Theorising Trans/gender Politics

Surya Monro

Leeds Metropolitan University
Gendys Conference, 2004

Author of
Gender Politics:
Citizenship, Activism, and Diversity

Published by Pluto Press Ltd


I am delighted to have been invited to talk to you today about some of the research that I have been doing over the last few years. I would like to thank Alice Purnell and the other members of Gendys - and the wider community - for their support with my work. Most of the work I've done in the field of trans has been focused on issues such as citizenship, social rights, and social policy. I think that creating positive change in the world - working for a more equal and tolerant society - is the key task at hand. However, today I am going to take a different route, and discuss some of the theoretical aspects of gender diversity. I know that theory isn't everyone's cup of tea, so I hope you will bear with me. However, I myself have felt very excited about the way in which gender diversity challenges and opens up gender theory, and I also feel that using the tools provided by some aspects of gender theory may help us understand ourselves, and support the movement for gender equality.



I will start by briefly explaining where I am coming from and the type of research I've done. I'll then move on to look at the way in which certain types of trans and intersex identity challenge gender and sexual orientation binaries. Then I'll outline and evaluate some of the different strands of gender theory, (leaving out queer theory here as I don't have enough time to cover it) before finishing by outlining three alternative approaches to understanding gender diversity. My theory work includes people who do not identify as trans, as well as those who do. I'd like to emphasise that I realise that many trans and intersex people identify as completely male or female, so that discussing gender as a broader spectrum is not relevant to them personally. And, one of the difficulties with doing theory work is that it is impossible to avoid generalising to an extent - I hope that I have not ignored the diversity within our communities.


My data has been drawn from three main studies. Firstly, I draw on an in depth exploration of trans politics, which I conducted during the 1990s, and which included transsexuals, intersex people, cross dressers, drag kings and queens and others. Secondly, I have included data from a small study of gender and sexual diversity in India, which I conducted in 2003. Lastly, I conducted interviews with a number of bisexual, lesbian and gay, and trans people during 2003, as a way of updating the earlier study on transgender. I shall identify myself at this stage as a female bodied bisexual, who does not identify as trans in any substantial way at present, but who has explored some trans identities in the past.

Gender diversity

We live in a world that is deeply structured by gender binaries. The categorisation of people as 'male' or 'female' permeates every level of society. Gender diversity provides a challenge to the gender binary system in a number of ways. Whilst the majority of trans people, intersex people, and cross dressers exist within a gender binary system, identifying as either male or female, there are a range of other people who are gender diverse. The types of gender diversity which challenge the gender binary system include:

  • Intersex, which disrupts the binary system on two levels - physical, as the various conditions subsumed under the umbrella term of intersex involve physiological characteristics (for example chromosomal, hormonal and gonadal) which are other than (or a mixture of) those conventionally associated with males and females; and identity, as research contributions showed that in some cases intersex people wish to have an identity that is other, or in addition to, male or female.
  • People who are born as male or female but seek to identify as androgynous, third, fourth, or other sexes or genders, or as non gendered.
  • Fluidity amongst gender diverse people, including transsexuals, drag kings and queens, cross dressers and transvestites.
  • 'Gender queer': This is any type of trans identity that is not always male or female. It is where people feel they are a mixture of male and female.

So, overall, gender diversity challenges the rigid categories of male/female (and gay/straight). What does this mean for the way we think about gender' Gender theory, including many forms of feminism, and masculinity studies, rely on the idea that people are either male or female. This has led to some extremely oppressive, developments, in particular the work of transphobic feminists such as the delightful Janice Raymond.

Gender Theories

Gender binaried approaches

The different types of feminism that developed in the 1980s share a problematic reliance on gender binarism. For example:

  • Liberal feminism stems from eighteenth and nineteenth century thinking concerning individual equal rights (see Tong 1998: 10) and frames men and women as separate and different. As the 'mainstream' face of feminism, it involves a focus on achieving equal rights via reform, particularly in the public sphere - legal, institutional and political struggles for equality (Beasley 1999: 51-52).
  • Radical feminism describes sexual oppression as the primary oppression for women, and other forms of power are often seen as stemming from patriarchy (social systems of male domination). Men as a group are considered to be the beneficiaries of this systematic and systemic form of power (Beasley 1999: 55). Women are seen as having more in common with each other than any woman has with any man, and various degrees of woman centeredness and separatism are encouraged, ranging from support for other women to the political rejection of heterosexuality (see Beasley 1999: 54-56).
  • Masculinities studies, which encompass a number of perspectives. The conservative perspective is rooted in an (gender binaried) essentialism, in which traditional ideologies of masculinity and femininity are seen as natural expressions of male and female biological, and other, differences. Profeminist approaches to masculinity studies are useful for theorising gender and sexual diversity insofar as they support the equality of women and men. However, like feminisms, they tend to reinforce gender divisions by framing women and men as distinct groups.

Gender theories that move beyond binaries

Black feminisms emerging in the 1980s began to break down rigid ideas of gender binaries. These form a variety of positions, and share an underlying critique of white feminism's lack of attention to race and ethnicity. White feminism is seen as marginalizing or repressing differences between women, and any idea of a universal female identity is deemed problematic.

Poststructuralist approaches

The theories that I have described so far tend to assume that men and women are the only types of sexed/gendered people, and that categories are discrete - even where there is fluidity of gender roles. Poststructuralism goes beyond these approaches, deconstructing not only rigid gender roles, but also the notions of 'male' and 'female' themselves. Poststructuralists, who take a range of different approaches, share a critique of the idea that we make decisions rationally on the basis of a unified sense of self, and that there is an essential truth.

Instead, they see subjectivity as socially constructed, often contradictory, and fragile, and reject the notion that there is an underlying reality in our world - instead, 'reality', including gender binaries, is seen as constructed via the exclusion of other options (Beasley 1999). For example, the development of a 'male' identity involves the rejection of supposedly 'female' characteristics, such as the 'caring' involved in playing with dolls, and the identification with supposedly 'masculine' traits, such as being competitive. Although we tend to think that our bodies are a 'given', actually our experience of them is formed by discourses (internalised social meanings).

Poststructuralism has had a profound effect on ways of conceptualising gender diversity, with a number of trans authors drawing on the work of poststructuralists such as Butler (for instance Prosser 1998, Wilchins 1997, More and Whittle 1999).

  • Poststructuralist transgender and other theories tend to overlook the importance of the body. Contributors mentioned the limits of surgery and the high rates of complications, the effects of hormones and the impact of stature, age and appearance on 'passing'. Research by authors such as Zhou, Hofman, Gooren and Swaab (1995) provides evidence for biological determinism.
  • some transgender and other people experience themselves as having an essential self, or gender identity, that is 'other' than their body or social conditioning. Whilst this may, ultimately, also be constructed, denial of people's lived experience can be oppressive.
  • poststructuralism (and postmodernism) undermines the unitary nature of identity, because everything is seen as constructed. This is problematic for identity politics.

Gender Pluralist theory

This section aims to explore different ways of conceptualising gender and sexual pluralism. Theorising the spaces that are opened up when rigid gender binaries are destabilised provokes a number of questions:

[i] Is gender diversity likely to be contained within male/female categories, by expanding these categories?

[ii] Is it possible to move beyond gender altogether?

[iii]Or, is a gender plural system emerging, in which male/female categories are complemented by other identities, and if so, how can this be theorised?

These questions are addressed by different theoretical approaches, which I outline below. The approaches overlap in practice - and it's important to point out that other factors intersect with gender - such as 'race', nationality, age, and class. So that, for example, someone who is middle class, white and able bodied might be more able to explore a gender pluralist approach to their identity than someone less privileged.

[i] The Expansion of Male and Female Categories

The elasticity of gender binary categories allows gender diversity to be subsumed into 'male' and 'female' - at least to an extent. This is why, for example, David Beckham can wear earrings and effeminate clothing without his masculinity being disputed. Expanding the gender binary categories involves theorising femininities and masculinities as diverse, including people who have bodies or social roles that are different to those traditionally associated with women and men, for example, intersex people living as male or female (see Dreger 2000). This understanding of femininities and masculinities as plural is helpful in theorising gender and sexual diversity, because it includes people such as camp gay men and butch women.

There are limitations to the 'expanded gender binaries' model, which can be illustrated by looking at the notion of female masculinities. Halberstam (2002) describes a range of female masculinities, for example tomboys, butch dykes, and masculine heterosexual women. This interpretation of gender problematically erases non binaried trans identities. Another problem with the expanded binaries model is that it fails to include those people who fall more fully outside of the gender binary system, and perhaps defuses the potential for gender pluralism because some alternative identities are subsumed into 'male' and 'female'. However, it is a pragmatic strategy, enabling many people with diverse sexualities and genders to gain social rights and acceptance, as well as perhaps broadening out options for others.

[ii] Moving Beyond Gender

Feminist authors such as Lorber (1993) argue for the 'degendering' of society. Authors such as Stone (1991), Bornstein (1994) and Cameron (1996) describe transsexuality as a place outside of duality. Notions of moving beyond gender, and gender liminality, are useful for conceptualising gender diversity. A number of contributors discussed the need for a less heavily gendered society - for example, the use of 'male' and 'female' on forms when sex/gender is irrelevant to the matter at hand. In a society where there is less concern with gender, androgynous and gender ambiguous people would face less barriers to social inclusion, and gender norms overall would be less heavily enforced. A certain amount of degendering is clearly helpful in achieving a more equal, inclusive society.

Despite the advantages of decategorisation, there are some difficulties with the 'degendering' approaches. Firstly, once fluidity is named, it becomes a space which people can inhabit (see Prosser 1998), and is therefore arguably no longer a non category. Secondly, identity categories seem to be necessary as a basis for cultural and political organisation, for example, it is important for some trans people to be 'out' in order to gain of civil rights for all trans people. If a strategy focused on erasing gender is pursued, the minority gender groups - and those who have less power, including non trans women, are likely to be disadvantaged because the default dominance of men and non transgender people will remain unchallenged. Thirdly, degendering, if pursued in a prescriptive manner, would deny people the choice to identify in a gendered way. As one contributor to the research argued: "Abolishing gender is preposterous, as it goes against people's rights for self-determination."

[iii] Gender Pluralism

A further theoretical strategy concerns conceptualising gender as plural, and as a spectrum, a field, or intersecting spectra or continua. Gender is seen as being more finely grained than is the case with the binary system, and as being formed via the interplay of different characteristics associated with gender and sexuality. More gender possibilities also means that the categories of 'lesbian', 'gay', 'bisexual' and 'heterosexual' cannot encompass all sexual orientation options, and complementary terms are likely to become more widespread.

There was support for gender pluralism amongst some of the research contributors to projects, some of who discussed the way that they would prefer to identify as something other than female or male if this was socially possible. For instance, sex and gender as a continuum or as a spectrum was discussed by contributor Ann Goodley, who said:

"I see the main problems being that society and indeed children, in other words all of us, are programmed to only see in black and white, in monochrome. A concept I actually see as a rainbow, or many shades of grey, I prefer to see it as a rainbow, that's more positive, the grey areas are actually the technicolor colours between black and white. I believe that there are elements of all the colours in everybody, but that people knee-jerk into one column or the other quite often in Western patriarchal society. And I think that's damaging."

Gender pluralism does have a number of advantages. Politically, the development/recognition of identities that are intersex, androgynous, third and other sex, or gender diverse in other ways is powerful because it enables calls for justice and social change. There are also serious difficulties with gender pluralism. Debates about the viability and advisability of a plural gender system will continue, with contributors remarking that:

  • 'third gender - I resist that phrase, because all it does is rigidify, codify stuff' (James Green)
  • 'it's [third gender] got a sort of dustbin sense to it, even though I know people would use it for themselves' (Hamish)
  • Ann Goodley argued that the time is not right for a movement for third and other sexed/gendered people's rights, given existing social conservatism and bigotry and the need to fight other battles first.
  • There are difficulties with spectrum identity politics, for example one intersex contributor said that intersex people feel as uncomfortable about intersex and do not want to wear that identity on their sleeves (project [d])


This paper explored different means of theorising gender beyond the gender binary system. Firstly, I demonstrated the way in which Western gender and sexual orientation binary systems are blown apart by some types of trans and intersex in a number of different ways. I then looked at different ways of theorising gender in the light of this. Although aspects of second wave feminist and most masculinity studies approaches to gender and sexuality are conceptually useful, these bodies of theory are flawed in relation to gender pluralism because they rely ontologically on discrete male-female categorisation. Discrete categorisation became broken down to an extent by black feminist and postcolonial critiques of white Western feminisms, and poststructuralist feminist and masculinities studies extended this problematisation. Poststructuralist approaches provide crucial tools for conceptualising gender and sexual diversity, including understandings of the body and subjectivity as discursively constructed and notions concerning the dislocation of gender and physical sex. These approaches are, however, limited in some key ways.

There appear to be three different ways of thinking about and managing gender and sexuality diversity. These approaches share the same aims - of creating a more egalitarian, inclusive society with respect to gender and sexual diversity. The first approach is the expansion of the existing system, so that the categories of 'female' and 'male' become inclusive of intersex people, transsexual people, and other gender diverse people. In practice, this is the strategy that is generally adopted, and it provides a means of destigmatising and normalising gender diversity.

The second approach, degendering, is useful in some ways. There are many aspects of social existence that could be less heavily gendered, ranging from official forms through to sexual behaviour. However, in itself it is an inadequate approach, because of the power of existing systems of categorisation and the related structural inequalities.

The last option, gender pluralism, is perhaps the most contentious, involving a broadening out of gender categorisation to include intersex, third and multiple sex, and androgynous identities as socially viable.

This paper is an abridged version of some of the material in my book Gender Politics, which is forthcoming in 2005 with Pluto Press.

Citation: Monro, S., (2004), Theorising Trans/gender Politics, GENDYS 2004, The Eighth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
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