Hope Resides in the Genderqueer and Transgressive

As time goes on, something happens to a transitioned transsexual.  It has a lot to do with why the transsexed side of the trans continuum tends not to have many long-term advocates.

I first came to realize it over a discussion with someone long transitioned who was still involved with the LGBT community, but it was largely forgotten that she’d had a trans history.  Although the cerebral knowledge and empathy for trans issues were there, the memory had faded to the point where it was hard for her to recall the experiences personally, where it seemed to her as though everything had happened to someone else.  This is not a bad thing — for those of us who transition, it’s the whole point: to put the years of hiding and fakery and anxiety behind to finally be able to start at square one, build a life that fits for oneself, and leave the anxieties and depression behind.  She had accomplished that, and I realized early into my advocacy that there was likely a certain amount of inevitability to at least some of that.  It’s like anything else support-oriented: eventually you accomplish what you’d hoped for, and move on — a necessary part of the healing.

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In recent years, I’ve recognized the same thing happening within myself (although I’ve put some of this off, too, in order to be able to focus on others’ needs, and now it’s catching up with a vengeance).  People sometimes come to me with their anxiety about going out into public for the first time, or the fears of having to tell their parents that they’re trans, or navigating transition in the workplace, and I’m finding my own memories distant, fading, almost foreign.  Some of the consequences — such as disowning myself from my family because continued contact after four years was just hurting everyone — are still painful, but much of the “Before” picture is almost gone, as are many of the moments of coming out.  This doesn’t really bother me too much — I never set out to be Mercedes the SpokesTrans, I only wanted to leave the community with more than it had when I’d arrived — but it does make me feel guilty at the possibility that eventually, it may mean leaving behind people still in genuine need.  (And for those who might be wondering, no I’m not leaving the community right now, and I suspect I’ll always be somewhat “out” there, it just means that I’m finding it harder to be there with the moment-to-moment advice because all that’s fading into the past for me.)

But the need does go on.  The transsexual community is changing, coming out in the same way that gay and lesbian communities emerged into awareness in the 1970s (and as we can see today, it’s still an ongoing process).  More people are finding the information and encouragement they need to soldier through, more people are soul-searching, more questioning the many different options open to them.  Sometimes, policies are even being rolled back in backlash to this awareness (as witnessed by the delisting of health care funding for Genital Reassignment Surgery in Alberta last year), yet the more that trans narratives get out there, the more promise we see ahead.  Parliament is scheduled to debate and vote on a Private Member’s Bill (C-389) that would add protections for gender identity and gender expression to the Criminal Code of Canada and Canada Human Rights Act, with legal protections being an important first step toward acceptance.

(And I know Canadian readers have all contacted their MPs to express support for this bill, haven’t they?)

The need does go on, and the struggles with fear and shame by those who follow remain urgent and vital.

More than the transsexual community is changing.  Ethicists and commentators and talk show hosts are delving into understanding the concepts of pregnant men and non-traditional marriages.  Parents are raising children with a certain amount of gender neutrality to let their children settle into what is most comfortable, giving them gender non-specific names like “Pop” and getting lambasted in Life & Style Magazine.  Governments are struggling with intersex and trans concepts and debating the possibility of a “sex not specified” designation.  A Pope who lambastes gender variance and queerness as being the greatest threats to humanity is now being recognized as fallible for his own involvements in the cover-ups of child abuse and molestation.  Nepal, Pakistan and India are legally recognizing culturally-entrenched gender variant people as people, even if some of the implications take longer to become clear.  A world is waking.

I mentioned the phrases “gender variant” and “gender expression.”  While understanding of transsexuality is emerging within society, we’re still only just beginning to understand gender expression ourselves and developing a language to communicate that.  Sometimes I focus too narrowly on transsexualism, because it’s what I know (and that mostly within a binary, although I did live for awhile as non-op and support that option).  Gender expression and gender variance, however, cover a wide range of people, including crossdressing, androgynous, genderqueer and exploratory people, as well as many who never really thought of themselves as trans in any way.  As the world wakes, so too are people able to wake to self-identification that was not available to them before.  Terms like “crossdreamers” are being invented and defined.  Some of them will fall by the wayside, others will catch on an ignite as more people discover relevance in them and a deep connection.

For the transsexual community, this has sometimes been the source of a lot of division, with the more conservative of us fearing the change, even attacking people outside transitioning pathways as a perceived threat to “real” transsexuals.  And it’s not without some cause.  In individual transitions, there’s always that wobbly hatchling period when presentation is shaky and unskilled, or nervousness gives us away, or we fumble and say and do things that we’ll later find embarrassing — we’re sort of going through that as a community too, and the places one goes to in self-discovery sometimes trigger others whose self-determination has led them elsewhere.  norrie mAy Welby’s recent attaining of a “sex not specified” legal designation (which was a first in the Western world but later revoked by Australian authorities) is a major coming-out for those comfortable in identifying as in between genders, but for those who do identify as being part of a binary and who would not want to be forced into that box, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how something like that could negatively affect one portion of our community even as it improves the lot for another.  Things get complicated before they grow clearer, and this fear sometimes triggers a push-back.  Too, something that hasn’t yet grown distant is the memory of how overdone distortions of some segments of our community have been trotted out in society and painted as representations of others, from The Jerry Springer Show to the 2010 transploitative “Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives.”  The wounds are still tender; the narrative has not yet been completely reclaimed — we’re still not even settled on a consistent rubric for that to be measured by.

And yet, for the majority of people under the trans umbrella (as well as for those transsexuals entering the community with fears and anxieties of transition and interacting with the public and newly addressing family, friends, co-workers and others), hope resides not in trans advocates who march in and then drift away, but in the genderqueer and crossdressing and gender variant.

Gender variance and gender expression involve a sociopolitical reassessment of the understanding of identity.  And identity is something that individuals get hung up on, since our understanding of it derives almost entirely from our own singular identities.  Men have enough difficulty grasping women and vice versa, let alone a plethora of existence outside those accepted benchmarks.  And no matter how intimately someone might understand and know someone else, their understanding will always be limited by the physical constraints of their own skulls.  Identity is something that we might not ever grasp fluently or completely.  But we can come to accept it as a fluid part of our reality and that others’ identities aren’t expected to fit our own concepts and understandings.  And this is where the ongoing visibility of people who transgress or queer the rules of gender come in.

During high school, in my feeble attempts to form a rock band, I adopted a look (because everyone had to have an “image”) incorporating the obligatory leather jacket, jeans and a red camisole.  I had to justify the latter by saying it was a political comment as well as easier to wear under hot lights, and play down any self-expression and searching for people who might empathize via symbology.  For those of us who’ve been around awhile, I don’t have to tell you that the look (simple as it was) bombed magnificently.  A few years later, Kurt Cobain started taking to the stage playing the occasional set in a flat grey skirt or kilt and I expected the same to happen: instead, he powered through, and today the idea seems somewhat mundane, at least in a theatric setting.  Society grows, adjusts, and absorbs each new experience into its vernacular, although it has to be occasionally reinforced if it’s to be kept from being forgotten.

While “trans” covers a vast group of people with different identities, underlying the struggles of each is an acknowledgment and understanding of identity itself is something that evolves but does not change on pure whim, something that is very real to us personally, even if we can’t always communicate it and have to rely on the trappings of physical expression to say it for us.  Growing exposure to various and unique identities is a crucial step toward dismissing the notion of “fringe” and recognizing that our infinitely diverse identities and the open expression of them are something that is magical and fundamentally integral to our ability to be individual.  And by accepting the repeated expression of individuality of others, society grows less threatened by any one individual.

Society experiences the gender variant person at first as shocking, then as a person, realizes the sense of threat is unfounded, and then accepts and moves on.  And it is this process that will alleviate the terror and shame experienced by those who follow.

Crossposted to The Spectrum Cafe

  1. Excellent post. It certainly resonates with me — transitioned, post-op, probably far too comfortable, and really not up for any activism that forces me to out myself. I hope that I’m still doing helpful things behind the scenes, and I’m always available to listen to those who are at a different stage in their lives.

    But I’m very thankful for my transgressive and genderqueer activist friends. They really are the ones on the front lines right now. They don’t have much choice.

    I do. And today, I had a choice between facilitating my regular online trans support group and taking part in an action. I chose the former — partly because I had had to cancel it last week and didn’t want to do that two weeks in a row, and partly because I’m just not much of an activist, and I can’t force it. But yeah, I feel guilty about it sometimes. People like my activist friends helped me a lot during the early part of my journey.

  2. Well said. Especially liked how you mentioned the incessant desire both within and outside the community to separate the ‘real transexuals’ from the rest of the trans community. One wonders if something Stephen Fry said about us wishing our children to have it as badly as we did growing up might ring true there, but I’m probably free-associating a little too much.

    • HenryHall
    • June 22nd, 2010

    There is a major shift in advocacy under way in Europe, pioneered by STP2012 in Spain and being taken up elsewhere. It is for depathologization not of medicine, but of the process of legal change of sex.

    Where trans-sex medicine is denied, same-sex medicine (in the person’s newly acquired legal sex) is a horse of a different color and harder to deny politically. It just takes legislation to take the medical evidence requirements out of legal change of sex – since (it turns out) anything less is incompatible with the wording of international treaties on human rights.

  1. May 31st, 2010

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