Exploring Gender Identity and Community among Three Groups of Transgender Individuals in the United States: MTFs, FTMs, and Genderqueers

By Factor, Rhonda; Rothblum, Esther | Health Sociology Review, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Exploring Gender Identity and Community among Three Groups of Transgender Individuals in the United States: MTFs, FTMs, and Genderqueers


Factor, Rhonda, Rothblum, Esther, Health Sociology Review


Introduction

The present study was planned as a large United States sample of people who identify as transgender. Comparisons were planned across the following groups: those assigned male at birth who experience themselves as female (MTFs)1, those assigned female at birth who experience themselves as male (FTMs), and those who do not identify as male or female. Though people who do not identify as men or women use many terms of self-identity (to be described later), we chose to use the term 'genderqueer' as this was used most frequently (by 62.5% of respondents).

We also compared these three trans groups with their non-transgender brothers and sisters. Using siblings as comparison groups was important given the lack of prior research comparing trans with non-trans individuals. For results comparing these five groups on demographics, social support, and violence and harassment, see Factor and Rothblum (in press). Not surprisingly, we found the three trans groups to experience significantly less social support from their family than their non-transgender brothers and sisters. Transgender people were also more likely to experience a variety of types of harassment and discrimination than their nontransgender sisters and brothers.

In addition, we explored the nuances of diverse trans people's gender expressions, experiences, and identities, and that is the focus of the present paper. Thus, we compare MTFs, FTMs, and genderqueers in the current socio-historical moment. We examined the extent to which these three trans groups participated in transgender communities and the extent to which they disclosed their transgender identity to others.

Gender diversity is a longstanding interest of the first author. The initial ideas for this project emerged from her gender experiences and sensibilities. The dissonance she encountered between her gendered self and the ways in which gendered selves have been described (and not described) in the psychological literature was a primary motivation for undertaking the study. The second author has been researching lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) communities for many years and developed a sibling comparison method that she has utilised with LGB individuals. In an effort to develop further insight into contemporary LGB(T)/Queer communities, she suggested extending this method to trans people and served as the dissertation advisor of the first author.

Theoretical and historical background

It has been over thirty years since 'homosexuality' was removed as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 (American Psychiatric Association 1980). Yet, the current DSM still includes the diagnosis of 'gender identity disorder' (GID), defined as a 'strong and persistent crossgender identification (American Psychiatric Association 2000:581). The majority of social science research in the past two decades on lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people has focused on affirming the lifestyles of sexual minorities and reducing barriers to health and mental health care. In contrast, there has been much less research on transgender people. Instead, the majority of the over 1,000 articles published on GID or transsexualism since the 1950s have used very small samples and focused on people in clinical or medical settings.

Despite over fifty years of pathologisation by health and mental health professionals, few studies have illuminated key aspects of transgender people's lives. Ekins has described how the medical and scientific professions '... were in the service of a reactionary gender politics-a reinforcement of a rigidly perceived binary gender divide' (2005:308). Transsexuals were expected to have surgical treatment, 'pass' as members of the reassigned gender, and live heteronormative lives (Ekins 2005).

In contrast to the medical model, contemporary transgender identities and communities are based on self-identity. Susan Stryker (2006) has described how over the past fifteen years a growing number of individuals have begun to identify as transgender. …

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