With Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition all over the news, a lot of people are thinking and talking about trans issues for the first time. The overall response seems positive to me–many people are acknowledging Caitlyn Jenner’s courage and honesty. At the same time, others are outraged and wish to express their hostility to trans people by refusing to use Caitlyn’s name and gender pronouns.
I had all this on my mind when I saw the following query pop up in the search terms (edited to correct spelling):
is it oppressive not to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “not to use.” I would say it is rude, mean and very disrespectful to refuse to use someone’s gender pronouns. But it is totally understandable to accidentally screw up someone’s pronouns.
So, genuine mistakes are one matter. Friends and family members deserve patience when someone changes their gender pronouns. This shift takes time and we all slip up now and again. I’m a trans man and I have messed up other people’s pronouns plenty of times.
Refusing to use someone’s pronouns, like some people are doing now with Caitlyn Jenner, is another issue entirely. When you outright reject a person’s new name and pronouns, you make a loud and clear statement that you are opposed to their transition and their understanding of themselves–which is exactly the point. People do this in order to make a statement, and it works. If your intention is to reject trans folks and generally alienate all gender-nonconforming people, well, boycotting our names and pronouns will definitely get you there.
When you reject someone’s transition, you are claiming that you understand this person better than they understand themselves. You are claiming that your views on gender are the be-all, end-all of the human experience. In addition to being hurtful, it’s also very arrogant, and suggests a complete unwillingness to listen.
There are a lot of good reasons to use preferred gender pronouns. You don’t have to be an expert on trans issues to see that this is a sensitive subject and that these little words mean a lot to people. So you can either make a statement about your absolutist views on gender, or you can show care towards your fellow human being. In this case, you really do have to pick between these options. There is just no way to reject someone’s pronouns without being very rude and hurtful.
The question is, should we honor others’ wishes about their own self-expression? Or should we police their self-expression because we think we know better? Should we grant people the small kindnesses they ask of us? Or is it more important to make a point?
Consider an issue that is highly important to you and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone refused to acknowledge this part of who you are. For example, say you were raised as a Christian and later converted to Judaism. You are very devout and want to be known as a Jew. How would it feel if someone insisted on calling you a Christian at every opportunity and refused to respect your conversion, because of their own religious beliefs?
Could this type of behavior be called oppressive? Ok, not to be a dick here, but if I may quote the dictionary,
1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.
2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
3. distressing or grievous:
Refusing to use someone’s pronouns is burdensome and unjustly harsh–you are intentionally hurting someone’s feelings and forcing them to bear the burden of your discomfort with the reality of gender diversity. In a way, it is tyrannical, in that it is one small part of the systemic marginalization of trans people. It certainly causes discomfort by being excessive–you’ve decided that your beliefs mandate that you trample other’s wishes and make them feel bad. And finally, yes, it is distressing and grievous. Seriously, it just makes people feel horrible and it makes you look like an asshole.
Rejecting someone’s name and pronouns is one of the fastest ways you can damage your relationship and express hostility. Using the right pronouns costs you nothing and is a sure way to express solidarity, respect and support.
The choice is yours.
I don’t tell many people that I’m trans. Or rather, I don’t tell many cis, straight people that I’m trans. I don’t like the questions, the assumptions, the way it makes me subtly different in their eyes. I don’t like being the first or the only trans person someone knows. And I don’t like the surprise.
“I never would have guessed” is a response I hear pretty routinely when I share that I am trans. Sometimes this is a pure expression of surprise; other times, people seem to think it’s some kind of compliment.
This isn’t the worst response–it’s intended to be positive and it indicates that others are reading my gender correctly. I know many other trans people pray for the day they hear something like “I never would have guessed.”
Yet I really dislike hearing this. When I hear “I never would have guessed,” I hear that this person has a narrow, stereotyped idea of what it is to be trans, that this narrow definition mysteriously excludes me, and that this person has no familiarity at all with the trans community.
First, why the hell do people expect they’ll be able to guess? The shock at not having guessed suggests that the person assumed they would be able to guess who is and is not trans. I have no idea on what basis these people believe they can spot trans folks. I guess they believe that all trans people look, act and/or speak in a certain way. This is the very definition of stereotype.
And, why does their image of “trans” exclude somebody like me? Seriously, who are these people picturing? I can’t help but have the sinking sensation that when these folks hear “trans” they have a very offensive caricature come to their minds and can’t think beyond it. Trans = “man in a dress” to them? I don’t know.
I have a horrible feeling it is the fact that I seem “normal” to these people. This leaves me so offended from so many different angles. First, what the hell, trans people are normal. Second, double what the hell, why are you so wedded to your crappy limiting idea of who gets to be a legitimate person?
Then there’s the way this seems to be intended as a compliment. Talk about back-handed: “You’re so normal/gender-conforming/etc., I never would have guessed you’re that weird thing that you indeed are.” This is based completely on the idea that trans people are valuable only to the extent we resemble cis people. It’s a little pat on the head for conforming satisfactorily to cis-normativity and the gender system in general. I deeply resent the idea that I should be flattered for not seeming too similar to my own community.
The funny thing is, for folks who are familiar with our community, I am actually very a typical trans guy. Come on: I am a 5’5″ male feminist; I seem queer in a rather ambiguous way; I love riot grrrl music; my partner is a queer femme; etc. There’s a lot of variation and it’s hard to pin down, but there’s a certain style among young trans guys, and I definitely have it. I don’t know why or even how this happens, but my haircut, glasses, tattoos and clothes are all just…very trans. When I see pictures of other twenty-something trans dudes on the internet, sometimes I’m just scrolling through going, “That’s my haircut. I have those shoes. Wait, is that me?” People who actually interact with the community are never surprised to learn I’m trans.
Maybe the worst part about “I never would have guessed” is, how the hell do you respond to that? I usually just give a weird smile and slowly back away. I am tempted to ask for a detailed explanation of why they would not have guessed. Instead of implying all this weird crap, I’d like to hear the person actually admit that, for example, they assumed I was not trans because I am clearly male, or whatever. Then we could address the weird ideas they are carrying around.
Has anyone ever told you they never would have guessed that you’re trans? How did you respond?
So you’ve decided to take testosterone. Starting T is an exhilarating and highly disorienting experience. Along with much anticipated changes like a lower voice and a squarer jaw, you’re bound for a radically altered social landscape and shifting internal world. You’re coping with the demands of a second adolescence and a gender transition–and you’ve probably got a full plate of regular life stuff, too.
My first year on T was one of the most beautiful, transformative, stressful and challenging passages of my life. Nearly five years later, I feel at home in my body and my social role; gender isn’t on my list of concerns. If transition is right for you, and T is part of that transition, some time on testosterone is likely to give you a similar sense of ease, belonging, and the precious freedom to worry about other things. Testosterone therapy works. The trick is getting through the intensity of transition with your resources and relationships intact. Here are a few suggestions for surviving your first year on T.
Each person is different, so please feel free to take or leave anything here as it is helpful to you. I’ve aimed this post at people taking T with the intention of bringing levels into the male range.
1. Expect chaos. You are diving head first into a storm of transformation–physical, social, emotional and otherwise. So expect stormy conditions for awhile. Your sleep, appetite and libido are all likely to change dramatically (including possibly increasing by an order of magnitude). You may also notice that your moods are all over the map and that people are treating you differently. Know that you are going through an intense period of change. Remind yourself that this does not last forever. Make any accommodations that you can to make this a bit easier on yourself. Eat snacks, take naps, take time to care for yourself. This is not good time to take on any huge new projects. Let transition be your project for awhile.
2. Express yourself. This is an emotional time. Hormones are throwing your moods out of whack. You’re undergoing an important process that you may have brooded over for years. And you’re coming up against the longing, shame, stigma, and hope that characterize the trans experience.
I found that, along with some moodiness associated with my body being in flux, starting T brought up a lot of emotions around being trans. For the first time, I was able to feel my anger at my family and my society for failing to see and accept me. Moving through these feelings is an essential part of the transition process.
Make sure you have plenty of opportunities to vent, share, and connect with other people. See a counselor, talk with friends and family, attend a trans support group, play your favorite sport, keep a journal, create music or artwork, yell as loud as you can from the top of a mountain. Whatever strategies work for you, be sure to create space for your feelings and find ways to express them.
3. Patience is a virtue you probably don’t have. After all the agonizing about transition, after all the hoops and hassles, comes another tremendous challenge–more waiting! You have to wait for your voice to drop, wait for hairs to grow, wait for your body to change shape, wait for others to see you as male. Perhaps you are more patient than I, but this was one of the single hardest parts of transition for me. I was tired of waiting and I had an intense fear that testosterone would somehow not work on me and my body would never change.
But it did work, and it does work. A year from now, you are going to look very different. As much as you’re able, enjoy the ride. Be patient if you can be. At least, be patient with you impatience.
4. Masturbate. Everybody talks about how libido increases with T, and for me, it was totally true. If masturbation is something you enjoy, now is an excellent time to enjoy it. I jerked off a lot during my first year on T. It’s a great way to adjust to any libido changes, and also provides a nice chance to relieve stress and get to know your changing body.
5. Be self-absorbed. Might sound like weird advice. But people in transition are guaranteed to be a bit more self-absorbed than usual. It’s an intensely introspective, self-focused process. After years or decades of living in the closet, our selves need some extra attention. Like the first time around, this adolescence is a process of self-expression and discovery. It’s important to pay attention and try on different ways of moving and being. So don’t fight it–just go with the flow and be self-absorbed for awhile. Trust that by going into this process completely, you will soon enough arrive on the other side.6. Remember to listen. It makes sense to be focused on yourself right now. But don’t neglect the important people in your life, either. Show up for your partner, friends and family by giving them your time and your full attention. Be ready to put the transition stuff down for awhile and hear about what’s going on for other people.
Also be prepared to listen to their feedback for you. At some point, someone is going to tell you that you’ve been a jerk recently, you’re angrier than you used to be, or you’re waving your male privilege around. From one guy to another, they are probably right. Don’t make time for folks who put you down or reject your transition–but be ready to hear challenging feedback from the people who love you. This is just part of being a dude in our society; you’re not going to do it gracefully on your very first try. Listen with patience and openness, and be curious about how your behavior can change.
7. Celebrate small changes. Most of us are focused on the big, exciting changes, like muscles, a beard and being seen as male everywhere you go. But the little changes are just as delicious, and in some ways, it’s the small stuff that really makes your transition. Notice the new hairs sprouting up on your belly, each time your voice cracks, the way people move a little differently around you, the veins just a bit more visible on your arms, even the pimples. It’s all these tiny signals that sooner or later come together and present a new side of you to the world. Enjoy them.
Readers–what advice would give to someone just starting T? If you’ve started T recently, how are things going so far?
Pronouns–those tiny little words that can hurt like a broken bone or be as delightful as a birthday present. For many trans and gender-nonconforming people, gender pronouns are an important aspect of self-expression. Whether you want different pronouns because of your gender identity or your views on the gender system, it’s a challenging task. If coming out is safe and feasible, you might be ready to ask your loved ones to start using a new pronoun. How do you go about getting other people to call you by the right words?
1. Ask for what you want. Requesting different gender pronouns can be a nerve-wracking prospect. You might be wondering whether people will take you seriously as a she or a he, whether people will play grammar police when you request singular they, or whether friends and family will be willing to learn a new set of pronouns like ze/hir/hirs. It can be tempting to look for a compromise and ask for whatever you think is most likely to stick. This might be a good option if you think there’s no way friends and family will come around or if you just don’t feel that strongly about it. In general, though, I think it’s worth it to ask for the pronouns you really want. You’re already going out on a limb–you might as well go all the way out!
2. Be patient…for awhile. Adjusting to a pronoun change can be pretty tricky. We tend to use pronouns without thinking about them. Even people who are 100% supportive will probably screw up at first. I’m trans, and I have messed up people’s pronouns numerous times. For some reason, it seems new pronouns take longer to stick than a name change.
So when you first change your pronouns, be patient with friends and family who make genuine mistakes. I’m not talking about people who are disrespectful, cruel, and/or refuse to accept your new pronouns. I’m talking about people who love you, who are good to you, who plain old mess up sometimes. When people use the wrong words, politely remind them and move on. They should be able to acknowledge the mistake and move on quickly, too. So long as people are actively cooperating, allow a grace period for adjustment.
3. Boycott the wrong pronouns. It’s been almost a year since you came out about your pronouns to friends and family. Some people have completely adjusted, some mess up occasionally and then correct themselves, and some call you the wrong pronoun on a regular basis and don’t correct it or apologize. You’ve talked this over with everyone and politely corrected people, dozens and dozens of times. It’s time to end the grace period and stop playing along with folks who claim it’s too hard to change.
At this point, I suggest completely refusing to respond to or acknowledge the wrong pronouns. This is an approach I took and it worked really well for me. The questions I asked myself was, “What would a cis guy do if someone called him she?” I figured he would a) assume the person was not talking about him, b) be shocked and even offended if he realized they were, and c) correct the mistake with indignation and a sense of complete entitlement to the correct pronouns. So, I made it my mission to react in this way, figuring that I am just as entitled as anyone to the right language. I don’t recommend flipping out on people or anything–just acting as if it’s completely obvious that others should use your preferred pronouns, and refusing to play along when they don’t.
For example, a mispronouning would often happen in my family when we got together for dinner and my mom started telling stories about when I was younger. As my mom began an anecdote referring to something she did as a child, I would get a very confused look on my face. She would pause, noticing my confusion–often, that would be enough and she’d correct herself. If that didn’t happen, we’d have a short exchange along these lines.
Me: Wait, who is this story about?
Mom: You, of course!
Me: Oh! Huh, okay. You said she so I thought you must be talking about [female relative].
Mom: Oh, did I? Sorry about that. Anyway, when he was little…
I suggest a “fake it til you make it” approach–act like you can’t imagine being called the wrong words, are shocked someone would make such a mistake, and are obviously deserving of the proper terms. I found that after a few weeks of acting this way, it became second nature.
This worked really well on two levels. First, once using the wrong words stopped being a viable strategy to communicate with me, the last holdouts came around. Second, and perhaps more important, getting mispronouned didn’t sting so bad, because I was not participating in it.
4. Spend time with people who get it. Coming out about your pronouns, correcting people when they mess up, adjusting to the change yourself–it’s an exhausting process. Recharge by spending time with friends and family members who see you for who you are and show it.
When I was knee-deep in my transition, after an exhausting family dinner in which I’d been mispronouned ten or twenty times, it was such a relief to come home with Alma and know I could finally relax. I also drew strength from close friends who got my masculinity and had no trouble seeing me as a dude and calling me he.
To stay in balance during this difficult change, spend plenty of time with folks in your life who just get it. If none of your friends or family members fall into that category, seek out other people for solidarity. You might be able to find trans support groups or meet-ups in your area, or feminist or queer organizations where you can meet like-minded people. If this is not available where you live, connect with people online as much as you can.
5. You are more than your pronouns. At the end of the day, remember that you are a whole person. You are an incredible being of great dignity and power. Whether or not other people get your pronouns right, you deserve respect, happiness and love. Be good to yourself. Don’t let others’ ignorance compromise your self-worth.
Readers–what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you changed your pronouns? If you’re considering changing pronouns in the future, what holds you back?
I do not consider myself trans, but I really hate seeing only male/female options on forms. I guess I would have to mostly classify myself as cis-female, but I definitely have a masculine side and enjoy gender bending and “playing boy” from time to time. I find it empowering and cathartic.
I like to catch people off guard by using vague gender labels from time to time. My Facebook is set up to use “their” rather than “she” or “he” as a small form of protest against the gender binary, and again partially just to try and confuse people, I suppose. Is it acceptable to use trans-related gender terms when I don’t consider myself trans?
This is a great question! I am going to assume that by “use trans-related gender terms,” silencecanbeviolence means using gender-neutral pronouns and similar things.
I find this a bit tricky, and I have to admit that at first, the idea made me a little uncomfortable. However, after giving it some thought and talking it over with Alma, I would say this is fine. Everyone has the right to express gender as they wish, and everyone wins when more people engage with gender in ways that feel right. I will explain why I initially felt uncomfortable, and then talk about why I think it’s a good thing for cis people to ask for gender-neutral pronouns if they want to, or otherwise defy gender norms.
I have encountered people off-line who use gender-neutral pronouns, not so much because of a core identity as nonbinary, but as a way to be a conscientious objector to the gender system. My first reaction was to be a bit miffed. This is because, for me and a lot of trans people, our genders are not a political statement of any kind. Many of us resent the fact that our genders are politicized by other people. The gender system politicizes our genders because they are taboo, and activists on both the far right and far left may interpret out self-expressions as political gestures commenting on gender roles broadly, feminism, etc.
This annoys the hell out of me, because it implies my gender is a chosen statement. I make a lot of political statements related to my gender–for example, I try to embody a nonviolent masculinity, and I consider that a political statement. But being a man, using male pronouns, and so on, is just the only way I can feel comfortable. It’s not inherently more political than anyone else’s gender. I want to make sure people understand that we don’t choose to be trans because of our beliefs about the gender system, that trans people can be conservative, moderate, radical, or anything else. We’re making a statement, but that’s because just being alive as a trans person makes a statement in this society. Our genders are politicized by other people, but not necessarily political statements on our part.
On the other hand, who is harmed if people who consider themselves cis want to mess with gender norms a little? It seems this can only benefit the trans community. The more people ask to be treated the way they prefer, the easier it will be for trans people to do the same. I think everyone should have the right to request the pronouns that work for them, period. There is no need for any kind of test to determine that someone has the “right” reasons for preferring certain pronouns. There is no such thing.
Transgender is a big umbrella, and we should welcome anybody who needs to get out of the rain. Somebody like silencecanbeviolence–who identifies as cis, likes to express different aspects of gender, and wants to use gender-neutral pronouns in some spaces–ought to be welcome.
The terms trans and cis are very useful–otherwise we get stuck with trans vs normal. But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.
What do you think?
Thanks to Alma for a great conversation that shaped this post.
The following question recently turned up in the search terms.
being transgender when filling out paperwork wat do u put?
This is a good question, one I wrestle with on a regular basis. I’ve shared my thoughts before on how the gender question should accommodate trans people. But as a trans person faced with completing shitty paperwork, what do you do? A few options for how to answer the gender question.
1. Put what’s most comfortable. If you’re faced with the gender question and one option is more palatable to you, put that. For example, when I’m filling out a form and the options are just male or female, I put male. This works for me. So if a certain option works for you, go for it.
2. Put what matches your other paperwork. In some cases, it might not be an option to put down what you’d prefer. For example, if you are a trans woman whose legal sex is male, it might not be safe or feasible to put down female on official forms. You might not want your paperwork to out you, or it might even cause you problems if there is a mismatch. Sometimes, you just have to put whatever your other papers say.
3. Mess with the form. When you have to choose an option but none of them works for you, and when the form doesn’t carry legal implications, it’s not a bad idea to intentionally mess with the question. On a paper form, you might want to draw in a third box with the label of your choice and check that. One thing I’ve done with online forms that have a write-in option is use it for a comment instead of a label. For example, I’ve seen forms that ask you to choose one option: male, female, transgender or other (write-in). When this happens, I will check “other” and write, “Why can’t I choose male and transgender? As a trans man, I am both male and transgender. Your question implies that trans people aren’t men or women.”
4. Complain. Once in awhile, it may be possible to speak out and even get the form changed. I was recently filling out a membership survey for a professional organization I belong to. They did the good old, “What is your gender identity? Male, Female, Transgender.” The survey had contact info at the beginning, so I wrote an email explaining why I wanted to be able to choose both male and trans. They sent me a very nice email and changed the form to allow people to check more than one option.
5. Walk away. If the form is not that important, and if you’re forced into choosing from crappy options, you can just walk away. As a grad student, I am always getting requests to participate in research, which often sound a bit desperate. If the study asks me to choose from stupid options for gender, I stop filling it out. I might or might not send an email about it. This is kinda mean, but I confess to deriving a tiny pleasure from knowing that, since they didn’t bother to do their homework on the gender question, they will have to work that much harder to get the sample they need, and they will get no help from me.
How do you deal with the gender question?
I’ve written before about my evolving relationship with my post-transition body. Last night while meditating naked (don’t knock it til you try it), I found myself staring at my junk, which is pretty typical. And suddenly I wondered, why the staring? What am I looking for? In an instant I realized that I am looking at my penis to confirm that I am a man. I am looking to my body to validate my transition, to prove I really am a guy, like I still need to convince a skeptical mother and bigoted society that my transition is right.
I began to laugh then, because, of course, my dick cannot do that. Of course my genitals don’t determine or validate my gender! Hello, I’m trans, I supposedly know this.
Yet once my body became congruent with my lived sense of self, I reverted to hegemonic thinking and demanded that my dick demonstrate my manhood. This left me scrutinizing my body for proof of maleness and any sign of femaleness. And this, in turn, left me rather uneasy and unhappy, blocking my ability to just be in my body.
Seeing this, I let go completely of asking the question “Male or female?” about my body. There was a sense of space and relief, like the refreshing burst of silence when a constant hum suddenly stops. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was inhabiting my body, naked, without subtly trying to categorize myself as male or female.
I saw much more fully then, like a fog on my glasses clearing away. And oddly enough, my body became more comfortably male to me than ever before. It was a relaxed, natural masculinity, with a violet aura of sacred queerness. I felt I was seeing my body as someone else might see it, just a body without the screen of pain and memory. I sat in an easy confidence, suddenly liberated from a terrible hunger that had been siphoning away my strength. My body is male, yes, and trans too, and above all, human and very ordinary, soft and olive and animal, covered in fuzz, not problematic in any way.
We’ve been taught to pose the question “Male or female?” constantly. It’s a core process of our society, the rigid sorting of life into these two constructed poles. As gender-variant people, we know this, and we see the violence it does. Yet it is all too easy to do the very same thing to ourselves, whatever our identity or transition status. It’s the path of least resistance, a conditioned habit deeply ingrained, a reflex we don’t even know we have. We ask and ask and ask, aching for an answer that will make us feel okay. The messages we get about ourselves hurt so bad, we feel like we need to hear the right answer or we will never be alright.
But the asking itself is the problem. The more we ask, the more we look for a definitive category that confirms our sense of self, the worse we feel, and the farther we get from our bodies, our lives and our truth.
We can only see ourselves when we look with eyes unclouded by judgment. We can only feel ourselves when we sense with hearts unburdened by need. Compulsively categorizing the world in terms of a male/female dichotomy undermines our ability to actually perceive. If we need some insight to navigate the field of gender, there are other questions we can ask.
So as soon as you can, just drop the question. Don’t answer it, don’t even disagree with it. Just let it go, like a dandelion seed on its parachute in the wind.
You’ll be glad you did.
Sometimes I get sick with the fear and shame of not being man enough. Is my dick too small? Is my body too weird? Are my gestures effeminate? My line of work unmanly? What really sticks in my craw is the sneaking sense that as a transsexual, I am somehow permanently inadequate, a poor imitation.
Yet this sinking feeling and shame and fear lie at the very heart of what it is to be a man in my society. To be a man is, so often, to be terrified of failure. Men compensate with violence, that trump card of masculinity, towards ourselves and others. Homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are, of course, attempts to demonstrate that one is a Real Man. But there are many subtler examples. Overworking is also a popular cover for fear of being an insufficient man. Slow death by incremental alcohol poisoning in another. Preventable heart disease brought on by a steady diet of “man food” is an excellent example. I can’t count the number of times a man has told me that he just couldn’t live without eating meat at every meal. Yeah right. Many men would rather have high cholesterol than risk being seen with a salad.
On some level, we think we would be worthless if we failed to live up to the standards of masculinity. And because we all secretly know we already have, we desperately try to hide it. And because everyone is constantly trying to hide, each man fears he is the only one with a secret. It’s an absurd conspiracy.
I’m not trying to say most men are constantly trying to prove their manliness, though many are. What I am saying is that most men live with the dread of failure. It may assert itself often or occasionally, with a roar or a whisper. In any case the story is the same.
I have no prescription here, no solution, no path to healing. I have something rather humbler, with it’s own quiet power: I know that we are not alone. We are all in this boat together, a crew of stowaways hiding from ourselves. When you know that fear of not being man enough is at the core of what it is to be a man, you may still be afraid. But, at least, you can laugh about it.
If women could be as manly as a Harlan Coben hero or John Wayne character, without everyday sexism and micro-aggressions claiming she is “bossy and aggressive” rather than “commanding and assertive”; and if men could be as feminine as Marianne Dashwood- if you have not read Jane Austen, pick another character, you know what I mean; would any of us need physically to transition?
This questions crops up, in one form or another, in so many places. So I thought I’d give it a proper treatment. This post is not a response to Clare specifically–she is simply the most recent person to voice the question in my presence. Short answer: I think people would still transition in utopia. Onto the longer answer.
First, gender expression is not gender identity. I do not believe that people transition primarily because their gender expression is devalued. This is born out by the many gender-nonconforming people who have no wish to transition and by the many trans people who are visibly gender-nonconforming after transition. Rather, people transition primarily because their gender identity and deepest sense of self are incompatible with their gender role and physical sex traits.
Being the manliest woman is different from being a man, and being the most ladylike dude is a different from being a woman. Cisgender readers may find it helpful to imagine whether living as a feminine man (if you are a woman) or a masculine woman (if you are a man) would be a trivial change, assuming you were shown respect and acceptance, or whether anything important would be lost.
I think something very important indeed is lost, and I would know, because I tried living as a masculine woman for as long as possible. This experience would undoubtedly have been nicer if I were in a society that truly valued gender-variant people. But it’s worth noting that I was in a tolerant environment and had the full support of family and friends. Yet I could not manage it. Even with the enthusiastic support of the wider world, I don’t think I could have managed it. I find it intolerable to live as some special type of woman. I still felt intense alienation from my body, and I still saw myself as “one of the guys” and wanted to be recognized as such. In fact, the more I allowed myself to expressed my masculinity, the more it became clear that I saw myself as a guy and wanted others to see me that way, too. No amount of support had any perceptible effect on that.
The body issues are important. Dysphoria caused by a subconscious sex/apparent sex mismatch is real and acutely painful. Wherever the technology is available, there will probably always be some people who seek out medical treatment to alleviate this pain.
The question also contains the implication that by transitioning, we are somehow attempting to be more socially acceptable or fit into gender norms. Stigma may be a factor motivating transition for some people. But it’s important to note that transitioning people are not spared by the gender system–far from it. Rather, in going from visibly nonconforming people to more conforming people post-transition–if that does indeed happen for a given person, as it did for me–we merely swap one type of marginalization for another. For example, I no longer get harassed on the street, but now I have to deal with a healthcare system that ignores the existence of bodies like mine. At the same time, a huge portion of trans people don’t look gender normative after transition; they may appear just as non-normative as before, or may trade the appearance of conformity in their assigned sex for visible variance in their congruent sex. Either way, transsexual people are among the most marginalized members of our society. I don’t believe large numbers of people are fleeing into that category to escape stigma.
The aspect of the question I find most troubling is the value judgment against transition. Not only does the question misjudge the motivations for transition, it implies that transition is somehow undesirable. If some way of living is perfectly fine, would one raise the question of whether it would exist in a perfect world? I don’t think so. For example, people often wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is no poverty, child abuse or war. I never hear people wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is, say, no friendship. To ask the question–would people transition in a better world–implies that there is something wrong with transition itself, like it’s a symptom of a sick society. It suggests that we should be working towards a world in which transition disappears.
I am not on board with that. I suggest, instead, that we work towards a world in which injustice disappears.
Creating space and acceptance for masculine women and feminine men is an essential project. But it is no substitute for transition and for engendering respect and safety for transitioning people. In any gender egalitarian world worthy of the name, trans people must be respected, including transsexual and other transitioning people.
None of this is to say that transition might not look very different in an egalitarian world. Here are a few ways that gender equality and acceptance of diversity might change transition.
- More diversity in transition paths. With widespread acceptance of gender variance, it would be a lot more feasible and safe for a person to have a mix of male and female traits. We would probably see more nonbinary transitions as well as more people taking unique paths in their transition to male or female.
- Different people might transition. There may be some folks who have transitioned today, who would prefer to live as a gender-variant member of their assigned sex if given the option. On the other hand, there are probably also some people who are too scared to transition today, who would do so in a more open-minded world. So the group of people who pursue transition might be different.
- Fewer people would be “stealth.” Many people are private about their trans status. This includes me. Most transsexual folks I’ve encountered are open with a small circle of people, but don’t discuss being trans at work, in certain social groups, etc. In a more accepting world, people could be more open about their transition history.
What do you think? Would people transition in a perfect world? Would you?
Over at Alas, A Blog, Ampersand raises the topic of being better-liked after weight loss:
When I think about losing weight – and like nearly all fat people, my mind sometimes strays there even though I’m against trying to lose weight myself – this thought always bothers me. I’ve read enough studies – and seen enough life – to be convinced that I would probably be better liked, and treated better – not by my close friends, but by acquaintances and strangers and business associates – if I lost a lot of weight.
But I think that would in turn make me paranoid. How could I make new friends, for instance, if at the back of my head I’m wondering if they’ll drop me if I regain the weight (as most weight losers do)? Would I take every instance of nice treatment as an opportunity to think “if you saw me two years ago, you wouldn’t be being this nice?”
This is a depressing reality, and as a thin person, I’ve never had to deal with it. It did get me thinking, though, about the ways transition has simultaneously improved and imploded my social life. People are just so much nicer to me now that I fit neatly into the male box. Cashiers and waiters meet my eyes; guys slap my back and call me brother; children don’t gawk at me in the street.
It was damn stressful being visibly gender-nonconforming. Every new interaction was laced with anxiety. People disrespected me in subtle ways every day. But more than that, people just kept their distance. A subtle chill seemed to follow me everywhere. People kept their eyes and bodies averted, stood a few feet away from me. Some may have been disgusted; most, I think, were just confused, overwhelmed with the awkwardness of meeting a person who might be a “he” or might be a “she.” Maybe they were even trying not to stare to be polite. It felt like shit, though.
Now, I’m some kind of golden boy of the system, and people are nice wherever I go. Women flirt with me, men get buddy-buddy fast. From bus rides to job interviews to bars, people seems easy around me. The few people who are rude or cold are probably treating everybody that way. A slew of single-syllable terms of familiarity, all of them gendered, follow me around the city, little olive branches extended everywhere I go. Bro, dude, man, bud, kid, sir.
I really enjoy the warmth and ease that have emerged in the last few years. It’s nice to have friendly chats with strangers, to be on a first-name basis with everyone in my classes.
But I take it all in with a more than a bit of suspicion. How conditional is this kindness? Will it drop if they find out I’m trans? In my limited experience of coming out, no–apparently, you’re good once you get through the door. More insidiously, then, the nagging suspicion that these nice-seeming people would’ve been completely different if we met when I still looked like a butch/he-she/dyke/freak (to use some frank terms).
Since transition, I’ve gained dozens of friendly acquaintances, but no close friends. The kindness is cruel; my general social trust has disintegrated. How can I open up to people now that I see just how two-faced they really are? It’s part outrage, part fear, part disgust, part loyalty to my past self, part internalized transphobia. I enjoy the superficial niceness for what it’s worth, but I am extremely hesitant to get close to anyone. How can I accept such gifts, now I see on what basis they’re given?