Well, it seems like we’re in need of another Trans 101 post. Feministe has had them before but still, every time a contentious post is made about trans issues (like Jill’s recent post) the same basic issues are brought up: why are people trans? How do we approach trans stuff as feminists? What does this all mean? What is it like to be trans? Is transitioning actually an acceptable thing that we can approve of? And what the hell does “cis” in cisgendered mean? (It means “on the same side of” as opposed to trans, “on the other side of.” Literally suggests that someone has not changed genders.) These aren’t bad questions, in fact I’m glad that folks like asdf are curiously asking things like:
Changing the definition of gender into something other than a biological descriptor, into something innate in a person’s personality, does that not require buying into the concept of innate differences between the sexes?
… because I think these things should be discussed and answered. But maybe not in a thread about how many transgender women have been killed this year, and how some people exploit the remembrance of that? So let’s start a new discussion.
Opening up a post for questions with very little content to riff off of can feel kind of like staring at a blank piece of paper. So I thought I would write a little post with my own personal thoughts on the subject, inspired by queen emily’s recent post as well as drakyn’s. I usually don’t get into this level of detail regarding my personal feelings, my own take on gender and trans-ness… it’s always safer to keep it a little more abstract, about material conditions and institutional forces and community response. But here we go. Everyone else, feel free to chime in with your own perspective and add your thoughts. Keep in mind this is intended as a Trans 101 thread, so all questions and inquiries are welcome. If something seems confusing or raises questions in your mind, ask them and people who have experiences with the topic at hand will hopefully answer.
I’m trans. For a while, especially when I was in the process of what they call “medical transition,” I used to identify as transsexual. When I was searching for community and commonality and a politic to link together common experiences of oppression, I started to use the word transgender more. And I’ve used words like genderqueer or “of trans experience” to describe myself too.
But mostly, I just don’t like gender. I really don’t, I wish it would stay away from me. Of course, nobody in this world has such luck. Everything is gendered.
I sometimes have conversations with friends, acquaintances and relatives who tell me (apparently because I’m trans) that they don’t really see themselves as being gendered, that gender isn’t an important part of who they are. Usually part of what they mean by this is that they don’t fit into classic stereotypes of hyper-masculinity or hyper-femininity, and don’t want to. As much as I sympathize with that, part of me still wants to scream, because everyone I’ve had this kind of conversation with is in fact, quite gendered, men and women both. Not in a stereotypical or really obvious way, but enough so that they can shake the hands of random strangers and be immediately recognized as a man or a woman; not necessarily a “traditional” one, but still. They don’t have to think about their gender because they’re taking a certain chunk of it for granted, a chunk that includes their haircut, how they’ve learned to talk and move, what kinds of clothes they wear, the name they use. Even if it leaves a bad taste in their mouth, they’re not allergic to all that basic gendering stuff. Not like I am.
I don’t think I could ever say “gender isn’t an important part of who I am,” because I’m uncomfortably aware of most of the gendering that’s going on all the time around me, and subtly aware of even more that’s below the liminal threshold. Trying to move through the world without being gendered is just as impossible, or moreso, than trying to move through immigration at a border without a passport; we’re gendered pretty much every time someone sees us, hears us, reads our data in a computer file. So I have to suppress a crazy giggle sometimes when I hear people say that, you know, they don’t really think about it that much. Just like fish don’t think about water; just like some people don’t have to think about race or class or misogyny.
That’s basically where my experience of being trans begins: when I first became aware that I was being pigeonholed by gender. It didn’t come up that often when I was a kid, in part because I was raised in a fairly progressive, feminist family and in part because I was assigned male. Boys aren’t subjected to quite as many constant restrictions as girls are; it’s part of male privilege. Of course, there are most definitely things boys aren’t allowed to do, and things boys have to do in order to prove themselves sufficiently masculine. As soon as I was old enough to be aware of this kind of thing, I had a twisting feeling in my whole being, like my foot was caught in a bear trap. That feeling only grew stronger as I grew older, until by the time I was eleven years old I was completely positive that I did not feel like a boy.
At this point, the usual response from the peanut gallery is “but why didn’t you just buck the system and be a non-traditional boy, or reject gender without transitioning to become a woman?” Oh yeah, they make it sound so easy and so effective! This is an absurd question coming from anyone who hasn’t actually tried and gone through all of this. And even then, the answer is complex and individual. For one thing, bucking the system has consequences, especially when you’re a pre-teen. I have the scars to show it. For another, that question makes it sound like putting on some mascara and a dress would be enough to get my foot out of that bear trap. It’s not. Not for me, at least.
Different things work for different people; all of us who have trouble fitting into a gendered system have to find some way to make some kind of accommodation with it. Some people are fortunate or privileged enough to have more options in that regard. Others don’t, and have to adapt one way or the other, lest they be crushed. By the time I was a teenager, I could barely stand being gendered male by anybody, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Male seems to be the “default” gender for human social perceptions, and our culture doesn’t have any boxes to fit people in other than male and female.
On top of that, I also experienced body dysphoria for a long time, where a lot of things about my body just felt wrong, like I was crawling out of my skin. There are ways to manage that feeling, to compartmentalize or cope with it, but it doesn’t go away. These are the feelings associated with being trans that people speculate about the most, whether they’re caused by something biological in the brain or what. Frankly, I don’t think the exact etiology is of supreme importance, or that it’ll ever be conclusive. Maybe body dysphoria is related to the rejection of gender I described earlier, and maybe it’s not, but I’m fairly skeptical of anyone who claims to know for sure.
What really matters is that trans people who genuinely have body dysphoria — and it can certainly be misdiagnosed, confused with other issues, don’t get me wrong — experience it persistently, often from an early age. What matters is that there’s no known cure, no way of doing brain surgery to “fix people” in their heads (would we even want such a thing?) no way to alleviate it except for figuring out what works for your body and your self. Finding a place where you can live in peace.
So eventually, despite feeling overwhelming guilt and anxiety about it, and hearing a hundred scare-you-straight stories about what kind of horrible life to expect, I eventually decided to get out of the gender and sex that I was assigned to, and go somewhere different. Where to? It’s not like there are that many places you’re allowed to live in terms of gender; it’s not like they even tell you about that many options. For most of my life that I can remember, I always identified more with girls and women, even if I don’t know what people mean by “feeling like a woman.” (And I still don’t!)
If I had been raised in a culture with more than two genders, would I feel differently? Maybe… it’s impossible to say, of course. But my body also seems to think that this configuration, with a different set of signals flowing through my endocrine system, is healthier and better for it. As far as social and psychological well-being, I have better relationships with friends, dates, my family, and myself. And I’ve been lucky enough to avoid discrimination for being trans, probably because most people I interact with don’t realize I am. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
The worst crap I’ve had to deal with in the last decade is exactly the kind of stuff that most women in the world cope with: sexism, in the form of getting patronized, talked down to, sexually harassed, threatened, stalked by creepy assholes. But that’s the deal I could find to make with this unpleasantly gendered world we live in; it’s the niche, the crack in a hostile cliff wall, that I could carve out for myself to be able to live, grow, resist, despite that misogyny and transphobia, racism and homophobia that I’ve had to deal with.
The fact that I carved it out myself is very important, you know? Being able to make a choice, some choice, any choice, to make my way in a hostile world. I had to get out and do a gender my own way, find a livable cranny within a system that fucks with all of us and messes with our heads whether we realize it or not. This is the most important reason why the “why did you have to transition” question makes no sense. I did it because it figuring out and expressing our own gender is one of the choices we all should be able to make. Because it was a viable and healthy choice for me, and I struggled for it and claimed it. I don’t really need any other reason.
So… I don’t see “trans” as a particular ideology or politics. Trans people have too many different experiences, lives, takes on things. I don’t expect other trans people to share the exact views described above. Some people are excited by and want to celebrate gender, which can be a vibrant and beautiful way to express yourself through your manner, your performance, your adornments, your body. I’m happy for them, even though I’m generally too nauseated to perform any role with a “lot” of gender unless it’s totally theatrical. (Some friends describe me as having only a small amount of gender… I went from being a pretty androgynous boy to a pretty androgynous girl, and I’m just lucky that I learned to slip by either way without too much scrutiny.)
When you get down to it, being trans is just a loose common set of experiences. Experiences around having a gender, internally or externally, that is not considered universally valid. Of being troubled by gender–not just the injustice and misogyny of your prescribed place in it, but by the very fact of your assignment. Of having to leave one gender for another, being a migrant, trying to settle somewhere new and dealing with the trials and frustrations involved. Of having looked at gender, this ridiculous, constructed edifice we’re stuck in, and known that you had to carve out a new place to live in it. We all experience these things differently, come away with different truths, different interpretations, different lives. But that’s beautiful too.
- Boy or Girl: Choose Only One by Jennifer December 16, 2008
- I’m being taken over by the fear by Queen Emily July 5, 2009
- Lessons from the Magic Carpet by Octogalore August 4, 2008
- Shameful Behaviour by Guest Blogger September 6, 2010
- CFS: The Body as a Site of Discrimination by Cara November 15, 2008