Two students in a gender neutral bathroom. From Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection. Made available to media outlets via Creative Commons. No derivatives, no commercial use. See guidelines here:


Before we learn about trans identity, trans theory, and trans politics, let’s pause to talk about using gender neutral and trans inclusive language.  In this course, many of you introduce yourselves using your pronouns.  For example, my name is Daisy, and my pronouns are she and her.  It is becoming more and more common for educational and professional settings to ask people to share their names and pronouns, but some of you might wonder why.   Trans scholar Dean Spade explains on his website that: “engaging in practices aimed at helping people to refer to each other respectfully in group settings is one small part” of ending “the harm and exclusion trans people face”.  Spade explains, through his own experience, what it means to use the correct pronouns: 

“I am a law school professor, and, as far as I know, the first openly trans person ever to be hired as a tenure-track law professor in the US. For 10 years I have worked at the same law school. In my first fall there, I was introduced by the wrong pronoun on stage at new student orientation as I prepared to give a talk to the entering class. A couple graduations later, I watched one of the two trans students in the school of 900 law students get mis-pronouned on stage as he walked during the graduation ceremony. Throughout all my years at the University and in the profession, being mis-pronouned has been a consistent problem for me and the handful of trans students I have had the opportunity to teach.”

Dean Spade, 2018, “We Still Need Pronoun Go-Rounds”

Referring to someone using their correct name and pronouns is a form of respect and inclusion. We often refer to people by pronouns — a word that stands in for another noun — without using their names.  For example, as a student, you might say something like, “I had an office hours meeting with Sabrina and she was really helpful!” We cannot assume which pronouns a person uses by looking at them. Some people use the singular ‘they’ instead of she or he.  It is a common misconception that the singular ‘they’ is grammatically incorrect.  In fact, journalistic and academic style guides affirm that the singular ‘they’ is grammatically correct to refer to someone who does not use ‘he’ or ‘she’.  This is not some kind of radical linguistic or grammatical shift.  English-language speakers have been using the singular ‘they’ for hundreds of years as a gender neutral pronoun. For example, if I said, “I am going to see my cousin this weekend”, you might ask, “where do they live?” without hesitating. In this lesson, I have already used the singular they twice. Did you notice? It is interesting that people who are opposed to using gender inclusive language, such as the singular ‘they’, invoke arguments about grammar when confronted with using gender neutral pronouns.  Most people make grammatical errors in their day-to-day speech. Why is it that people become invested in so-called  ‘proper’ grammar when that grammar challenges the gender binary? 

Here are some pronoun dos and don’ts:

  • If you are asked to say your pronouns, use the pronouns you prefer. Do not say “I don’t care”, which implies that those who do care are asking too much. 
  • Do not make a joke or mock the exercise. 
  • If you forget someone’s pronouns, ask them to remind you. 
  • If you make a mistake and someone corrects you, say “thank you!” and move on. Try to remember next time. 
  • If your friend’s pronouns change, practice saying their name with their new pronouns. 

For more on pronouns, check out this article from Teen Vogue.

In addition to using people’s correct pronouns, being trans inclusive requires avoiding gendered language. Here are some ways you can use gender neutral language to avoid unintentionally excluding trans people:

  • Use “everybody” or “folks” instead of “ladies and gentleman”
  • synthetic instead of “man made”
  • child instead of “son” or “daughter”
  • sibling instead of brother or sister
  • partner or spouse instead of husband or wife
  • server instead of waiter or waitress

Source: Teen Vogue, “How to Use Gender-Neutral Words”


To be trans or transgender means that a person’s gender identity — meaning their ‘felt’ experience of gender — does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth in the manner expected based on gender norms. The word trans is an umbrella term that captures different forms of ‘gender crossing’ or deviation from gender norms, from cross-dressing to gender reassignment surgery.  The language used to describe trans identity has changed over time, and continues to shift according to the language preferred by trans communities and scholars.  While gender identity is often conflated with sexuality, trans identity and experience is distinct from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer exprience.  Pop culture and media representations of trans people tend to emphasize the narrative of being “born in the wrong body”, but this is not every trans person’s experience of their body. Some trans people want surgery or hormones to affirm their gender identity, but a person can be trans without having surgery or taking hormones.  Trans people might take hormones but not have surgery, and some trans people will use neither hormones nor surgery.   The words ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ refer to the multiple ways people eschew the gender binary. 

Current medical and scientific approaches to trans healthcare are rooted in the field of sexology, meaning the study of human sexuality, which emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century to study those who deviated from ‘normal’ sex and gender expression.  Many sexologists treated forms of deviance from ‘normal’ sex and gender identity and expression as pathological, meaning a form of disease.  In Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft Ebing, a German-Austrian sexologist, conflated sexuality and gender, positing that a man who is attracted to other men must have a pathology wherein he thinks, acts, and feels like a woman.  His ideas influence the ways that we continue to understand cisgender and heterosexual behaviour and identity as ‘normal’, and anything that deviates from these models as abnormal.  Gender dysphoria is still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which some trans people argue unnecessarily pathologizes their identities. 

Cis means same.  A cisgender person’s felt gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a German Jewish sexologist and founder of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin (est 1919), challenged conventional wisdom in the field of sexology when he argued that sexuality and gender identity were not fixed, but existed along a spectrum.  He called this idea sexual intermediacy, which captured the ways that gender identity and sexuality can exist between two poles. He noted that gender identity is separate from sexuality and assisted on Lili Elbe’s gender affirmation surgery; Elbe is thought to be the first person to have gender affirmation surgery and the subject of the film The Danish Girl.  Hirschfeld’s student, Dr. Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), published The Transsexual Phenomenon in 1966, which provided the basis for an inclusive approach to trans healthcare because Benjamin argued that people could have “sex reassignment surgery” to affirm their felt gender identity. Today, many trans people prefer the term gender affirmation surgery as a more inclusive, trans-friendly term because it emphasizes trans people’s agency and autonomy. Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s documentary film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, documents trans women’s reactions to the book. 

Today, the field of trans studies seeks to take back studies of trans identity and experience from the fields of medicine and science, which have often treated being trans as a form of disease.  Trans studies scholars emphasize that trans people themselves have important knowledge that is crucial to understanding their identity and experience.  Trans studies is a crucial part of any gender and social justice education, but it is a field of scholarship in its own right; as such, this module only provides an introduction to some of the key thinkers, issues, and theories in the field. Like feminist theory and queer theory, trans studies critiques patriarchy — the system in which power is consolidated among cisgender men — and heteronormativity. But trans studies adds a critique of transphobia, an ideology and behavior rooted in fear and hatred of trans people. Trans studies pioneers like Susan Stryker argue that trans studies has been marginalized within queer theory, which focuses on sexuality over gender, and feminist theory, which has tended to privilege definitions of womanhood that exclude trans women.


Screaming Queens
View Time: 56 minutes 11 seconds

In the 1969 Stonewall Riots, trans women led the resistance to police violence. Stonewall is widely perceived to be one of the first times that queer and trans people rioted against police violence.  In Screaming Queens, however, Susan Stryker, pioneer of the field of trans studies, and Victor Silverman document the 1996 Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco, when trans women resisted police violence. Watch Screaming Queens to get a sense of trans movements for rights and inclusion before you study Dean Spade’s concept of “critical trans politics” in the Assigned Resources section of this module.

In Module 1, you learned about Leslie Feinberg’s concept of trans liberation. Trans liberation is a response to trans exclusion and marginalization. In Feinberg’s words:

“Those of us who cross the ‘man-made’ boundaries of sex and gender run afoul of the law, are subject to extreme harassment and brutality, and are denied employment, housing, and medical care. We have grown up mostly unable to find ourselves represented in the dominant culture.” (101).

Leslie Feinberg

Feinberg’s concept of trans liberation emphasizes “the right of each individual to make decisions about our own bodies and to define ourselves” (105). Dean Spade’s concept of critical trans politics builds upon this approach by showing how marginalization, racism, and inequality limit trans people’s liberty. Instead of choice, then, Spade focuses on the need for a critical trans politics that rejects a simple focus on choice and inclusion in state institutions like marriage and the military in favour of dismantling structures of inequality that produce poverty, homelessness, and unequal access to health care. Spade’s critical trans politics, which you will consider more fully in the Assigned Resources section of this module, demonstrates that the language of choice and inclusion only benefits those who already have things like housing and healthcare. Before we turn to Spade’s “Critical Trans Politics”, though, we will study the relationship between two-spirit identity and decolonization.


What Does ‘Two-Spirit’ Mean? InQueery by Them
View Time: 6 minutes 17 seconds
video source

In the video above, educator and storyteller Geo Soctomah Neptune provides an introduction to the term “Two-Spirit”.  In this lesson, we will explore what two-spirit identity means in more depth.  In a 1996 article titled “How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People”, Alex Wilson, a two-spirit Swampy Cree woman, explains that the word “two-spirit” captures diverse and fluid Indigenous sexualities and gender identities and roles.  From the Anishinaabe term “niizh manidoowag”, the term ‘two-spirit’ describes Indigenous identities and roles that bridge masculinity and femininity.  The Intertribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg adopted the term “two-spirit” in 1990 as an inclusive umbrella term to describe Indigenous peoples who identify as queer, nonbinary, or trans.  Wilson explains that two-spirit people are “thought to be born ‘in balance,’ which may be understood as androgyny, a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, of male and female spirits” (305). 

Two-spirit identity and resistance is the subject of a field called Queer Indigenous Studies. Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson explains that queer Indigeneity is distinct from settler queer identity because: 

“Queer Indigeneity cannot be reduced to just sexual orientation.  It is about a web of supportive, reciprocal, generative relationships that we often do not have names for in English and that exist outside of the hierarchy and the imagination of heteropatriarchy — a hierarchy that places the relationship of cisgendered, married, monogamous men and women at the top and de-emphasizes or erases all other relationships” (134)

Leanne Simpson

While sexuality is part of two-spirit identity, two-spirit identity is not just about sexuality. Qwo-Li Driskill (2010), a Cherokee two-spirit scholar and editor of Queer Indigenous Studies (2011), explains that the term two-spirit is an important part of understanding queer Indigeneity because it emphasizes the importance of gender in a way that the term ‘queer’, with its focus on sexuality, does not capture (73).

Driskill explains that Indigenous people use the umbrella term ‘two-spirit’ alongside “words and from their specific traditions to describe themselves”.  Two-spirit is an “inclusive, ambiguous, and fluid” term, according to Driskill.  Because of this, much like the term ‘queer’, the term ‘two-spirit’ “risks erasing difference”.  By this, Driskill means that Indigenous cultures, languages, laws, and spiritual traditions are diverse.  As an umbrella term, ‘two-spirit’ collapses this diversity.  Thus, when talking about two-spirit identity, it is important to keep in mind that two-spirit identities and roles are specific to particular nations, which each have their own cultures, languages, laws, and spiritual practices.  Likewise, Métis scholar Chelsea Vowel explains in her book Indigenous Writes that because the term “two spirit” is an Indigenous concept described using the English language — a language imposed by colonizers —  the nuance and diversity that characterize distinct Indigneous conceptualizations of gender gets lost.  Leanne Simpson recounts Ma-Nee Chacaby’s story, which serves as an example of the particularity of Indigenous languages and gender identities. Chacaby is a two-spirit Ojibwa-Cree elder, who writes in her autobiography, A Two Spirit Journey, about:

“her grandmother explaining to her that she had two spirits as a young child.  She used the term niizhin ojiijaak to describe a male and female spirit living inside a girl.  She explained that Nizhiin Ojiijaak girls were often drawn to activities that boys like, and she said that Niizhin Ojiijaak could choose not to marry, could marry someone of the opposite sex, or could marry someone of the same sex. She explained that Nizhiin Ojiijaak couples would adopt children who had lost their parents, that they sometimes had special healing or ceremonial responsibilities, and that it was her responsibility to figure out how to live her own life”. (126)

in Leanne Simpson

This is one example of a particular approach to two-spirit identity and roles in one community.  Geo Soctomah Neptune offers other examples of nation-specific descriptions of two-spirit identity in the video, including the Lakota word winkte which means “to be as a woman” and the Diné word nádleehi, which means ”those who transform”. 

Two-spirit identity reconnects queer and trans Indigenous experience to Indigenous spiritualities, laws, and cultural traditions.  That is, for two-spirit people, their experiences of gender and sexuality are linked to their Indigenous cultural, spiritual, and legal traditions.  For example, in As We Have Always Done, Leanne Simpson describes her daughter’s role in ceremony:

“She helped me put the cedar in the lodge and the berries in a wooden bowl (in some ceremonial communities this is a woman’s role), and she helped with the fire (in some ceremonial communities this is a man’s role).  When it came time to go into the lodge, she sat in the circle with the rest of us, in between the men and the women.  When the pipes came around, she smoked them.  This was all normalized for her.” (119-20) 

Leanne Simpson

When Simpson describes her daughter’s fluid role in ceremony, she emphasizes how her community embraced her daughter as a person with a unique spiritual role.  This connection between spirituality and community is a fundamental part of two-spirit identity, according to Wilson: 

“When we say that we are two-spirit, we are acknowledging that we are spiritually meaningful people. Two-spirit identity may encompass all aspects of who we are, including our culture, sexuality, gender, spirituality, community, and relationship to the land.”

Alex Wilson 2008 PAGE 193

Whereas for a non-Indigenous trans or queer person their gender identity may be just one part of their overall identity or sense of self, Wilson explains that two-spirit identity is more encompassing: 

“Two-spirit identity affirms the interrelatedness of all aspects of identity, including sexuality, gender, culture, community, and spirituality.  That is, the sexuality of two-spirit people cannot be considered as separate from the rest of an individual’s identity.” (304-5)

Alex Wilson

Two-spirit identity, then, is not simply about being trans or queer and being Indigenous. Two-spirit identity runs much deeper than this. Two-spirit identity about adopting one’s spiritual role in their community and resisting settler-colonialism.  The term two-spirit does not transfer to non-Indigenous peoples who may feel a sense of being both masculine and feminine, because it is a uniquely Indigenous concept.  For example, Simpson explains that in Nishnaabeg thought, words that describe a binary approach to gender relations, like “matriarchal” — a word often used to describe Indigenous societies pre-contact — do not apply, because they do not capture the gender fluidity and overlap among gender roles that are fundamental to Anishinaabe traditions (128).  Before settler-colonialism disrupted Nishnaabeg lifeways and relations, Simpson writes, words like ‘queer’ were unnecesary because being ‘queer’ “was so normal it didn’t have a name” (129).  Similarly, Wilson writes that being ‘two-spirit’, in some ways, is a new identity, because traditionally there was no need for this special label:

“In my community, the act of declaring some people special threatens to separate them from their community and creates an imbalance. Traditionally, two-spirit people were simply a part of the entire community; as we reclaim our identity with this name, we are returning to our communities.” (305)

Alex Wilson

Identifying as two-spirit is a way of reclaiming a connection to culture, land, and community — a connection that settler-colonialism has tried to destroy through the imposition of the traditional European, Christian gender binary.  Indigenous feminists argue that because settler-colonialism is a gendered structure, which has imposed patriarchy and gender inequality in order to gain access to territory, decolonization requires eradicating gender inequality.  Similarly, two-spirit people argue that decolonization requires restoring traditional gender orders that value two-spirit identity and roles, or creating new Indigenous traditions where there is no traditional emphasis on two-spirit identities. The following video, by Kelly Malone, features two-spirit people describing their own identities in their own words, presents some historical context about two-spirit people on Treaty 6 territory, and explains the relationship between two-spirit identity and decolonization.

Kelly Malone, “Journey of Indigenous Identity”

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