The Mint Garden- a place to discuss trans people’s gender

IMPORTANT NOTE!  For technical reasons having to do with the way this web site is managed, the original thread timed out and cannot be re-opened for comments.  So, we have created this page, where comments should remain open indefinitely, to continue the conversation!  We even, because Barry is awesome, moved the comments from hither to yon.  So, you can see this entire post and all the commenty goodness over there.  No need to come back here again at all.


Have you ever planted mint in a well-watered garden?  Probably not more than once.  The stuff takes over, doesn’t it?  Pretty soon you have more mint than you could use in a candy factory, and you’re hacking it back, treating it like a weed.  Most people don’t mind a bit of mint,1 but most of us like other flavors, too — dill, basil, thyme, and others — and we’d like those to have places to grow without getting choked out by mint.  Also, we’d maybe like to spend our time encouraging other things to grow, and not uprooting the mint.

Sometimes, when a trans person posts something, commenters ask questions which don’t seem to come up when a cis person posts something.  The questioners are often well-intentioned.  They’re often seeking genuinely to understand.  And, when a trans person posts from an explicitly trans perspective, naturally the topic is often gender-related.  So, gender comes up in these conversations, and fair enough.  What is “a woman”? What is “a man”?  When someone is apparently, in every way, one gender, but says they’re a different gender, what does that even mean?  Is that real?  Are there caveats?

But those questioners have just planted mint in the garden.  And there’s a place for mint.  Just not where you’d like to grow the thyme and the basil.  Not in every garden.

When this happens, when a questioner wants to interrogate an aspect of gender, the trans poster can easily start to feel that it is their gender which is being interrogated, and not just the abstract concept of gender.  There are many reasons why.  Among them:

1.  Gender as an abstract notion requires an act of will, for a trans person. Gender is very specific, for us.  It has consequences, and some of them hurt.2  This disparity in life experience between cis and trans is just about the definition of the difference between a cis person and a trans person.  One excellent definition of “trans person” is “a person whose gender is not universally considered valid.”3

2.  People4 often do question the gender of trans people, and challenge it, and deride it, and try to define it.  So this is a repeating, reiterating, recapituling, recurring, life experience for trans people which happens frequently, a lot, over and over, again and again.5  If the questioner were the first, it would not be an issue.  But the questioner is the 10,000th, even though this is the particular questioner’s first visit to this garden.  That ground has been pounded flat.  It’s hard for a green shoot to gain purchase, and the people who live there are pretty tired of the dust kicked up as visitors walk around and ask Important Questions.6

3.  Some people, with every good intention, try to spin the question artfully, to ask the question about gender in general (not your specific gender, no!) in an effort not to attack a trans person, to depersonalize the interrogation.  They want to spare the trans person the pain, and so they talk about hypotheticals. But there’s no bright line, and pretty soon the trans person is aware that they are at the focus of the questioner’s attention, and the question “What is this?” is really a stand-in for “What are you?” — which is a really dicey question to ask, especially when the questioner knows what the trans person has already said on the topic.  So, well-intentioned gender-in-general conversations also become poisoned.

4.  Some people, with no good intentions at all,7 ask questions about gender in general as a rhetorical device, so that they can attack a specific person’s gender while retaining a semblance of plausible deniability.  This further poisons discussions about gender generally.

5.  These definitional questions recur again and again on trans people’s posts about all kinds of topics, but they almost never appear on cis people’s posts, unless the cis person has actually raised the topic themself. This is not a coincidence; it is a reflection of that fact that the gender of cis people is unquestioned. Individual commenters aren’t wholly to blame for this–we’re all stewing in cissexism here–but when they can’t acknowledge the pattern, trans people tend to shut down and lose interest in talking further. This is a rational, self-protective response.

So, trans people get tired of these questions.  They can be good questions.  Tasty, even.  But they have their place, and often it’s not in the comment thread below a different topic, or a more specific topic.

Sometimes you don’t want mint.

But what about the people who want mint?  Shouldn’t there be a place to enjoy the mint?

This is that place.  Welcome to the mint garden!  Rimonim and I have decided to tend this garden, and since “gender” is an enormous topic, it’s a big garden.  We can’t take credit for the underlying landscape; there are interesting sight lines and repeated themes and grand vistas and little meditative hollows.

All we’re going to try to do is keep the mint hacked down to where the view is clear.

Rimonim and I wrote what’s above a few months ago, intending to get back to it, and he was busy, and I was busy, and we hadn’t pushed it forward… and then Caitlyn Jenner transitioned and suddenly everyone is critiquing her and talking about what makes a woman and spinning off conversations.

One of those conversations is in the the recent open thread, where Christopher and dragon_snap and Phil are having what strikes me as a very careful and caring conversation on this very topic. I reproduce it here, with some formatting fixes. I’ll comment as I have time.

Christopher wrote:

I hope this isn’t somehow over the line, but I found that Vox FAQ to be, well, confusing.

I still don’t quite understand what gender identity is.

So, I actually have tried similar thought experiments to the one described at the beginning of the article; gender and sex are a minefield of complicated ideas, so I decided to imagine something fairly simple. I switched out the terms “man” and “woman” for height terms.

“Okay, I’m [six feet tall], but imagine my mind was telling me that I was [five feet tall], I might wish that I weren’t [six feet tall]…”

And I had to stop there because I was already engaging in anti-trans language. Look at what happens when I switch it back:

“Okay, I’m [a man], but imagine my mind was telling me I’m [a woman], I might wish that I weren’t [a man]…”

If I were to describe a trans woman as “a man who wishes to be a woman”, that would be considered extremely transphobic in most trans-friendly circles.

The more acceptable description seems to be that a trans man is “[A man] who was assigned [a female gender] at birth. A trans man has always been [a man] for their whole lives.”. It’s very common to hear that a trans man has always been a man, and a trans woman has always been a woman.

But if I try to turn it back around I get “I am [a five foot tall person] who was assigned [the height of six feet] at my last checkup. But I’ve always been [five feet tall]”

That’s harder for me to wrap my head around. I’m clearly using the term “five foot tall person” to refer to something other than a measurement on a ruler, but I’m not sure what that something is.

Especially when we get to this part of the article:

Keisling and Ziegler explained that not all trans people undergo medical treatments to change their physical traits, perhaps because they are comfortable with their bodies,

So a trans man may well be okay with having a (for lack of a better term) “female” body, which means that when he calls himself a man he’s not talking in terms of what his body is, or what it should be. In fact, it seems entirely possible that he may wear “women’s” clothes; I think we can all agree that a man can wear a dress and it doesn’t magically make him stop being a man.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

I’m not saying “Rargh, he’s not really a man” because in order to do that I’d first have to have a definition of what it meant to “really” be a man. And I don’t. I’d really like to know what the definition is.

dragon_snap wrote:

@ Christopher

I’m not trans, but I do have a gender identity, and as a woman, a queer person, and a trans* ally (to the best of my ability), I’ve thought about all this quite a bit.

1) You might find Julia Serano’s description of her experiences with ‘gender sadness’ illuminating. This is taken from a page on her old blog, but I highly recommend her book “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” if you are interested in transgender issues, sexism/feminism, or intersectionality.

i doubt i could adequately describe what “gender sadness” feels like to someone who is not transgendered. i suppose that in some ways it is similar to other kinds of sadness. for instance, you know that feeling you get when someone you love more than anything breaks up with you? and it’s about a month or two after the big break-up and you are trying to get on with your life. but no matter how busy you keep yourself, thoughts about that person just keep popping into your head about 100 times a day, and everytime they do you feel a bit of sadness. well that’s kind of what gender sadness felt like for me during most of my life. while i was always struggling with it, i could still go out and have a few laughs or go about my business and be relatively productive and happy for the most part. but unlike most types of sadness or grief, which tend to get a little less intense with every day that passes, gender sadness just keeps getting more and more intense. and by the year 2000, i had reached the point where the sadness felt more like what one feels on the actual day of the big break-up, when you can’t concentrate at all and you are totally consumed with thoughts of the person you loved. that’s how i felt almost every day: consumed with gender sadness. literally every other thought i had was about gender, about my pain. i could not get around it. it sucked all of the life out of me. i stopped calling friends, stopped writing songs and listening to music, i would go into work and just stare at the computer screen without really doing anything. it hurt as much as any other pain (physical or emotional) that i had ever felt before. and i knew there was only one way to ease that pain: transitioning.

2) It might be helpful to consider that different aspects of a person’s identity are of varying importance to different people. For instance, to some people, their nationality might be an important part of their self-concept, self-image, and their sense of who they are (i.e. their identity). For some others, their nationality may be only a very small portion of of what they consider to be their core self. The same can be said of pretty much any other trait or attribute – religious background, sexuality, profession, ethnicity, (dis)ability, family role, etc. And of course, it likewise applies to gender idenity. For instance, though I have a fairly specific and narrow range of gender expressions within which I am comfortable, I don’t have a strong innate gender identity (though I identify ‘politically’ – for lack of a better term – as a woman, and with womanhood, due to the historical and current myriad issues with sexism, strict gender roles, etc). I sometime describe my gender identity as ‘shy’, because if I ‘put it in the spotlight’ by thinking about it too hard or too long, I end up feeling uncomfortable and upset. It’s pretty neutral or androgynous though I think, and somewhat fluid. (Sometimes I feel like ‘one of the boys’, and sometimes like ‘one of the girls’.) It’s also worth noting though that I feel very much at home in AFAB (assigned female at birth) body, and I identify strongly as cissexual.

3) There are many aspects of a person’s biological sex. Some of the main facets:

– hormones: estrogen and progesterone vs. testosterone
– hormone cycles: approximately monthly vs. daily
– chromosomes: there are two sex chromosomes, X and Y, and many configurations of one or more copies of the X chromosome and zero or more copies of the Y chromosome in humans. Chromosomal testing is very rare, so we don’t really have good data at all about how common the various arrangements are in general, or how they correlate – if at all – with being cisgender, transgender, and/or intersex.
– secondary sexual characteristics, eg: breasts vs. facial hair and deepened voice
– primary sexual characteristics: genitalia
– gametes: egg cells vs. sperm cells

Now if a trans woman, for instance, has the hormones, hormonal cycle, secondary sexual characteristics, and genitals commonly associated with being female, unknown chromosomes, and no male gametes in her body, there is a very strong case to be made for her to be considered ‘biologically female’, and it certainly would be very difficult to assert that she was ‘biologically male’. Moreover, many cisgender people lack one or more of the listed factors (eg, post-menopausal women, men who have received radiation therapy, women who have had a mastectomy, etc.), yet we would not consider them to be less ‘qualified’ to be considered ‘biologically’ female or male, as applicable, nor would we doubt their experience of their subjective gender.

Many trans people have spoken or written about their experiences with HRT (hormone replacement therapy) in similar terms to the following memorable passage (emphasis in the original):

I’ve been on estrogen for nearly eleven weeks, and I still count down the hours (seven) until I can take my next dose. […] It’s hard to describe, but everything just feels more natural now that my mind and body are no longer flooded with testosterone. It’s as though after 23 years, I have finally stopped trying to fill up a diesel car with unleaded gas. My brain was made to run on estrogen.

As well, I think it’s worth noting as well that many trans people experience body dysphoria and social dysphoria as distinct but related phenomena, which they they may experience at different levels of severity. Additionally, there are a great many physical changes that can be effected via HRT, electrolysis, and various non-genital surgeries. And of course there’s really no way to tell what genitalia someone has without looking at them naked from the waist down — which really never comes up an interactions with someone who isn’t an in-person intimate partner, and sometimes not even then!

Sorry my comment was so long; I hope there was some stuff in there that was helpful or interesting.

Phil wrote:

I want to write a comment here that discusses a question that Christopher raised and also some of my own mental stumbling blocks when it comes to trans issues and gender issues. I do not intend to be impolite, but it is possible my comment here may be triggering for people who are struggling with these issues in a more personal way.

But I get stuck on this; if that trans man isn’t using the word “man” in terms of facts related to his biological sex, and he’s not using the word “man” to describe an effort to conform to societal gender roles, what does the word “man” mean in this context?

This is a question that I’m honestly trying to find a meaningful answer for.

I understand, as a writer and a progressive and a person who generally doesn’t want to cause people harm, that it is polite to refer to a trans woman as a woman, to use the pronouns that she prefers, and to use the name that she requests. I have no problem with that, and I understand that this use of language might be more than just politeness but might contribute to a space where someone feels safer.

In other words, I don’t want to sound transphobic or to do things that are transphobic. But, on another level, I don’t want to be transphobic. I can say that Janet Mock (for example) is a woman, but it feels like I’m being dishonest unless I also believe that Janet Mock is a woman.

Now, I don’t hold the belief that Janet Mock is a man, or that she is not a woman, or that being trans is a third sex. But if I’m going to hold the belief that she is a woman, then I feel like I need to understand what a woman is such that Janet Mock fits the criteria.

This might sound like a transphobic thing to say, and if it does, I’m sorry, but for me, finding out the answer to that question is the key to not being transphobic.

At the moment, the best I can glean is that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman (and a man is a person who identifies as a man). That’s functional from a rhetorical perspective, but it does render some common narratives illogical. (How can you, as a child, feel like “a person who identifies as a woman” — there must be something more, beyond simple identification, such that a person can reasonably say, “I have always known I was a woman” or “I have always known I was a man.” Or, “I did not change from being a man to being a woman, I changed what I identified as,” etc.)

The Guardian essay says this about Rachel Dolezal:

Dolezal might feel an enormous affinity to blackness – so much that she decided to identify as black – but her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence.

I feel like the Guardian essay engages in the logical fallacy of question-begging: Rachel Dolezal is not black because she is only choosing to identify as black, but trans people are the gender they identify as because they actually are that gender.


So. At least two trans people (Rimonim and I) will be participating in this thread. Other trans people are welcome, too. However, since this is a thread for people to ask questions which may be shredding, fellow trans people, please participate only if you’re feeling sufficiently callused. Please look after your own resources and do not use up spoons you need for something essential.

Cis people are welcome, too (indeed, essential to the effort, since your questions are explicitly centered). We would appreciate it if you would make an effort not to be cruel, but we do want this to be a thread where people can interrogate matters like those I mentioned at the top. So, please do the best you can, and if you say something awkward, or poorly-phrased, or weirdly-conceived, we trans people will do our best to engage with it anyway.

All people, please remember that each of us only actually has one perspective. No single person has all the answers, and no single person can embody all of whatever it means to be “trans” or “cis” or “male” or “female” or “bi-gender”, or what-have-you.

Lived experience counts for a lot. If someone says that something happened to them and you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. DO NOT declare it to be impossible. Example: in a recent online discussion, Dana Beyer, who is an out trans woman who was assigned male at birth, casually referenced a traumatic incident in her life: her first period. Commenters scoffed and declared that it was patently impossible for a trans woman to have a period, and therefore everything she had said was suspect. Had they bothered to try to understand, they could have asked her. Or they could have googled her name and a few keywords, and discovered the key to understanding her comment: that Beyer is Intersex, and when she hit puberty, the unseen and unguessed-at uterine tissue in her abdomen started doing what uterine tissue does, and sloughed tissue… through the only aperture structurally available to it, her penis.

So, please, ALL people: when someone reports a life experience which you don’t understand, strap on your best humility and try, before you render judgement. Thanks.

I really hope we can have a good discussion. Again, welcome.


  1. I love mint. []
  2. So we’re clear:  not just hurt like “that hurt my feelings” (though heaven knows that’s corrosive enough as an hourly diet) but hurt like “those broken bones are going to cost a lot of money and keep me out of work.” []
  3. Hat tip to []
  4. and not always cis people []
  5. It is, so that you cannot mistake my meaning, something which trans people experience a very great deal. []
  6. Sometimes that ground is pounded and salted so hard that even well-watered mint won’t take hold; Jan Morris, upon being asked for an interview, is reported to have replied with one sentence: “When I hear the word ‘gender’ I reach for my pistol.” []
  7. at least, not toward the trans person []
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