(S0 Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican wrote this brilliant post about racist definitions of whiteness and their requirements. I’m writing about a different kind of pressure, and don’t want to conflate the two. Still, his post helped me clarify some of my thoughts about either/or and both/and, and I’m indebted to him for it.)
I lost my gender.
Effective gender is consensus-based: you are a woman or a man if the people around you see you as a woman or a man. You must be one or the other; there is no third option. This is why it is so difficult to be androgynous, to communicate an identity that does not sift easily to one side or the other. It does not translate to a coherent presentation. It’s when the people around you cannot figure out what you are. They don’t look at you and think to themselves, “Oh, that person must be neither male nor female, but something else entirely.” They look at you and think, “What is that?” Anyone who’s ever been received as a mixed signal knows how much immediate pressure there is to pick a side and commit to its rules: fascination, fear, and rage. This is why the popular understanding of transsexuality demands either amnesia or distortion. If we are all one or the other, then it must be virtually impossible to change and wholly impossible to incorporate experiences from both sides.
Ambiguous people threaten the system itself and everyone else in it because the system depends on its boundaries. The existence of “male” and “female” depends on the idea that everyone is either completely male or completely female. There’s no third option for the same reason there’s no such thing as “half-white” in a deeply racist society. Whiteness is purity; if it can be diluted, it loses its worth. Ambiguity under segregationist dicta occupies a similar position, since its apparent existence threatens the idea of racial distinction. If you’re different, there’s gotta be some special explanation, some reason you must not really be there at all.
Ambiguous people meet with nothing so frequently as outright denial of their existence, along with whatever is necessary to give that denial force. Sometimes, that denial will seem like contingent acceptance or even special approval; sometimes it’s some new person to be. But it is always offered in the name of a hierarchy that needs you subdued or disappeared in order to maintain its strength. When it flatters some parts, it cuts out others. And it tells you very clearly what it prefers, what it wants you to be. Someone who is ambiguous along a hierarchy is never allowed to simply be a bridge, nor really allowed to choose. You embody purity and the threat to purity, and the debate you hear is about how best to save and destroy you.
When I came out as re-transitioning, I lost consensus. People around me were not capable of giving me my gender. Prior to coming out, the people around me (always excepting my parents) had decided that I was male. They had no problem accepting this idea of me. It was not difficult for them to reconcile with what they saw and understood. When they found out that I didn’t identify as male, would not continue to be male, they had to reconcile that new understanding of me with what they had always known. They had to find some way to match my outside to my inside, my history with my future. I was lucky to have people in my life who cared to listen to me, let alone change their minds.
But I got to watch them try. I got to watch them try to build this new identity out of whatever scraps were not contaminated by their sincere belief that everything about me added up to male. I got to watch them paring down and picking through what they knew of me in order to construct a wholly new persona, one they hoped would be more comfortable for both of us. I don’t blame them. For a lot of people around me, I couldn’t be encountered any other way. It was their access to this new information, this information that they saw as definitive. I felt the pressure of the same impulse the first time around. I was able to ignore it because I did not feel so dependent on its results.
People around me also dispute the extent to which I am transsexual. I am either a non-transsexual, an accidental transsexual, or some sort of super-transsexual. Shamanic or just fucked in the head? Or both? What is true, however, is that this is not the first time I’ve been a woman. Last time, however, I got to be on the blissful side of the purity line. I was definitely, obviously female. No one around me believed that I could possibly be anything else. After coming out as a woman for the second time, I was allowed to be female on an abstract level by mutual agreement.
It’s been interesting to see how uncomfortable that made me, how that kind of ambiguity translated to no place at all. I was painfully aware of the loss of assurance, and the extent to which it challenged my own ability to see myself.