Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”
How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?
1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.
2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too. I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.
3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.
So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?
I wish that I knew.
Many have observed that men have a tendency towards social and emotional cluelessness. There are plenty of oblivious women and sensitive dudes out there, and nonbinary folks both unaware and keen. But overall, my own experience confirms the trend. In general, men are less perceptive and expressive when it comes to social cues and subtexts, emotions and relationships.
Why is this? Feminists often point to childhood socialization that emphasizes sociability and relationships in girls, while encouraging competition and toughness in boys. Other people believe that biology and human evolution explain the differences we observe. I’d like to point to a factor elided by these explanations. Quite simply, people just don’t tell guys very much.
I am the rare man who was raised as a girl. Like many trans people, I listened closely to the messages intended for my true (not assigned) gender, so I absorbed a lot of norms of masculinity. As a kid, I felt it was important not to cry and to fight with punches and kicks, not scratches. Still, I was encouraged to master the feminine art of relationships, and I had intensely expressive friendships with girls. I was just as perceptive, emotive, and socially astute as anyone else.
I have not become less open or perceptive since transition. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it much easier to cry and show other feelings, and I continue to enjoy deep, expressive conversations. I also find it easier to read and empathize with other people. I’m training to be a counselor right now–I am trying to talk about feelings and relationships all day long, for a living!
And yet, I find that I know far less about what friends and family members are feeling than I did before transition. Why is this? They don’t tell me. My own family members often communicate important feelings to me indirectly, by telling Alma. Nobody gossips to me, so I have no idea which of my friends are getting together and which are breaking up.
This was put into sharp relief by a recent conversation with Alma. She mentioned that she has a class with a friend’s roommate, let’s call him J. Alma said she was comfortable talking to him because she knows he has a girlfriend and is pretty serious about her. Here’s the thing: neither of us actually knows J. We’ve met him briefly and seen him at parties. Neither of us knows J’s girlfriend. But while I have nothing more than a vague image of J’s face, Alma knows his relationship status, the seriousness of said relationship, and even has a sense that he is a good boyfriend. How is this possible? Because our female friends told her. They know, because one of them knows the girlfriend, and she told them. It suddenly struck me what a massive quantity of social information is exchanged in all-female conversations. Meanwhile, when I talk with the guys in our social group, we talk about a lot of things…but we exchange almost zero of this type of information. J is a friend-of-a-friend to both of us, but while I’m not even completely sure I would recognize the dude, Alma knows a great deal about his life situation and his character.
This is just one example; the trend holds across many situations in our lives. This puts us at totally different starting places when it comes to social and emotional insight. Alma noted that when she interprets subtle social exchanges–like a glance or a tone–she is working from a lot of back-story, full of hints at what might be important and what that might mean.
Of course, this is very much connected to socialization and social norms. Friendships among men tend to look different from friendships among women. But I think it’s worth adding this into our analysis. It may not be so much a function of the perceptiveness, expressiveness and sociability of individual men, but rather of our social networks.
So you have a transgender friend or family member. What’s the best way to show respect for this person? How can you be encouraging without making them uncomfortable or calling too much attention to their trans status? Here are a few simple ways to support the trans person in your life.
1. Use the correct name and pronouns–even when they’re not around. You already know how important it is to use preferred gender pronouns. If your friend is open about their gender, take your allyship to the next level by always using the right words, even when they are out of earshot. It can be tempting to go along with the wrong name/pronouns when other people do it and your trans loved one isn’t there. This is can especially be a problem in families, where people are trying to change very old habits. By using the right name and pronouns even in private, you help cement the change in everybody’s minds, pave the way for respectful language next time your friend is around, and show other friends and relatives that you take this person’s identity seriously.
2. Ask them how you should talk about their trans status. You should never, ever disclose someone’s trans status without their permission–it’s disrespectful as well as dangerous. That said, each trans person is different, and sometimes it’s helpful to spread the word. Maybe your coworker who transitioned a decade ago doesn’t want you to say anything, while your newly-out cousin would really appreciate it if you filled in some other members of the family, and your nonbinary friend would have a better time at the party if you gave other guests a heads-up about their pronouns. Ask your trans loved one about their preferences.
3. Celebrate their gender. Affirm your trans friend’s gender, and avoid imposing rigid gender norms on them (and everybody else, for the matter). If you and your trans friend have a similar gender expression, perhaps you can enjoy sharing “girly” activities or doing “guy stuff,” as defined by your community. Some trans people have been routinely denied these simple pleasures, so it means a lot when someone wants to share them with us. You can also celebrate things they do that aren’t stereotypical for their gender, showing them it’s cool to be a guy who loves baking or a woman who kicks ass at videogames. If the trans person is your life is nonbinary, celebrate whatever gender expressions are right for them, and don’t pigeonhole them based on one or two aspects of their gender (again, this really goes for everybody).
4. Put gender on the back burner. There’s a time to talk about your trans relative’s identity and transition, and there’s a time to put gender aside and just focus on other things. It can be exhausting to think about gender all the time, especially if your friend is in the middle of transition. Be open to talking whenever the trans person in your life needs to; also be ready to let trans topics recede into the background. For example, while it’s good to be comfortable bringing up trans-related issues, you don’t have to inform them every single time you hear something about a transgender person. Sometimes trans people just want to eat lunch, go to the movies, or weigh in on current events–just like everybody else. By putting gender on the back burner sometimes, you can give your trans friend a break and show that you see them as a whole person.
5. Treat them like everybody else. Trans folks are regular people, just trying to get by in life like everyone is. When your trans friend has milestones in their transition, share their joy like you would for any happy occasion. When your trans friend faces challenges or has a bad experience, offer your sympathy like you would for any struggle. Are you someone who sends cards, makes care packages, takes people out for drinks, congratulates or commiserates on social media, delivers soup, makes mix CDs, gives hugs or high-fives? Your best guide for supporting your trans friend is however you already show people that you care. It’ll be the perfect thing, because it really comes from you.
Readers–what is one thing friends and family could do to support you? Feel free to share experiences, add suggestions to this list, discuss what not to do, etc.
But there is a magic aspect in abnormality and so-called deformity. Maimed, mad, and sexually different people were believed to possess supernatural powers by primal cultures’ magico-religious thinking. For them, abnormality was the price a person had to pay for her or his inborn extraordinary gift.
There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. It claims that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better. But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within.
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
The enforced boundary between male and female is among the deepest cuts in the human soul. How did that ancient play of opposites twist from a dance into something much more sinister? The dividing wall has become an idol, and you and I, the sacrifice. They have forgotten that wall once was a bridge.
They have forgotten the most important truth, the secret underlying everything: all opposites are one. Opposite pairs are interconnected, not mutually exclusive; allies, not enemies. Opposites complement, transform into and create one other.
And what of us? We are questions, dreams, possibilities. We have healed the war between the genders within our own bodies. Like the poles of a magnet, male and female are opposites with one source, one body, one life, wholly interdependent.
We are the promise of a new paradigm. We are the example of healing.
We must be for ourselves, or who will be for us? Yet we cannot only be for ourselves, or what are we? We have also come for them, the others, our sisters and brothers. The delicate glow of our light will heal them, too, if they can bear to see it. We have come to bring a thousand years of peace between men and women, if only they will make a little room for the rest of us.
We are only messengers; they shot us. We are doves of peace; they gutted and ate us. We are born in every generation, bellwethers of their compassion. They crush us, and only crush themselves. They try to snuff us out and they snuff out their own souls.
But there is another way. There is another way, and we must be her champions. It is the way of open hearts and open borders. Someday they may yet see us in their mirrors, and remember we were sisters and brothers once. Someday they may listen. Our voices will wash over the desert, and if the acequias run with blood, do not be afraid. It is only all the blood already spilled these 500 years convulsed with violence. Those tiny rivers will clog with brine, the tears of the dead seeping at long last out of the soil.
The light of love will wash that away; water will flow again. We will eat piñon and cactus fruit, and let doves be.
Then we will know, and we will remember. They are us, we are them.
Paradise is ours when all of us want it.
Preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) are a perennial issue for transgender people. It’s confusing to friends and family when we ask for a new pronoun. Strangers misgender us and go for the wrong word. Well-meaning people struggle to use gender-neutral pronouns or keep slipping up and using the pronoun of our assigned sex. Those little syllables can make us cry, puke, or scream–or they can make our day. Here are a few reasons we should all take the time to get pronouns right.
1. The Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Would you like it if someone referred to you with the wrong gender pronouns? What if everybody referred to you with the wrong pronouns?
2. Set an example. Are you an awesome trans person or ally who knows your friends’ and colleagues’ PGPs? Be an example for those who don’t know the right words or are struggling with a pronoun change. If people hear you referring to someone as he/she/they/ze/etc., they’re likely to follow suit.
3. Give a gift. When I was early in my transition, the words he/him/his were music to my ears. It truly made my day when friends, classmates and strangers got my pronouns right. Do a good deed–use someone’s PGPs today.
4. Mental acuity. Do you value your ability to learn new things and remember important information? It is really tricky adjusting to a friend’s pronoun change or learning to use unfamiliar pronouns. Keep your mind limber and expand you vocabulary. As they say, you either use it or lose it.
5. Embrace change. It can be genuinely disorienting, even stressful, when a loved one comes out as transgender. It can also be confusing when you get to know a person who uses pronouns you haven’t heard before. By using PGPs, you commit to embracing the change life has thrown your way. This flexibility will serve you well in all endeavors. Plus, next time, you might be the one going through a major life change and hoping your community will rally around you.
6. Build relationships. I vividly remember how friends and relatives reacted when I started going by male pronouns. I remember those who cared about my wishes and made a good faith effort to change. And I remember those who griped, moaned, and generally appeared to care more about individual syllables than about me. This one thing didn’t make or break any relationships, but it’s no coincidence that none of the complainers are part of my life now.
7. It’s the right thing to do. Enough said.
A reader writes,
It seems like the trans movement is at a watershed moment right now. Where would you like to see the movement go in the next 10 years? What should our goals be, and what pitfalls should we try to avoid?
Thank you for these interesting and important questions! I appreciate the chance to explore the topic. This is an amazing moment for the trans community. We are reaching new levels of mainstream acceptance and visibility, and we are connected, organized, and engaged like never before. I’ll first discuss some benchmarks I’d love to see us reach in the next decade. Then, I’ll examine our priorities–including a few things I hope won’t become priorities.
It’s difficult to answer this question concisely, because trans equality is intimately connected to justice for all people. Trans people are of every race, religion, gender, nationality, ability, class, sexual orientation, etc. We will never be really free while there are violence and oppression in the world. However, I will focus this post on a few issues specific to the trans communities I know and inhabit.
Before I dive in, a caveat. This is just my take as one trans dude/blogger/small-time activist. My thoughts reflect my position as a middle class, light-skinned, Jewish transsexual man in the US. I would love to hear different ideas and different perspectives on this. I’d like to invite others to offer their own answers to the questions above.
The Trans Movement in 2025
How will things change for the trans movement over the next 10 years? I don’t know, but here are four things I’d love to see.
In 10 years, I would like it to be safe to walk down the street as a transgender person. Being visibly trans or gender-nonconforming should not put a person at risk of discrimination, harassment or violence. As a transsexual man who hasn’t been misgendered in years, I am quite safe. Many trans people do not have this basic freedom, and it’s no coincidence that trans women, people of color and poor folks are all at greater risk.
I am nauseated to admit I do not think we will get there in 10 years. But safety is, of course, an essential goal. I recognize there are many places and situations where people aren’t safe, period, regardless of gender identity, expression or history. Still, I feel I have to put this at the top of the list. This is what I would most like to see: that we can move through our own communities without fear.
How we’ll know we’re there. The TDOR list will stop getting longer.
2. Healthcare & Transition
Many people are not able to access medically necessary, life-saving care because they happen to be transgender. In 10 years, I would like to see the disappearance of healthcare discrimination and much expanded access to transition.
It is unspeakably horrible that people are denied emergency attention or cancer treatment just because they are trans. In terms of transition, if we in the US still have our horrible health care system, I would at a minimum like to see transition care covered by insurance.
I would like to see policy changes that give trans people reasonable avenues to update their legal sex (some encouraging recent developments on this; when I changed my sex on my Social Security record just 4 years ago, I had to prove I’d had surgery, and that’s not the case now). I would love to see some kind of option for genderqueer people (and others who are neither male nor female) to reflect their gender on their records, if that is something nonbinary people want.
How we’ll know we’re there. People won’t die waiting for care that will never come just because they are transgender. People won’t have to get hormones on the street or forgo needed surgery because it’s too expensive. We won’t be walking around with mismatched identity documents (unless we want to be!).
3. Awareness & Acceptance
Transphobia and cissexism aren’t disappearing anytime soon. But I’d love to see us make huge gains in public opinion, and I think that’s possible.
In 10 years, I’d like “transgender” to be a concept that more or less all adults understand. I’d like the mainstream to have a basic sense of compassion and respect for trans people. There will undoubtedly be hold-outs who despise us. I hope they will, indeed, be hold-outs, left behind while the public learns to live alongside us. There are signs this is beginning to happen, but we have a really long way to go. This visibility ought to include nonbinary people as well as transsexual women and men, of course.
How we’ll know we’re there. There will be trans characters in popular books, movies and shows (this is starting to happen). Most people will have met at least one openly trans person (like the situation of gays & lesbians in the US now). There will be openly trans people in various occupations and roles. In many jurisdictions, it will be both illegal and unpopular to discriminate against us.
4. Mental Health
Being trans shouldn’t be a near-guarantee of depression and suicidal ideation. I would like to see greatly improved mental health within our community. If we’re safe, if we’re largely accepted, if we can access transition–that will go a long, long way towards alleviating our collective misery. I would also like to see mental health professionals improve and update their understanding of trans issues, so we can easily find professionals who know how to work with us (and, hopefully, actually afford mental health services–see number 2!).
How we’ll know we’re there. Suicide & suicide attempt rates for trans people will be close to the rates of the general population. Family members will by and large support transgender loved ones.
What about goals and potential pitfalls? I really see just one issue here. Our priority should always be improving conditions for our whole community. We should let the most dire issues and the needs of the most vulnerable among us set the agenda. I hope that in 10 years, the trans movement will continue to be a vibrant, diverse coalition. I hope we will continue to address urgent causes, to question systems of oppression, to offer intersectional interpretations of power. I hope we will not take on an assimilationist focus that mainly serves trans people who are already privileged by race, class, etc. That is the pitfall that worries me–that instead of conditions improving for trans people in general, there will be widening inequality within the trans community.
What do you think? Where would you like to see the trans community in 2025?
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
I recently watched this TED talk by Norman Spack, an endocrinologist who treats transgender teens. It stirred up a lot of feelings for me. First, I’d like to say I appreciate Spack’s sincere concern about the well-being of transgender people. I appreciate that he mentions the appalling suicide rates and shameful lack of equality under the law for our community. I’d also like to say I think it’s great that some people get access to gender-affirming treatment as adolescents. This prevents incalculable hardship and I see it as a wonderful thing.
But there is also something profoundly transphobic about this talk. I am deeply uncomfortable with using the sexist, racist, ablist, heterosexist and cissexist standards of mainstream society to judge the “success” of trans bodies. As usual, it is women who are the main targets of these value judgments. Spack says it all when he says, of young trans people who never go through the wrong puberty,
They look beautiful. They look normal. They had normal heights. You would never be able to pick them out in a crowd.
There are two main reasons it is so difficult to be transgender. There is an intrapersonal element, our discomfort with our bodies, our need to express who we really are. And there is an interpersonal element: others’ many assumptions and judgments, which at best ruin our days and at worst end our lives. The two are completely intertwined in the lives of real people. You can never really address one without addressing the other.
I completely agree with Spack that it’s a disgrace to deny these established treatments to young trans people. But it’s also a disgrace to deny us full acceptance–acceptance that doesn’t depend on how well we blend in with cis people. In his zeal for helping trans teenagers “look normal,” Spack has neglected the other half of the struggle: creating a society where we don’t have to be invisible to be acceptable.
There is no treatment that can make anybody not trans. We can use the names and pronouns that fit us. We can inhabit a congruent social role. We can take hormones, have surgery, and bring our bodies into line with our genders. But we will never be cisgender.
The young women in Spack’s photographs do look “normal,” and that means they look cis. But they’re not cis–they’re trans. Being easily recognized in their true genders will make life much easier for them, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not enough.
Real justice is not superficial. It’s not enough to recognize that they look beautiful and look normal. We will not be equal until it is acknowledged that they are beautiful and normal–and so much more than that.
If trans people succeed only insofar as we look cisgender, we have won the battle and lost the war. It’s not enough for trans people to look cis. It has to actually be okay to be trans.