(Trans) Gender Matters: A Primer on Trans Theory and International Security

International Relations is blind to both gender (as feminists point out) and gender diversity (a point many feminists miss). Breaking the gender binary in international security illuminates issues of unexamined power relations, identity, visibility, and most importantly it forces us to question entrenched dichotomies and consider the space and fluidity between polarities.

IR is the study of gendered individuals and actors, by gendered individuals. IR is also the study of power relations, and the power relations between [a plurality of] genders are relevant and under-examined. Just as feminism in IR revealed the sexist underpinnings of global politics and the discipline itself, trans theory exposes the ubiquitous cissexism in international relations theory. Until cissexism in IR is addressed, cisgender heterosexuals will retain the privileged position of perceived “normality” while trans people remain othered.

Gender studies has done much to highlight cissexism in its scholarship, but IR has been slow to progress. International relations should be a dialogue “of, about, and for difference”, rather than obscuring the diversity of the actors whose behavior and interaction it seeks to explain. Trans theory could also have links with other IR theories. Like most critical theories, trans theory is post-positivist. Trans theory, Marxism, and postcolonialism share the aim of deconstructing power hierarchies around understanding the influence that those power relations have on the discipline.

Vocabulary (a necessary overview)

“Sex” is the perceived biological “maleness” or “femaleness” of a body, often creating a false dichotomy which doesn’t allow any space in between (e.g. intersex) or separate from this binary.

“Gender” is the culturally or socially constructed concept which characterizes people as “masculine” or “feminine” based on their perceived sex. “Gender identity” is the gender experienced by an individual, which may or may not match their gender assigned at birth. “Gender expression” is the gender people choose to present themselves as, which again may or may not match their gender assigned at birth or their gender identity.

The gender binary is the dichotomous concept of only two genders: men and women. This binary, like the male/female sex binary, is destructive because it provides only two options for defining one’s gender, while many people’s lived experiences include fluid, transitory, oscillating, or simply nontraditional gender(s); the gender binary also dictates that men are expected to be strictly masculine, and women are expected to be strictly feminine.

“Trans” is a prefix referring to people who do not identify as (solely) the gender or sex they were assigned at birth, or people who do not conform to societal gender norms. Transgender is a broad term referring to people who transgress traditional gender norms. Transsexual is a more specific term referring to people who have adapted their gender role(s) and/or bodies to be congruent with their gender identity: this may include cross-living (cross-dressing all of the time), hormone therapy, surgery, or other body modifications. MTF is the abbreviation for “male to female”, people who formerly identified as male or were deemed male at birth who now identify as female; FTM for “female to male” for those who formerly identified/were identified by others as female who now identify as male.  Transitioning is the process trans people begin when they start living as their gender, which may involve “coming out”, learning to change their gender expression, hormone treatment, or body modifications. Gender dysphoria is the psychological discomfort with one’s own body and/or gender assignment, and the resulting cultural gender expectations. Gender dysphoria is also a clinical psychiatric diagnosis to be included in the DSM-5, which is seen as stigmatizing and offensive to many; yet a positive diagnosis is often required to receive insurance coverage for sex-reassignment/gender-affirming therapy or surgery. Transphobia is the fear of or discrimination against trans or gender-variant people: trans people statistically experience high levels of abuse and harassment, and are disproportionately raped and murdered.

For the purposes of this essay, “trans” is preferred to “transgender”, “transsexual” and others because it allows for more variance as a self-descriptor. However, it should be noted that some believe its broadness to oblique these variances and force all non- gender conforming people into a single group, erasing in-category differences.

“Cis” is the prefix given as the opposite of “trans”. Cisgendered peoples’ gender identity matches their assigned gender. Cissexism is the preference toward cisgendered people, and the discrimination against and othering of trans and gender-variant people. The prefix “cis” and its associated terms are designed to question the normalcy of cis-ness and challenge the abnormality of trans-ness.

“Queer” is an umbrella term used to describe people whose sex, sexual preference(s), and/or gender identity/expression is nonconforming. There is some controversy surrounding “queer” because it was used as a derogatory slur against men perceived to be gay and/or effeminate in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but the term has since been reclaimed by activists and allies as a positive self-identifier; some LGBT people avoid it because of its hate-speech origins, and its association with radical politics or the younger generation.  Genderqueer people identify their gender to be outside of traditional norms and may or may not be trans.


The personal is international.” Feminist scholarship in IR, while diverse, makes two consistent claims: first, that gendered relations of power work to the advantage of men and reinforce hierarchies of power between men and women (and between races, classes, and nations) which affect and are affected by international politics; and second, that dominant approaches to studying international politics (e.g. neorealism and neoliberalism) reflect gendered assumptions of the world. Trans theorizing can further this agenda with work which likewise disrupts sexist assumptions but also highlights cissexism, further breaking down gender binaries and the normative linkages many people assume to exist between (perceived) biological sex and the social roles and statuses that a particular form of body is expected to occupy.

Feminism and trans theory share a common methodology: first-level analysis, critical discussions based on the “lived experiences” of individuals. This is contrary to the “scientific” methodology of postwar mainstream IR, modeled after the natural sciences as a response to ideological fascism.

Feminism has done much to expose gender-blindness in IR and IR theory, but is itself often blind to gender diversity and the diversity of sexed bodies. Feminist work looks for the men and women, the masculine and feminine, and the masculinized and feminized, and for the instances when these boundaries are artificial or when liminal space between the binaries is important. Trans theory shares these objectives and can aid in breaking not only the gender binary, but the sex binary as well.

Feminist politics are too often reduced to “women’s issues”. As Tickner reminds us:

[G]ender is not just about women; it is also about men and masculinity, a point that needs to be emphasized if scholars of international relations are to better understand why feminists claim that it is relevant to their discipline and why they believe that a gendered analysis of its basic assumptions and concepts can yield fruitful results.

This is not to suggest a shift to so-called “masculinity studies”; rather, using a trans perspective could aid in broadening feminism to account for gender diversity, potentially enhancing IR’s understanding of other (perceived) dichotomies and (actual) pluralities.

The fundamental contradiction between feminist theories and trans theories are their understanding of gender: feminists view gender as performative, socially constructed, and largely related to the power dynamics between the masculine and the feminine; trans theorists see gender to be socially constructed and primordial, in combination. Likewise, some feminists see sex as biological and dichotomous, while trans theory shows sex to be malleable, fluid, and multiple. Some feminists view “social-constructivist approaches to gender as our only alternative to biological essentialism. … [F]eminist IR’s constructivist and poststructuralist epistemological choices reflect (and produce) an understanding of gender as a social construct or as performed which does not resonate with transpeople’s experiences”. The relationship between trans theory and feminism is strained because the suggestion that not only sex but gender is (partially) prior to social construction threatens feminism’s project to deconstruct gender dichotomies: the very existence of trans people reveals the false nature of sex and gender binaries. Still, the feminist project and trans theory both attempt to dissect gender hierarchies and include gender variance (e.g. other than maleness) in political discussions.

Trans theory, much like feminism, is not a single perspective or united position. Rather, trans theory is a diverse collection of scholarship which seeks to explore and illuminate the significance of the trans in social and political spheres.

Power and Security

International Relations is a study of power relations: the balance of power between states; competing ideological powers; the (lack of) power afforded to individuals and international organizations; the power differentials between classes; and the power of norms, language, perceptions, and paradigms. It is also, as feminism has made clear, the study of power relations between genders; it would be remiss to only examine the power between men and women when there are also interesting power plays at work between men who identify as women, women who are perceived to be men, cross-dressers, queers, and genderfuckers.

Security has always been central to international relations theory. Realists have defined security in political and military terms referring to the integrity and protection of state territory; neo/structural realists focus on an anarchic international system. Feminists write security as all forms of violence, which exists on multiple levels, including physical, structural, and ecological. Like feminism, trans theory begins with the individual as the level of analysis in security because gender (diversity) is marginal to the power structures of states. Both theories also question the role of the state as a provider of security, because the state is both disengaged from the private sphere of social relations, and because the state itself reinforces gendered power dynamics at the expense of women and gender-variant individuals.

Identity: Self vs. Other

International relations has a sordid history regarding identity politics. The field is overwhelmingly dominated by privileged, white, Anglo-American male voices, discussing a world which contains a multitude of diverse identities and yet it others marginal groups: this can be seen with Orientalist perspectives of “the East”; masculine approaches to gender and women; and cissexist approaches to gender and sex, just to name a few.

IR theory views identity as fixed: Self and Other.  Facets of identity are assumed to be ontologically fact, such as ethnic membership or nationality. This rigid understanding of identity does not reflect the reality of a complex global system where people cross not only borders but religions, castes, and genders. Trans theorizing offers IR the tools to understand “crossing” as a process. Likewise, trans theory can help us understand the nature of “passing” after crossing:

Thinking about “passing” while crossing or once crossed might help us understand how to identify and deal with the unseen in global politics. For example, spies rely on “crossing” national and/or ethnic groups as a member of the group they are charged with getting to know. Many military maneuvers are built on “crossing” into enemy social and political life and “passing” either as local or as part of the surrounding landscape. (Sjoberg)

This forces us to consider: the implications of the ability to pass for the stability of categories taken for granted in IR; when and why people disidentify with their assigned or primordial states; and when and why people are disidentified from their primordial groups by those within the group. These debates could aid IR in understanding identity politics and cultural violence.

Trans theory writes identity as non-static:

Many trans-people see their gender identity as primordial/fixed, while their sex identity needs to be changed to reach accord with their gender identity. Others see their sex identity as primordial/fixed but not represented in their physical being. Still others see their sex identity and their gender identity as both fluid and flexible. (Sjoberg)

The narrative surrounding trans people suggests that gender is signified by genitalia: “a man trapped inside a woman’s body” (or vice-versa); male cross-dressers and transvestites have upheld that their maleness/masculinity had a feminine side, rather than challenge the construction of their gender roles. Transphobic rhetoric suggests that genitals are the essential determinants of sex:

For example, an MTF who is taken to misalign gender presentation with the sexed body can be regarded as “really a boy,” appearances notwithstanding. Here, we see identity enforcement embedded within a context of possible deception, revelation, and disclosure. In this framework, gender presentation (attire, in particular) constitutes a gendered appearance, whereas the sexed body constitutes the hidden, sexual reality. (Bettcher)

This narrative suggests that it is less confrontational to transform the physical body than to shift the social understanding of the body. Since the physical body and its biological sex are therefore not essential to the Self, there is little room for other identifiers to make claims of ontological stability: it is possible to individuals to dis- and re-identify themselves. Building on the feminist aim and approach of reconciliation of the Self and Other, strategic disidentification could be a useful tool in conflict resolution where parties seem diametrically opposed.

Trans-ness illuminates a ‘category crisis’ where the boundaries between genders are not only blurring and being crossed, but they are imagined in the first place. Perhaps other boundaries and identifiers assumed to be prior in international politics require further investigation.


Trans people are both invisible and unheard in the halls of power, and hyper-visible, their bodies the object of gaze and fascination.

“Coming out” is one way of declaring visibility, but as Butler writes, “for whom is outness a historically available and affordable option? Is there an unmarked class character to the term, and who is excluded?” Outness presumes the ability to be heard:

“Outness” in any sense is a site of privilege, and there is often a barrier of (in)visibility to even being discussed by IR theorists as having “agency” in global politics. (Sjoberg)

Without sociopolitical agency, outness is the same as being in(visible).

Outness also assumes a “true self” which is contrary to appearances, and an opposite “in-ness” which is dishonest or misrepresentative; IR could benefit from not only discussing actors in terms of their visibility, but also the difference in visibility between the outside perception of them and their self-perception. The difference between group and individual visibility is also noteworthy: “(in)visibility can be addressed according to the lived experience of people involved or through cultural representations … which universalize the opinions of some while excluding those of others.” “Group ‘outness’ might actually present a condition of impossibility for individual ‘outness’ or individual counternarratives to the dominant group narrative.” This highlights power dynamics between group and individual voices, and of self-reinforcing marginality. Which identities are more or less legitimate than others by definition? How does being trapped in, or out, of the public gaze affect groups and individuals at the margins of politics? Is it possible to be both in and out of the public gaze simultaneously?

The hyper-visibility of trans people in the public gaze is similar to that of Orientalism. Saïd characterized Orientalism as the result of fractious circumstances, or a power/vocal asymmetry. Both “the Orient” and trans people are seen by the public to be “exotic”, “sensual/sexual”, and “weak” and in need of rescuing. This visibility of trans bodies is, in IR debates, a form of discursive violence.

Seeing cisgender privilege may allow us to recognize other forms of privilege in the theory and practice of global politics that are assumed to be so normal they have become invisible; what other political, social, or cultural attributes are so normalized that their alternatives are oppressed or silenced?

Liminality Between Binaries

IR is full of false dichotomies: state and non-state actors; East and West, or the West and the rest; North and South, or the rich and the poor; civilian and military; foreign and domestic; cooperation and isolation (see DPRK); nuclear and non-nuclear states; socialist/communist and capitalist; public and private; rational and irrational; and, perhaps most damning, good and bad (guys, governance). Each of these binaries, along with the gender binary, are better understood if viewed on a spectrum.

Trans theory encourages us to engage with the space between binaries. For example, Iran and North Korea are in between being non-nuclear fully capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, and the precise stage of nuclearization at which they sit is highly relevant to international security.

Likewise, we should question common polarities and the methods by which we measure and compare what appear to be “fixed” states of being. All “capitalist” states employ socialist welfare policies, and “communist” states welcome foreign capitalist investment and trade. “Rich” global North states have neighborhoods and demographics rife with poverty, and “poor” global South states contain some of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

Call for an Intersectional Approach

Including trans theory in IR is not just merely highlighting the plight of yet another marginalized group, though such an effort should be seen as worthy for its own sake; rather trans theory has much to offer international relations theory relating to issues of identity, plurality, and remaining inquisitive in the face of the discipline’s own assumptions.

To expel oppressive assumptions from academic discourse we should not simply engage with trans theory, but employ an intersectional approach to oppression, broadening our view to include multiplicities of oppressed peoples; too often individuals oppressed by gendered hierarchies are those also oppressed by class and/or racial power relations. Cross-discipline research and dialogue between different theories in international relations could foster positive change in the discourse of power.

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