The Gender Matrix



Bobbi Williams (1996)


[Bobbi Williams is the "femme" name of a transgendered M-to-F; she holds a Ph.D. and has spent many years counselling and advising other members of the trangender community. This article is a work in progress and your comments and reactions are invited.]

The term "transgender" is used to refer to a person whose gender identity differs from their physical sex or whose expression differs from conventional expectations of masculinity or femininity. Transgendered persons include:

-       transsexuals: those who are considering surgically changing their sex called pre-operative, and those who have already done so, called post-operative. They can be female-to-male (transsexual men) as well as male-to-female (transsexual women).

-       transgenderists: persons living full-time in a gender opposite their birth sex but who have no desire to pursue surgery. Transgenderists can be female-to-male (transgendered men) as well as male-to-female transgendered women)

-       transvestites (the clinical term) and crossdressers (the colloquial term): those who express their gender in a way that differs from their birth sex, as well as "mannish" women, whose gender expression is masculine and who are often assumed to be lesbians, though this is not necessarily the case and "effeminate" men, whose gender expression is feminine and who are often assumed to be homosexuals, though this also is not necessarily the case.

Transsexuals and transgenderist (non-operative transsexual) persons differ from cross dressers in that they come to feel they can no longer continue to live their lives in the gender associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. The overall psychological term applied to transgendered persons is gender dysphoria, described as an intense feeling of pain, anguish, and anxiety from the mis-assignment of sex at birth. All transgendered people suffer from it, but the feeling is more acute for transsexuals, usually increasing in the middle of their lives. These feelings lead many transgendered people into depression, anxiety, chemical dependency, divorce and other family problems, even suicide. In order to seek relief from their gender dysphoria, transsexual and trans-genderists"transition," living their lives in their "true" genders, which are opposite their birth sexes.

Crossdressers constitute the largest subgroup of transgendered persons. Unlike transsexuals, they wish to remain the sex they were born. (There are also women who crossdress, but most social norms do not attach any stigma to this.) They are often avowedly heterosexual. Apart from their occasional crossdressing, these men lead lives that are quite ordinary in all other respects. Many crossdressers are married and have children, so they have much to lose if their transgendered state is revealed. For this reason, accurate data on this group is difficult to obtain.

The chapter titled "Diagnosis: The Gender Spectrum" written by William R. Stayton* and published in "The Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns", edited by Florence L. Kaslow and published by John Wiley & Sons (1996) provides a view of transgenderism as fitting somewhere on a spectrum of behavior between that which is "traditionally coded male" and that which is "traditionally coded female." Stayton's work also draws on that of Money & Tucker who state that by the age of two or two and half, everyone has gone through the process of coding for masculine and feminine attitudes, feelings, and behavior. He defines those coded as congruent with their own gender (read "body parts") positive (+) and those who have coded for the other gender negative (-) .

So, if the biological male has coded mostly feminine attitudes, feelings and behaviors, he is transsexual. (Likewise, I assume, the female coded with mostly masculine attitudes, feelings and behaviors is also transsexual.) But the model falls short when matched with the reality.



Scores of personal biographies and interviews with transgendered persons has led me to conclude that gender identity is part of a matrix within which all variations in gender may be found. This definition of gender identity is more functional and practical. The figure below illustrates the matrix.



The two axis on the matrix represent an individual's chemistry (biological elements like hormonal levels, as well as genital development) and his or her coding (behavioral elements associated with gender like posture and walk). A location can be plotted for an individual located somewhere between one end or the other of each axis. Stayton says that the person with a zero rating (at the center) on the coding continuum is a transvestite, whereas I would argue that those at the center of the matrix are essentially androgynous, or gender-neutral.

The extremes are quite clear. Those whose chemistry and coding are 100% feminine fit the traditional concept of female (found in the upper left hand corner; I call them Femme Fatales). As they move toward the center they become less so. Likewise, those whose chemistry and coding are 100% male (at the lower right hand corner; I call them Macho Males), fit the traditional concept of male. Those whose chemistry and coding are the opposite of these are male (lower left corner) and female (upper right corner) transsexuals. The degree to which an individual "leans" in one direction or another determines the extent to which they can be considered transgendered. Thus, the matrix allows us to define the more subtle variances which are self-evident in our society. It also better addresses the question of "normalcy." In all populations and cultures there are people at many points in the matrix. There may be more clustered in the classic male and classic female quadrants, but the entire matrix is what is normal. The fact that one falls within a transgendered zone does not make that person abnormal; it simply makes them outnumbered.



Some transgendered persons identify themselves as heterosexual; some are bisexual; some may identify as gay or lesbian. But the intrinsic difference is their gender identity, not their sexual orientation. These are separate issues; however, transgenders who are unable or unwilling to hide, "pass," or "woodwork," are often perceived as homosexuals regardless of their sexual preference.

The matrix does not address the issue of sexuality or sexual preference; nor is it intended to. Just as there are many "straight" men and women whose masculine or feminine coding and chemistry place them within the transgender regions, there are many whose coding and chemistry are classic masculine and feminine, but whose sexual preference and behavior is toward the same sex.

Stayton attempts to address this element when he says that the transvestite "must cross-dress or fantasize being cross-dressed in order to get eroticized or relaxed." It's a strange pair of terms, since we doesn't usually associate one (eroticized) with the other (relaxed). It's also misleading because it oversimplifies the sexual side of the issue, placing the focus on an individual's sexual nature rather than his or her gender identity. In reality, my own experience and research has shown that the coding and chemistry of the transgendered person is in place long before demands are made on his or her sexual preference. The difficulty (and confusion) occurs because the TG must deal with his or her sexuality in a cultural milieux where sexual preference is expected to be consistent with gender. Some male TG's may deal with it by concluding "I'm more female than male, so I must be sexually attracted to men." On the other hand, some simply adopt the view that their TG status makes them "lesbians." And the opposite holds true for female TG's. The fact is that there's a fair amount of evidence to support the notion that sexuality is coded independent of gender and that, perhaps, it operates on an axis of its own.




If there's any value to the validity of the matrix it's probably in determining who needs therapy. Stayton, as a working therapist, subscribes to the clinical concept of gender dysphoria. He suggests that the "gender-dysphoric client see a therapist who can help him or her identify where he or she is on the gender spectrum and work through the consequences of any choices to be made on family members, vocation and career, and community." Using his coding continuum, Stayton says that the male who codes between the transvestite and the transsexual needs to see a gender therapist, reasoning that the transgendered person may incorrectly think that surgical reassignment is appropriate. Because the TG still has masculine coding, he says, he probably would not adjust well to being a female. (He offers no research to support this conclusion.)

His concern is with "sexual dysfunctions within the context of one's significant relationships" and his work is aimed at helping the TG's adjust to the sexual expectations of their mates. His goals are reasonable and admirable, but lack a unified view.




It has been my experience and the experience of many other TG's that the vast majority of therapists have very little experience with our situation. All too often, they take us on because they are curious or, perhaps, they're unwilling to admit that they don't know anything about it. (I'm not discounting those who have made it a speciality and taken the time to investigate and listen, but they're too few and too rare.)

The matrix suggests some areas of research which might be pursued with the goal of providing better guidance for therapists working with TG's. For example, scales which position individuals on the coding and chemistry (x and y) axis would provide a basis for studying correlates. Physical exams, measuring hormonal levels and genital development might yield the latter; there may already be psychological profiling techniques for the former. Longitudinal studies of individuals who were positioned on the scale might also yield useful information, especially when compared to different therapeutic techniques.


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