Sex, gender, and gender expression

February 10, 2012

Sex, gender and gender expression are three different things, and conflating two or more of them leads to problems.

Sex is the physical body that  a person has, and can be male, female, both, neither, or in-between.

Gender is what a person knows themselves to be, and can be male, female, both, neither, in-between, or even fluid and changeable.

Gender expression is how a person chooses to express their gender through clothing, make-up, hairstyles, jewellery,  body language etc.

These three are not automatically the same. Assuming so is cis-centric.

Confusing sex with gender leads to attempts to “cure” trans* people through talking therapy (which has never been shown to work.) It also leads to the idea that trans women are “really” men trying to “trick” cis men into having sex with them, and leads to the tragically large list of names read out every Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Confusing gender with gender expression leads people to say daft things like “If we had a completely equal society where men and women could do things without them being labelled as masculine or feminine behaviours, trans* people wouldn’t exist”. Umm, no. Severe Gender Dysphoria, feeling like your body is wrong, is not going to go away just because you  can wear trousers or a dress, or cook or sew or climb trees or repair trucks without people labelling these clothes or behaviours.

Mixing all three together leads to cis people putting trans* people in a Catch-22, where if they don’t look or act “male” or “female” enough then they Aren’t Really Trans, which is really bad when the cis person in question has the power to grant or withhold hormones, access to surgery etc, but if they act, dress, look “too male” or “too female” then they are Reinforcing The Gender Binary, or “acting according to 1950s notions of male and female” or whatever the current catchphrase is. There are going to be butch trans women and femme trans men, because there are butch women and femme men all over the world. It doesn’t make them any less trans.

In conclusion: Don’t confuse sex, gender and gender expression. Always respect other people.

Why “Just don’t watch it” doesn’t work.

January 29, 2012

TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of violence against trans* people


Recently there was outrage when Jonathan Ross – @wossy on Twitter – made some jokes at the expense of trans* people on his TV show, referring to a news story from a while back about an airline employing trans* women as flight attendants. At least one person commented “@TransMediaWatch it’s a TV program. If you don’t like it, vote with your feet and don’t watch it.” (as retweeted by @transmediawatch – I don’t know if they had more comments along this line.) I’ve heard this sentiment expressed before, and I want to explore why I think that this is a pretty clueless thing to say.

Imagine, for a moment, that people believe that anyone who knits is really likely to be a shoplifter. (I’ve chosen this at random to try and avoid offending anybody by using a real example.) Furthermore, people think that they can tell at a glance who is a knitter by the way they dress, look and act. Imagine that people think you are a knitter, whether you are or not. Security guards trail you in shops, security cameras swivel to follow you, and you are treated with suspicion wherever you go. TV programmes continually make jokes about shoplifting knitters, and when you complain you are told “oh it’s just a TV programme, don’t watch it”. People verbally harass you in the street or even physically attack you, while spouting catchphrases from the comedy shows that you were told to just not watch. And if you try to go to the police, you are told that it is your own fault for being a knitter, or even just looking or acting like a knitter.

For trans* people, this is not an exercise in imagination – it is all too real. Every single joke – even if the comedian didn’t intend it to – gives another piece of ammunition to the people who verbally harass, physically attack and even kill trans* people while they were minding their own business just walking down the street.

Now try and tell me, or my trans* friends, that it’s “just a TV programme”

What Is Freedom of speech?

January 27, 2010

Help, help, I’m being oppressed! – Random Peasant in £Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

I had a few ideas for blogs about passing, intersectionality of privilege, and a few other things, but then something happened and I knew I needed to say something.

In brief, an event called Queer Question Time (QQT) was set up in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. One of the people invited was Julie Bindel, who has said and written some very transphobic things. I won’t link to any of her stuff, but if you’re interested it’s very easy to find.

A protest has been set up. Now here’s where it gets interesting. People are saying that Ms Bindel should be allowed to speak, citing “freedom of speech”, and claiming that the protestors are trying to censor Ms Bindel. Other people have already commented on this  better that I ever could, but I have a couple of points to make.

Freedom of Speech seems to be the new phrase du jour, along with things like Political Correctness and Health and Safety. These are all very good things, but have a tendency to be misunderstood and invoked in arguments at every opportunity as some kind of magic trump card.

There is a difference between allowing someone freedom of speech and inviting them to an event when they have repeatedly said things about several sections of the people attending. Conversely, organising a protest is not the same as denying someone feedom of speech.

*That* Feministing post

December 6, 2009

I realise that the few posts I have made so far have been quite abstract. I have been thinking about what I mean by “anti-transphobic feminism”, and a lot of the posts I have lined up seem to be commenting on transphobic fail elsewhere on the Internet, so I have decided that that will be the main point of this blog.

A while back, a post was made on Feministing entitled “Having Sex While Stealth Is Not Sexual Assault”. The post itself was very well-written and had some very good points to make, but the comment thread was, to use the Internet term, Epic Fail.

I managed to read through all the comments without spontaneously combusting, but only just. I don’t recommend it unless you have a very high tolerance for transphobia, transmisogyny, trolling etc. (although there are a *few* very good comments as well.)

The comments can be broadly classified into three types. 1.) Concern trolling, 2.) Treating the whole thing as an intellectual excercise, and 3.) “I’m-not-transphobic-but…”, which was by far the most common.

The concern trolling consisted of comments along the lines of “Well we’re only trying to *help* you, if you don’t come out to people and then something bad happens then don’t come running to us”. This is incredibly patronising on several levels, one of which is that trans people are fully aware that their gender status makes them vulnerable to harrasment, assault and even murder, at a rate which far exceeds that of cis people(1). They certainly don’t need cis people advising them on who to come out to, how or when.

The second type of fail was from people who treated the entire thing as an intellectual excercise and mused on hypothetical situations, and then wondered why trans people were replying and explaining that it isn’t just a philosophical debate, real people and real emotions are involved. They then replied very snootily, asking why people were getting so upset as they were just speaking *hypothetically*. I personally think that it is never acceptable to reduce the lives and experiences of an entire group of people to just some kind of academic subject to be debated and discussed, mostly by people who do not belong to that group, but that is just my opinion.

The third and most common type of fail I have left until last. Heterosexual cis people were arguing that they were a special type of straight which only found cis people attractive (indeed, several people attempted to coin the phrase “heterocissexual”) and therefore if they found a trans person attractive that trans person should tell them of their trans status so they could explain that actually they were not attracted to them.

This is a lot of fail to disentangle, but I will take it point by point. Firstly, is it only me that notices the logic fail in “I only find cis people attractive so if I find a trans person attractive…”? Either there is a subset of heterosexuality that only finds cis people attractive (which I personally doubt) or there are a large number of people out there who would find somebody attractive until they discovered their trans status. This is, in my opinion, transphobia pure and simple.

I may end up being flamed like a piece of chicken at KFC for saying this, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it’s a duck. If a person has a passport, birth certificate and all necessary documentation that states she is female, if she has breasts and a vagina, then she is female (2). If somebody finds her attractive, but would not do if they knew her trans status, then that is transphobia, and transmisogyny to boot.

Indeed, why are there so many cis people (I believe it is mainly the heterosexual cis people, but please feel free to correct me) who do not find trans people attractive if they know of their trans status?

It all comes down to two things. One is that society as a whole does not accept the gender of trans people. “Used to be a…” “Born a…” “Really a…” “What is it?” “What was your name before?” “What is your real name?” All these and many more hurtful and damaging comments highlight the failure of society to accept people for who they really are.

The second is that society trains heterosexual men to be hyper-vigilant of their straightness. No looking, no touching, insults such as queer, poof, bender, batty boy, men are brought up to be so uber-straight that they feel they must guard against anything that might damage their heterosexuality.

And until society changes, trans people will always come off the worse for it.

(1) Estimates of the number of trans people in the UK are about 5000, of a total population of around 63 million. In the UK in 2008/09 there were fewer than 700 murders. Two of these were trans people. The numbers speak for themselves.

(2) Indeed, I would further argue that anyone who considers herself female is. Many trans women cannot afford surgery, cannot have it for medical reasons or choose for any other number of reasons, all of which are valid, not to have surgery. Similary they may live in a country which does not allow them to change their documentation. The example above was given to make my point clearer.

What makes somebody male or female?

December 3, 2009

“What makes a man, is it the woman in his arms/Because she has big titties?/Or is it the way he fights every day?/No it’s probably the titties”

-Excerpt from “Now you’re a man”, the song for the opening credits of “Orgazmo”, an excellent movie by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind South Park.

So what does make somebody a man or a woman? (I’m not ignoring intersex, genderqueer or gender non-conforming people here, that will be a topic for a later post.)

Let’s start with bodies. It’s what bits you’ve got, right? Well, no. Even without considering trans people there are cis people who through accident, illness etc. do not have the bodies you might expect them to have. So that brings us on to the next point.

Chromosomes. Either you’re XX or XY and that’s that, right? Well again, no. Turner’s Syndrome leads to one X chromosome, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome gives a person who is genetically XY but anywhere from slightly to completely female, depending on the exact version of the genetic mutation, and there are several other genetic disorders leading to people with XXY, XYY, and many other combinations. These syndromes are not that rare, one in 1000 males have the condition resulting from XXY genes and a further 1 in 500 will have the genes but not the condition.

Is it how someone looks, acts, or dresses? Once again, no. People of all genders enjoy dressing in ways which you might not expect, and there are many effeminate men, butch women etc. who still consider themselves men and women. As a society we are moving towards realising that men and women can equally participate in activities which were once considered purely masculine or feminine activities.

So what does make someone male or female? I propose something which some people may find a radical notion: A person’s gender is up to that person. It is they, and only they, who can tell us if they are male, female, or in-between.

Unfortunately society seems to be resisting this, which will bring me on to the topics in my next few posts.

A few first thoughts

December 2, 2009

First of all, let me begin by welcoming you. Please, If I ever say something privileged, clueless or anything-ist, call me out on it. I welcome the chance to constantly learn and grow.

I am a cis female bisexual polyamorous kinky vegetarian living in the UK with my partners and several cats. Alana Skye is a pseudonym, from the character in “The Girl From Tomorrow” and “The Skye Boat Song”

I have created this blog because I am angry at all the transphobic flavoured feminism I see on the Internet, and the comment threads full of well-meaning fail at best and downright hostility and open attacks at worst. I want to prove that cis people can sensibly and intelligently comment on trans issues without ticking every box in the bingo square (

I will never know what it is like to be transgendered or transsexual, and I will never claim to be able to imagine it. I am not attempting to speak for trans people here, because that would be incedibly patronising. Instead, I am speaking out for all the cis allies of trans people who are upset at all the transphobia, transmisogyny, and general fail out there.

I will nail my colours to the mast. Trans men are men, trans women are women, and genderqueer, gender non-conforming and intersex people are whatever they say they are, be that male, female, or anything else on the gender spectrum. What I mean by that is that the gender of a person is defined by that person, and no-one else can tell them what their gender is or should be.

I have a lot of thoughts for future posts, and there is what appears to be a never-ending fountain of fail on the Internet to comment on.

One last thought: I identify as bisexual although I realise that gender is a spectrum, not a binary. I just personally don’t feel comfortable with pansexual or omnisexual, although I have no problem with anyone who chooses to use these tems.


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