In my last post on good questions and trans inclusion, I offered an answer to the question, “What is gender?” This time, I’d like to look at two more aspects of genderneutral’s question: How can we include all trans people in our understanding of gender? And, how can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
If gender is part of being human, for better or for worse–so often for worse–and if we could think of it a bit like language or music, we have already entered radically new territory. We are no longer in the realm of rules, rigid categories, and so-called truth. Instead we have entered a realm of meaning, culture, communication and beauty. A melody may be especially pleasing (or not) to our own ears, and it may be of a certain style or format. In no sense, however, can a melody be “wrong” or “right.” Pay no mind to the few who try to say so out of snobbery. Those who claim some type of music is not music are always made wrong by history.
So we can let gender wax and wane, bend and change with the cultural seasons; whatever is good and real in it will endure. We can let people, ourselves included, be as they are. They are that way anyway, whether or not we see fit to grant our permission. I say, use your voice and try to sing, as best you can, the song that you were born singing. Or dwell deeply in silence, drinking in the rich space of your own quiet. To insult or drown out another’s song is an act of cruelty, which does nothing but introduce more hatred into the world. Such violence is a senseless and tragic misuse of your fleeting time on this earth.
In this logic, all trans people are always already included within the concept of gender. I will not spend any time justifying our dignity or legitimacy. Our existence is enough. I take this truth to be self-evident: that theory and ideology, if they are to contain any sense at all, must conform themselves to meet reality, and not the other way around. Any explanation of gender that does not include us contains a basic flaw, a broken promise–it does not describe the universe. Not this universe, any way.
In this universe, gender-variant people have always been part of human diversity. This includes those who, in this place and time, we call transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, agender, bigender, Two Spirit, and other terms. In other times and places, different words have been used, implying different subdivisions among gender and sexual minorities. It is wonderful to learn about the unique terms and traditions of various cultures, especially the more humane manifestations. But that’s somewhat beside the point here. The point is simply that we are real.
How, then, do diverse transgender people fit into the larger human story of gender? Like violin strings in an orchestra, like crickets in a summer night. What would springtime be with only one type of flower, or dawn with a chorus of identical birds? It is the imposition of a violent and unnatural monoculture that rejects our spice and nuance for the sake of its own bland, efficient machinery.
But human nature, like all nature, contains somewhere within itself the awesome intelligence of the ecosystem. The natural world is an interdependent wonderland containing order and chaos, harmony and discord, and dazzling uncountable myriad forms. So the genders need no more determine, dominate or detract from one another than the animals, vegetables and minerals sharing a bit of the earth.
All I have said so far confines itself to our understanding of gender–to internal shifts in our view of the world. How do we take such an understanding and shift the world? I think changing our understanding of gender, and living out that change, are necessary, but obviously not sufficient.
What is sufficient? I do not know.
A good question is a thing of tremendous value and use. Continuing the conversation on nonbinary people and the trans umbrella, genderneutral offers a great question:
Perhaps the question ought not be “what is trans” or “who belongs under the trans umbrella” but “what is gender, and what changes in our understanding of gender need to occur so that all trans people are included in the equation and are understood as part f the whole”.
This question is much deeper and much more difficult to answer. I think genderneutral is right that this line of inquiry is essential to the acceptance and inclusion of diverse trans people, so I’d like to offer an answer of my own. I would love to hear other answers, so please feel free to share. This post is part 1 of my answer; look for part 2 later this week.
Let’s take a closer look at genderneutral’s question. I see a few queries here (I hope genderneutral will let us all know if I’ve misunderstood):
- What is gender?
- How can we understand gender in a way that includes all trans people?
- How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
These are some heavyduty questions with far-reaching implications. It would probably take a book–nay, a bookshelf–to offer a complete treatment of these issues. But if you think I’d let that little detail stop me from giving a bunch of sweeping answers in a couple of blog posts, then you, my friend, have probably not read many blog posts.
What is gender?
Gender is a culture’s set of norms and roles associated with sex–the state of being male, female or something else. Gender is highly variable across cultures and times. Cultures have different conceptions of masculinity, femininity and androgyny. Not only that, cultures recognize different numbers of sexes and genders, and have different ways of determining the sex and gender of an individual. And yet, as far as I know, all cultures seem to have there own set of norms and roles that we could call gender.
Why is that? My guess is that since it is so widespread, gender probably serves some important functions in our communities. Some of those functions are downright awful–for example, in many cases, as is well known, a primary result of the gender system is to consolidate power in the hands of some people at the expense of others. The gender system also intersects with all manner of other systems–including religion, racism, colonialism, economics, etc.–often producing horrible violence and inequality.
At the same time, human beings seem to have deep longings to express ourselves through gender. We have strong feelings about our genders (or lack thereof), and we cannot change the way we feel for any reason. We want others to honor that and to see us how we see ourselves. For some reason, from a young age, for the vast majority of people, it seems we just are some gender (whether we can say so or not). To me, this suggests that gender is just part of what it means to be human. We bring intrinsic inclinations to the table, which get filtered and expressed through our particular culture and context.
This is not to imply that we are all alike, that gender is some variable we can simply measure for each person. I see gender as similar to spoken language–a way of communicating that varies across cultures and is fundamental to what it means to be human. Just like some people have an unusual voice or are deaf, some people have atypical genders or just don’t “hear” gender the way most other people do. That doesn’t make those people inferior in any way, just a bit unusual. It also doesn’t make gender or spoken language less central to the human story overall. Trans people of all varieties have always been part of that story, whether our communities have recognized us or not.
Another way to think about it is to view gender in terms of archetypes–themes that reverberate through human consciousness like recurring dreams. Themes of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny, as well as personas like the warrior, wise woman and gender-variant healer, come up over and over in the human experience. For this reason they often carry great import for individuals and communities. Like other deeply rooted themes such as love and home, they have an aspect of universality (or how would we even talk about them?) and an aspect of extreme specificity (or we would all be the same, which we most certainly are not).
We could think of these themes like melodies we find ourselves humming. We would then be free to allude, borrow, experiment, improvise. We sing in voices that are all our own–yet we also sing in the musical traditions in which we’ve been steeped. Our compositions are therefore never total mimicry, nor are they totally new creations ex nihilo. We sing to create within limitations, as much to follow rules as to break them. Most importantly, we sing to hear, and to be heard.
Coming up: I tackle the rest of genderneutral’s question. How can we include all trans people in our understanding of gender? How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of “normal.”
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
Before transition, I was a proud outlaw. People grimaced at me in the streets and were rude to me in restaurants. I guarded my heart closely, and I found solace in the knowledge I walked in a long line of rule-breakers, exception-takers, border-crossers.
In the crucible of my transformation to male, I hit a wall of resistance to this queerness. People began to smile at me and pat me on the back. I discovered the pleasures of easy social acceptance–life as a regular guy.
But a terrible fear gnaws at the edges of my good fortune. Suddenly I had a secret. The carpet of straight male privilege could be yanked away at any moment. Suddenly I had something to lose. Mixture of shame, disgust and gratitude at the new-found easy warmth of strangers. In a way, all their kindness was mine by accident. It was never intended for people like me, and it is constantly on the verge of leaving.
Within fear, the gnarled face of hidden resentment. Why me? Why this burden? There is nothing queer about me, I silently protested to a jury box of thoughts. There is nothing wrong with me, I really meant, and nothing especially peculiar in my essence.
And that is true. Trans people are a small share of the population. But there is nothing so strange about us, and certainly nothing bad or wrong. We are simply a few more shades in nature’s infinite palette.
It is the militarized perimeter between male and female that leaves us outcast. That arbitrary line drawn on the human body, a failed attempt to define us out of existence, to will us away like a bad dream.
I suppose we did cross the border, but it was the border that double-crossed us. Arbitrary, unjust, imposed and maintained through violence–that is the nature of borders.
I was born a little gender-variant human being. I wasn’t born a queer, a border-crosser or an outlaw. I was shaped that way by the sex/gender regime. I am a sloping hill carved by weather and time into a jagged cliff. My body is a crime; you can call me a criminal. Our violation is in the very word for us. Trans: across; gender: category. We are rule-breakers, exception-takers, logical impossibilities.
I am as I am. I was born a stranger in a strange land, and now I dwell in a land still stranger. I thought I could go home. But you can’t uncross the border. The crossing itself changes you. You can only cross, be crossed, and crisscross it again.
Hebrew, ivri, one from beyond
I find Sefarad in the heart of Aztlán
No state on the face of the earth is my home
My home is the One who goes where we go
Will LGBT people always need to come out? This question reverberated in my mind as I reflected on the steady pace of progress on LGBT issues in the US in recent years. Like so many issues that affect our community, I see a big difference between LGB on the one hand and T on the other.
Alma and I were recently discussing the amazing shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage we’ve seen just in the last decade. We made friends through youth activism, a lot of it centered around marriage equality. Every legislative session, we swarmed the state capitol, asking our representatives to vote “No” on proposed DOMAs and “Yes” on domestic partnership bills. We thought we would see marriage equality in our lifetimes–but we didn’t think it would arrive so soon, or so decisively.
This year, marriage equality came to our state. I shed a few tears watching the first same-sex marriages performed in my county, a ceremony in English, Spanish and Hebrew. What will it be like for kids who grow up in a marriage equality world?
The gap between my generation and my parents’ is massive. When they were growing up, coming out young meant one’s early twenties. In contrast, many people my age (mid-twenties) came out in high school or even middle school. Realizing you’re gay at 25 seems surprisingly late to me. No disrespect meant to those who come out later in life; it’s just a cultural norm. The point is that in some spheres, “early” and “late” have completely shifted in just a couple of decades.
This means that “coming out” for young LGB folks can have a completely different meaning from earlier times. For example, my mom, who is in her fifties, sensed she was a lesbian from a young age. But she had no words and no role models. She married my dad, and ended up coming out in her late thirties. For her, “coming out” meant letting go of a false self she’d presented to the world for many years. Of course, many in her generation came out at a younger age and never entered a different-sex marriage, such as my step-mom. Still, the phrase “coming out of the closet” surely suggest a sojourn in a narrow place of hiding, shame, and restriction.
But what is coming out for the person who is able to say “I’m gay” (or whatever) at age 14? Many of these people will move smoothly from childhood to adolescence to adulthood without ever presenting a false straight self. They will have their first kiss, first date, and first marriage with a person they are actually attracted to.
So I wonder whether in the next generation, “coming out” will have the same resonance for LGB people. More and more individuals may have the chance to simply “come in” to their selves, without no detainment in the closet.
But what about trans people? Acceptance and awareness of our lives are on the rise, too. The Time piece on Laverne Cox seems to suggest a new level of mainstream affirmation. Yet it seems certain that for the foreseeable future, trans people will always have to come out.
Ascribing sexual orientation to a child is different than ascribing gender. I think more parents will be willing to wait and see who their child loves. But how many will be willing to wait and see who their child is?
I am not advocating gender-neutral childhoods. Many of us wish we’d had the chance to grow up as a boy or girl–why deny that to others? The fact is that for the vast majority, sex assignment works.
So there may be no getting around it. In cultures that have a deep and wise appreciation of gender variance, trans kids may be sensed by the community, and may not need to come out. But in this country, I believe we will always need to announce ourselves. We will do it younger and younger, til many come out as children and young teens. We will do it to greater and greater acceptance, til rejection by one’s family becomes rare. But I do not think there will come a day when being trans doesn’t come as a surprise. Maybe someday they’ll have a test to diagnose us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They’ll probably try to exterminate us if they do.
Because the shackles of assigned gender will always confine us, we will always know the narrow place of the closet, even if we only know it for a few youthful years. Because no one is going to find our genders for us, we will always walk a crooked path, a path that forever remains less traveled. We are rare birds. Twenty-five years from now, trans kids may be less different–but we will always be different.
That’s my guess, anyway. What do you think? Feel free to speculate about identities I did not address.
My mother taught me the names of flowers. Wandering through her garden, they come unbidden, like fragments of songs I’ve almost forgotten. Crocus, iris, hyacinth. I say the words and then second-guess them, I think that’s what it’s called. I look them up; they’re never wrong.
On the radio I heard about a man who taught his young daughter the names of all the colors, but never mentioned the color of the sky. When he asked her what color the sky is, she wasn’t sure how to answer. White? Blue? She settled on blue, but it took awhile.
Language shapes reality, mediating not only what is know, but what can be known. Closer to us than skin, language is a lens, directing our focus.
Nobody taught me the words for myself. I learned them, a second language. They will never be self-evident like the words I learned in childhood. A hyacinth just is a hyacinth, the distance between name and named minute. I can go years without saying the word, yet it is always there, ready. But the words for myself, for my body, I struggle to pronounce like contorted transliterations. They don’t roll off my tongue.
After dinner this weekend, my mother laughingly mentioned my first therapist, who I saw when I was five or six, who we haven’t talked about in years. I feel we share an awareness of the obvious cause of my childhood troubles, but I can’t be sure–it’s unspoken.
There is no love in my heart! My mother crooned in a singsong whimper, imitating things I told the therapist. I winced and tried to laugh, unsure if she noticed my discomfort. I think she wanted us to laugh about it together, to make it funny, to make it okay–absolution. I was taught to think of my childhood depression as humorous, slightly ridiculous. These days I can’t remember what was so goddamn funny about a five-year old who says “There is no love in my heart” and “I wish I had never been born.”
Recently I told my fiancee the story of the ugly duckling. She said she didn’t know it. My voice trembled as I told her of the awkward baby duck who looked like no one else and had no friends. I couldn’t keep from crying when the ugly duckling at last transformed into a beautiful swan.
I suddenly perceived the desperate hope I’d hung on that cygnet in a picture book. A saltwater mixture of hope and despair had pooled in my heart and stayed there. I carried those tears for twenty years, until I could no longer carry them. I was that hideous duckling–but in real life, I thought then, no one ever turns into a swan. It was a mute grief, failure a foregone conclusion. I had a double secret: I was destined to be someone, and I would never be him.
On the last point, of course, I was wrong.
Another doctor refused my offer of literature, saying he didn’t need it because, “I don’t believe God makes mistakes.” “Neither do I,” I replied. He smiled and said, “Good,” as he walked off, but I don’t think he knew to whom he was talking.
— Jamison Green, Becoming A Visible Man
Do transsexuals exist in heaven? Are we unhappy accidents, fractured pieces of a broken world? Are we crooked, unbalanced, subpar? Were we born with the wrong hearts, the wrong bodies? Did my soul take a wrong turn on its way to the world? Am I a mistake?
I don’t think so. I refuse to believe there is anything wrong with me. Maybe there is something very right about me, something incredibly sane. Unhappy accident? Try unhappy culture.
I am a mystery, a paradox. I am a testament. I am a manifestation of consciousness, absolute proof of the reality of subjective experience, my essence persisting through guises of form. I am opposites; I am one. Like the full bloom of a very rare flower, incalculably valuable in a domain beyond all rational sense. I exist.
I don’t believe God makes mistakes. We are far too curious to be meaningless. We mean something about the interdependence of male and female. We mean something about the human heart.
Nothing can extinguish us. We are born over and over. We are born in the right body every time.
You will find me in paradise. I will be as I am. Same soul, same body. We will both have new eyes.
There will be transsexuals after the revolution.
I couldn’t find myself in history. No one like me seemed to have ever existed.
— Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors
There is a special violence in erasure. We have been edited out of everything. History forgets, religion abhors, culture ignores. We are a people with no path. We are a life with no story. We are a future with no past.
We chart a dangerous course, balanced on a tightrope over oblivion. One false move, and it’s not just death that awaits us. It’s invisibility. Buried in the wrong clothing. Jealous hands of relatives reaching, taking, possessing into nonexistence.
I am indebted to those who work to fill this gap. And yet, those who do find themselves in history find mostly convenient illusion.
Maybe there is also power in not finding. Maybe it is life itself that lies at this narrow intersection of void and multitude. Freedom emerges, a fragile vibrational chorus, produced in this tension of opposites.
I lost exactly nothing when I lost my first self. Havel havalim. A face, a name, memories–it all amounts to nothing, for I am more now, not less. Therefore there is addition in subtraction.
Transition is a spiritual discipline. We die many times before we die. Some spend their lives straitjacketed by path, past, story. Not I.
I couldn’t find myself anywhere. First I cried at the injustice. Then I smiled, and I opened this strange gift.
My grandmother died about five months ago. I’m still reeling. She was a big part of my life–she lived with us when I was growing up and was one of my main caretakers. She gave me many gifts and burdens: our Sephardic heritage, her experience of the Holocaust, her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Today, though, I want to talk about another gift she gave me: her acceptance.
I was scared to tell her about my transition. I’m not sure why. She was a hardcore leftist, and I never heard her say a bad word about trans people. But she an old woman, a towering authority. I guess I was scared to tell pretty much everyone.
I think my mother was the one who finally told her. I have no idea what happened in that conversation, but she never said anything negative to me about being trans. This makes my trans status one of very few topics she did not complain about.
She told me my name was old fashioned. “It is not a modern name,” she said, a little perplexed. “It sounds like an old Sephardi man who keeps the keys to the synagogue.” I took this as a compliment.
She did mess up my name and pronouns from time to time. Then again, she did that to everyone. She had two strokes and forgot more languages than I will ever learn. And she didn’t make more mistakes than anyone else did.
Later, whenever she wanted to bring up my being trans, she would say, “What is this group, how do you say, the one that has no civil rights?” This would lead into a short lecture about the discrimination transgender people face–a set-up to try to convince me to go to law school.
She saw being trans like she saw everything: a reason I should become a doctor or a lawyer. She was not just any Jewish grandmother. She was a true master of the form.
Rest in peace, grandmother.
Today, a great deal of “gender theory” is abstracted from human experience. But if theory is not the crystallized resin of experience, it ceases to be a guide to action.
— Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors
Who can explain us?
“Gender is biological,” they said. “You’re born a boy or girl, and that’s the end of it.”
They were wrong. Our bodies defy their rules. Our lives defy their prescriptions.
“Gender is socially constructed,” they said. “You’re made a man or woman, and that’s the end of it.”
They were wrong. We were told who we were. We were told through every possible channel. We were told by our parents, our teachers, and our televisions. We were told by our friends, our doctors and our governments.
They hadn’t figured on anyone telling back.
Therefore we are miracles. We are miracle workers. We are testament to the exact limits of the human mind.
What does the human know? Not grand Truths, nor the exact limits of every category. The human knows little truths, general trends, and meaningful exceptions.
The human, hopefully, knows him- or herself.
Image: Caroline’s Cakes
I find it easy to talk to women.
A lot of straight guys really struggle to communicate with their girlfriends and crushes. I have enjoyed fairly open, direct communication in all my intimate relationships. I have always found it easy to show someone I am flirting–and just as important, to show when I’m not flirting. My fiancée and I have our share of misunderstandings, but we resolve them easily. I feel comfortable talking with female friends, classmates, coworkers, and strangers. It’s simple and enjoyable.
I think being socialized in a female gender role–and the results of that, like having many female friends growing up–gives me some extra insight into women’s communication. Being trans also allowed me to examine and reject gender stereotypes, which helps a lot.
I value this ease in communicating with women as a straight man and as a person.
What are some good things about being trans*? Send your answers to email@example.com or submit anonymously.
In this series, I highlight individuals’ positive experiences. You probably won’t relate to every entry, but maybe some will resonate with you.