Transcending The Binary: International Transgender Day of Visibility

The transgender identity has been around for centuries, in different languages, cultures, ideas and in the nuances of society. But being transgender is often boxed up in appropriations, misunderstood, and invisibilised along with being marginalised, shunned and stripped of human acceptance.

Being transgender is often misunderstood as moving within the gender binary and nothing across it, in the sense that the word is often mistaken to denote only those who change their bodily identity (Male to Female/ Female to Male) and those who appear hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine. Often, there is no in between or an absence of gender itself.

Gender, is a spectrum- as elaborated on during Non Binary Week of Visibility. And, being transgender could, and should mean anything transcending the binary of being ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, or a set of behaviours put into the former boxes. While sex is a biologically assigned label to bodies based on reproductive organs, a gender of a person is the set of learned habits, behaviours, appearances- likes and dislikes socialised into them as they negotiate with their lives . These habits are appropriated by earlier inhabitants of the society – families, friends, schools and other institutions, and are practiced over and over again to create a system of behaviour. When one doesn’t fit into these binary behaviours, they are said to transcend the boundaries set for them by the system they are a part of.

The word Transgender first started gaining popularity in the 1990s as word that denoted those who transcended or crossed-over traditional gender roles. Virginia Prince, a transgender identified author is often associated with coining the term. In 1969, Prince used the term ‘transgenderal’ to distinguish herself from transexuals, or those who physically alter their bodies through hormones and surgery. Her use of the term clearly distinguished between trans-ing sex (male or female) versus trans-ing gender (masculine or feminine). Prince is also known to have tried to control the usage of the term.

An earlier use of the term has been found by Psychiatrist John F Olivan in his medical text ‘Sexual Hygiene and Pathology’, written in 1965. In his book, Olivan used the term ‘transgenderism’ in a medical sense to indicate an ‘urge for gender(sex) change’ in his respondents.

Although, the coinage is not of importance at the moment, the meaning of the word has changed dramatically over the years from where it started and was supposed to mean. Not only has the word we know today clumped together many more identities like that of genderqueer people, non-binary persons, agender persons,crossdressers, and anybody else who crosses over traditionally gendered roles, it has often given space for appropriations and opposite meanings the original.

While, the word and the umbrella it is now can be used in many ways to revisit the identities that now fall under its umbrella, it can also be used to spread too widely and incorporate those who do not want to be identified with it, while accidentally minimising individual experiences of people who do not have the same cultural and historical contexts. The conversation then, has to be one that takes forward an umbrella such as this to create the larger imagined community, while also recognising individual struggles and ideas- those of everyone ranging and not limited to our cultural communities both urban and rural.

March 31st is a day of observance. As the International Transgender Day of Visibility, it is a day of quiet learning and a changing thought process in a world that continues its progress towards acceptance and love. This day calls upon all of us to learn to be better allies, in the true sense through continuous checking of our language, behaviour and privilege.

For the last two weeks of this month, from the 15th to the 31st, we will be curating pieces that try and explore this spectrum of transcending across the gender binary commemorating struggles, the good times, the life, love and hope of the transgender community. Watch this space for more!

*Sources used. 

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Jo Krishnakumar is a trans queer researcher interested in all things sex, sexuality, gender and how different groups/people experience these wor(l)ds. Their work is informed by their constant learning/unlearning of the privileges they have due to their social location as a dominant/oppressive caste person (Nair) while also occupying space as a (mentally) disabled trans person of colour. Find them on their unfinished webspace

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