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what's in a label

I’m a big fan of Lynn Conway.

She transitioned many years ago and has a highly informative website for people who want to research and understand the topic of gender variance, transgenderism and transsexualism.

Here is an excerpt from her website on the use of labels:

“Labels give the illusion of standing for something real, but when you probe deeper, they sort of evaporate! We are what we do, what we feel, how we behave, and what trajectory we follow. We are always a "work in progress", just as all other human beings are. We cannot be defined once and for all by simply having a label pinned on us.

What really counts is what you are feeling inside. What is your body and heart telling you that you need to do? What behaviors have you actually been engaging in? What experiences have you actually had? What gender trajectory seems to make sense for you? What physical and social changes can you, and should you make in order to find a more natural and comfortable physical/social place in life. Can you make those changes and follow that trajectory without sacrificing too much, in employment, family relations, and expectations for finding a love partner in your later life?

Now those are real questions that need real answers. Someone cannot simply diagnose you and tell you: "You are TS, and thus you should do X, Y and Z". It just doesn't work that way. It is far more complex than that.

There are so many variables that it doesn't make sense to attempt "in advance" to try to figure out who is CD vs TG vs TS. You find out by watching what they actually do over time. Some people crossdress and that is enough to make them happy. You could call them "CD's", but how do you know what they might do in ten years? Some people go on to transition socially (usually with the aid of hormones). You could call them "TG's", but what does that really mean? After all, they might go further and get SRS someday, or they might even de-transition someday. Some people go on to social transition and also undergo sex reassignment surgery. You might call them "TS's", but as we'll see in Section II, this too has proven to be a mistake in some cases.

The only thing that you CAN be sure of, when it comes to others, is their real observed behaviors and trajectories: If someone crossdresses, that is a REAL behavior and you can say "that person crossdresses". If someone undergoes social transition, that is a REAL behavior and change-point in their gender trajectory. You can say "so and so underwent TG transition". If someone transitions socially and undergoes SRS, that too is a REAL behavior and change-point in their gender trajectory. You can say, "so and so underwent a TS transition". But there is no meaning to labeling these people as CD, TG and TS - except as a sort of "shorthand notation" for very informally referring to those people.

Please note: That is the way Lynn intends labels to be interpreted here in this website, i.e., as a sort of "shorthand", while always recognizing the great complexity of individual situations and their variability over time . We must also be open to changing, extending and evolving this "shorthand language" as our understandings and empirical models of transgender lives evolve.

Gender-minority labels don't work any better for pinning down "gender minority roles" than "role-playing" used to work to define meaningful real roles in the gay community. Labels, and the presumed roles that go along with them, are just too static. Labels are too confining and too limiting in their effect on people. They are useless as predictors of what someone should do and actually will do as they discover how they really need to live and present themselves to society.

Only you can decide what your heart and body are telling you to do, what behaviors you should explore, and what detailed gender trajectory you should follow. In doing so, you should consider the widest range of options and possibilities. Do not jump to the conclusion that you are a "CD", or are a "TS", and then mimic stereotypes of "what a CD should do or not do", or what "a TS should or should not do". As you go along, be sure to allow your gender trajectory to veer off in possibly unexpected directions from your originally predicted path, as your body and heart learn to feel new things along the way.

In a similar way, many young people nowadays are also moving beyond the labels "straight" vs "gay" or "lesbian" when thinking of love-partnering options, because those labels are also too confining and limit one's options for finding real love in life. For many older people in the gay community those labels have great personal meaning and play an important role in self-defining who they are. The labels thus become tightly coupled with their identity as people, and there is considerable "gay political-correctness" pressure to stick with those labels and to apply them to everyone. However, such labels simply do not work for the many people who are bisexual, and whose love-life trajectories depend upon who they happen to fall in love with”

Intelligent words from an intelligent woman.

You are who you are and that definition holds just for you. You may call yourself a crossdresser but perhaps there is more to it than that. You may really feel you are a woman or instead (like Kate Bornstein) feel you are neither male nor female but a third gender.

Labels can trap us into thinking we belong to a certain group and do what others in that group normally do. Instead do what your heart and mind tell you while doing as little harm as possible to those you love and still being true to yourself.


  1. You are both right, of course! But it seems to me the more obsessive need to define and redefine is based on a need to cast out or exclude those that threaten your social status.

    This may be one reason for me meeting crossdressers and crossdreamers who refuse to call themselves transgender. Somone may suspect that they are transsexual.

    And it most certainly explains much of the separatist agendas (HBS/truscum). They need to make sure that they are not mistaken for crossdressers, crossdreamers on "non-binaries" as they fear this association may lead people to suspect they are not "real women" or "real men".

    We cause ourselves too much unnecessary suffering.

  2. We are our own worst enemies Jack and the infighting makes no sense at all. I am for inclusiveness and anything that elevates people to feeling like they belong to the great mosaic that is humanity.

    Lynn certainly fits into the category of transitioned women who really get it and is secure enough to not feel threatened by those who do not transition but yet feel they are neither completely male nor female.


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