Being (in)comprehensible

Natalie wrote today:

We have a political obligation to present some kind of unified identity. We need to be able to say “this is who we are. This is what defines us. These are our needs. This is what we ask”. We also have a political, cultural obligation to be comprehensible. They won’t see us if they can’t understand what they’re seeing, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to accept us. So we present our simplifications, our “X trapped in a Y’s body” metaphors, and obscure the endless complications and nuances and “well actually it’s not like that at all”s.

You should make sure to read the rest, but it was this part that especially rang true for me. It may not have been her intention, but I recognized that this obligation appears not only at the level of a movement, but also on a personal level. It’s the expectation, usually unstated because there’s no need for it to be made explicit, that we as individuals must exist, present, and explain ourselves in such a way that we can be easily sorted into an understood category. This demand becomes most obvious when we neglect or refuse it.

People attempt to identify a person’s gender out of sheer reflex, and it’s one of the first things they do when they look at someone. The process doesn’t even become a conscious one unless they can’t immediately reach a clear and binary conclusion of man or woman. On the occasions when this happens, it colors your every interaction with them from the very outset. In person, you might get an odd hesitation, a double-take and a once-over. (If you’re lucky, that’s the worst of it.) Online, people are often more direct, so we get “Are you a man or a woman? Are you a woman who used to be a man? Are you a man who used to be a woman? What’s wrong with your voice? What are you?” And so on.

What are you? Hostile and dehumanizing as it is, this really cuts to the heart of it. With a trait so fundamental as gender – something that’s almost universally treated, rightly or wrongly, as the bedrock of one’s personality and physical presence in the world – people are so accustomed to expecting an unambiguous answer that when this answer isn’t obvious, we now must provide it to them. We’re expected to explain, not who we are, but what we are and why we are this way.

“What were you born as? When did you transition? How do you know? Are you sure? Are you on hormones? How do you have sex? What’s it look like? Do you use it? Did you have the surgery yet?” Many people think these are acceptable, even necessary questions – that they must know these things in order to understand who I am before they’ll talk to me like they would any other person. (Which they won’t, of course.)

Yes, I’ve recognized this obligation to make oneself comprehensible to everyone else. And I’ve often rejected it by omission. With the exception of partners and close friends, I don’t see the need to tell people my assigned birth sex, my childhood experiences, my sexual preferences, the extent of my dysphoria, my medical history, the details of my endocrine system, and anything else you wouldn’t ask a random cis stranger about. I’ll gladly share my pronoun preferences, because those who ask have often seemed to do so out of politeness and sensitivity. But I do not need to explain my personal life, my sex life, my body and my mind as a precondition to the most casual interactions in everyday life. I do see the ensuing confusion, and I see it every day. I see the barrier that’s come between my words and those who think they must know my anatomy before they can listen to me. But it is not a barrier that I erected.

Could it be that this is just an obstinate, contrary reaction on my part? Largely, yes. If this intimate, personal information wasn’t so often made the subject of these prying questions, I’d probably be much less resistant to discussing at least some of it openly. As is, I’ve almost always neglected to describe myself as trans unless asked directly – not because I’m at all ashamed of it, but because what I am is not the totality of who I am, and people will see it as such anyway when they’re handed that information. If I don’t prepend “trans” to each of my roles – trans atheist, trans writer, trans videoblogger, trans parent, trans everything – they’ll just do it in their heads. I’d rather wait and see if they’re capable of simply seeing me as a person like any other. I expect that of people, even if they often disappoint.

There’s nothing wrong with being what I am or saying what I am, but there is something wrong when the absence of this one piece of information poses an insurmountable roadblock to hearing me out, and its presence overshadows everything else about me. Even if confusion is the cost of my silence, I’d almost rather let people wallow in their own self-inflicted incomprehension.