Gender modality: Proposal for new terminology

Dear members of the Terminology and Diagnostic Criteria Committee,

I am writing to you in the hopes that you will consider adding the term ‘gender modality’ to the glossary of the Standards of Care version 8 and encourage its use during the drafting. Gender modality refers to the correspondence (or lack thereof) between a person’s gender identity and gender assigned at birth: cisgender and transgender are the two primary gender modality terms, but the term overtly leaves open the door to discussions about other gender modalities. Although it is not a term that has been widely used, responses to my proposal on social media have been overwhelmingly positive and a number of trans academics have asserted that they would adopt it in their future work.

Centring and normalising the notion of gender modality has multiple benefits. First, it moves away from the othering nature of terminology that renders trans people into the sole marked subjects, as occurs with the term “transness” as well as terms like “gender identity” as used in law. Second, it enhances our vocabulary when discussing the various aspects of gender (e.g. gender assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and now gender modality). Third, it maps onto the normalizing terminology of sexual orientation that equally describes heterosexual and LGBQ people. Fourth, it would resolve controversies surrounding appropriate terminology when referring to the fact of being trans, with terms such as “transsexuality”, “transgenderism”, and, to a lesser extent, “transness” being held as offensive and othering by some trans people. And fifth, it would more readily open the door to gender modalities outside of a cis/trans binary, for instance by enabling us to talk about people’s “gender modality” instead of people’s “being cis or trans” (in the same way that “sexual orientation” gives us conceptual tools to avoid reproducing a “straight/gay” binary).

Coming from a legal background, I have had the opportunity to notice how the notion of ‘gender identity’ as a protected ground has been used in lieu of gender modality, perpetuating the othering idea that ‘gender identity’ is something that inheres solely to trans people (unpublished manuscript available on request, coining the term ‘gender modality’). This misuse of the notion of gender identity can be traced to the unavailability of gender modality as a conceptual category when policymakers attempt to speak of discrimination against trans people by virtue of being trans. Recognizing the notion of gender modality in the Standards of Care would authoritatively enhance our ability to talk about the experiences of trans people, especially negative experiences such as harassment, discrimination, and violence, in both healthcare and the broader social world.

Examples of how this might be used include: “Trans people experience discrimination because of their gender modality.” ; “Many agender people reject the categorisation of their gender modality as cis or trans, as the lack of gender identity complicates the model of gender identity being something that either corresponds or does not correspond to gender assigned at birth.” ; “Trans women are of the same gender as cis women, but have a different gender modality.” ; “Not everyone understands their gender modality as either cis or trans: some non-binary and intersex people see themselves as neither or not completely one or the other.”

It is eminently in WPATH’s interest to encourage a richer gender vocabulary through which we can better describe the experiences of trans people while avoiding pathologizing or othering impulses. I believe that the notion of ‘gender modality’ fits this bill perfectly and hope that you will see fit to include it in your work.

I make myself available to you for any further questions, clarifications, or discussions on the topic.

Best regards and good luck in your committee work,

Florence Ashley

Sent to members of the Terminology and Diagnostic Criteria Committee for the Standards of Care Version 8 Revision on February 28th, 2019. For a citable document discussing gender modality, see “‘Trans’ is my gender modality: a modest terminological proposal.”

Transfeminine jurist and bioethicist and doctoral student at the University of Toronto.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store