Reflections on Transitions: How my Transgender Issues Class has Changed in the Last Fifteen Years

In 1998 I taught a new class at the University of Oregon called “Transgender History, Identity, and Politics.” Back then there were only one or two students who knew what “transgender” meant when I asked them on the first day of class.  The others had enrolled either because the class hours fit their time schedules or because they had taken other classes with me and liked my teaching style (or had received a good grade!).  I have taught the class several times over the past fifteen years, but this term I have noticed a distinct difference; it’s astonishing how the class composition and its general knowledge about the subject has been transformed in such a relatively short time.  Change happens.

At our first meeting we went over an online reading I had assigned in advance about the privileges of being cisgender.  Drawing from the classic article by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” this website lists the ways in which non-trans people have privilege in a world that is so rigidly committed to the gender binary of male and female.  For example, cisgendered people don’t get asked about their genitals much; trans people do, as others are always wondering if they’ve undergone any surgery to make their transition “real.”  Cisgender people are taken seriously in their gender; trans people have to convince others that their identity isn’t fleeting (and so what if it was?).  Cisgendered people have the luxury of having the pronouns used to designate them in a conversation match their identity.  Some trans people have to constantly correct others about their pronoun usage, or just live with “mis-pronouning,” to use a term one of my students coined.


The class turned to a lengthy discussion of pronouns and how our very language makes it difficult to embrace the idea of transitioning from one gender to the other or, especially, to a genderqueer space in between.  If “he” or “she” doesn’t quite work, what about using “ze” for singular and “they” for either singular or plural?  It’s awkward, sure, but so was “Ms.” when feminists first suggested that appellation to denote a woman, without announcing whether she was married or single.  I can remember those conversations about “Ms.” myself; some people thought that the term would never catch on because people want (and presumably have the right) to know a woman’s marital status. (Even for those of us who lived through these times, it’s hard to believe the extent of this historic sexism!).   Others believed that “mizz” just sounded weird. Using “they” for a singular person also sounds weird and takes some getting used to.  But it can be done, even in writing, where it seems especially grammatically incorrect.

ms magazine

The bigger point is this: my class proved to be unusually well-versed in this conversation.  They had points to make about all the various pronoun options, and none of the discussion seemed to catch them by surprise.  In fact, one student said that at several extracurricular meetings “they” attend, students tell the group their preferred pronoun before the meeting begins.  I have been at some student meetings, both at Oregon and at Harvard (where I was on leave last year) where the organizer did the same thing; as everyone introduced themselves, they announced their pronoun preference.  I hesitate to do this in my own class because I think it might force people to “out” themselves before they’re ready—either as gender variant OR as comfortable in their gender.  But I appreciate the intention that informs the practice, and I can see its benefits.

Granted, we might expect such open-mindedness in university settings, particularly in places like Eugene or Cambridge. But the cultural shift isn’t confined to the classroom. I asked my class how many of them have had this pronoun conversation with their families and friends.  Every single student raised a hand!  This is a huge leap forward, I believe.  These students “get” what fifteen years ago I would have had to spend several days explaining: that neither gender nor sex are the fixed entities that we might have assumed.

pronoun chart

By 2013 most upper division Women’s and Gender Studies students understand the socially constructed nature of gender.  The notion that we “gender” our children from birth is now more generally understood.  Many would agree, for example, that the onslaught of pink things commercially designated for girls only is an unnecessary and often damaging cultural imperative. But even as few as fifteen years ago, some students would have had trouble with this idea, arguing that it’s “natural” for girls to like pink and everything else that goes along with that.  And that any deviation from the gender norm was just plain “unnatural,” particularly if hormones, surgery and bodily modifications were involved.

pink things

Today’s students are much more aware and comfortable with gender and sex variation. Been assigned male since birth but now want to live as female?  Cool!  Need testosterone and chest surgery to be read as male? Whatever. Have a friend who identifies as trans but doesn’t want any medical intervention? Also fine. They’re unfazed by much of it, and that makes teaching this class easier in many ways.  I am not as worried as I was years ago that someone might make an insensitive and hurtful comment to the trans students in the room.  As a class we can more quickly delve into the ethical questions that still demand our consideration: Where do transgender politics fit in the larger political landscape of LGBT activism? How do race and class affect access to medical care? How has our understanding of gender variance changed over time? Should hormones and surgery be available to anyone who wants them, without any gatekeeping whatsoever? How should parents handle the impending puberty of transgender children? What can we do to end the physical violence and administrative abuse that trans people confront regularly? What exactly is “normal” and how might we move forward to embrace difference and promote and protect dignity in all forms?

Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black talks about the importance of transgender history

We have an exciting term ahead of us, and I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be in another fifteen years.

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Seamus J

Interesting article. I’ll admit that “Should hormones and surgery be available to anyone who wants them, without any gatekeeping whatsoever?” raised my hackles a bit. I mean, of course there should be rigorous gatekeeping. After all, we make cis children undergo a year of strenuous mental health screening and invasive questioning before we allow them access to puberty, don’t we? . . . Don’t we? Or we don’t, actually, because we assume that whatever trauma, stress, permanent damage, or regret cis teens feel is a natural and unavoidable consequence.

Anyway, that wasn’t what I wanted to comment about! I think it’s great that you are teaching this important subject. On asking people to provide pronouns, it would still be great if you made clear that you support the use of preferred pronouns (I’m guessing you do that already) and setting aside a few minutes after the first week or two for people to voluntarily announce their preferences, if they feel comfortable doing so.

Elizabeth Hungerford

What never ceases to amaze me about this conversation is that the stereotypes of girlhood are precisely the yardstick used to diagnose and understand children (and often adults, too) as “transgender.”

“But even as few as fifteen years ago, some students would have had trouble with this idea, arguing that it’s “natural” for girls to like pink and everything else that goes along with that.”

People nowadays believe a very similar thing: they can’t handle the idea that someone who likes pink and dresses is NOT a girl. See Coy Mathis, the famous transgender 6-year old in Colorado with pink hair. The child loves pink and girly stuff, so Coy is “actually a girl” inside. Because Coy says so.

The message to all the other girls in Coy’s school, and the world, is one of gender conservatism: that our status as girls is created out of and “authenticated” by identification with stereotypes. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sean Saunders

I don’t think the equation is as a simple as the way you are representing it. Increasingly there are parents whose small boys like stereotypical “girl” things and who are allowed the freedom to simply enjoy liking them. These boys don’t feel they are girls, and no one is insisting that they identify that way. But Coy Mathis is a little different, and the difference lies in her deep-seated inner conviction that she is a girl. Yes, you rightly point out that current stereotypes then will reinforce that her liking for pink, etc. is “evidence” of her girlhood, and that is something we would do well question and challenge. Nevertheless, it seems to me that you have collapsed two different kinds of child — the boy who likes “girl stuff” but identifies as a boy, and the birth-assigned boy who who experiences her deep-seated gendered “self” as female — and are wanting them to be one kind of child. I don’t think they are.

Mark Mulligan

Two things.

One, not everyone who’s transgender is stereotypically in line with “male” or “female.” Some trans girls like pink toys, but so do some cis girls. And some cis boys like pink toys. And some trans boys like pink toys. I’m a trans man, but I wouldn’t consider myself particularly macho.

And second, it’s pretty obvious that we as trans* people are disproportionately targeted. Hardly anyone is criticizing cis girls for identifying as girls and also liking Barbies, but somehow a trans girl who also likes Barbies is conservative in her gender.

We have as much right to identifying as men or women as cis people do.

I just can’t get over the fact that on one side I have people telling me that I’m not really a man because I can’t change a tire and I’m afraid of bugs, and on the other side I have people telling me that I’m the boogey man upholding the gender binary.

We’re just an easy target.


“But Coy Mathis is a little different, and the difference lies in her deep-seated inner conviction that she is a girl.” COY MATHIS IS SIX YEARS OLD. Children that age don’t have “deep-seated inner convictions.” This is simply child abuse, even Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.

Beyond that: It is not possible for someone who is intensely uncomfortable with his own male body or who believes he is a woman to actually become a woman (and vice-versa). Males are males. Females are females. People believe all kinds of things about themselves, but that doesn’t make these things true.

Will the “furries” be next? Will it be a hate crime to not to humor the “species identity” of a man who thinks he is really a fox or tiger? There are lots of these folks running around. Will surgery to add a tail or make his ears pointy be covered by health insurance and recommended by the psychiatric industry?

SCIENCE also shows that male-to-“female” transsexual brains are exactly similar to ordinary male brains, except that there is a deficiency in certain synaptic networks concerned with self-perception of one’s body (Savic I, Arver S. Sex dimorphism of the brain in male-to-female transsexuals. Cereb Cortex. 2011 Nov;21(11):2525-33).

“Gender identity” is intensely misogynistic. It erases the distinction between men and women. One way that it eliminates real women is by inventing the term “cis.” If there are “cis-women” and “trans-women” there are no longer real women, because trans-“women” are not actually women.

I hope that the author (and the readers) of this blog will take some time to explore the many harms in “gender identity” and “transgender issues.” A good place to start would be Elizabeth Hungerford’s excellent blog, “Sex Not Gender” (

Mark Mulligan

I think it’s a flawed assumption to see science as existing in a vacuum without cultural context, and therefore always objective. There isn’t a whole lot of consensus on what constitutes a “male” or “female” brain, and considering the malleability of the brain, it isn’t clear if those distinctions are from birth or socialization. I wouldn’t be surprised if years from now, the concepts of “male” and “female” brains no longer existed, as scientific knowledge is in no way static and has always been in constant flux.

But honestly, that’s beside the point. I’m just not understanding how I’m hurting anyone by being a man, or why my being a man upsets people like you. I’m the first to admit that male privilege continues to be a huge problem in society and absolutely must be dismantled, and, coupled with male privilege, misogyny. But that being said, I don’t think the answer is “nobody is allowed to be men because of misogyny” and if cis men are allowed to identify as men, I can’t really understand why I’m not, and vice versa. Saying “only people with penises can be men” and “only people with vaginas can identify as women” doesn’t really do much to dismantle misogyny and male privilege, in my opinion.

What I’m hearing is not “nobody can have binary gender identities,” but rather, “trans* people are not allowed to claim binary gender identities beyond that which they were assigned at birth.” If I’m not allowed to call myself a man, nobody is. There is absolutely a double standard going on here. Unless you’re genderqueer or otherwise non-binary identified, you have a binary gender identity. Cis people have binary gender identities, and so do I, so I really don’t understand why I come under criticism for binarism but they don’t. The ultimate irony is that I’ve never once encountered a genderqueer or otherwise non-binary trans* person who’s accused me of upholding the gender binary. And honestly, if a genderqueer person did accuse me of that, I would take that much more seriously than a binary-identified cis man or woman criticizing me for having a binary gender identity. Look in the mirror. So do you. But yours is based on genitals, and mine isn’t.

That being said, it’s also fair to say that binary gender identities (for both cis folks and trans* folks) is culturally constructed, but that something is culturally constructed does not necessarily carry a value judgment. “American” is a culturally constructed identity, but it still means something to me. So is “academic,” but that also has meaning to me.

I understand the great harm that gender stereotypes and the cultural construction of gender can do; I’m not saying misogyny and male privilege shouldn’t be recognized as problematic and in need of fixing. I just don’t see how a new acquaintance insisting on addressing me with female pronouns does anything to fix that.

Elizabeth Hungerford

Mark, the feminist point is that the social roles “man” and “woman” are not innate and essential parts of ourselves. You seemed to agree but miss the point that naturalizing gender as if it were programmed from within is the very definition of gender essentialism. And that this same gender essentialism serves as the ideological justification for women’s secondary social status.

Gender has a disparate impact on women, so naturalizing gender as innate is harmful to women. Instead of “authenticating,” “validating,” and “legitimizing” these social roles as biologically essential, congenital, unchanging, and natural parts of humanity; we should stop trying to understand ourselves through these social roles and stop defining ourselves by them. They warp our individuality and create false frameworks of self.

When feminists focus on the negative socialization of women, the purpose is not to reinscribe social roles as authentic and natural (<see trans* narratives), but to better understand and deconstruct the tools of women's oppression (ie, GENDER ROLES). If we cannot do this, or neglect to do it because it hurts some people's feelings, fighting women's oppression becomes like punching with your eyes closed– you have no idea where your opponent is or how to attack its weaknesses. It renders us impotent.

You say that "Cis people have binary gender identities" but I disagree as a general matter (some people might, but I don't, most people do not). I wrote this in “A feminist critique of “cisgender”“:

As a woman-born-woman who rejects femininity as females’ destiny, I surely do not identify with my assigned gender in the way that “cis” describes. Indeed, no one holding radical feminist/anti-essentialist views about gender could be considered “cis” because, by definition of these views, we reject gender as a natural social category that every person identifies with. Feminists do not believe that everyone has a “gender identity,” or that we all possess some kind of internal compass directing our identification with “gender.”


…“masculinity” and “femininity” are not monolithic, static concepts that are wholly embraced or wholly discarded. Socially assigned gender roles encompass entire lives’ worth of behaviors and expectations, from cradle to grave. Most people’s identification with their “gender” assignment is not a simple Y/N. One may be aesthetically gender conforming, but at the same time, behaviorally non-conforming. Or vice versa. Or some combination of both. Most of us are not walking, talking stereotypes. It is unusual for a person to both appear and behave in unmodified identification with their assigned gender at birth. For example, a female-born person might wear pink dresses and lots of makeup, but behave in an assertive, detached, and highly intellectual manner. Or a female-born person might appear very androgynous, without any feminine adornment at all, but express herself gently, quietly, and with graceful concern for those around her. What about a female who is aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but submissive and emotional in her personal life? Who decides whether an individual is sufficiently identified with to be considered “cis”? Or sufficiently non-identified with to be “trans”?

“Identifying” with gender is harmful to women. It’s harmful to everyone, but it’s especially harmful to the roughly 3.5 billion females who are coercively assigned the social role “girl>>woman” at birth. Naturalizing gender as if it were programmed from within is the very definition of gender essentialism. And we will never agree that women’s oppression is essential and inevitable.

Tiffany Wilson

This was a very interesting article. I followed your link to “30+ Examples of Cisgender Privlidge,” and have to disagree. Not all cisgender people have access to such privileges. Specifically, people who have trauma experience have similar problems with medical treatment and fear of authority. (On a much more trivial note, I have huge feet, and frequently end up wearing opposite-gender shoes. These things happen.) We need to be careful to not essentialize any experiences, even when trying to point out a trend of cisgender privilege.

Elizabeth Reis

Tiffany: of course you’re right about not all people have the same access to cisgender privilege. I didn’t write that website, but I think it does a good job of presenting the very notion to some students who might not have given gender privilege any thought at all. Thanks for your comment!

Pavini Moray

I read “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler back in 1991 in Women’s Studies class. We also read “Ain’t I a woman.” The comment about “real women” disturbed me… I’m of the ilk that gender identity is self-identified, and you are real if you say you are. I am so glad that ideas and pedagogy about the construct of gender identity are becoming more part of a central conversation. Thanks for the work you are doing. I enjoyed your post.


This statement is ahistorical: “But even as few as fifteen years ago, some students would have had trouble with this idea, arguing that it’s “natural” for girls to like pink and everything else that goes along with that.”

It is part of the rest of the narrative of this piece that things are changing for the better in terms of gender. But there is no support for that view if you take off your pink gender-studies glasses. In fact, this quote inadvertently shows what is really going on: “Been assigned male since birth but now want to live as female? Cool!” That is neither sex nor gender variation. It is simply choosing the *other* gender box (one of only two) INSTEAD of being comfortable with the variation of a male who does or wears or thinks “female-typical” things (and thereby discarding gender altogether).

Conversely, advertisements, television programs, toys, clothes, movies, etc. (“culture,” aggregated) from 35 years ago show that the women’s movement had made it possible for girls and women to see themselves wearing and doing and being anything they wanted to. Now the toy aisles and clothing choices are full to overflowing with gender promotion and stereotyping. Women and girls are routinely misrepresented in relation to gender stereotypes in virtually any cultural artifact you can name. Men and boys don’t fare much better.

Swapping gender chairs does not make the chairs go away. in the last 15 years of transgender movement ascendance, things have gotten much, much worse in the gender restrictions on girls and women the world over. Maybe a coincidence and maybe not. But closing our eyes and claiming the opposite is happening is not tenable.

35 years ago we had a path we could have followed to true gender agnosticism. Instead we took a sharp U-turn back toward believing in the stereotypes enough for males to “know” they are really women. How do they know? Insert stereotype about girls/women here. Coy “knows” he is a girl because pink, is the perfect example of this in action. But if it weren’t for adults and the adult-created cultural machine that manufactures all the hideous stereotypes of girls and boys, Coy could just be Coy, no gender stereotypes necessary.

Natasha Graham

This is an interesting article to which I would like to add my personal views of myself..its a bit of a personal experience rather than analytical.

So being 46 years old this year means I have experienced some of the conversation above directly….

At an age of about 6 (probably as far back as I can remember failthfully) I knew I was different, although being male by birth wasn’t really of prime importance to me. That said I was the elder of 2 boys in my family and was brought up as a boy without girly influences at home. Back then being transgender was (in my family anyway) a taboo subject, how could you be physically male but want to be female?

Ok I wasn’t a rough and tumble kind of child prefering my own company to that of other boys….was this because I related to girls or just that they didn’t do rough and tumble? that is something I don’t know the answer to. What I do remember is being jealous that the girls could wear skirts and blouses, had long hair and played games that I would have prefered to play.

So what made me feel that way back then? Its probably a question that I cannot answer, I just related much more with girls than boys. I don’t remember “dressing” at that age as I knew that there were no girls clothes in my house that would fit me back then.

As I grew up I was probably not your average boy in that I still wasn’t into rough and tumble…..I do remember role playing with a neighbours girl (cowboys and indians) and she had an indian costume, funny that even back then it was a female indian costume and the boys had cowboy costumes (stereotypically). But I do remember wearing her costume and prefering to be the indian rather than the cowboy…..was it a secret cry to be rescued back then? AKA typically stereotypical films of cowboys and indians where the female indian is saved by the macho cowboy! So what was my reasoning to want to be a girl back then? wasn’t pink items back then, was it a desire to play with/like the girls did with “their” toys? Further questions that I cannot answer specifically.

So at age of about 10 I was big enough and stealthy (for want of a better word) enough to be able to borrow some of my mums clothes and partially “dress” as a female. Why would I want to do that if I was male? Some may just put it down to being curious with female clothes…. if that was the case why did it start 4 years earlier? Also if it was just curiosity why 35 years later do I still “dress”….

So over the years I have been through a lot of emotions regarding my identity….I have been the closet crossdresser, the tranny, the perve, etc. etc. but none of these things really are me they are just labels placed on me by others as their way of defining what they see…..

As I see it I am me! I am a person who would have prefered to have been born female, but unlike others don’t have that drive to want to have surgery…..if the option to have hormones was more readily available I would take that approach. Does this make me less of a female? Some would say yes as how could I want to be female but not go the whole hog? Being that bit older and wiser the desire to live without surgery outweighs the risks of surgery, so it is more of a logical choice to not have what I would see as unneccessary surgery.

This then brings us to the aspect of being female. What is the determination of being female…..the birth right by genintallia? the upbringing based on birth right? the perception of being female based on upbringing, looks, toys that you played with etc? The basis of being female on the thoughts, writings of others? bearing in mind that the thoughts and writings of others are just that and nothing more.

Due to the constant stereotypical social constraints are you only truly female by all of the above…..but as has been said before are you still female if you prefer engineering over cooking etc. What determines your own right to be the person that you are? be it male, female, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, transgender etc……It should not be the social stereotypical constraints by any means. Who you want to be is up to you, what you want to be is up to you and how you want to be is up to you…….its just such a shame that other people think that they have the right to tell you what you should be…..

I don’t know if this really helps in the idea of this article….but some people may relate to it and consider what it means to them because of it.

Elizabeth Reis

Thanks, Natasha, for your thoughtful comments. And thanks to all the people who took the time to read my essay and write comments This kind of conversation is exactly why this class is so interesting! Your question here: “What determines your own right to be the person that you are?” is something we will spend a lot of time discussing this term, I’m sure.

The Trouble with Transcendence: Is Defying the Gender Binary the New Racial Passing? | Nursing Clio

[…] This week, Nursing Clio is featuring posts written by undergraduate students. The following post was written by a student in Elizabeth Reis‘s upper division class on Transgender Issues at the University of Oregon. Using transgender history, identity, and politics as a lens, the course explores how sexuality and gender have been configured throughout American history. For this assignment, students were able to choose any topic and write a blog post in the style of other essays. Reis also wrote two posts during the term. You can read them here and here. […]

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