Which Trans People are Real?

This post comes after India Willoughby, media professional and relatively newly minted trans woman, has spent a day and a half on Twitter defending her view that transsexual women are different from trans women.

There has been some tortuous logic involved. The argument seems to go something like “transsexual women are those who have or seek surgery, and they are fundamentally different and so need different rights from other trans people”.

I’ve been around the trans scene for 15 years, give or take a year or two. In that time I’ve met literally hundreds of trans people, and had electronic contact with literally hundreds more. For a few years I was part of the relatively small moderation team for Roses, which was a UK-based support site which had a few thousand members.

In that time and out of those thousands of interactions, any view that I may have had – that transsexual people were innately different from any other kind of trans people – could not survive the sheer variety of motivations and experiences out there in the real world.

At one extreme you had what we called “real woman syndrome”. These were typically trans women who flew through the whole transition process, then “discovered” some innately (usually biological) female aspect to them (like they had ovaries all the time), then flounced off after a few months vowing to never have anything to do with trans people ever again. Over time, this kind of trans person became rarer.

But the vast majority of people, myself included, spent huge amounts of time worrying whether they were “trans enough”. The more separate the “true transsexual” appeared to be, the more invisible hurdles there seemed to be. The emotional stress was draining. And that was the other extreme – the permanently anguished, fearful of making a mistake, but also afraid to live. Any support you could give was never enough.

The situation now is very different to what it was 8 or more years ago. There has been a general acceptance that “trans” is a wide and varied umbrella term. In part this is because it is simply impossible to draw clear boundaries within it.

You get people who are desperate for surgery, but there are medical reasons why they cannot have it. Pronouncements such as India’s do little to help reduce any dysphoria they have. There are people who are absolutely terrified of surgery – distressed by what they have, and distressed that they cannot cope with the idea of correcting it. You get people, like me, for whom surgery was a step on the way, a “finishing touch” – not something that I was racing towards, but something I happened to catch on the way. It turned out to have become more medically necessary, and the result had some major psychological benefits that I hadn’t expected. But then, for my first few years, I was never sure if I was “trans enough”.

There are different types of genital surgery too – with some people opting only for orchidectomy (removal of testes) or opting out of vaginoplasty (creation of a vagina). Additionally genital surgery for trans men is still much less advanced than that for trans women, meaning that it has a much lower take-up.

I’ve heard of people who jumped through the hoops they felt were set by the psychiatrists in order to get genital surgery, then almost immediately after surgery revert to being identified as their birth gender but very happy with the surgery they received. And others who undergo surgery while having no “real-life experience” at all – they never changed their social identity.

With that mix of experiences and motivations, which ones are the “real transsexuals”? And, more importantly, does it matter?

A joke used to do the rounds – what’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual person? Answer – about 5 years. Again, a massive over-simplification, but with a grain of truth – in that some people slowly realise that there’s more to them “dressing up” than simply “dressing up”. At what point do they become “truly transsexual”? And, again, more importantly, does it matter?

My moderation experience also showed me that any discussion which attempted to define the difference between “transvestite” and “transsexual” would inevitably descend into a flame war, usually within a couple of hours or a dozen posts, whichever was sooner. Those threads always ended up locked with people either in tears or flouncing away.

It’s another rubbish and theoretical discussion, which does nothing to advance and everything to harm. It’s worth noting that the Gender Recognition Act recognises that trans people do not have to undergo surgery to have their gender recognised, and the Equality Act recognises trans people as those who have undergone, are undergoing or intend to undergo part of a process to “change” their gender from that assigned at birth, and it is acknowledged (in theory at least) that the process does not have to be medical. So the law doesn’t make a distinction between a “true transsexual” and other people – or maybe it does, but just casts the net much, much wider than the definitions usually pushed. (Actually, this undermines many of the objections currently being voiced about GRA reform. It doesn’t open the door to “men masquerading as women to do nefarious things” – because the door is already open and records of abuse are vanishingly small, if they exist at all.)

The discussion is as rubbish and theoretical and harmful as other discussions such as “are trans women real women” or “aren’t trans people all deceivers”. They do nothing to help people, and everything to sow discord and pain.

Ultimately it’s reductive – and feeds into the media stereotype of “it’s all about your private bits”. Big news (and hopefully newsreader India catches this) – it isn’t. It’s all about finding peace, and a way of living that’s true to yourself. If you need surgery to fulfil that, then you need surgery. If you don’t, you don’t. And both are equally valid.

People pushing “debates” about the validity of other peoples’ experiences and motivations are probably some of the most damaging people we have – because they are pushing conformity, they’re wanting to set the rules. But rules don’t have fuzzy edges, and people get cut on the corners.

My 15+ years of experience also tells me that people who are fixated on maintaining a distinction between “transsexual people” and other trans people are largely motivated by fear – fear that, by broadening the umbrella, their healthcare and their fundamental rights are threatened. Because so many trans people have had to fight hard to access appropriate healthcare and for basic things like recognition, that fear is entirely understandable. I’ve seen it time and time and time again.

But the response to that should not be to pull up the drawbridge, and make other peoples’ journeys as hard as your own. Instead it should be to use the lessons you’ve learnt to ease other peoples’ journeys.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve come off relatively lightly from transition, only losing my job and one key family relationship. But that’s not actually “light”. For most people either of those are major crises. Yet, 15 years ago, that was expected if you identified publicly as trans. That was, and still is, fundamentally wrong. You should not automatically suffer because of who you are, as if being trans was some sort of choice, and that by being trans you are deemed worthy of only living a diminished life.

That’s why I campaign for those who have different experiences to me – no one should suffer for being different. Meaningless debates about who is real and who is not, who is worthy and who is not, only produce more pain, more uncertainty and more suffering – and should stop.



  1. It seems that throwing fellow Trans people under the bus to further your ambitions as a ‘career Trans Woman’ is all the rage with India. Her Facebook page is a sickening mix of selfies of her perfectly manicured self and self-serving criticisms of everyone else not quite as perfect as her. She does more harm to the emancipation of Trans people than any single other transphobe out there. I’d liken her to Judas but at least he had the good grace to betray Jesus with a kiss – she’d probably be too worried to do that in case it ruined her lip gloss….

  2. I’ve often thought people like Willoughby would be so much better off working through their transition shit in a closed group like Roses than doing it in public. Ironic that her freedom to do this and lead a more fulfilling life in public, without facing the devastating discrimination faced by the few trans individuals in the public eye in the recent past, should be the result of work often led by gender non-conforming people. About 99% of it is understanding the denial that cisgender ideology has piled on top of you. Every time she voices that denial she gives another little hostage to prejudice.

    1. I agree that social media gives a much wider platform to explore things than existed 15 years ago. However, I think that India isn’t in “working out” mode – she’s broadcasting a view which she genuinely believes is right. But it’s telling that, instead of answering questions, she typically picks up on a word or two, which is a fairly standard approach to dealing with questions you don’t like. I don’t think she wants to listen, to work out, to explore – because to do so could be threatening. You and I both know that internally challenging your beliefs is threatening, but also enlightening.

  3. She may be one of those people who never find answers in ‘working out’ mode because they never get as far as asking the right questions.

    Thankfully, when I first heard of her in the media and looked for her on twitter I discovered she’d blocked me. I had no idea why but I think I do now and the reason is quite embarrassing for her.

  4. Hmmm a bit like when a certain Dr at CX calls you a classic transsexual because you sleep with men and a trans woman because you sleep with women, labels used to divide us and enforce hetro normative behaviour as the gold standard for all.

  5. Well said Helen…. Since gender is largely a social construct there are as many trans experiences as there are trans people… or cis people for that matter. The whole notion of the true transsexual is so damaging to everyone, including the true transsexual if they could but see it through the fog of reality they construct for themselves

  6. […] 9. Which trans people are real? by Helen Belcher on Challenging Journeys, Phase 2. Why can’t everyone just accept people’s identity? […]

  7. I was told that I should be willing to prostitute myself to raise the necessary funds for surgery, $20K+. If not then I was not transgender.

  8. andiepasdedeux · · Reply

    Utterly brilliant piece, Helen. I wrote a blog piece here, just to point out to India a few dictionary definitions, which seem at odds with what’s she’s saying. You can’t argue with the dictionary, right?


    Naturally, I – along with dozens more trans people who dared to stand up to her on Twitter – was blocked.

    1. I should note that India is claiming that she blocked no one on Twitter.

      1. andiepasdedeux · ·

        The countless screengrabs from blocked people suggest otherwise.

  9. Yes Helen, I agree with what you say here. I have met many and their stories are very varied. For so many years I believed I could never be who I wanted to be so I was there fore a secret cross-dresser. Now I live as my true self but have not had any form or surgery. To India that makes me a nothing and yet I am on a journey.
    I will support all who have this problem of gender incongruence in all its forms. It affects us in different ways and to different extents yes, but it is easy to see that it has roots that are similar.

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