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.
A person is hiding, or in denial about, a key part of herself. Person accepts true self. Person shares identity with the world. Person lives happily ever after.
This is the “coming out” story and we all know how it goes. The closet is a state of shame, while coming out of the closet is a state of pride. Coming out is synonymous with living a healthy and authentic life.
For trans people, coming out is more complicated. It has two very different meanings for us, particularly transsexual folks.
We first come out when we share our true genders with the world. Because our genders contradict our assigned sex, we are by definition trans when we say “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” This is the coming out that declares our transition. It’s pretty close to the coming out narrative.
Later, after transition, “coming out” can mean something different entirely: sharing not your gender identity, but your transgender history. “Coming out” means revealing a part of yourself that was hidden. Before transition, the trans aspect of my identity was apparent–I was visibly gender variant–but the man part wasn’t. Today, the reverse is true: people can tell I’m a guy, but they can’t see my gender variant history. So I come out when I tell people I’m trans. This second coming out is a reversal that completely rewrites my relationship to disclosure.
Far from being a radical act of authenticity, coming out after transition can actually limit one’s ability to be seen. People may think of me very differently when they learn I am trans. They may lose the ability to see me as a regular person. They may no longer see my gender as legitimate. They may start to think of me as a something other than a “real” or “normal” man. Something about me is suddenly queer (pun intended). They may begin scrutinizing my face, body, speech and manner, searching for signs that I am “really” female. I may be conscripted as someone’s own personal Trans 101 instructor, facing an onslaught of nerve-wracking queries about my identity, all other trans people’s identities, my medical history, my genitals, my reproductive capacity, my sexual practices, and so on. And that’s only on the benign end of the spectrum.
I am forced to choose between two imperfect impressions. If I don’t disclose my trans status, others are willing to see me as their version of a man. They misunderstand my life experience, because that image does not include being trans. If I do disclose, they are willing to see me instead as their version of trans. Again, they misunderstand me, because this image does not include being an ordinary man.
None of my options is ideal, and not through any fault of my own. Others are simply unwilling to see my whole self: really a man, really transsexual. So I make choices. I reveal some aspects, hide others. These choices shift from one situation to another.
Is it a stance of pride to expose myself to the prying questions of every ignorant person I meet? No. Is it a stance of shame to make careful choices about my privacy, discussing personal topics only with those I trust? Hell no.
Coming out was a first step toward a whole, authentic life. I no longer live in a closet. But when I come out a second time, I risk stepping into another closet, this one fashioned from others’ ignorance. The painful thing is that this carries a palpable step backward in terms of being seen for my true self. People who understood my gender reasonably well suddenly fall apart in dizzy confusion.
First, coming out was my ticket to living as a man. Turns out the ticket is roundtrip–punch it again and you’re back where you started. Back to the netherworld between sexes. Back to the badlands where few dare tread.
Flanked by closets, I make my life right here. Out of the closet, into the corridor. It’s not exactly roomy, but at least I have somewhere to go.