So I belong to a few livejournal ftm communities. I still hang out in them, albeit much less frequently. A few people from those spaces have shown up here, and some stuff I’ve written here has actually been reposted over there. (Always welcome, all of you, and thanks so much for the publicity, feedback, and appendices over there.)
There have been a great many really interesting discussions over there over the past few years: passing, partnering, parenting, visibility, “stealth” practice and theory, the ins and outs and wherefores of transition, in-group distinctions, family dynamics, generational differences, etc. I’ve been wary of linking to them because those spaces are a little different from this one.
They’re not only a space for long, involved discussions of gender politics that turn into vicious flame wars. They’re also a really valuable place to obtain information and support. For some members, they’re pretty much all that’s available; they don’t have any choice but to trust the evil internets (tm Analee Newitz) with their stories. Some of the questions concern very private things, and the people asking them are not members of this community. So far as I can tell, the livejournal communities have been largely free of gawking asshats–at least, the ones who announce themselves. This privacy is as fragile and illusory as that enjoyed by a topless femme at the Dyke March, but it’s something I feel like I should maintain rather than compromise.
But now people are ending up here, which is awesome.
Anyway, there’s a discussion going on elsewhere about the various uses of physical transition: transmasculine people who take hormones and undergo surgery in order to obtain masculinized bodies and live their lives as men versus people who take hormones and undergo surgery in order to create more androgynous bodies or highlight genderqueer identities. It’s not like the Hatfields and the McCoys or anything, but different goals make for different positions.
(I hate this construction, but:) Some people on the transmasculine side have mentioned concerns about immaturity and ignorance. There’s also the sense that people with genderqueer identities are changing their bodies out of political rather than personal feelings, and that they may reject transsexual-but-not-genderqueer identities out of the belief that they’re not radical enough. There also seem to be generational disparities between the two communities, but this could be a function of discourse.
It’s true that all of these treatments have very serious effects, both physical and social. I don’t know if your average twenty-year-old is thinking very carefully about concepts like uninsurable, or that everyone embarks on a transition with a real committment to monitoring their own health. It’s also true that achieving any sort of personalized transition is a very difficult thing. You can’t predict the rate or extent of masculinization for any individual, or entirely control the outcome of surgery. Transsexuals get very frustrated, too. No one gets to choose chinstraps over epaulets. Perhaps demanding this level of control can be a sign of immaturity in and of itself, or represent an unhealthy fixation on the body rather than the life.
I don’t think, however, that genderqueer people are any less serious than transmasculine people. I don’t think that their unhappiness is any more trivial. I think that they have a problem; they just don’t have a solution. Imagine being bisexual in a society where there simply is no such thing as dual orientation. (I know, it’s a stretch.) If your only choices were gay or straight, how would you be bisexual? How would you describe your desires, let alone pursue them?
What if your orientation were a little more complex, something that couldn’t just be described as a preference for both? What would you say when people asked you if you were gay or straight? Would either term feel comfortable for you? What words would you use instead? Would you try to make one up? Might you sound a little bit strange to everyone else, a little vacillatory, a little precious, a little nuts? And what if you had to get a doctor’s approval to date?
Gender is currently constructed the same way. There are two choices. They aren’t merely the only approved choices. They’re the only options that most people will acknowledge under any circumstances. You’re either a man or a woman, period. (Of course, most of the time, your man- or womanhood is dependent upon a very short list of factors. “Transsexual” is almost as impossible an idea.) Words like “genderqueer,” “bigendered,” “androgynous,” “two-spirit,” “transgendered,” all become clumsy concepts not because the people insisting upon their validity are confused in themselves, but because they have no place to stand.
So I don’t think that very many people obtain surgery simply in order to “fuck with the gender binary.” Rather, I think those people are describing something they do by existing, something they’re gonna have to succeed at in order to be themselves. Bisexual people are forced to fuck with the sexual binary; transsexuals are forced to fuck with the current definition of sex. People can commit to life-altering changes for many reasons, including the worst possible ones, but I don’t think that very many genderqueers undergo surgery on a lark.
Gender is also tied up in our ideas of dignity, humanity, adulthood, sanity, beauty. Our gender is a big part of our social role. That’s why one of the easiest ways to insult someone is to deprive them of their gender. That’s why ridicule directed at transpeople and noncongruent people so often hinges on the idea that they are neither men nor women but freaks, or that they are not “really” the gender they prefer. That’s why “it” is so cruel. That’s why de-gendering is part and parcel of infantilization and abuse directed towards other populations. In any hierarchy, clarity is survival.
Genderqueer and noncongruent people contradict the idea that gender must function as a component of social interaction. Even if they do not feel this way, their ambiguity–“So, are you gay or straight?”–is a challenge. I think that the charge of immaturity directed at genderqueer people can be a result of this social understanding of gender. Children are androgynous.
Some of the perceived diffidence may also be a result of the potential of physical transition. Bodies are gendered. We use physical cues–hairline, beard shadow, height–to figure out whether someone is a man or a woman. This is an important consideration for many transmen deciding whether or not to masculinize their bodies. It was certainly a factor in my decision to stop masculinizing mine.
I’ve written before about how there sort of is no such thing as an androgynous persona. In a very similar way, there’s also no such thing as an androgynous body. There are bodies that are difficult to categorize, but that just means everyone tries much harder. It’s nearly impossible to simply have a body that doesn’t sit easily on either side.
When I was ambiguous, I was never received as an ungendered person. Even when there was no consensus, almost everyone made a ruling and did their best to stick with it. Julia Serano describes the same reaction in Whipping Girl (which is currently under a pile of dirty laundry in my bedroom, I think): at a certain point in her physical transition, she would get re-gendered from minute to minute, but hardly anyone ever looked at her and read, “Maybe it’s not quite that simple.” The assumption was not only that she was a man or a woman, but that she was definitely a man or a woman. Most people think they’re very good at this whole gendering thing.
So maybe a masculinized body really is an imperfect solution for some genderqueer individuals, even if the masculinization is partial or if it allows someone to still present as female should they so choose. Maybe it’s not any better a fit than “gay” is for a pansexual. Maybe genderqueer people really will exhibit higher levels of dissatisfaction in their new bodies, and maybe they will eventually seek a different appearance. Maybe their solution will involve re-transitioning. It doesn’t seem to me that this likelihood is a good reason to deny them whatever options they have, or that it’s even helpful to exert greater control over their process.
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