Rethinking 'Who put the "Trans" in Transgender?'

Dr Richard Ekins

PhD, Reader in Cultural and Media Studies, Transgender Archive, University of Ulster at Coleraine

Dr Dave King

PhD, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Liverpool
Gendys Conference, 2004

Drs. King and Ekins
are prolific writers
in this area.
For further details
see our bookshop:
Male femaling
and as editor with
Dr. Dave King: Blending Genders

Published June 2006, Virginia Prince: Pioneer of Transgendering
by Richard Ekins, published by Haworth Press Inc., Paperback: 65 pages £10.83 ISBN: 0789030551


First of all we would like to say how glad we are to be here in Manchester again at what we have come to regard as 'Alice's conference'. We always find this a welcoming environment in which to discuss our ideas and we think we have only missed one previous conference since Alice started the series back in 1990. Alice has been a staunch defender of a view of transgender that encourages the meeting of minds and activities of both those who identify as transgendered and those academics and professionals who do not identify as transgendered but who, for whatever reason, find themselves working with transgendered people. It needs to be said that Alice has been a pioneer of this approach and has stuck with it and we, together with many thousands of others, owe her a debt of gratitude for this.

We may, indeed, owe her a special acknowledgment for the subject of our particular talk today. Alice was one of the first - indeed, possibly THE first - to introduce the term 'transgenderist' to a British audience. Certainly, she, more than anyone, introduced Virginia Prince's view of transvestism to Britain. This is well known to many of us. However, what is probably unknown to all of us - indeed possibly to Alice herself - was that she appeared on a BBC radio programme back in 1979 when the term 'transgenderist' was used for the first time in a British broadcast. Indeed, in the Radio Times listing of this broadcast, the term 'transgenderist' appeared in print for the first time in Britain - as far as we have been able to find out. It may, indeed, have been the first recorded instance of the word 'transgenderist' being used as an umbrella term to include both 'transsexuals' and 'transvestites' anywhere in the world. It is these and related issues that we wish to open up for discussion in this talk.

We have taken the title of our talk from a paper originally presented at a Fantasia Fair symposium in Provincetown, Cape Cod, USA. In this paper, social psychologists Suzanne Kessler and Virginia McKenna specifically asked the question 'Who Put the "Trans" in Transgender?' as part of a symposium entitled 'What is Transgender?'

We think that Kessler and McKenna's writings on gender rank amongst the very finest: their book Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (1978), for instance, has proved to be absolutely seminal - or should we say germinal!

So we were rather disappointed to find that having posed the question 'Who Put the "Trans" in Transgender?' their paper did little more than make a brief acknowledgment to Virginia Prince, before addressing rather different concerns of their own.

We, rather, wish to rethink the question from the standpoint of today. In particular, we want to identify four major approaches to the use of the term 'transgender' and consider the origins, development, consequences and possible futures of each approach.

Needless to say, this is an extensive project. We will use the time available today just to introduce the four approaches and say a little about a few selected issues. We hope that some of you may be able to help us fill in some of the detail and correct any errors that may appear in our presentation. We work as University-based sociologists and transgender theorists who have followed transgender - mainly in the UK - since the mid-1970s. Inevitably, our talk will tend to reflect that fact.

Approach 1: Virginia Prince - Sex is not Gender; Gender is not Sex; Don't let's say too much about Sexuality.

Virginia Prince should be given the major credit for the introduction of the term transgender. She used and continues to use the term - now at 92 years of age - in a very particular way. Moreover, she uses the term as a cornerstone of a very particular philosophy and ideology of cross-dressing and sex-changing. Central to her position are the following:

  1. Sex is biology; gender is social and cultural.

  2. Sex we are born with - male or female - and we cannot change it.

  3. Gender is becoming a boy or a girl; a man or woman. We can become either girls or boys; men or woman.

  4. We can, therefore, change our gender.

  5. People who choose to live full-time in the opposite gender to their sex (with their genitalia of birth) are male women (or female men).

  6. These people deserve a special name.

  7. We should call them 'transgenderists'.

As far as we can see, Virginia first used the term 'transgenderal' in print in 1969. She does not seem to have used the term in print again. In 1978 she changed the term to 'transgenderist' and this then became her preferred lexical compound of the 'trans- ' + 'gend-' type.

Now it is important to grasp that Virginia is a forthright lady. She considers her usage to be consistent, clear and necessary. Those of us who don't agree with her have 'got it wrong'! Theoretically, she is convinced that her sharp distinction between sex and gender is correct. She considers any other use of the term 'transgender' to be confused, confusing or wrong.

We agree that her usage is consistent, although on a personal level she seems to have found it difficult to maintain the strict separation between sex and gender - notably in regard to her female hormone intake and breast development. However, to us, the significance and importance of her position lie in its consequences.

  1. Her use of the term 'transgenderist' was a major conceptual innovation.

  2. Her 'choice' to live as a 'transgenderist' and her development of a 'transgenderist' life-style option and accompanying ideology was a major gender-identity innovation.

  3. Many have identified with Prince's position and live as 'transgenderists'.

Approach 2: Transgender as an Umbrella Term: Who should we Include and Why?

By the late 1970s the terms 'transsexual' and 'transvestite' were in wide usage in many different contexts. In some contexts it was thought useful to coin a term that included both terms. Support groups for 'transvestites' had developed earlier and faster than support groups for 'transsexuals'. The first long-lived 'transsexual' group in the UK, for instance, SHAFT (Self Help Association for Transsexuals) was not formed until 1980. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s and, indeed, to this day, transsexuals would join The Beaumont Society (for heterosexual transvestites), for instance. Also, many transgendered people used their participation in such groups as an important aid to self-understanding and self-identification, some coming to identify as 'transvestite', some as 'transsexual', and some (when the term became available) as transgendered.

The earliest instance that we have found of this umbrella usage of the term was in 1979. The British agony Aunt Claire Rayner, in that year, presented a programme on BBC Radio that featured two 'transsexuals' and one 'transvestite'. After Dr John Randell has made some introductory remarks Rayner adds: "That was Dr John Randell . . . He couldn't tell me how many people there are who are transgenderists - the rather clumsy label that's been devised to cover both transvestites and transsexuals."

This umbrella sense - particularly with the use of 'transgender' as an adjective - then became more widespread as transvestite and transsexual support groups came out of the closet in the mid-1980s. Increasingly, reference was made to the 'Transgender Community'. When Richard established the 'Trans-Gender Archive' at the University of Ulster in January 1986, he spent some considerable time thinking about what to call the Archive. One of the reasons he chose the term 'trans-gender' was that it was intended to include material on the widest possible range of 'trans-gender' phenomena. This included such cultural phenomena as glam rock, youth style, and so on - phenomenon that Marjorie Garber was to write about so tellingly in her book Vested Interests. As a sociologist, it was necessary for him to avoid privileging medical conceptualisations of transgender, and, he chose the term 'transgender' to mark the inclusion in the Archive of transgender phenomena that had escaped the 'medical gaze'. The term 'transgender' was not in widespread use at the end of 1985, hence his choice of 'trans-gender' rather than 'transgender'.

Usage of the umbrella sense of the term transgender gained prominence within the 'transgender community' quite quickly. To take just one example, if you go through the USA transgender subcultural newsletter Renaissance, you can trace the inception and consolidation of the use of 'transgendered' and 'transgender'. Volume 1, No. 1 of August 1987 refers to Renaissance as providing information about 'transgendered behavior' (p. 3). Volume 1, No. 5 of December 1987 includes a reprint of an interview with Richard Ekins about the 'Transgender Archive' (pp. 4-5) throughout which the term is used extensively in the 'transgender community' sense. In the same issue, two other articles are titled 'Conference on Transgender Issues' (p. 2), and 'Transgender Economics 101' (p. 3). 'A Brief History of Renaissance', in May 1990 (Volume 4, No. 5) makes reference to the December 1988 'comprehensive anti- discrimination policy designed to keep Renaissance open to all transgendered people' (p. 4).

In this vein, individuals began to describe themselves as 'transgendered'. Some people who had previously identified as 'transsexuals' preferred the term transgendered. Many 'transvestites' did likewise. Other 'transsexuals' took offence at being included within an umbrella classification.

In the main, however, the umbrella term developed in two rather different directions. In the first place, it was used as convenient shorthand for a targeted population, membership, or audience as in the North American publication: A Who's Who in the Transgendered Community and International Resource Guide of 1993. In the second place, use of the umbrella term could provide a focal point and rallying banner in the quest for anti-discrimination legislation and movements towards equal rights, more generally. Developments in this second direction were more controversial. Some self-identified transsexuals, for instance, felt that their rights and interests were best pursued outside the umbrella usage.

Significantly, the landmark 1993 publication the Who's Who in the Transgendered Community and International Resource Guide had in 1994 become A Who's Who & Resource Guide to the International Transgender Community. The 1994 publication included a 20 page listing of 'Support Groups In The Transgendered Community'; 4 pages of 'Care Providers To The Transgendered Community; 19 pages of 'Businesses In The Transgendered Community'. The publication was primarily concerned with the transgender community in the USA but entries did include those from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK.

Approach 3: Transgender as Transgression - Gender Outlaws, Gender Warriors and Gender Terrorists

It is, of course, possible to consider the 'transgenders' of approaches 1 and 2 to be transgressive in the sense of going beyond the bounds or limits set by the binary gender divide. We do not take this view because within approaches 1 and 2, the emphasis is upon the acceptance of the binary divide but wanting to cross it in various ways without discrimination. Approach 3, on the other hand, is overtly transgressive. With hindsight, we can see forerunners of the approach before the 1990s. However, we date the first clear use of the approach 3 use of the term transgenderist to Holly Boswell (1991) who wrote: "The transgenderist, whether crossing over part-time or full even while masking their genital incongruity gives honest expression to a reality that defies cultural norms." A major impetus for the development of this tradition was Sandy Stone's 1991 article 'The Empire Strikes Back' in which Stone conceptualises transsexuals as 'outside the boundaries of gender'.

Whereas with previous conceptualisations of transgender, the political had tended to take the form of working for equal rights, now transgender rights were linked to a critique of the binary gender divide, itself. Again, Holly Boswell's work was notable here. Although, recognising that in the interests of personal safety, trans people had to make efforts to 'pass', she questioned why this had to be so. Moreover, with their openness to feminist and socialist theory, trans men began to link transgender to revolutionary socialism (Feinberg, 1996); to radical lesbianism (Nataf, 1996); and to the beginnings of a hitherto neglected transgender approach to class, race and masculinity (Volcano and Halberstam, 1999).

Theoretically, the particular significance of this third approach was its links with postmodern literary, cultural and queer theory. Especially significant was Judith Butler's work on gender as performativity. This alliance between literary theory, postmodernism and transgender politics exploded in the mid-to late 1990s. In 1992, Marjorie Garber had set the trend by arguing that bipolar categories of gender create a 'category crisis'. She advocated a third category, a way of describing a space of possibilities. As Bullough, Bullough, and Elias (1997: 18) put it: 'They (bipolar categories) lead to a failure of definitional distinction and result in a border that becomes permeable and permits crossing. Border crossing itself threatens established class, race, and gender norms, and cross- dressing, she holds, is a disruptive element in our society that involves not just a category crisis of male and female, but also the crisis of the category itself.'

In similar vein, books by transactivists such as Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Gordene Mackenzie, Riki Anne Wilchins, and Pat Califia have conceptualised the transgendered individual in terms of what Bernstein terms the 'gender outlaw'. All these books continue in important ways the trend of thinking developed by Garber.

Approach 4: Transgender Studies - A Position Statement

Approaches 1, 2 and 3 have been pioneered and developed, in the main, by transgendered people, themselves. Virginia Prince developed her position largely in opposition to the medicalised 'transsexual' (Harry Benjamin) and the medicalised 'transvestite' (Magnus Hirschfeld). Approach 2 pioneered the flourishing of support groups, greater acceptance for transgendered people, and, to a degree, more equal rights. Approach 3 was part of a movement to redefine the binary gender divide itself. Time will tell how successful it will be. All three approaches, however, have rather different aims and objectives. Indeed, each of the three approaches has tended to develop in opposition to each other, and often arguing that their view is the 'correct' view.

We, however, as academics and as non- trans identified people, have a special interest in approach 4, which we term the 'transgender studies' approach. We will give our position statement on this approach.

In retrospect, we date the starting point of this approach to Harold Garfinkel's paper 'On the Passing and the Management of Intersex Conditions' in 1967. Garfinkel did not use the term transgender. However, he was concerned to study how we 'do gender', how 'gender' is accomplished. To do this he studied 'Agnes' who was seeking sex-reassignment. It later became known that Agnes had been taking her mother's birth control pills since adolescence, but her very feminine appearance taken with her denial of ingesting hormones led to her medical team being fooled that she was intersex. Garfinkel noted that what for most people is not problematic - passing as a man or woman on all occasions - was for Agnes. He studied Agnes's 'doing gender' - how she accomplished her femininity in a range of contexts.

Later, in 1978, Kessler and McKenna built upon Garfinkel's work spelling out very clearly how sex (the body), gender and sexuality ALL have socially constructed components. In the 'natural attitude', we are assigned to one sex OR the other. We are assigned as one sex OR the other at birth on the basis, usually, of a cursory look at our genitals. Gender attribution is the corner stone of the arrangement between the sexes. The binary divide is, itself, a social construction.

We find this view persuasive. Once accepted, ALL particular viewpoints on the interrelations between sex, sexuality and gender become alternative - often competing - social constructions. In particular, all viewpoints are variously constructed from within the interrelations between 'expert', 'member' and 'lay' (Ekins, 1997) definitions of the situation'. There is no underlying 'truth' about sex, sexuality or gender that 'scientists' and other sex, sexuality and gender 'experts' are seeking to unveil.

We take the position that on this view it becomes the task of 'transgender studies' to map the various constructions of transgender phenomena in terms of their origins, developments, interrelations and consequences.

With this in mind, one of us (Richard) established the Transgender Archive at the University of Ulster in 1986. It was organised to reflect this view of the domain of transgender studies. A decade later, in 1996, we published our edited book Blending Genders which laid first claim to the emerging field of transgender studies. In making this claim, we had in mind that the book laid down parameters for what transgender studies might look like once the stress was made on rendering problematic previous conceptualisations and categories of 'transgender' knowledge, from the standpoint of the social construction of knowledge. We suggested that such a field of study would concern itself with the study of the experiences of those who transgendered - from their own point of view. This approach would not privilege medical conceptualisations. The field of study would also study the social organisation of the transgendered; the medicalisation of transgendering; media representations of transgendering and the politics of transgendering.

We divided Blending Genders into five parts: each part was organised around each of these five aspects of transgender studies.

The Future of the Four Transgenders

The significance and influence of the four approaches to transgender have waxed and waned since their inception both within and without the transgender community. We might expect this pattern to continue.

Approach 1 - Virginia Prince - provides a role model, an identity, a script and an ideology. It provides the rationale for an identity politics. By implication, the model allows for females becoming men, for females to renounce femininity and embrace masculinity. These are the strengths of this approach.

It does these things, however, in the basis of a strict separation of sex and gender and an underplaying of sexuality (the erotic). Arguably, the gender theory it draws on is dated. Indeed, its models of masculinity and femininity often have a 1950s flavour, as we have written elsewhere (Ekins and King, 2005). The approach's preferred model of femininity, moreover, is a very middle-class stereotype ('be a lady'). It is politically conservative - pass and 'be polite'.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the approach will founder because of its, arguably, outmoded elements. The approach has, for instance, received an unexpected recent boost. The Gender Recognition Act (2004) allows transgendered individuals to legally 'change sex', not on the basis of genital re-assignment (sex), but on the basis of role change (gender). Living in role for a specified period, a declaration of intent to live in the new role permanently, with certification of 'gender confusion' from a qualified gender practitioner will enable biological males and females to cross the binary divide on the basis of gender. The separation of gender from sex and sexuality that provides the foundation for this newly proposed legislation arguably, provides, amongst other things, an endorsement of the contemporary viability of Approach 1.

Approach 2 - The 'umbrella sense' of transgender - has the advantage of encompassing, in principle, both the full range of transgendered people, without regard to category or mode of transgendering, and their various 'servicers'.

The mid-1980s, in the United Kingdom, for instance, saw the establishing of groups that welcomed both 'transvestites' and 'transsexuals' and their partners and people who fancied them. Rather than advocate one particular view on transgender, the aim was to embrace all views in a spirit of acceptance and mutual support. No particular script received preferential treatment.

Although, throughout the 1980s individuals often spent considerable time trying to classify themselves on the basis of existing categories of TV and TS, there was no rigid party line. In this sense, approach 2 is neutral on classification, ideology, 'explanation' and script. This neutral approach provided a fertile resource for the development of alternative positions, some of which involved organising for greater acceptance in society, greater legal recognition, and so on. What would later be termed identity politics became established within this growing 'transgender community'.

Moreover, the flexibility of the approach meant that when new developments took place within the transgender world the approach could embrace them. This was most noticeable throughout the 1990s when female to male transgender came to prominence. Intersexed people could be included if they wished and, later, those who identified as 'ungendered'. Indeed, on some uses, lesbian and gay people were included within the community.

Approach 3 - transgender as transgression - entails a redefining and a going beyond existing formulations of the binary gender divide. Elsewhere, we have referred to this approach in terms of 'transcending'. The strengths of the approach stem from this.

From the mid-1990s until recently, there has been an exponential growth in gender theory. Transgender theorists working within approach 3 have been major players at the cutting edge of thinking about what has become known as postmodern sex, sexuality and gender. They have put forward a vision of sex, sexuality and gender fluidity that may well be indicative of where many more of us will be heading in the coming decades.

The future of approach 3 is inevitably tied up with the future of postmodernity. If the postmodern esthetic - simulation, prefabrication, intertextuality, and bricolage - continue to take root, we might expect that the views of sex, sexuality and gender being developed within Approach 3 will gain increasing prominence.

Modernity's stress upon of 'science', progress, and rationality as regards sex, sexuality and gender will be increasingly undermined. 'Authenticity' will take on new meanings. For this approach, there is no 'true' self behind the performative. Trans medical technology will become something to call upon for the purposes of 'optional' body modification, as opposed to 'diagnosis', treatment, or management of pathology or disorder.

Approach 4 - that of Transgender Studies - on our view, considers all aspects of transgender diversity with attention to all theorisations of transgender phenomena, including medical, subcultural, feminist and postmodern and their interrelations. The approach privileges the social construction of reality. In that sense, it is partisan as regards its own ontological, epistemological and methodological position, but it is neutral as regards the ideologies, identities and politics it explores. It focuses on mapping their origins, developments and consequences. It is sensitive both to concrete 'lived experience', and to theory, including those conceptualisations as set forth in approaches 1-3. In that sense, it is the most wide-ranging and inclusive of the approaches.

In plotting the fullest range of 'what is', the transgender studies approach sensitises us to a vast range of sex, sexuality and gender complexities and possibilities. Its strengths are those of disciplined and rigorous study. Its commitment is to interpreting 'what is' in the belief that in making meanings we make worlds; and in changing meanings, we change worlds.

Karl Marx argued that prior to his writings, philosophers had interpreted the world, when the task was to change it. Approach 4 is rooted in the view that to change the world we first have to interpret it. Indeed, as we change our interpretations, so we change the world. In making meanings, we make futures. The task for Approach 4 is to study these meanings and futures.


  1. Boswell, H. (1991), The Transgender Alternative, Chrysalis Quarterly, 1 (2): 29-31.
  2. Bullough, B., Bullough, V. L., and Elias, J. (eds), (1997) Gender Blending, New York: Prometheus Books.
  3. Ekins, R., (1997), Male Femaling: A Grounded Theory Approach to Cross-Dressing and Sex-Changing, London and New York: Routledge.
  4. Ekins, R. and King, D. (eds), (1996), Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex- Changing, London and New York: Routledge.
  5. Ekins, R. and King, D. (2005), Pioneers of Transgendering: The Contribution of Virginia Prince, International Journal of Transgenderism, 8: 4.
  6. Feinberg, L. (1996), Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, Boston: Beacon Press.
  7. Garber, M. (1992), Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, New York and London: Routledge.
  8. Garfinkel, H. (1967), Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.Prentice Hall.
  9. Kessler, S. J. and McKenna, W. (1978), Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, New York, Wiley.
  10. Kessler, S. J. and McKenna, W. (2000), Who put the "Trans" in Transgender? Gender Theory and Everyday Life, International Journal of Transgenderism, 4: 3,
  11. Nataf, Z. I. (1996), Lesbians Talk Transgender, London: Scarlet Press.
  12. Prince, V. (1969), Men Who Choose to be Women, Sexology, February, pp. 441-444.
  13. Prince, V. (1978), Transsexuals and Pseudotranssexuals, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 7: 263-273.
  14. Stone, S (1991), The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto, in K. Straub and J. Epstein, (eds), Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, New York, Routledge. Also online at
  15. Volcano, D. and Halberstam, J. (1999), The Drag King Book, London: Serpent's Tale.
Citation: Ekins, R., King, D., (2004), Rethinking 'Who put the "Trans" in Transgender?' GENDYS 2004, The Eighth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 18.07.06