I got drawn this week into another of those dialogues about the legitimacy of the transgendered identity. The comparison as so often was between being gay/lesbian (i.e. sexuality) and gender dysphoria, where the former finds agreement between body and mind (identity), but a disagrement with social tradition or culture, and the latter finds a disagreement between body and mind (identity) as well as with culture and society. It’s tough, because if you are trans*, the chances are you also have a sexuality that is questioned by society, including the gay/lesbian part of it.
It’s like being trans* gets you shut out of almost every kind of accepted normality, where anyone except yourself can decide what your legitimate identity is allowed to be. As if society is afraid of your behaviour, perhaps thinking you are unpredictable or potentially predatory. Sometimes I have been treated as intrusive simply for being; there can be a lot of exclusion for being trans*. The worst kind is trans erasure, where certain groups define us out of existence, saying in effect that what we are is only in our minds.
Believe me, there is nothing about being transsexual that is behavioural. In fact, being transsexual need not involve you doing anything at all. It is only about being. Part of the problem is that the trans-spectrum people who are most visible are either the most flamboyant (deliberate) or the most physically disadvantaged (unfortunate). I don’t get noticed anymore, but knowing what I am gets me associated with stereotypical ideas of what I do (or salacious imaginings of what I might do).
There are people who knew me before transition, and who, two years later, still find it hard to stop thinking of me as I used to present. Everything is still a reference to how I used to be to them, which leaves me with the distinct feeling that they can only regard this as a chosen lifestyle. In other words, that this is behavioural, and therefore subject to judgement as to its rationale or authenticity.
What does it take?
I wrote a poem last year about an innocent prisoner being discharged, based on the feelings of what it must be like to be the only person in the courtroom who actually knows the truth. No-one else does, though they have the power to imprison or release. If you know you are innocent, should you be grateful for acquittal by people who were not there, who have made judgements based on external and partial evidence?
Sometimes being transsexual feels like that: others get together to make judgements on the validity of your claim to authenticity, whereas only you can actually know this. Even trans* people make judgements about each other on ‘degrees of transness’, perhaps as self-protection for their own sense of identity, or out of insecurity.
This is where you come to understand, if you haven’t before, just how completely lonely the human spirit really is. No other can climb inside yourself and share your experience. You can become aware of resonance with another, but you know that when they choose to go away from you, they take nothing and leave nothing but thoughts. The closest you can get to another is by communicating through some intermediary language, verbal or not, that you hope is shared. In the end you are isolated and insulated, and love is a reflexive verb.
Oh no, not the trans lobby again!
If there is one thing that those who like to discuss trans legitimacy don’t like, it is the ‘trans lobby’ – people who stand up and object every time to this discussion. How improper! These discussants feel they have more right to say whether transgendered people are real, than transgendered people themselves. Well, I guess if you think we aren’t real, then we have no right. But why are we not real? Because our discussants have only one traditional concept of gender? And if there is one sure way to create a trans lobby, it must surely be to declare that a trans woman is ‘really’ a man, or a trans woman is ‘really’ a woman. Or indeed, that neither are either.
I find it interesting to try to understand where our eager or insistent discussants place those with intersex conditions. Bodies can be very ambiguous, and more than we like to believe, are. Genital/reproductive abnormalities may be as high at 1 in 100, and real ambiguity as high as 1 in 2,000. What, without question, defines a woman or a man, since our discussants seem so clear? It certainly isn’t a complete and clear possession of all the sexual markers, whether organs or chromosomes. XY, with androgen insensitivity, for example?
With such crass disregard for the reality of human physiology, chromosomal, reproductive or sexual, it is hardly surprising that there seems to be a trans lobby that jumps to defence. So I was very cautious about entering this week’s conversation, lest I too be labelled a lobbyist.
Society creates disorders
Part of the discussion we trans folk are presented with, is: what if society were so accepting of transgendered identities that we would not even consider surgical reparation or correction? It is a fair question, because any parent of an intersex baby will want to know what to do. Intervene, in order to avoid the dreadful uncertainty of growing up without definition? Or risk surgically defining the baby in a way that proves to be wrong? Maybe we, as a society, can get over this one by being simply honest about physiological birth differences. But what about transsexuals? Is this just a different case of intersex? Can I imagine a society that is accepting enough for me to say I really have no need of intervention, hormonal or surgical? For some of us, I really do believe that dysphoria has no other origin than our innate sense of being. For others, not – but for me, I know the sense of not being ‘right’ has not been planted by nurture or social interaction. Who would go through the social trauma and physical struggles, if there were an alternative? Is it just that society is so unkind to us, and so unaccepting?
Here is a parallel that I keep coming back to: what if society were so accepting of, say, a deformed limb that could, through surgery, be straightened?
The same social argument would apply: ‘surely there is no real need for corrective surgery or treatment; there’s nothing wrong with a limp or the inability to run.’ Well, it’s fine for the one without the deformity, but highly presumptive that the other might not genuinely prefer to be able to run.
Much of the time, our discussants on our legitimacy are gay or lesbian, who have seen a revolution in the UK over acceptability of their sexuality as innate. Look what they went through in the past, and look how society is now! Surely we can just calm down and be different, like they are? And here is the difference between LGB and TQI: we don’t want to be different. We feel our normality is there, in the gender we feel ourselves to be. Most of us don’t want some halfway house, some different, either hated or exalted status. We know we can’t alter the way we were born, but we can do our best to put things right and leave it behind. LGB people don’t do that; they live it. LGB people need each other for intimate relationships. Transsexual people do not. If we have any togetherness, it is only because we’re better at understanding each other.
So I don’t believe that I have a cultural disorder. Something congenital and off the normal distribution mean, yes, but more than a matter of social convention. My ‘condition’ hasn’t been created any more than the case of the deformed limb. So when I read non-trans people questioning my validity, I find it somewhat arrogant. It isn’t for anyone else to decide another’s legitimate identity. Perhaps there is an enormous clue in people born with intersex conditions. No observer can say what their gender is, only they themselves. They may naturally feel strongly that they have a binary identity, or indeed none. We all have this. You can lose all your physiological markers through illness, disease, accident, surgery, and still you would know what your felt gender is. That’s what it feels like for me.
Gender is indeed intriguing and fascinating, and I know what gender I am not. But to imagine that my identity is up for debate without knowing this from the inside, is a tad presumptive. And remember, always, especially if you are gay or lesbian: sexuality is not like gender.