I could start by asking ‘What is truth?’
When you find yourself on the outside of some social niche, looking in, knowing that everyone else thinks you belong, and you don’t, you question very deeply: is something wrong with me? Or is something wrong with the available range of places I could fit? The given ‘truth’ about gender is that there are two, and from these arise sexuality. So you are male or you are female and yes you may also be lesbian, gay or bi.
That’s interesting. We are still so sure about male and female, but allow all sorts of variation in how a person of a particular gender interacts sexually? Our concept of gender is terribly, grievously, outdated.
Just to ensure my position is credible, remember that perhaps four per cent of births give rise to some ambiguity about assigning gender. Most of the time it is perfectly clear: ‘It’s a boy/girl!’ But sometimes it isn’t. We call this condition intersex. That, in our society is unacceptable: the birth certificate awaits and the baby will be assigned for life. Some corrective surgery may be decided on, maybe a decision about gender socialisation. For an unlucky few, their assigned gender subsequently changes with puberty as hormones do or do not kick in as expected. For others, their gender is never, ever resolved.
That’s interesting too. At the coalface, midwives and clinicians know that physiology isn’t always as clear as we would like. Why is this covered over so much? Why is it so important to be either 100 per cent male or 100 per cent female, when we know it just isn’t true?
Here isn’t the space for the full description of those few genes and their positions and activity that make life complicated, nor about how we all start female and develop according to maternal hormones as well as our own. Suffice it to say, the variations in gender are many. Recent work on brain scans shows the typical gender balance of grey and white matter – and that the great majority of people who fundamentally question their gender, have good grounds for doing so: their brain does not entirely agree with the rest of their bodies. So you thought you knew you were 100 per cent male or female? Probably no-one is. So why do we accept a little bit of female in a man and a little bit of male in a woman, but not a lot? What about a 50/50 person, or a man who is more female in the inside?
Back to the top: what is truth? When it comes to gender, the truth is that we are not polarised into the male/female binary description very well at all. Oh dear me …
Tell me about honesty, then.
Honesty must be telling the truth as you know it, and not hiding it. OK: I am transgender. That is my honesty. But what about everything I said and did as a man for over 50 years? Where was the honesty in that? I covered over things I felt, and I didn’t always come clean and I suppose I therefore wasn’t even honest about being male. Well, not all male anyway. The trouble is, I didn’t have access to the truth and lacked a language to describe how I felt about myself. But I do now, and I have to live with knowing things that most people do not. As I learned the truth and it dawned on me that all was not well in man-land, I hid things, physically and mentally, from myself and my wife and from friends. The consequences of the truth and being honest can be very hard to bear, just as the consequences of being secretive, hiding, or in denial.
Here is another uncomfortable truth then: I am transgender and I am still the same person who was a romantic young man a long time ago. That’s hard to grasp too: how can I be? I look like a woman a lot of the time now, and that is how I feel most comfortable. And yet my sexual orientation has not changed one bit. Our inability to embrace the truth of gender in the same way that we have accepted natural diversity in sexuality, shows that we are powerfully conditioned. Deep inside we all harbour at least a bit of homophobia and rather a lot of transphobia (that’s fear, not hate, in this context) – because all these things challenge those aspects of social order based on having to be a man or a woman. And for most of us, that identity and our sexual inclination determine not just who we are attracted to, but who we feel we must not. What we feel about our gender also sets up roadblocks to keep us on our own straight and narrow (oh, so important, to feel ‘normal’!).
So you live with or are married to a transgender person? Coming out changes you more than it changes them. They stop questioning themselves, and you start questioning yourself. Their honesty makes you suddenly the partner/husband/wife of a transgender person. Can you take that label? Explain it, and defend it? The best relationship in the world, based on honesty and love, now falls down to the personal comparison with social norms and acceptability: what others think of you, and what you think of yourself. Is it OK to learn a new language of romance (even of sex) with a transgender partner? In what way will they disappoint? I do accept entirely that gender reassignment surgery is the ultimate challenge, don’t get me wrong. But it does reveal how much our love of another is an expression of personal attraction and self-reflection, rather than the meeting of souls that might be our ideal. So tell me about your love: and maybe I can dare to be honest and trust I haven’t just blown it away.
Now then; can you understand why I need to talk about honesty? How can I be honest with you and explain that my honesty has been emergent? Am I being most dishonest if I turn up as a man, or as a woman? Is my honesty tempered by the kind of reception I am likely to get? Tell me what you think, and why, when I arrive in a skirt and blouse, prosthetic breasts and a wig. Honestly. Let’s talk about it – so long as I can ask you any question back about you too. And I shall be honest with you about truths you don’t yet know. And if you still think that I am in disguise, or mentally disturbed, or just plain weird, I have to say I am just being honest.
And honesty in being transgender can sometimes be very confusing, until we really listen to it.