Let’s Talk About Labels

This week I thought we would talk about labels. I think it’s also a topic that many of us struggle with. One issue is that labels have gotten really complicated in recent years, but they also tend to be quite loaded with preconception and emotion. So, let’s see if we can untangle and maybe defuse the subject a bit. 

Let’s start with transgender. My understanding of this label is that it’s an umbrella term in the sense that it includes trans women and trans men (the modern terms for transsexuals), CDs, non-binary, and a host of other gender non-conformists. As with all labels, it’s definition varies depending on who you ask. The definition I like and the one that seems most prevalent is this: Anyone who does not identify entirely with the gender they were assigned at birth. The “not entirely” part is what makes it broad in that identifying partially or not continuously is included. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone who is in the earlier list is by definition transgender. It is up to the individual to decide if they fit within that definition. It’s perfectly acceptable for one to use a label in the list and not identify as transgender. A similar, but distinct definition is given by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: http://www.juliaserano.com/terminology.html. Her definition focuses more on a political coalition, using the largest tent possible to fight for transgender rights. The link also provides her definition of numerous other labels. The internet has dozens of similar lists of gender definitions. 

At this point you might be confused. “Wait Julie, I thought transgender was just the modern term for transsexual.” If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re definitely not alone. Part of the problem is that mainstream media tends to use these terms interchangeably. Also, there are many, not all, but many trans women who also believe in this interchangeably – actually they are quite adamant about this and use it as a basis to excluding CDs from the umbrella. There’s a lot to unpack with these folks. Rather than get sidetracked, let’s save this topic for another time – maybe next week. 

I like the vagueness of the transgender label because many other labels tend to be too narrow in that none of us fits neatly into a box and it’s just easier to find a giant box. Under such a label one need not explain the details of who we are, which is really convenient if we we have yet figured out who we are. For example, I sometimes think of myself as 1/3 crossdresser, 1/3 non-transitioning trans woman, 1/3 drag queen. There’s no label for such a person, so the larger box is kinda needed. On the other hand, the transgender box sometimes feels too large and it’s vagueness leads to preconceived interpretations that might not match with who we see our selves as at that particular moment. A slightly smaller box is the non-binary label. This is also an umbrella term that I think excludes binary trans folks (trans men and trans women). Fun fact: The transgender flag has 3 colors; pink for trans women, blue for trans men and a white stripe for non-binary folks. Of course, the problem with non-binary is that it’s a bit esoteric and a definition is rather hard to nail down. I kinda like, “sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes neither, sometimes both”, but I don’t think that captures the entire umbrella. The best I have found is the gender orb graphic I’ve included, which was scribbled on a legal pad by some unknown but very insightful person. 

Now you might be thinking, “Okay Julie, that’s all great information, but what label do you use for yourself?” Of course, I will always have allegiance to the crossdresser label – it’s the one on my Facebook page, the one I identified with for over 3 decades and represents a community that is dear to my heart. With that said, the crossdresser label is not without drawbacks. The first is the fetish connotation – one need only do a google search to see this quite clearly. It’s interesting, because this fetish connotation is the reason I stopped using transvestite back in the 80s – not that I said either out loud back then, but at least in my head I said, “That’s who I am.” The more subtle concern is the confusion of the action with the identity. As a verb, the act of crossdressing is to wear clothes of the opposite gender, which is especially confusing if one’s gender need not be the one assigned at birth – is a trans woman crossdressing? What about a non-binary person?

It gets more complicated when we look at the noun version – a crossdresser. One definition is anyone who crossdresses. But, that would include Halloween costumes and 50’s football players dressed as cheerleaders during a skit at the homecoming follies. Clearly, this is different than the definition that you and I understand – CD being our identity. Another fun fact: While Wikipedia has a definition for crossdressing, it does not have a definition for crossdresser. Maybe we should fix that. The crossdresser definition given by Julia Serano could serve as a credible basis in that effort. I’ll also note that in book Whipping Girl, she devotes are entire chapter to crossdressers – by far the most lucid description of our relationship to society. My understanding that this book is becoming required reading in college level intro to gender studies courses. So, maybe we are not as invisible as we think. 

Despite the WG chapter, the potential stigma of the CD label being associated with a fetish makes me a little hesitant to use it when coming out to people. Often I’ll say something like, “I’m kinda non-binary”, hoping they even understand what that means. I’m seeing the term non-binary (or enby) being used with increasing frequency, so I’m thinking many people have at least heard of it. However, I’m starting to lean more in the direction of gender fluid. I have a number of CD friends who are migrating to this label. Originally, I thought, “Yeah, that seems to fit, but I’m not so sure about any of those newfangled labels that the kids are coming up with.” My understanding of this label is that one’s gender shifts between the two binaries. I guess that seems to fit – mostly boy days for me with several Julie days smattered in once in a while. Although, it’s not quite that simple, cuz at the moment, as I type, I’m in boy mode, but speaking to you under the name Julie. It’s not so much that Julie comes and goes. It’s more like the two of us are melded into one body. Now do you see why I like the vagueness of the transgender and non-binary labels – neither requires any of these details. 

To help me understand what gender fluid means, I joined a gender fluid Facebook group. My first observation was, “Wow, these folks are really young.” Well, young in comparison to me – mostly 20s and 30s. And, they whine a lot – again an indication of my advanced age. Interestingly, the group is about 50/50 AMAB/AFAB. Let’s focus on the AMAB folks. Basically, I’m seeing a lot of behaviors that remind me of my youth. Lots of pictures of someone getting a dress and expressing the euphoria of finally being able to wear something pretty. Often it’s without makeup or a wig, which is basically where I was at that age – although I had great long hair at that time, which I could rudimentarily style and I did toy with makeup. I’m also seeing a fair amount of underdressing, which has never really been my thing, but something I did more often back then than I do now. There have even been a couple posts about being aroused while dressed – definitely something that was prominent in my youth. (Here’s an interesting, rather academic video on the controversial subject of auto-gynophilia: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6czRFLs5JQo If you’re not familiar with ContraPoints, I encourage you to explore her other videos – all are very thought provoking.)

The main difference between the gender fluid folks and the CDs I know (mostly older folks) is that the gender fluid folks tend to suggest that their fluidity is not under their control. I’m not sure if this is a manifestation of trying to create credibility – an extension of I didn’t choose to be gender fluid – but it seems to create some consternation. I can kinda identify with such feelings. I’m sure you know the feeling of having a strong desire to dress, but life gets in the way. I’ve also had the opposite, where I’ve been out in the world with a fabulous dress and great makeup, but I just wasn’t feeling it. However, that was the time that life was allowing me some Julie time, so there was no way I was gonna skip the opportunity just cause I wasn’t totally feeling it. Based on all of these observations, I conclude that gender fluid folks are very similar to most CDs. The main difference being age, and with that age difference comes a different mindset.

It’s interesting to note that most of the gender fluid folks know about the term crossdressing (the verb), but seem to be unaware of crossdresser as a label for one’s identity. Although, they may be just avoiding the identity connotation because of the potential stigma, which seems to be more prevalent with younger folks – the trans women who insist on removing CDs from the transgender umbrella are also on the younger side of the spectrum.

Okay let’s finish this up by returning to my first statement – labels are complicated and very often emotionally charged. I’m guessing that all of this discussion has done little to change your mind about this fact. But, here’s the bottom line. Often people will look at a label and apply their impression of that label to the person. This is the wrong way of do things. A better way is to look at a person and apply your impression of that person to the label. When selecting a label for yourself, you should do the same – the label you choose doesn’t define you, you define the label. Also, it’s perfectly valid to be unsure about a label for yourself and you are allowed to change labels as you gain an understanding about a label and more importantly an understanding about yourself. The most important point being that there is no “right” or perfect answer when it comes to labels – never let anyone tell you otherwise. 

I tend to use two descriptors for myself and maybe they are a bit of a cop out. I either say “it simply makes me happy” or the easy “it’s me”. Well written my dear!!

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Labels”

  1. Wow, Julie, great post. As I was reading I was thinking that one problem with labels is that not everyone applies the same connotation to each label. Then I got to the end and you addressed it. I would call myself a crossdresser, but am cognizant of the “stigma” that word sometimes has. Maybe I am a .5-1 on some trans spectrum. Who knows? Anyway without making this too long a reply, thanks for the post. As always, you look great in your pics. As Kandi said in her editorial add on, it makes me happy.

    1. I agree with Jocelyn. I’m 72 and first went out enfemme in 79 or 80. I’m me and that says it all.
      Terri M

  2. Very well written. If asked how I identify, I tell people, “Well, I’m on the trans-spectrum: I’m a crossdresser.” I do this for two reasons – one is because the CD term sometimes elicits that picture in someone’s head of a voyeuristic kook. But my main reason is so that people can hear the two terms – trans-spectrum and crossdresser – linked together.

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