Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability

Within the trans community, trans activists and authors have discussed the construction of trans (trans/transgender/transsexual/two-spirit/genderqueer) to identify as a disability at length. There are a number of important reasons this issue has been taken up, from theoretical issues about identity construction to access to anti-discrimination protection and medical interventions. This is an ardently debated issue which is often acknowledged as being interlocked with class. With few exceptions, people who identify as disabled in addition to being trans are largely erased from this debate. This paper examines the historical and contemporary construction of trans as a disability. Further, drawing on the writing of trans authors and my own experiences in the trans community, This paper is about what trans people have to say about our construction as disabled and some of the ways that trans movements have adopted liberation discourse for some trans people while actively oppressing others.

About the Trans People I Quote:

This captures a particular moment in this debate and in the lives of those trans people whose writing I examine. Neither those people nor their ideas are fixed – they can and do change. Some of the people I critique here don’t think these things any more or would not articulate them in the way they do here. People and their politics change – my writing certainly has changed over the years and I would be embarrassed and, at times, ashamed if I was viewed to not have changed since some of my writing. Indeed, even before my book came out my ideas about some things had already changed. Those who haven’t adopted anti-disablist positions still can change. This is a critique of people’s ideas and the way they articulated them at a fixed point in time rather than a critique of the people themselves. Indeed some of the people who I argue say disablist things have also had a really positive and important impact on me and my thinking. Most of these people have also worked really hard to make trans people’s lives better, which I respect. Rather than denouncing these folks, I think it is important to have a complex understanding of them, both their strengths and flaws. Also, I wrote this 2 years ago and there has been more writing about this issue since then that isn’t here.

First, here’s how psychiatry has viewed queer and trans people over the years:

Click on charts to enlarge. I can’t figure out how to make these charts make sense to a screen reader (if you know how to do that and want to volunteer, please get in touch) but the important parts are discussed in the long version


Gender Dysphoria/Gender Identity Disorder/Transsexualism/Transgender

Gender Identity Disorder (Gender Dysphoria) in Kids

Gender Identity Disorder (Gender Dysphoria) in Kids

unspecified chart

Unspecified Gender Dysphoria



mental disorders chart  final

Changes in definitions of disability, impairment, mental disorders and number of pages of volumes of the DSM

Click here for the full paper (about 65 pages plus references and appendices)

Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability Summary

This paper is about the ways that trans people are viewed as disabled and how trans people respond to it. I am trans and disabled and I feel we are made invisible when trans people talk about how we are viewed as disabled. I wanted to look at ways of uniting trans people and disabled people to win social justice.

I am also white, queer and poor. Also, I am a grad student which means that I have access to a lot of things other people don’t have. I live in Canada which is built on stolen First Nation’s land. In Canada, lots of our money comes from taking advantage of poor people around the world. These things, plus being disabled and trans impact how I understand the world and this project.

Important Words:

  1. Trans: Trans people are people who society says are one gender (men or women) who feel differently than that. I use the word trans to include transgender people, transsexual people and people who don’t choose between the two.
  2. Transsexual: This group is made up of people who have or want to have surgery or take hormones to change their bodies from men to women or women to men.
  3. Transgender: These are people are people who identify in a way that is different than the sex or gender they have been told they are. They can be people who don’t identify as men or women or people who go back and forth between the two. Some transsexuals call themselves transgender but some transsexuals find being called transgender hurtful.
  4. Cis: This is a word that means the opposite of trans. Cis describes people who have gender identities that match their bodies and how society views their genders.
  5. Two-spirit: Two-spirit is a First Nations word that includes people who are not straight and/or not cis. Two-spirit people also sometimes call themselves trans, transgender or transsexual but sometimes they don’t.
  6. Transvestite: is a medical word that means people who cross-dress. Lots of people find this word out dated and hurtful and use cross-dresser instead.
  7. Genderqueer: These are people who identify as something outer than men or women.
  8. Otherwise-disabled: All trans people are seen as disabled. So, I use the word otherwise-disabled to talk about trans people who are seen as disabled in addition to being trans. Otherwise –disabled trans people includes trans people who have intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and/or psychiatric disabilities.

Radical Model of Disability and Interlocking Oppression

Models are ways of understanding things. I wrote about what the radical model of disability is in my book Disability Politics and Theory. There are four key parts of this model.

1. Disability is a label that is put onto people. It is not about people’s bodies and minds being ‘different.’ Instead, it is about social values that get put on people who are thought of as abnormal. Disability is about society not biology.

2. People are called disabled for political reasons. We tend to make less money or we are seen as too needy. But if our society was set up in different ways, our experiences would be different.

3. Interlocking oppression. This phrase has two parts. The first part, interlocking, means that things can’t be separated – they are locked together. The second part, oppression, means when power is used over people. It includes discrimination, prejudice, unfairness and injustice. Oppression is done to groups of people like women, people of colour, disabled people, queer and trans people, and poor or working class people. Oppressions are interlocked, among other things, because there is cross-over between groups. For example, many women are people of colour. That means that there can’t be justice for women unless there is justice for people of colour and vice versa. All oppressed groups have to have justice for any one group to have it. Using the term interlocking is a way of talking about how oppression is complicated. It is also used to go against the trend to separate different kinds of oppression based on individual groups rather than looking at they are linked.

4. When we talk about accessibility, we need to talk about it accessibility for lots of different kinds   of people. This is called radical access. It is about more than ramps and elevators. It includes working to make sure that lots of different kinds of people are included. It includes things like making events free, having child care and not allowing people to discriminate against other people because of how they look, their background or identity.

Lots of the time, when trans people write about how trans gets viewed as a disability, the fact that many trans people are disabled gets overlooked. This erases otherwise-disabled people. Lots of other groups of people are often left out when trans people write about this issue. This paper is mostly made up of research from things that trans people have written, especially published things. That means that it is looking at the attitudes of those people who have space in the trans community to publically express their opinions rather than trans people in general.


Methodology means the method that I used to reach my conclusions. To understand how trans gets viewed as a disability, I also looked at medical writing, including the American Psychiatric Association’s main book: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In order to understand how trans people get viewed as disabled legally, I looked at court decisions and human rights laws. Mostly, I focus on Canada, but there is a lot of cross-over with the United States. To understand what trans people think about this issue, I looked at what trans people wrote, mostly in books and magazines but also on websites.

Medicine and How Trans is Viewed as a Disability

The medical model is another way of understanding trans. It is the most common model of disability in Canada. This means that doctors have a lot of power over disabled and trans people’s lives. Trans was not always considered a medical issue. During the 1800s, doctors took interest in trans people and homosexuality, or queerness. In 1952 an American woman had sex change surgery in Denmark. Her sex change became famous around the world. After that, doctors paid attention to trans people more. One of these doctors was Harry Benjamin who started writing a lot about trans people.

The American Psychiatric Association published its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952. Most people call it the DSM for short. This book lists all of the conditions that psychiatrists call mental illnesses. Transvestism and homosexuality were both in this book. With these two conditions (most trans folks were thought of as a form of homosexual), trans people officially became mentally ill.

Some people think the DSM is bad. Psychiatric survivor activist Don Weitz (n.d.) says it is used to control people who are different or have different ways of understanding the world. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not lots of people use it. Since it first came out, there have been a number of new editions and changes to the DSM in 1952, 1968, 1980, 1987, 1994, 2000 and 2013.

Transvestism, or certain kinds of transvestism, have always been in the DSM. The names they call it, who qualifies and what is considered transvestism has changed though.

Homosexuality was in the DSM until 1973 when the writers of the book decided it wasn’t a mental disorder anymore. This decision was made after of years of protests against putting homosexuality in the DSM. Once homosexuality was removed, it was a mental disorder to be homosexual and really unhappy or distressed about it. You couldn’t be straight and have this mental disorder.

Also, 1980 was the first time that gender identity disorder (kids) and transsexualism (adults) was put in the DSM. This was also the first edition of the DSM to come out after homosexuality was removed. Lots of people believed that there was a connection between removing homosexuality and inserting transsexuality. The American Psychiatric Association denied this. The definitions of gender identity disorder and transsexualism have changed over the years. The names have changed too. Now, it is called gender dysphoria. Dysphoria basically means extreme unhappiness. If people don’t meet all of the parts on the checklist for gender dysphoria, they can be diagnosed with gender dysphoria unspecified.

The DSM isn’t totally clear if gender dysphoria is thought of as a disability. The word disability is sometimes used differently depending on the edition of the DSM but is never clearly defined. Disability usually means impairment.

The term mental disorder also doesn’t have a full definition. This is the case even though it is the book of mental disorders. The trans conditions have to involve distress or impairment. That means that a lot of the time trans is thought of as a disability.

Trans in the Law

The law is important because it has a lot of impact because it controls legal rights and can sway society. Generally, because trans is a mental disorder in the DSM, trans people are considered disabled under human rights law. But, the only case that addresses rights for transvestites found that it isn’t a disability. There are some other kinds of law that might not view trans as a disability (like social assistance).

Trans Responses

Different trans people have different ideas about whether or not trans should be thought about as a disability. The most common attitude that I found is that trans shouldn’t be thought about as a disability. Some people argue that sex changes hold up the wrongheaded idea that there are only two sexes, male and female, and they are separate. Likewise, some people argue that it works to hold up ideas of what are normal. They say that these ideas are oppressive. Some trans people say that trans is natural, not a disability or a disease.

A few protests have been organized against trans people being put in the DSM. And some trans people say we can never have justice if we are called disabled. Lots of trans people say disabled people are treated badly. This is why they think trans people shouldn’t be called disabled.

I looked at all of the human rights cases in Canada that were put forward by trans people. Only one quarter of those people said they were disabled. This shows that a lot of trans people don’t want to be thought of as disabled.

Class, Income and Access

Other trans people say that it is important to have trans considered a disability in order for trans people to get sex changes. Hormones and sex change surgery can cost a lot, sometimes over $100,000. Lots of trans people don’t have the money to pay for sex changes without insurance or the government paying. In Canada, there are a lot of trans people who want all of the provinces to put sex changes on the list of operations that are covered by health care. But, there are some trans people who think it isn’t worth it to be thought of as disabled or having a disorder in order to get medical care paid for.

Some trans people thing that surgeries should be paid for but that trans should be thought of as a physical disability not a mental disability. They say that they don’t want to be treated like people with mental illnesses. They want to be treated better than that. So, they say trans is a physical issue not a mental one.

Others think that trans surgeries should be treated the same way as nose jobs or face lifts. They say if you have the money and you want it you should be able to get it. This way, trans is about money, not disability.

Looking at it Through the Radical Model of Disability Lens

A lot of the things that trans people say about disability don’t work to change things for everyone, just some trans people. When people assume that trans people are not disabled, they leave out all the people who are otherwise-disabled. They leave out people who are labelled as intellectually or physically disabled and people who are thought of as to having other mental illnesses. When people say that trans is natural they make it seem like disability isn’t natural – it can be.

Looking at intersecting oppression means looking at how we have to fight for disability justice in order to get trans justice. It also means that people shouldn’t have to have lots of money to get what they need from doctors. We have to work together so everyone has what they need, not only rich white trans people.

Some people who say gender is social not biological so trans isn’t a disability. But this erases how disability is a political label. Disability, like gender, is always social. Lots of disabilities are caused by war, trauma and poverty – these are social. But even things like cancer have a social part. If you are exposed to toxic chemicals in the air or on your food and get cancer it is because we, as a society, decided that those chemicals were worth the cost. Who gets labeled disabled comes down to what bodies and brains we decide as a society what is normal and the rest gets called disabled. The label of disability has been used to control lots of groups of people who are thought of as weird or not normal. That is how the label is still used.

When trans people only try to have trans people taken out of the DSM, it is important to ask who gets left behind. Lots of people who aren’t trans are considered mentally ill because they are defiant, don’t fit their gender role or are weird. When we choose only a couple of diagnoses in the DSM to fight, we don’t look at how the whole book is messed up. When trans people say trans is physical not mental because they don’t want to be treated bad, they are suggesting it is o.k. to treat people labeled mentally ill bad. Lots of trans people are labelled mentally ill other than being trans. This means that they get left out. And, of course, not wanting to be treated bad for being labelled mentally ill or mentally disordered doesn’t actually make people treat you well.

Lastly, the radical model calls for radical accessibility – creating space for all of us. When people talk about accessibility, they are often talking about ramps, interpreters, ect. and leaving it there. Radical accessibility means thinking about access in lots of ways, not only ramps, etc. This is about making sure that people feel comfortable talking about the troubles we have with our minds, bodies and identities. It also means that we have to make sure people can tell their stories of what it is like to be trans even if those stories are different than the stories we are used to hearing. It also means thinking lots about ways of different kinds of people including people. This means working to eliminate discrimination and oppression for everyone. It also means making things free and having things like childcare.

Trans is a Disability

Some trans people argue that trans is a disability and should stay that way. Most of the time this is to keep access to healthcare. Others, however, simply see it as a disorder or disability. Others, including me, question what trans people are saying about disabled people when they argue that disability is bad and trans people aren’t disabled. Some trans people think it is useful to call ourselves disabled in order to get human rights protection.

What Do Otherwise-Disabled Trans People Say About This?

There are very few otherwise-disabled trans people who have written about this issue that I have found. Like other trans people, otherwise-disabled trans people have lots of different ideas about this issue. Pat Califia (1997/2003) supports the protests against having trans people be included in the DSM. He thinks that being in the DSM is damaging and leads to being treated badly. But, he thinks that sex changes should be publicly paid for. Eileen is worried that it could lead to trans people being put in institutions. Someone online who goes by the name of Static Nonsense (2010) says that trans isn’t a disorder or disability. They say that trans people shouldn’t try to separate themselves from disabled people too much though. Static Nonsense says disabled people should be included in the trans community.

Riley (2012) says that being trans was easier and they didn’t feel unhappy with their body because they are disabled. For Riley and Static Nonsense, it isn’t a black and white issue. Disability is more complicated for them for many non-otherwise-disabled trans people.

Syrus Marcus Ware (Ejiogu & Ware, 2008) writes about his experiences as a trans person of colour who is a psychiatric survivor. He says that it is important to look at how oppressions are interlocked. Ware (2010) also says he doesn’t like how some trans people talk about disabled people when they say they aren’t disabled. He says otherwise-disabled people shouldn’t be erased or treated badly in this conversation.

Eli Clare (2010; 2007) mostly writes about how some trans people say they are physically disabled, not mentally disabled. Clare says this erases the oppression of physically disabled people. This is especially true when they use the word ‘birth defect’ which lots of disabled people find hurtful and incorrect. Clare says that being trans isn’t about being sick (medical model) but about diversity. He is very critical of the medical model generally.

Clare talks about the shame trans people face about their bodies. A lot of trans people and doctors say trans people are “trapped in the wrong bodies” (Bnjamin, 1966, p. 9). This being in the wrong body is now the broad social view of what it is like to be trans. While it is true for some trans people, it isn’t true for all of us. This means that lots of people get left out or have to fit a view of trans that isn’t how they feel – including me.

While otherwise-disabled trans people do not all say the same things about trans being a disability, there is a great deal of detail and personal experience that we add. For us, disability is a part of who we are. We exist and we should have a meaningful place in the trans community and this debate.

Conclusion: Solidarity and Social Change

When trans people try to get rights or justice by being oppressive to disabled people, nobody wins. Instead of thinking about groups competing, we need to think about all of us working together. Disabled people can offer a lot to the trans movement if we are given a chance. Likewise, trans people can offer a lot to the disability movement if we are given a chance. Together, and with other oppressed groups, we can make the world a better place.


Benjamin, H. (1966). The transsexual phenomenon: A scientific report on transsexualism and sex conversion in the human male and female. New York: Julian Press.

Califia, P. (1997). Sex changes: The politics of transgenderism. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Califia, P. (2003). Sex changes: Transgender politics (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Clare, E. (2007). Excerpt from: “Body shame, body pride: Lessons from the disability rights movement.” keynote address. FORGE forward conference, 2007. Retrieved December 15, 2012, from http://eliclare.com/what-eli-offers/lectures/shame-pride

Clare, E. (2010). Resisting shame: Making our bodies home. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 8(2), 455-465.

Ejiogu, N., & Ware, S. M. (2008). How disability studies stays white, and what kind of white it stays: A call for intersectionality within disability studies. New York: Paper presented at the Society for Disability Studies Conference.

Riley, L. (2012). Being disabled and trans. Retrieved June 16, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFFQ2RllttU

Static Nonsense. (2010). Intersections of disability and transgenderism. Retrieved June 17, 2013, from http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/?p=3273

Weitz, D. (n.d.). 25 good reasons why psychiatry must be abolished. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from http://www.antipsychiatry.org/25reason.htm