There’s a lot that’s frustrating about the way the discourse on transgenderism and transsexuality is framed in our deeply cisnormative culture. So much that it sometimes feels impossible to ever really get through it. I often feel neck deep in this, all these little problems, misconceptions, ways of structuring the conversation, unsubstantiated and unexamined assumptions, foundations of positioning not-quite-so-unbiased perspectives as “objective”, “neutral”, “common sense”, the “natural” jump-off point for chatting about who and what and why we are and mean.
And I can’t possibly cover it all. Lord knows I’ve been trying, but I can’t. There’s just too much to unpack. Is GID really a disorder? A disorder of what? Before / after pictures. “Real” names. “Passing” (and what, “failing”?). Detransitions. Regret. Gatekeeping. Autonomy. The endless questions. The questions as the assertion of the power dynamic. The Other. The self-consciousness. Self-consciousness as an extension of oppression. Morphological privileges. “Male” bodies and “female” bodies, cells, tissues (bullshit).”Fascinating”. “Disgusting”. “Special”. “Unnatural”. Is biology destiny? Is neurobiology destiny? Is destiny biology? Born this way! Social constructs! Stochastic gendering! “Objective” genders? “Biological realities”? “Appropriation”? “Invasion”? “Comfort levels”? “Labels”? “Buying into stereotypes”? Self-definition. Erasure. Ridicule. Violence. One in twelve. One in eight. One in five, one in five. 44%, 96%, 0.3%. Who is feminism “for”? Second wave, third wave, fourth wave. Bois and grrls. Please Select Sex: M/F. Is being trans an identity, a condition, a burden, a blessing? Cissexism, cisnormativity, cissupremacy. “But, like, how do you know?” Our “responsibilities”! Our sexualities! Our sexual responsibilities! Our “faith” in gender. Our “rebellion” from gender. Our “sins” and “arrogance” and “delusion” and “self-hatred” and whatever you need to think to not think about us. Our marking as “trans”, ever transitional, ever in movement, across, never at home. Exiles.
Almost every day I pick something (or two things) from the list, and do my best to work through it, get to its bones, figure out what’s going on there and what it suggests and what could be suggested instead. But every now and then… what and who am I doing this for? Why?
Am I just complaining? Am I just a cog in that discourse? In building so much of what I do on responding to the ways the discourse has been framed, am I just part of that framework? Have I ever done anything to frame it for myself?
In participating (even through critical response) in what transgenderism, and therefore trans people, are reduced to, by having this reactive relationship to what is externally claimed as the “important” facets of trans identities, trans lives, trans people, have I reduced myself to that external definition?
Am I anything more than a trans blogger? “Trans blogger” here meaning what everyone else thinks my transiness means? Do I represent anything beyond that? And what does my being trans even mean to me?
Does any of it help?
One of the key issues in the conceptual framing of trans people (and experiences and identities and so on) is the reduction to our bodies. What is virtually always given primacy when discussing the “transsexual phenomenon” is hormones, surgeries, genitals, breasts, and so on. It’s presented as an inherently physical, fleshy, and often sexual thing. This framework often engages in a further reduction of our bodies, our sex, to our genitals, or those aspects of our bodies that are otherwise explicitly sexualized (breasts, for instance).
What everyone wants to know is not who we are or how we feel or what we’re experiencing, what we think, what we know, what they want to know is all about the ever-so-fascinating physical processes by which a man / woman can be “transformed” into a woman / man. That’s the story, that’s what sells the newspapers and documentaries and interviews. Everything else is boring. The cis viewer awaits the juicy details of discarded testicles, inverted penile tissue, transplanted sections of colon, breast growth, nipple sensitivity, fancy zappy lasers. “Wow! It looks so real!”, “Wow! It’s really functional?” … and the before / after pictures. Always the before / after pictures, reinforcing the marvel of this physical change (without commentary on emotional processes, social processes, what did not change, or what always was). Reinforcing the sense of artifice (like the putting on make-up, plucking-eyebrows, over-the-shoulder-into-the-mirror shot). “Wow! Looks like a totally different person! What a great job the doctors did!”
(always the marvel of medical science, and admiration of medical accomplishment, the doctors, never the marvel of the human being hirself, as hirself)
Watch these documentaries closely, and you’ll notice a conspicuous absence: any mention of hopes, aspirations, worries, dreams, fears, goals, issues or identities beyond our bodies (or, at best, beyond our gender). As though who a transsexual person is begins and ends with our physical transitions. As though transition, or more specifically our genitals, is our entire raison d’etre. Once we’ve had SRS, that’s it. Exit stage left, happily ever after.
Even in the case of media discussing trans people notable for something other than being trans, the narrative eventually comes back around to that, to the body. Always ultimately reduced to a physical specimen / creation, a marvel of modern medicine. “Wow! They can even create transsexual musicians now?!”
Birth names and op status are essential details, of course. Because it’s SO relevant to the story of someone opening a bakery on West Broadway, or developing a new, more efficient system of collating paper. Imagine if all human beings were similarly reduced to their bodies and genders when being discussed or interviewed:
“Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who was born with a 46 XY karyotype, identifies as male, and has two functional testes, is speaking this weekend in Renton, WA”
“So, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, do you have any plans for your vagina this year?”
The trouble here is that in these reductions being so consistently applied, this is what “trans” has ultimately come to mean to most people. Unless one has a direct and personal experience with transsexuality, this is all that is conceptually available. Not only for cis people, but much more importantly for trans people who are still in the process of questioning and self-acceptance. For them, trans ends up looking like nothing but a sequence of medical interventions, hurdles to clear, a potentially doomed effort towards “passability”, and a whole bunch of endless suffering against which one must be soooooo brave, and not much else.
The reduction of “trans” to bodies, to gender, to cast aside everything else that can and does define a trans life, our joys and sorrows and identities and negotiations and complexities, erases almost everything else about us, and presents an image that being transsexual is all a transsexual person can ever really be. At best, you may be a trans person with a mildly interesting little something to follow that all-consuming adjective (and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to avoid it being your noun). “Transsexual musician”, “transsexual baker”, “transsexual paper collation engineer”, “transsexual writer”, “transsexual feminist”, “transsexual skeptic”, “transsexual blogger”.
And to immerse oneself into that narrative, to go ahead and just be a trans blogger, to go about being a trans blogger by commenting on exactly what everyone has either explicitly or implicitly prodded you into commenting upon, well…
What good does that do?
What’s desperately needed is the message that being trans can mean more than one thing. It can mean more than bodies, more than gender. It can mean more than the physical processes of transition or the social, legal, cultural and political struggles imposed upon us. Its meaning can be (and always is!) individual. And it requires no sacrifice of the other facets of one’s identity whatsoever …except those facets you WANT to sacrifice.
See, we’re NOT just our bodies. That’s not what any of this is ultimately about, or ever has been, as much as it may set the stage. It’s not a vanity, or an obsessive attachment to worldly matters of the flesh. Our bodies are not the extent of our dreams and goals, and in fact we’ve made it quite clear we’re not going to let them get in the way at all. We’ve been through hell and back to claim agency over those bodies, to not allow them to define us, or have a deterministic relationship to our identity. I didn’t fight as hard as I did to prove my masculinized body doesn’t dictate who I am only to end up allowing my transgendered body to do so. Transition is about self-determination. It’s a process of learning that between you and the little highly-specialized bits of goopy endocrine meat that secrete hormones for you, you’re the one in charge. Gender is not the boss of me! I’ll be exactly who I am and nothing but exactly who I am!
And transsexuality isn’t the boss of you either.
We can and do and should apply that self-determination and confidence elsewhere. Trans narratives, histories and accomplishments, though often erased, though our most public figures are typically public mostly in being marketable to cis interests along the same old same old physical lines (“Wow! I didn’t know they could look just like us!”, “Wow! She should TOTALLY be allowed to be ogled by us in a beauty pageant! Just look at her gams!”), exist all the same. Wendy Carlos, Leslie Feinberg, Sandy Stone, Patrick Califia, Maddie Blaustein, Rachel Pollack, Lynn Conway, Julia Serano, Bethany Black, Bear Bergman, Vandy Beth Glenn, Namoli Bernett, Mina Kaputo, Mark Angelo Cummings, Drew DeVeaux, Gwen Haworth, Sarah Brown… yeah, I know I’ve made these lists before. But they need to be asserted. The message needs to be clear, and easily accessible, that transition is not a reduction of identity, or of what your life and aspirations can be. It’s an expansion.
But where does that leave participation in the discourse itself?
We can’t leave the discourse surrounding transgenderism to continue to be dominated by cis voices, as was the case for decades. But in walking in and playing along with the established frameworks, is one only lending yet another presence of a trans person who’s only trans, nothing but trans? Another iteration on the theme that that’s all we get to be? Does it offer a real presence and voice, or does it just re-enact our reduction?
Is it possible to establish trans cultures and discourses and concepts of ourselves wholly outside the frames that have been set up? Is it possible to really be culturally present while at the same time choosing for ourselves what to talk about, how to explore ourselves and our meanings? Can we create new narratives of transiness, beyond our bodies and the “fascinating” points in which people are invested and at the same time remain visible, remain an actual part of the overall culture?
Can we give trans voices a viable (and not self-defeatingly insular) space to talk about trans things without being reduced to other people’s ideas of it, without losing the capacity to articulate the breadth of who we can be?
Or is the best we can do fighting to stack a few extra adjectives onto our little descriptor?
Fuck, I don’t know.
But what I do know is that not one of us needs allow that tiny, closed, limited idea others have of what transgenderism or transsexuality is to be internalized. None of us need to let what other people think a trans person is determine how we think of and define ourselves. None of us needs to let what we mean to others dictate what we mean to ourselves. None of us need to limit our aspirations to what they’ll ask us about. None of us need to let ourselves be convinced we’re really just a medically altered body, or that that is the only thing about us that’s interesting, important or significant. None of us need to believe that just because our accomplishments are ignored that they don’t count, or that just because our heroes are invisible that they weren’t there, or that just because so few options, roles and identities are explicitly presented to us that we can’t carve out our own.
Carving out our own identities is what we do best. It’s what we’ve always done. And honestly, that, not exogenous hormones or genital surgeries, is what makes us what we are… being able to choose an option that wasn’t made clear. Being able to create entirely new options. Forcing open locked doors, and breaking through flimsy, false partition walls.We can walk through the garden of forking paths with a chainsaw.
Whether you see yourself, and your dreams and desires, reflected in the conversation, know that more importantly, you and your dreams and desires exist in this world. We may often feel invisible, alone and like we don’t count, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. No matter how they discuss us, or what they leave out, we are free to exist as we choose.
And we don’t need to wait for them to ask the right questions before providing our answers.