In the early 1990s, the word transgender started to be used as an umbrella term for describing a range of gender-variant identities and communities within the United States. Transgender activist, Virginia Prince, self-identified as a heterosexual cross-dresser and later started living socially as a woman full-time. She played a role in the formation of gender-variant communities, organizations, and identities and was credited with coining the term transgender. She also described herself with other terms, such a transgenderal (1969) and transgenderist (1978), as a way to name the specific behavior of living full-time in a chosen social, gender role different from that typically associated with birth-assigned sex, without undergoing genital sex-reassignment surgery. In 1976, Ari Kane, a gender-variant community leader, used the term transgenderist in a similar fashion as Prince. Prince and Kane did not, however, use the word in the contemporary all-inclusive-sense. The earlier documented uses of “transgender” did not distinguish cross-dressing or living full time without surgery from transsexual identities.
In 1965, Dr. John Oliven proposed the term transsexualism be replaced by transgenderism, arguing that the concept of sexuality could not account for the “all-consuming belief that transsexuals are women who by some incredible error were given bodies of men.” Words like transgenderism, transgendered, transsexual and transvestite had been used interchangeably through the 1960s and 1970s to describe transitioning people as well as people undergoing sex changes. In the 1980s, transgender had been used in medical, pop-culture, and trans community sources alike, as an umbrella term inclusive of transsexuals, cross-dressers, and other gender-variant people. Christine Jorgenson, one of the most famous transgender women at the time, publicly rejected the word transsexual, and, instead, favored the term transgender. There was a dramatic rise in the term’s popularity in the 1990s and was seen as an acceleration of a longer trend rather than the creation of a new meaning. As stated in the article, “The coinage, uptake, and diffusion of ‘transgender’ was an organic, grass-roots process that emerged from many sources, in many conversations happening in many different social locations.”
This new understanding of transgender’s etymology also helped distinguish between identity disputes among the various trans communities. For example, the term transgender was often only used for those who wanted to transition from heterosexual cross-dressers to “cross-dressing” full time, thereby colonizing the identity label of another group and forcibly assimilating them into political and social formations they wanted nothing to do with. The term transgender has been used with a variety of meanings, one important use has been to group together different kinds of people who might otherwise have virtually no social contact with one another. This can facilitate communication and build the experienced reality of a shared community, with overlapping and intersectional social needs and political goals. It is an expansive use of the term that encompasses the intellectual and political promise of transgender studies.
Williams’ article “Transgender” gives a brief history and analysis of the word transgender, providing various examples of how the word was used throughout history. He mentions several activists that helped define the word, however, he failed to mention activists of color in his argument. Virginia Prince, Christine Jorgenson, and Ari Kane were important activists who helped define the word transgender, but there were other activists such as Marsha P. Johnson who also played an important role in transgender history. To develop a full history of the word, Williams should include perspectives from activists of different racial groups.
The definition of transgender held various meanings throughout history and has been rapidly transforming into what it is known as today. To get a better understanding of how the treatment of transgender people has changed, we must first understand how the term came to be, and how it is defined now. The evolution of definitions also shows how the societal views of transgenderism have changed throughout history and developed into what they are today.
Williams, Cristan. “Transgender.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1-2, Jan. 2014, pp. 232–234., doi:10.1215/23289252-2400136.