There’s a concept I really like called the lie-to-children.

When I was first taught about atoms, I was taught that atoms looked kind of like a solar system, with electrons (planets) orbiting around a nucleus (sun) made of protons and neutrons. This is, of course, completely and 100% wrong. But when you’re six you can’t understand what an atomic orbital is or how an electron is both a particle and a wave at the same time, so that lie is good enough. And you can use that as a model to build on when you’re older.

A lot of trans feminists have pointed out lately that certain common tropes explaining how transness works are, in fact, not true! For instance, look at this helpful diagram:
[A gingerbread man, with Identity in the brain, Orientation in the heart, Sex in the genitals, and Expression all over the body. Four spectra are labeled “gender identity: woman, genderqueer, man”, “gender expression: feminine, androgynous, masculine”, “biological sex: female, intersex, male”, and “sexual orientation: heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual.”]

There are so many problems with this diagram. I’m not just talking about weird classification errors like “so people who have transitioned are intersex?” and “what about asexuals?” I mean, it’s just wrong to say that gender identity is not connected to gender expression (it is sometimes, and other times it isn’t! Complicated!). Your biological sex affects way more than just your genitals (yes, even your brain). The genderbread person doesn’t define “gender” at all. A lot of trans feminists have started questioning whether gender identity even makes sense as a concept. Et cetera.

So yeah. It is very easy to critique.

I think we should understand concepts like the genderbread person, gender identity, and even (ugh) “woman born in a man’s body” as lies-to-cis-people, the same way the solar system model of atoms is a lie-to-children. Transness doesn’t work that way. But it’s good enough to start with until/unless you learn a more accurate model. It conveys important concepts like:

  • Just because you were born with a vagina does not mean you are a woman.
  • Trans people are real and you should treat them respectfully.
  • Being trans is not the same thing as being really really gay.
  • You can be butch and a trans lady and you are still a trans lady and not Really A Man.
  • Genderqueer people exist.
  • There are people who do not fall into the sex or gender identity or gender expression binaries.
  • …and so on and so forth.

It gives the average cis person the necessary information to treat trans people respectfully. Which is… pretty much exactly the information they need, unless they’re very interested in the topic of gender or they’re in a close relationship with a trans person or there’s some other extenuating circumstance. So I think it’s okay.

Of course, you do encounter a problem when cis people don’t quite understand that these models are lies-to-children and start assuming that this is how trans people Actually Work and are like “but what if I identify as a table?” So, like, cis people: “woman born in a man’s body” is not actually how gender works, but it’s good enough for now!