My friends from school are meeting my friends from camp!

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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15 comments for “My friends from school are meeting my friends from camp!

  1. prosphoros
    June 25, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks very much for this.

  2. Em
    June 25, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    One of the big problems is that in order to get treatment under the SOC, sola genderqueers and sola transsexuals are lumped together under the diagnosis of GID (as far as I’m aware, informed consent is still a minority route to transition)–and in my observation, the former category describes their journey as more of a choice while the latter tends to see it as more of a birth defect/disorder that requires treatment. Although the ‘choice’ as described by GQs is generally a very serious decision, the language used around it makes it seem not that way i.e. “I only want to be on T until my voice drops.”–Well, what if it takes 8 months for your voice to drop to your satisfaction and by that point you have full-blown chest hair? What then? Did you want it? Not care about it? Can you live with it? These are the questions I see brought up (and indeed feel an urge to ask) whenever someone someone uses “just” language concerning transition.

    If we saw ‘choice’ with respect to transition with the same gravity as we see reproductive ‘choice’, then perhaps it would easier to conceptualize that even people who aren’t sure about living as men nevertheless tend to think pretty hard about the decision to transition (if, what, and to what extent?).

    Then again, most GQs (again, only in my observation) haven’t displayed or discussed an understanding of what you’ve written here; namely, they really do seem to believe that they can achieve androgyny/non-genderedness a la Bornstein, and that parts of physical transition combined with whatever makes up their social performance is going to do that for them. TSs, from what I’ve seen, tend to worry about ‘performance’ only until they pass consistently. I have seen many conversations about how passing has helped guys to relax. Maybe it’s the idea that conscious, constant acting is required to make one’s identity real that tees TSs off, as their own memories of trying to pass make it offensive when someone says they undergoing the same physical steps but are deliberately keeping on acting (the sell-out to the binary accusation, it burns!).

    That was a lot of blabbing, so excuse me. I was hoping that some day you’d try to tackle this topic.

    Oh, and the title is SO APPROPRIATE.

  3. Em
    June 25, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Haha, I cruised over there thinking something in particular had prompted this, but no! Wherez teh drama? MOAR DRAMA.

  4. June 25, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Worlds collide.
    very nice site.

  5. June 25, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Worlds collide.
    very nice site.

  6. Meg
    June 25, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks for this post piny. I spent a good amount of time thinking about GQs after I read this artice in the Village Voice this weekend:

    You’ve given me so much more to think about!

  7. KH
    June 25, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Genderqueer people are hardly the only ones whose projects are derogated by invocations of the specter of regret. Non-genderqueer transsexuals, along with most of the people I know, are also told “you’ll regret it.” Maybe some will – it’s an empirical question, not generally answerable in advance –, but the speaker’s assumption that he knows the person’s mind better than she does, or that she’s under the influence of some fad, or that she may not be fully rational, always should be met with extreme skepticism, especially when it’s used to justify paternalistic restrictions, even genuinely well-intentioned ones, on other people’s choices.

    (The philosophical & decision-theoretic literatures have a theory of regret, should anyone be interested in the implications of the concept.)

  8. June 25, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    I think I found the post that you are talking about.

    That article was pretty silly, and frankly, I don’t take Buck Angel to be an expert on anything and really wish he hadn’t become the go-to trans man.

    If someone wants chest reconstruction simply because they are uncomfortable with their breasts–that’s good enough for me. Certainly breast implants take less consideration in society than that.

    In physical/geographic communities I belong to (mostly support groups) there is a lot less of a line dividing the genderqueers and TGs from the transsexual men.

    I guess that’s all I have to say.

  9. az
    June 26, 2007 at 3:43 am

    piny, I’d be interested to know where those LJ conversations are happening, as my livejournal existence is now pretty much about friends, rather than ftm communities. It’s funny how those things shift with the years.

    In my experience, too, the distinction between ‘TS’ and ‘GQ’ is much, much less defined. I think it’s pretty important to honour the self-knowledge required by anyone who decides to transform hir body. Many of the genderqueer people I know who desire to embody a plce between or outside gender binaries think intensely, and for a long time, about how to get surgery, whether to have it, whether to take T, what other options are available. They feel pressure to fall on one side of the line, too; particularly in trans communities where there is a real pressure to prove you’re serious by taking T forever and having all the surgeries it’s possible to have. Those people I know who aren’t transitioning towards an endpoint will never have the comfort of reaching that point, coming to rest; they will always have to be making a decision.

    Personally, I appear to have ‘transitioned’ fully, or something — I’m on T and have had top surgery, with no intentions of stopping T. I like my body the way it is, but I still don’t feel like I want to be a man. And in terms of my thinking, I’m much more on the ‘genderqueer’ than ‘transsexual’ side. But transmasculine genderqueer friends have said that they feel ‘not enough’ next to me, or fearful that I’ll judge them because they aren’t doing the same thing. This is why it’s so important that fully-transitioning people don’t take on that position of ‘transsexual authority’ in relation to people making different choices. We all want similar things — a way to live in the world with bodies we can love.

  10. June 26, 2007 at 4:07 am

    think that the charge of immaturity directed at genderqueer people can be a result of this social understanding of gender. Children are androgynous.

    That was so illuminating. People do seem to think that after you’ve been flooded by your sex’s hormones during puberty you have no excuse to behave in a cross-gendered way. This stems from biologism again…

    Also, the “you’re confused, and we already tolerated you transitioning once, we’re not giving you a second chance” attitude is intolerant from the very first word. Although transitioning takes a lot out of you even if you only do it once, that’s your problem to deal with, not anyone else’s. Being at ease with one’s gender *should* be given as many chances as one needs. Being happy with one’s gender isn’t at all self-evident, and us transpeople who do manage to fit snugly in one of the two genders are certainly privileged.

    Finally, in this link about binding, I found a piece of advice about passing that is also my personal experience:

    “In my experience, people read faces first. If they don’t see breasts but they do see enough other things that read as female to them, they unconsciously assume that they just can’t see the person’s breasts in that outfit. Some people don’t even look down at the rest of your body. Binding isn’t the end-all of passing. ”

    I love the fact that people don’t even stick to their own ideas about what a male/female appearance really is. “Hmm you look like a man with inexplicable breasts, so I will arbitrarily assume you’re a man.” Funny how it works, isn’t it?

  11. June 26, 2007 at 4:18 am

    Genderqueer people are hardly the only ones whose projects are derogated by invocations of the specter of regret. Non-genderqueer transsexuals, along with most of the people I know, are also told “you’ll regret it.”

    KH: there was a documentary called Boy I Am, where there was an allegedly feminist debate between cisgender lesbian feminists and transmen (whose feminist ideas weren’t specified) and it all turned into this discussion about how every young woman would take T if she was offered it, because no young woman is ok with her body, and even some transmen said it’s a good thing that they’ve had to fight so long to acquire T, because now they’re certain they want it. That’s such a load of crap! If I need a baby-sitter to tell me when I’m a real man or a real woman and am allowed to take the respective hormones, then fine. Why should I impose this on other people who are much more devoted to their transgender identities?

    Thankfully, dean spade was in the documentary and set everything straight, so to speak, but again. How ingrained is our fear of “regret” and how long have we been told that you only get one chance (if that) at setting your body/gender right.

  12. Melissa M.
    June 26, 2007 at 10:12 am

    I think that your post addresses an important problem. I would add that in my experience, it seems that people who upset the gender binary face problems rather or not they decide to transition in some visible way.

    I have said before and will say again that the gay community seems to have its own “gender police” who try to make other peoples’ gender identities correspond with stereotypes about groups in the community. I have faced problems as a feminine lesbian who didn’t change her gender identity to correspond with how lesbians are supposed to behave, but my problems around other gay people dwarf in comparison to how people who upset the gender binary often get treated in both the gay community and outside world. People who don’t encounter problems living their genders in their daily lives don’t seem to have a very good idea of what gender means. I didn’t until I came out and discovered that my gender didn’t correspond to the gender that some people expected me to have.

    I know people who are genderqueer and have decided not to take hormones or modify their bodies to pass as one gender or the other (there should be more than two genders; there are certainly more than two ways of living gender) or who have decided to use minimal surgical modifications. I have a good friend who is genderqueer. He identifies more strongly with women than men but has no desire to modify his body to become a woman and still uses male pronouns although he doesn’t identify as entirely male. The interesting thing is that these people who I know who have chosen not to transition per say but are still very much genderqueer get strange looks and questions from other people in the lgbtq community precisely because they violate the gender binary. Ideas about sexual orientation seem to be more advanced in our society right now than ideas about gender.

  13. piny
    June 26, 2007 at 10:14 am

    That article was pretty silly, and frankly, I don’t take Buck Angel to be an expert on anything and really wish he hadn’t become the go-to trans man.

    It did seem pretty unfair to the woman involved–I think that some of her quotes (for example, referring to a procedure that transmen rather than women with breast cancer undergo as “basically” top surgery for transpeople) were misconstrued by the authors.

    I…yeah. I have no beef with his occupation, and if he thinks of that as more responsible than top surgery parties, that’s his right. I don’t think porn is any more universal an option than a burlesque benefit, though.

    How does one become a go-to tranny? Are there forms to fill out?

  14. piny
    June 26, 2007 at 10:22 am

    In physical/geographic communities I belong to (mostly support groups) there is a lot less of a line dividing the genderqueers and TGs from the transsexual men.

    Wow, you mean the internet polarizes people? Get out!

    I didn’t mean to imply in the post that there’s an overriding disjunct, or that there’s no overlap. There seem, for example, to be a fair number of genderqueer-identified people who present as transitioned men, which doesn’t square with the dichotomy at all. There are also plenty of ftms who either don’t care or whose reservations are not disrespectful. Even online, the two groups often get along okay. I can see how my phrasing might have implied otherwise.

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