B.C. on Gender: Third Gender and Hybridity

She Drives Me Crazy

Several months ago, I was riding in a car with a transsexual woman. It was an awkward drive, because she had strong opinions about the TG community, and not only did her opinions differ radically from mine, she tended to express her opinions in ways that left no room for other ideas. I'm amazed that some people never take a moment to acknowledge that their way of looking at the world is not the only way.

At one point, she leaned over to me and said, "You know who drives me crazy? Kate Bornstein."

And me, I'm thinking: "Kate Bornstein? Kate is one of the sanest members of the trans community. How can she drive you crazy?"

My companion continued: "She's always talking about Thirdness. About being neither male nor female. But the way she presents herself is totally female."

And I started to wonder if she really understood thirdness. And as I started to think through the false assumptions that she'd made about thirdness, I started to realize that I've fallen into some mistaken thoughts about thirdness.

"I Don't Know!" "Third Base!"

I started writing my web page back in 1996. I had just joined the IBM Internet Services area, and I thought that I should learn a thing or two about the web. The first version of my web site was simple. Six or seven pages at most. But one of those pages was this page -- my page about the Third Gender. The page was pretty densely written, drawing on pretty intense ideas from people like Homi Bhabha. Bhabha has nothing to do with trans issues; he wrote about hybrid cultures.

Consider, for example, Italian-Canadian culture. I've known Italian-Canadians who have have very strong senses of themselves as "Italian", even though they are third or fourth generation Canadians. Bhabha says that such people aren't simply both Italian and Canadian, but rather something else entirely. Take, for example, the tradition of "Italian weddings". According to someone that I once worked with, this phenomenon is unique to North America -- in Italy itself, the big, extravagant Italian weddings just don't exist. And yet, we still think of them as an Italian tradition.

So where did that tradition come from? That's the key idea behind thirdness: when two cultures meet, something entirely new comes into existence. New habits form. New traditions.

So, as I was saying, I wrote this web page back in 1996, and I haven't really updated it since then. That's the funny thing about the web; if my beliefs on things change, it takes a while for the web site to reflect my current thinking. Some of the things I say here are out-of-date. I change. I change my opinions.

Real versus Social Construction

A few years ago, I was talking to someone I know about my ideas of gender. I was advocating the idea that it would be best for the greater trans community if we could all exemplify the idea of third gender. I wrote, at one point:

I don't have a problem with people choosing an appearance, a behaviour, a mode of dress and presentation that fit in to mainstream notions of gender. I wish there were fewer, and I question people a lot on why they choose mainstream gender presentations -- I even evangelize. But it's not my place to tell people that they have to change; that'd be the height of arrogance.

In an earlier version of this web page, I concluded:

[...T]ransgender behaviour, whatever its form, forces society to deal with questions that it largely glosses over: just what do you mean when you say 'man' or 'woman'?

Compare this with the goal of, say, F2M transsexuals: they want society to acknowledge them as men. Nothing wrong with that. But the method that society is using to make that acknowledgement is to medically declare their 'true' gender to be incongruent with their biological gender: a medical 'problem' that can be fixed with sex-reassignent surgery. Now, society's solution doesn't help the non-operative transsexual, who doesn't want to be 'fixed'. A similar argument can be made against M2F crossdressers: they say they are 'really' men, who just like to dress every now and then. This does very little to challenge gender roles.

Let me state for the record that I now regret the way that I've stated all this stuff about thirdnes. I still think that thirdness is an important concept, but I think about it quite differently, now.

I think that Kate Bornstein's [1995] words are very important, here. She says:

I know I'm not a man -- about that much I'm very clear, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably not a woman either, at least not according to a lot of people's rules on this sort of thing. The trouble is, we're living in a world that insists we be one or the other -- a world that doesn't bother to tell us exactly what one or the other is.

For me, the key idea in Kate's quotation is the phrase "not a woman [...] according to a lot of people's rules on this sort of thing." Kate has subsequently made a lot of statements about the performative nature of gender but I want to think about the relationship between "realness" of gender and "social construction" of gender.


When I advocate thirdness, I frequently come into conflict with people who tell me that they their gender is clearly, unambiguously female or clearly, unambiguously male. That's been a tricky thing to deal with, because although I don't really believe in second-guessing other people's identities, I think that there's stuff that those people are overlooking.

Recently, I've written about my trip to Washington DC, and about a woman named Christina who told me about her theory that trans people have direct knowledge about their gender: not a socially-constructed notion of gender, but a straight-forward "I know there is something inside my head that says 'female'."

And, y'know, I hear that thing inside my head, too. I know that there's some essential identification of femaleness that's always been there -- that's always been felt.

Unfortunately, if you asked me to explain or make sense of that gendered identity, I'm unable to. I don't really believe the biological theories of gender, and I can't equate a gender-specific social role with gender identity either. It's also true that some of my favourite trans authors have written eloquent things about the dangers of identities, so I don't tend to talk much about gendered identity. But there's still that thing in my head that says, "you are a woman." How do I talk about that?

Many trans people describe sex and gender this way: "Sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears." While that's nice and pithy, I think that there are several notions of gender between my ears:

  • The gendered sense of self -- the thing that I refer to as "direct knowledge" about our gender
  • Stereotypically gendered feelings -- the ideas that men are supposed to be be aggressive and that women are supposed to be nurturing
  • Gendered behaviours -- the things that we are told all of our lives about what real men and real women do. Women placate. Men don't cry.
  • Common gendered experience -- the things that affect us as a result of fairly common experience. Many women know the experience of sexual threat and first menses.

In my experience, many debates between trans people and non-trans people boil down into arguments about which concept of gender is significant. Consider Janice Raymond, for example. Raymond is a radical feminist theorist and a major critic of TGs and TG politics. David Ekins [1996] summarizes her argument that:

transsexualism is not an individual condition, a personal problem for which changing sex is merely a neutral, technical method of treatment, but is a social and political phenomenon. [Raymond] argues that not only does transsexualism reflect the nature of patriarchal society, but also that it is ultimately caused by it. [1996:77]

Raymond is very clear in her assessment of transgenderists: male-to-female TGs "are not women. They are deviant males."[Raymond 1980:183]. Similarly, F2M TGs are not men, but rather (deviant) women.

What makes her say this? Why does she reject the declared gender of TGs? She doesn't quite believe that genetics is the answer: many feminists steer clear from the belief that biology is destiny these days, but she does believe, for example, that M2F TGs haven't had the same history as women. She says "patriarchy has treated us, and will treat us like women. Transsexuals have not had this same history." [1980:114] She also suggests that there's something metaphysical that bonds all women together:

[T]he creative power that is associated with female biology is not envied primarily because it is able to give birth physically but because it is multidimensional, bearing culture, harmony, and true inventiveness. [1980:107]

Most trans people are rightly affronted by such arguments; after all, we still have that direct knowledge hovering in the backs of our minds. We don't take kindly to the suggestion that the thing that we know more assuredly than anything else in the world can be dismissed as envy, or patriarchal oppression.

What's more, I know many non-trans women who are affronted by some of the criteria of "real womanhood". There's always someone who doesn't fit a particular requirements. I know a woman who gets red-faced every time she hears that "real women" are maternal. When you look at a wide cross-section of classes and ethnicities and orientations, there seem to be very few (if any) universal ideas about what women are supposed to believe or feel.

So Janice Raymond's arguments are exactly the sort of thing that Homi Bhabha talked about when he wrote about thirdness. He said that "either/or" options would inevitably lead to huge arguments about what is "really" option A or option B. That's why thirdness has been attractive to me. Marjorie Garber writes:

The third is that which questions binary thinking and introduces crisis -- a crisis which is symptomized by both the overestimation and the underestimation of [transgenderism]. But what is crucial here -- and I can hardly underscore this strongly enough -- is that the "third term" is not a term. Much less is it a sex, certainly not an instantiated "blurred" sex as signified by a term like "androgyne" or "hermaphrodite," although these words have culturally specific significance at certain historical moments. The "third" is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility. Three puts into question the idea of one: of identity, self-sufficiency, self-knowledge. [1993:11]

And while that's a bit densely worded, I like the idea of using thirdness -- the Third Space -- to pry open the rather narrow definitions of womanhood and manhood that get bandied about.

The problem I've noticed is that people seem to have taken thirdness to mean that one is somehow androgynous or gender blurred. Like I recounted at the beginning of this web page, the woman whom I was riding with was basically saying that Kate Bornstein is too femme to advocate thirdness. And while I've never specifically thought that about Kate Bornstein, I must confess that I've sometimes fallen into the trap of thinking that thirdness must involve some type of androgyny or genderfuck or something non-standard.

Which surprises me, frankly. I mean, I'm a pretty big advocate of thirdness, myself -- I consider myself a third gender -- and yet there's very little that's androgynous about me. In truth, I'm something of a girly-girl. I'm practically femme.

Gender Performance

Deirdre McClosky [1999] strikes me as an interesting example of thirdness -- a suggestion which she'd loathe if she read my web page 'cause she's pretty dismissive about the idea of third gender.

But there are interesting revelations in her book. She writes, for example, about the mental energy she spends trying to train herself in certain typically female behaviours. She writes about consciously mimicking certain communication traits that she read about in Deborah Tannen's books. Does a normal woman change her speech patterns so consciously?

McCloskey also writes about trying to get certain aspects of female bonding rituals right -- gift giving for example. When I read this, I am reminded of Bornstein's notion of performance of gender. Here is a woman trying to get the performance down right.

She also writes:

No one can "become" a woman in the Aristotelian essence. XX and XY genes are different. More importantly, one's history is different; one cannot be a woman 100 percent without a girlhood. History matters. But for practical purposes we do not perform genetic or background checks on a man or woman functioning in a social role. I can be a 97 percent woman. I think. [1999:88-89]

In essence, she is acknowledging the fact that she doesn't completely fit in the binary. She is not a 100 percent woman, and although the 97 percent woman may be close enough as makes no odds, the very acknowledgement of her different history precludes her from the simple binary. Now, it's also important to keep in mind her comment that for practical purposes, it doesn't really matter.

I, personally, have wrestled with many of the same things. I've spent a lot of time and energy focusing on things like body language. I trained myself to change the way that I smiled (although it's not universal, women tend to show their teeth when they smile, whereas men don't).

I've also spent a lot of time thinking about the smile exchange protocol between women. Consider: I'm walking through a tunnel, and a woman is walking toward me. She makes eye contact and smiles. My inclination is to nod and then quickly look elsewhere. But most women meet that eye contact and smile back. I've heard some people opine that this ritual communicates something about safety. The other woman is saying, "I've just come from back there, and I think it's safe." If I don't give a return smile, I may be communicating something that makes her worried. Normal women exchange smiles without thinking about it. I'm not normal because I have to think about it.

Even though I still have that thing in my head that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am a woman, I've had to learn many of the gendered behaviours through careful study. Normal women pick this stuff up through osmosis.

Acknowledging those differences is, for me, a key part of thirdness. Even if I feel pretty unambiguously female, I can acknowledge that I'm still different.

Why is that important? For many transpeople, it might not be important. I think it's important for a few reasons.

First, I think that trans people, and especially trans women, still run into conflict about certain types of space. People get worried when transwomen want to use women's washrooms or certain music festivals or half-way houses.


A few months ago, Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star wrote a mean-spirited column about the Kimberley Nixon case in British Columbia. Kimberley Nixon is a trans woman and rape survivor who applied to be a rape counsellor at the Vancouver Rape Relief, and was denied because she was transsexual. I think that this is a complicated case because it gets into a situation where the "wrongness" of discriminating against a trans woman is juxtaposed against the "need" of rape survivors to heal in a women-only space. While I recognize a number of difficult views on this case, I think Landsberg was merely sensationalist. In particular, note her closing argument in which she uses the iconography of rape to describe Nixon's legal actions:

Woman-centred services are beseiged with enemies enough in this backlash era. What a twisted irony it is that the latest and perhaps fatal blow should be inflicted by someone who wants to be a woman - but doesn't hesitate to inflict potential ruin on a women's service that tried to say "no" to her unwanted advances.

(A friend of mine -- the woman I credit for converting me to feminism -- asked me to write in to the Star in response to Landberg's column.)

My impression of the Kimberley Nixon case is that it boils down to two arguments:

  1. Which definition of womanhood should be the primary definition? (What criteria should the law use to process claims of sexual discrimination?)
  2. Is it ever appropriate to exclude transgendered women from woman-only space?

Landsberg's article clearly took the position that transwomen aren't "real" women because they don't have the "common gendered experience". She writes:

Being female is a complicated mixture of physiology, cultural conditioning and lived experience - or even, as one academic thesis would have it, "a political category created through oppression." Out of politeness, I'd be willing to call that surgically altered person a woman and use the feminine pronoun. But a part of me will always feel outraged that "woman" could be defined as an outward set of physical characteristics - lack of penis, fake breasts - along with an ultra-sexist "female impersonator" style of clothing and gesture.

Most transwomen who've expressed opinions on the matter have argued that common gendered experience doesn't matter because even though they may have had common male experiences growing up, their gendered sense of self -- that direct knowledge about gender -- is far stronger: strong enough to drive people to face ridicule and oppression as they go through the process of changing sex.

For my part, I don't believe that there is any one thing that defines womanhood or manhood. As a transwoman, I certainly identify with the argument that the gendered sense of self has had a stronger affect on how I perceive my gender than any experience or conditioning. But I think that it's inaccurate to say that being trans has nothing to do with our identies as women, and that the fact that we're trans should never be a consideration. As I've written elsewhere, although I believe that discrimination against trans people is wrong, sometimes need outweighs right and wrong.

Now, I say that knowing that a lot of people want to ascribe far too much importance on our transness. Many companies, for example, will use the argument that discrimination against trans people is justified because their clients will react badly to a transgendered employee. I think that's a transphobic argument, just as it's a racist argument to worry that clients will react badly to black employees.

Trans people should have the right to fight back against transphobia in these settings (using, for example, human rights protection where it exists), but I also think that trans people have an obligation to better understand why some communities who are already under constant attack may have different ideas about which definitions of gender are the most important to them.

But this is exactly what Bhabha predicted: when you try to make a big deal about womanhood, you will get into arguments about who is and who is not really a woman.


I like the theories about thirdness because they provide me with tools for looking at these arguments in a different light.

Transgendered thirdness forces us to ask questions about how society defines gender, but it would be grossly inaccurate to claim that there is no gender or even that everyone is an individual gender. "The fact is, the two-gender system exists," Bornstein tells us [1995:245].

The politics of saying "we are all individual genders" perpetuates the flaws of universalist thinking and cultural diversity. There is a containment of gender because universalist thinking refuses to acknowledge the defining role of the dominant gender system.

I guess that's why I'm always a bit uncomfortable when trans people deny everything about being trans. Certainly there are a lot of good reasons why people "go stealth" and decide not to be out; I understand that completely. But when people say that their experience of growing up as a different gender has nothing to do with who they are now, I find it difficult to accept that claim at face value. When we deny the different experiences that trans people have from non-trans people we perpetuate the binarism and essentialism of the male/female gender divide. And when people like Janice Raymond and Michele Landsberg claim that there are "essential female experiences", they are similarly doing women a disservice.

Linda Nicholson [1995] talks about this very point, taking to task a "feminism of difference" (that argues the difference of women from men, and in a sense, the essentialism of womanhood):

A feminism of difference uncovered many important social patterns of gender, patterns that enabled many women to understand their circumstances in social rather than idiosyncratic terms.

My argument against a feminism of difference does not mean that we should stop searching for such patterns. It is rather that we should understand them in different and more complex terms than we have tended to do, particularly that we should become more attentive to the historicity of any patterns we uncover. As we search for that which is socially shared, we need to be searching simultaneously for the places where such patterns break down. [1995:59]

Applying this thinking to transgenderism, it is important to conceive of a transgendered existence in terms of what it shares with a desired gender, but it is also important to recognise the places where the new gender identification breaks down. Not make too much of a fuss about it, but to acknowledge that it exists.

What I'd like to believe is that if we can start talking about our own difference, we can open up a dialogue in which non-trans people will acknowledge their own differences, and soon, the idea that there are "essential" gender-based feelings and experiences will erode. Bhabha describes this as creating "space" -- a Third Space -- in which gender is not fixed or static.

Maybe that's naive of me; I don't know. But I like to believe it.

One last point that may be hard for trans people to accept: if we accept that there is no common male experience and no common female experience, then we must also accept that there is no common trans experience.

Certainly, we've gotten into the habit of sub-dividing the trans community into crossdressers and transsexuals (and those elusive transgenderists). But I think that one of the things that plagues us is the fact that transsexual experience is the same and that crossdresser experience is essentially the same, etc. When we discover different experiences, we feel threatened, and we get into some pretty nasty fighting. One only has to look at the Usenet newsgroups devoted to trans issues to see that we're not really able to talk about the meaning of trans experience without yelling at each other.

I'll end this with a quotation from Elise Matthesen's wonderful speech at a bisexual conference:

Whenever I get too high and mighty about bisexual ideology, or, worse, defining just who is and isn't a bisexual, who is Us and who is Them, Walt Kelly's character Pogo appears to me and repeats his famous line, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

I've been trying to repeat that one to myself a lot: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Copyright © 1999 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated September 3rd, 2001.
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