to be a venerable tactic of gay, lesbian and bisexual people to get around any notion of or commitment to a GLBT community.

Once, Capital Xtra called for discussions whenever gay and lesbian people and their organizations take part in any part of trans issues. The addition of “trans-identified people”, in the case of Egale Canada, and “gender identity,” in the case of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, to their respective mandates, would have constituted such a discussion.

How many times must we have these discussions?

What is the point even to attempting to have these discussions if they can be side-stepped with such nonchalence–and no one but me to call them on it?

Appearances can be deceiving

February 17, 2009

This started out as a response to comments by Monika, Zelda and particularly Elizabeth’s concern–on the PAR-L list–about the “confusion and contradiction” regarding the “reductive, and of course, essential” aspect of sexual orientation. It started out there, but ended up somewhere else.

The first thing I want to point out is what Stephen Whittle, the current president of the World Professional Association on Transgender Health (WPATH) has said:

I don’t care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’. The question of the ‘gay gene’ or the ‘tranny brain’ is a potentially frightening route to another eugenics programme to destroy the brilliance of difference in the world, and the sooner we reject these projects the better.

I would gloss Whittle’s comment by saying in our culture/society if there is a cause there is a cure; I don’t want to be cured, either

In the history of the evolution of this terminology, where we have, since about the end of the 19th century, been using terms that became gay and lesbian, and from about early 20th century, we have been using terms that have become transvestite, transgender and transsexual, before that time there were people of/about whom we might be tempted to use these terms in the strict demarcations they now have between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression but it would be incorrect to do so. We cannot retrospectively use modern terms; we cannot project our identities back in time.

From my contact with young people, I suspect they may be going back to something like this.

An historical example–before the elaboration of modern terminology–two women are in a relationship, but because they are women there are probably no records of the most important part of their relationship, what they thought of themselves, each other and their relationship itself.

We could, of course, define their relationship by their anatomy, without regard to their self-identification, whatever that might be–it would be easier and support certain political claims of arguments of identity politics.

But for the moment, at least, I would like to leave this question open.

As well as the question whether there is any connection between GLB and T–which arises in the course of the historical evolution of terminology and certain political claims of arguments of identity politics which both reflect and shape historical reality.

This is by way of a response to Elizabeth’s assertion that sexuality is socially constructed. I might well accept the position that sexuality and transgender identities are socially constructed but I strongly contest that transsexual identities are socially constructed.

(It is from here my post to PAR-L continues.)

In any discussion of social construction it is difficult not to mention Judith Butler, especially in relation to both gay and lesbian identities, and transgender identities. I’m not the first but I reserve for myself an emphatic refutation of equating transgender identities with transsexual identities.

This is, I believe, an unfortunate and widespread category error that simply repudiates and erases the everyday/night lives, struggles and needs of transsexual people, particularly transsexual women.

In reading Gender Trouble, now almost 20 years old, one receives the strongest impression Butler was arguing gay and lesbian people, particularly lesbians, are a kind of third sex. This is curious to me in that this attribution, in more recent years, seems exclusive to transsexual people–and in some way connected to our repudiation.

Much more recently, on the Egale Canada email list, in vigorous debate around this matter, one salient point was illuminated: the gay and lesbian people on that list do not accept they are a third sex. One gay man described himself not less a man in sex with men, but, on the contrary, hypermasculine. No lesbian was equally emphatic but the clear message is they are, as Egale Canada and Canadians for Equal Marriage have argued, just the same as heterosexual people, except for what they do in bed and who they do it with.

Now, Egale Canada is open to much criticism from the perspectives of race and class, among others–as I, among others, have quite vigorously done–but it does represent a position that cannot be ignored.

Pichler has asserted that transsexual advocates argue it is about gender. He has simply made the usual category error of subsuming “sex-changing” transsexual people into “gender-changing” transgender people.

I assert I have not changed my sex, merely affirmed it, even though my appearance, over time, seems to support the contention I have merely changed  my gender.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Which brings me back to Butler.

In her essay on the tragic life of David Reimer–Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality, originally published about 10 years after Gender Trouble–Butler uses Reimer to illustrate her central contention: we are inscribed by the Law of the Father/ the Semiotic/the Symbolic; that we have no existence, ontologically or linguistically, before or after this inscription. This is how the subject, or the “I,” comes into existence.

Running through the essay is a reference to Kafka’s “In A Penal Colony.” In it a remarkable execution machine inscribes on the body of The Accused the law he has been convicted of breaking as it kills him.

Throughout what of her work I have read Butler continually returns to her central contention, illuminating it from many quarters of philosophy, psychology and literature in a manner that justifies the description of her work as literary theory–a point she somewhere describes with some bemusement.

Reimer, as a newborn, in what is often described as an accident during circumcision, left his parents frantic. They came to the attention, or brought themselves to the attention, of John Money–one of the “fathers” of transsexual theory–who recommended Reimer be raised as a girl since our gender, if not sex, according to Money, is socially constructed.

To begin all that was needed was an involuntary sex reassignment surgery. Not uncommon for intersex babies–but Reimer was not intersex anymore than he was transsexual.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Growing up Reimer was subject to a further aspect of Money’s social construction theory, behaviour modification: Reimer and his brother were required to play out stereotypical intimate sex/gender role behaviour in front of Money and associates, surprisingly similar to an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It is my understanding these theories have evolved into the current work of Kenneth Zucker of the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto (the former Clarke Institute of Psychiatry).

All his life, Reimer contended something was wrong, long before his parents revealed what had been done to him. At the point they did they sought out the help of Milton Diamond–a long time critic of Money–who advised Reimer to revert. As best he could.

Butler alludes to these parts of Reimer’s life as inscriptions of first Money’s theory of social construction and then Diamond’s theory of the sufficiency of the Y chromosome to determine maleness–and presumably masculinity.

Butler describes the horror of Reimer’s life and his rage, but in a postscript written after Reimer’s suicide and the death, possibly suicide, of his brother, curiously seems not to understand his rage and suicide.

How could Butler, or any cissexual person, understand our rage at being mis-sexed? Or the repudiation of our claims to being mis-sexed?

Reimer was, of course, no more a transsexual person than he was intersex, but his tragic life illuminates that gender identity is emphatically not socially constructed, that it remains constant through no matter what behaviour modification life throws at us.

Appearances can be deceiving.

I have not forgotten Whittle or Elizabeth’s comments.

In the United States more than Canada, gay and lesbian people, not to mention transgender and transsexual people, must ground their identities, much like African-Americans, in biology to withstand the attacks of the Religious Right, even as the Pope over the holidays promulgated a notion of an “ecology of man” positing “natural roles for men and women” that, like the rainforests, must be protected.

One can see in this “ecology” common cause not only for gay and lesbian, transgender and transsexual people, but women also, many of whom are lesbian, transgender and transsexual.

There has always been common cause for gay, lesbian and transgender people on the one hand and transsexual people on the other. Transsexual people have always been part of what, retrospectively, is called the gay rights movement: Reed Erickson and Beth Elliot before Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at Stonewall, Sandy Stone after Stonewall. Not to mention all of us who are gay, lesbian and transgender in about the same proportions as cissexual people.

Until repudiated and erased from the history we helped create/continue to create.

From a feminist perspective this history and present is more pressing still. As women we are subject to the same objectification and hypersexualization as all women are. I argue, with Julia Serano, that our position is more threatening, having given up male privilege.

This is why transsexual women seem so often to be a “spectacle” society can’t get enough of, unlike the relative anonymity of transsexual men; it is the sex we are now that determines, not the sex we were.

This is quite the reverse of the attitude in gay, lesbian and transgender community(ies).

After all, who would want to be a woman?


Butler, J. (2004). Doing justice to someone: Sex reassignment and Allegories of transsexuality. In Butler, J. Undoing gender, pp. 57 – 74. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Serano, J. (2007) Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Whittle, S. (2006). Where did we go wrong? Feminism and trans theory–two teams on the same side. In Stryker, S. and Whittle, S. (eds.) The transgender studies reader, pp. 194-202. New York: Routledge.