Trans Theory

“Transgender” is an umbrella term to refer to people who challenge the boundaries of sex and gender and whose gender expression is otherwise considered inappropriate by their society. Let us first take a look at the transgender flag which was designed by Monica Helms. Since 1999, it has been widely adopted by trans communities. Helms describes the pride flag as follows:

The stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional color for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional color for baby girls. The stripe in the middle is white, for those who are intersex, transitioning or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender. 
Transgender flag. Licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

There are five things to know when it comes to the topic of transgender practices and trans theory.

Neither trans or cis are fixed:    Even though the word transgender is used in opposition to the idea of cisgender, neither trans nor cis is fixed, because practices of gender always evolve over time. Individuals may have an investment in using “trans” for solidarity or personal identification in a given point in time, and, in new contexts, they may well move on to emphasize other social practices and issues.

Trans-inclusive vocabulary:   We can use an inclusive vocabulary to discuss transgender characters and individuals. In general, it is a good idea to avoid reductive, offensive, and directional labels such as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM), because they further marginalize trans individuals, singling them out from “normative” men and women. These labels make about as much sense as calling someone a heterosexual-to-gay man. Instead of MTF or FTM, we use the umbrella terms trans masculinity and trans femininity to describe transgender people’s masculine and feminine expressions, respectively. Individuals who use those terms in self descriptions may not always identify fully as binary male or female in all contexts. While imperfect, these terms do move us beyond the traditional idea of cross-dressers teetering the stage for pity or for laughs.

Cross-dressing is a misnomer:  Similarly problematic is the concept of crossdressing. Beyond consciously self-identified usage, the word crossdressing is a misnomer in most contexts, because it is informed by the cisgender sexist idea of sartorial camouflage. It suggests that trans bodies are inauthentic. Crossdressing as a convenient fiction about compartmentalized, binary genders. It is not an effective tool to analyze transgender practices.

Using accurate terms, such as anti-trans:   We can use the same inclusive principles to rethink commonly used phrases such as homophobia, transphobia, and gender-based violence. These words should be replaced by more accurate terms: anti-gay, anti-trans, and the active voice to describe the perpetrator.

Using the -phobia suffix outside clinical contexts reflects able-bodied biases and medicalizes bigotry. The -phobia suffix implies a pathological fear certified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Individuals who discriminate against gay or trans people do so NOT out of pathological fear but rather hate.

As for the phrase gender-based violence, it is in the passive tense. We need to highlight the perpetrators instead of putting undue burden on the victims. The passive voice in the construction of such phrases gives the false impression that bad things simply happen to some people. It gives the impression that there are either no identifiable perpetrators or that it is the victim’s fault.

Visibility is not always empowering:     Finally, we can take this opportunity to reexamine some notions that are assumed to be inclusive. Let us take trans visibility for example. On one hand, trans visibility remains important to some people in the community, as evidenced by the International Transgender Day of Visibility created by Rachel Crandall-Crocker in 2009. It was meant to counterbalance the more somber Transgender Day of Remembrance which honors transgender homicide victims.

On the other hand, some individuals do need the stability afforded by binary gender practices and to blend into the notion of normalcy. They will have easier access to resources, such as education, housing, and employment. The sense of safety is very valuable. In these cases, increased visibility, as in being outed as trans, can be harmful. Trans visibility, therefore, is not always empowering or desirable.

Therefore, it is useful to keep in mind that emphasizing visibility can be liberating for one group of individuals while causing distress to another.

Case Study: Is “trans” the opposite of “cis”?

In 1994, biologist Dana Leland Defosse coined the word cisgender in a Usenet newsgroup called alt.transgendered. The Latin root, cis, prefixes things that do not change property. Cisgender has come to refer to the “condition of staying with birth-assigned sex” (Enke 2012, 61) and, as a result, been used to refer to people “who do not identify as transgender,” [Davis 2017, 124]). Defined primarily through antitheses (e.g., cis is not trans), cis and trans were set up to be oppositional, mutually exclusive categories of identities.

The word “transgender” emerged just a few years prior. Virginia Prince coined the now outdated noun transgenderist in 1987, and Leslie Feinberg was the first scholar to use “transgender” as an umbrella term to refer to people who “challenge the boundaries of sex and gender” and “whose gender expression is con-sidered inappropriate for our sex” (x).

Today, the terms trans and transgender are used to refer to a wide range of practices and experiences. Filmmaker and scholar Susan Stryker uses the term to refer to those who “do not conform to prevailing expectations about gender” (123).

The word trans can be used as a verb. Some medievalists use the term to discuss not only movements “across” or “between” ideologies but also people who are “beyond gender or without categorizable gender,” connecting transness to “ideas of transcendence.”

Similarly, Jacqueline Rose suggests trans should transcend the better-known variation of “transitioning from A to B.” Trans could well mean being “in a different realm from” A or B, or from both “A and B.” In this usage, trans could also mean “neither A nor B”.


Case Study: Early Confusions about Gender and Sexuality

At least a century of development was behind the idea that gender is a social script on a continuum. Early thinking about gender variance revolved around the idea of inversions of naturalized social roles.

As early as 1878, the nineteenth-century Italian forensic examiner Arrigo Tamassia took note of the conflict between gender identity and sexual organs in some cases of “sexual inversion”: individuals who “psychologically feel all the attributes of the opposite sex.”

Fortunately, things began to evolve quickly. In the twentieth century, transgender theory evolved historically from a binary toward a continuum model.

In German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1910 book, Transvestites, gender nonconformity was seen as an independent phenomenon from same-sex desires. He coined the word “transvestite,” which is no longer in use today, by combining the Latin words for crossing and clothing: trans and vestis. He observed individuals who experienced a “feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being . . . when in the clothing of the other sex.” He found that “transvestites” could be asexual, bisexual, or have any given sexual orientation. Hirschfeld’s conception of the transvestite overlaps in part with the modern-day practice of drag and gender non-conforming sartorial choices. Hirschfeld’s contribution lies in his distinction between transvestism and the misconception of homosexuality.

In his times, homosexuality, a pathologized concept, was a conflation of sexuality and gender expressions in which homosexual individuals were thought to be gender inverted.

Unfortunately, Doctor Hischfeld met a grievous end. There is a racialized dismissal of transness. At the core of anti-Semitism and anti-trans discourses are the ideas of racial and gender “purity,” which leads to harmful biopolitics.

As a pioneer in gender and sexuality studies, Hirschfeld unfortunately was persecuted by Nazis for his Jewish and gay identities. His Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was shut down in 1933, with its books burned.

Case Study: A Fantastic Woman

Here is an example of films that do not fetishize medical transition of or tragic endings for trans characters. An award-wining film featuring a trans actress, A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica, dir. Sebastián Lelio, 2017). The film tells the story of Marina, a trans woman, who struggles against and triumphs over discriminations. Set in Santiago, Chile, the narrative blends real-life experiences of the lead actress Daniela Vega, Chile’s first trans actress who openly discusses her identity. Here is a trailer of the film posted by its distributor Sony Pictures.

Music is an important theme and component of A Fantastic Woman, because Vega is a mezzo-soprano singer. She brought her experience to bear on her character Marina.

When her partner Orlando passes away, Marina is treated as a criminal by law enforcement and deprived of her right to grieve and honor Orlando’s memory. She is barred from attending Orlando’s funeral. A female detective from the sexual offense unit assumes that Marina is in an abusive relationship. A doctor is tasked with examining Marina’s body at the police station. A police officer deadnames and misgenders Marina. Yet she eventually rises above all of this, finding comfort in music and devising new ways to fight discrimination.

Your Turn: Disclosure

Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure (2020) is a good place to begin your exploration of media representation of transgender communities. To the left is a trailer of the documentary. In chronicling “transgender depictions in film and television, Disclosure reveals “how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender.” 

The team interviewed trans thinkers and creatives, such as Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, and Chaz Bono, and covered such works as The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry, and A Fantastic Woman.

Apply trans theory to critical analyses of Disclosure. Think about these research questions:

Trans Tropes

After watching Disclosure, what are some of the trans tropes you can identify? Screen representations of trans people tend to regress whole communities to a limited number of tropes. Hint: See also Suyin Haynes’ 9 Moments That Show the Pain and Progress of Transgender Representation Onscreen: Review of Sam Feder’s Disclosure.

Trans Visibility as a Double-Edged Sward

In the following interview, DOC NYC Festival artistic director Thom Powers spoke to Sam Feder about Disclosure. Watch it and take notes on Feder’s motivations, expected outcomes and social impact, as well as your own perception of the documentary.

Trans visibility. Is more exposure positive for minority communities? Could coerced or self disclosure of one’s status put one in harm’s way?

Trans visibility remains important to some people in the community, as evidenced by the International Transgender Day of Visibility (March 21) created by Rachel Crandall-Crocker in 2009; it was meant to counterbalance the more somber Transgender Day of Remem-brance which honors transgender homicide victims.

However, trans visibility is not always empowering or desirable. Increased visibility of trans actors and characters in a way that endangers their access to and inclusion in normativity. Some individuals do need the stability afforded by binary gender practices that align with predominant notions of normativity. The stability enables greater access to resources. The sense of safety is very valuable. In these cases, increased visibility can be harmful.

“Good” representations. 

Are “good” representations of trans life are overrated? What constitute a “good” representation (is it always positive)? If “good” representations always “marketable” for public consumption, how do these representations marginalize “politically challenging aspects of transgender identification”?

In her memoir Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano affirms the value of confessional writing in using personal stories as a critical method to expose social biases. She also points out some pitfalls, recalling that when she first told people she was writing a book on trans women, most people assumed that

She would write a confessional tell-alls that explain the ins and outs of surgery in gory detail; a book that ends with the consummation of her womanhood in her first sexual experience with a cisgender man.

In this light, are more representations always positive? What are your thoughts after watching the documentary Disclosure or reading Serano? Hint: See also Cáel Keegan’s “On the Necessity of Bad Trans Objects.”  

Is the future genderless, gender variable, gender optional, or none of the above?

In Trans* A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender VariabilityJack Halberstam writes that “While new gender protocols as expressed on Facebook … seem to be a de-centering of normative gendering, it may function as a part of new regulatory regimes.”

Similarly, Judith Butler questions the over-emphasis on trans-ness as unfixed, asking provocatively in an interview

If queer means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is unfixed then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism? Many people with intersexed conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing beyond all categories.

In this light, are more gender categories emancipating? What are your thoughts on emancipatory practices in the field of gender? What is your view of the future of gender? Cite one of the theoretical readings to support your argument.


In this chapter, we have learned the following:

  • Neither cisgender nor transgender practices are fixed
  • Acquiring a trans-inclusive vocabulary
  • Using transgender theory to rethink what has been thought of as cross-dressing
  • Replacing the phrase transphobia with anti-trans
  • Understanding that trans visibility is not always empowering or desirable

Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara. “Interview with Judith Butler,” Sexualities 19.4 (2016): 482–492

Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. trans tropes in cinema in Transgender Cinema, 2019

Joubin, Alexa Alice. “Performativity and Trans Literature,” in The Routledge Handbook of Trans Literature, ed. Douglas A. Vakoch and Sabine Sharp. Routledge, 2024, pp. 29-39. 

Keegan, Cáel M. “On the Necessity of Bad Trans Objects,” Film Quarterly 75.3 (2022): 26–37.

Mock, Janet. “Epilogue: New York, 2009.” Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Simon & Schuster, 2015. pp 212-23.

Haynes, Suyin. “9 Moments That Show the Pain and Progress of Transgender Representation Onscreen: Review of Sam Feder’s Disclosure,” in Time, June 19, 2020.