Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for May 13, 2010

Watching the Anger Flow

I usually stay out of transgender / gender identity / identity politics discussions on my blog. There are a few reasons for this. The most important thing is that I try to keep this blog very much about ~my~ story. This a place for me to work things and out and just be sort of a journal. It’s cathartic, it’s not intended to be a place for grand social statements. But also, those discussions so often get ugly beyond all sorts of reason, and I don’t like to wade into such harsh water.

But I’m tired of watching, as I say to my Darling Boyfriend, people going batshit at each other, so I figured I’d write about it. I figure this post has the potential to upset everyone I know (well, not everyone, but lots of folks that I consider friends). But these are just my opinions. I’m making no claim of “truth,” or divine knowledge. I am also not speaking for anyone but myself. I am not claiming to speak for others with any sort of “everyone knows” or “most people feel” kinds of statements. I own all of this.

It won’t surprise me (if anyone even reads my blog) if I trigger some harsh words. I guess I’ll just have to take what may come.

So, with the caveats out of the way (I love caveats)…

I’m really tired of watching folks who seem like such obvious allies be so hateful to each other. I have so many thoughts that I’m not even sure where to start.

First, I’ve started to realize lately that there are so many things that get conflated it’s difficult to keep everything focused. It seems to me that so much of what falls under transgender issues is just as easily described as sexism. Men and women have assigned roles and even in the 21st century those roles can be rigidly enforced. Men and women have different standards of dress, different expected professions, different goals, different ways of acting, etc. The list of differences, both politely expected and societally enforced, is quite long. I always knew that the world was different for men and women, but when I transitioned it became clear to me just how sexist the world really is. And yet, clearly, part of that makes sense to me on at least some level, because even though I think men and women are ~equal~, if there were no ~difference~ then why would I have needed to transition in the first place?

“Men and women” is a simple binary. Most people are comfortable with it, fit into it, and never realize that there are folks for whom the binary doesn’t work. It doesn’t make them evil or transphobic, it means that they’re comfortable enough with the status quo to take it as it is. One of my best friends recently had a baby, and I was amazed by how repeatedly his sex was reinforced (“You’re a big boy”; “Are you mommy’s good boy”; “Such a happy boy”). But it’s just about universal. Whether a baby is a boy or a girl is the first question people ask, even before they ask if the baby is healthy. This works for most folks. To ask them to change is asking a lot. To ask them to understand is a bit different. Understanding is something people should be able to offer.

Let me tackle the gender binary at this point. The binary works for me. I feel no need to destroy the concept of a binary, and I don’t see it as particularly helpful (or possible) to attempt it. I recently read a blog post that stated it more clearly than I can giving an example of how binaries aren’t intrinsically bad. I fit very well in the binary, and it seems like most folks do too (“even” most trans folk). I sort of think of it like an inverse bell curve. Most people are on either end, with some folks approaching the middle, and as it gets dead center there being fewer and fewer folks there. There are folks in the dead center of the binary, but that doesn’t invalidate the binary. Actually, I think that the evidence is that it works for the vast majority of people. The sexes are equal; but the sexes are different.

But what about those folks in the middle? I’d be lying if I said I completely understand them. I try. And many of my friends are more in the middle than it turns out I am. I consider some of them some of the most special and valuable people I know. One of the most difficult things with these folks can be what pronouns they prefer. I have it easy on the pronoun issue. I look like I prefer “she.” I sound like I prefer “she.” And I do prefer “she.” Lots of folks have a tougher time; their visual presentation doesn’t do an accurate job of communicating their preferred way of being referred to. I’ve seen over and over again the suggestion that people ask someone their preferred pronoun before using any pronoun. I think that’s unrealistic, and more so, I find it personally invalidating. I worked hard to make it ~visually~ clear that I prefer to be referred to as “she.” Just because I fit into the binary at this point I see no reason for invalidating my desire that my preferred pronoun~is~ assumed from my appearance. I understand that for some folks it’s not so simple. I even read a post recently by a person who wrote about folks who prefer to be referred to as “it.” I also understand the pain of being referred to by pronouns that are wrong. I think this is one place where a little understanding on both sides would just be helpful. I have exactly one friend who never misgendered me during my transition. I know how difficult it can be to stand up and explain that your preferred pronoun might not match the one expected just from your appearance. I have become as diligent as I can be about remembering and respecting peoples preferred pronouns. I think the nature of the binary is that asserting a preferred pronoun that is unexpected based on preconceived notions of appearance may be necessary, but respect for the preferred pronoun should be the norm. Being mildly surprised that someone prefers to be referred to as “it” is fine; refusing to use “it” to refer to that person because you don’t think it’s valid is not.

So, fine, let’s respect the binary but also respect the malleability of the boundaries, and the arbitrariness of most of those boundaries. Even though I’ve settled nicely on one side of the binary, I am in no way threatened by folks who traverse the binary or exist in the very center. I don’t get too upset at the folks trying to destroy the binary because I understand that it is a reaction to the sometimes unnecessary rigidity of the boundaries between the two sides of the binary, and also because I know that the binary is here to stay.

Next I want to talk about legislation. I think it’s important and right that gender identity and expression is added to hate crimes laws. It would be great to live in a world where “murder is murder” and hate crimes legislation wasn’t needed. I don’t live in that world. Not only are people targeted for violent crimes specifically because they transgress the gender binary, the crimes are also not taken seriously. A way to help remedy that is to specifically state in law that a crime against someone because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to” is not only an actual crime, it can not be minimized because the person was “asking for it.” Hate crimes laws help to eliminate specious claims such as trans panic. Trans hatred and violence can strike anyone, even folks who are years past transition and blend perfectly, and even non-trans people. Making a specific legal statement that violence against people who transgress society’s gender norms is a good thing. I think we all, every single one of us, benefits from that.

The second part of that is anti-discrimination legislation. I think this is important as well. I’ve seen too many people kicked out of homes, lose jobs, and face all sorts of unnecessary and wrong-headed things just because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to.” I think that’s wrong, and I think a law would be helpful.

A part of this that no one wants to address is the restroom issue (the gender-identity and expression hate crimes and anti-discrimination bill in Massachusetts is deridingly referred to as “The Bathroom Bill”). It’s incredibly trivializing to diminish all of these issues to where one goes potty. I don’t understand the extreme emotions that are generated around this. I do have my feelings about it, but I’m not super high charged about it either. I do understand the confusion when folks who are non-gender-normative have to use a public restroom. It’s tough on both sides. During my transition, when I wasn’t sure I was blending yet, I spent months going to great lengths to never (and I mean ~never~) use a public restroom. I just felt more comfortable that way, but I don’t think that’s a realistic solution for folks. Now I just go pee and don’t think about it, like most women do. I don’t think even the most nutty people are seriously suggesting genital-checking before entering a restroom (well maybe a couple are, but that’s not most peoples concern in my experience). When I began my transition, one of my guy friends asked what was to stop him from using the ladies room if he said that he felt like a woman. I never did have a good answer for him. And I know that the reality is that it really doesn’t happen. But there are people like Jasper, who wonders why it isn’t all about what’s in their head. And I have to confess that I would be at least mildly uncomfortable if Jasper followed me into the ladies room. The reality of this part of the issue is that it seems like most people don’t really notice who else is in the restroom with them. I scope people out very generally, because the restroom is a place of vulnerability, but for the most part I’m tuned out as I usually am.

Jasper brings me to the “this is all in our heads” issue. Well, where else would it start? If I’m a woman now, then to me I always was. But that means at some point I was a woman with a penis. There’s a whole debate about women with penises (I’ll get to that next). I was a particularly depressed person, and my life since transition does seem like I have really figured out something that enabled me to live an actual life. So I clearly believe in transition and surgery. But if Jasper causes issues for me, I’m admitting that I have a line somewhere that it feels difficult, if not impossible, for me to cross. Once I’ve admitted that there is a line, where the line is becomes the important question. I think this is a complex and nuanced issue, and acting like there are easy and pat answers in any direction isn’t helpful.

And there’s this pending national ENDA legislation in the US. It’s looking like it will be trans-inclusive but only in so far as someone has or has not had surgery. Stuff like this really makes me wonder about the whole condition of transsexualism. I see surgery as the easiest big decision I ever made. It was the perfect thing for me. I am amazed at how much my vagina has become a part of me in a way that I can’t really imagine a time before surgery. But is my having had surgery really the thing that validates me? My mom described me as “all woman now” to the neighbors (!) after I had surgery. A friend of mine said that my decision to have surgery demonstrated a certain level of commitment to my transition. Clearly surgery matters to people. It remains amazing to me that anyone (beyond my Darling Boyfriend) really cares what I have in my panties. What if I had born 200 years ago? Would I not have been transsexual just because the best thing I would have been able to do would have been to remove my testicle? What are people going to think in another 200 years when as yet undreamed of surgical interventions will exist? Will they look back on us as pretenders or wannabes? It’s become a catch phrase for the “surgery makes you a woman” camp that “women don’t have penises.” Well, they don’t have prostates either (the prostate is not removed during SRS). If I am a woman (and I know with every ounce of my soul that I am) it was not surgery that made me a woman. I was a woman and I had surgery to stop my brain from hurting so much (and it worked). But if we’re going to play the “physicality makes you what you are” game we’re going to leave out most transsexual men, at least for now, because they don’t have the surgical options that transsexual women do. I’m not down with leaving out transsexual men. So I don’t think surgery can be the end-all-be-all when it comes to legal status. Again, it’s complicated and nuanced – and laws suck at that.

I’ve been presented with a lot of “loving the body God gave you” imagery lately, mainly out of the movement away from being the perfect little size 4 Barbie doll (as if I could ever…). And I see how complicated this issue really is. For someone with transsexualism, learning to love the body God gave you may never be possible. Surgery was the only thing that worked to make me stop hating myself and my life – and it has worked incredibly well. But surgery isn’t the right thing for everyone.

One of my best friends is a woman who has chosen, for now, to “not decide” whether SRS is the right choice for her. To me that doesn’t diminish her value, or her conviction, or her womanhood. She is one of the most thoughtful, special, and powerful people I know. I wouldn’t for a second push her to have surgery or judge her if she decides to never have surgery. This isn’t a contest. I’m not trying to be “more woman” than anyone else, I’m just trying to be authentically me. I wish everyone the peace of mind that I’ve found, whether that means surgery or no, full time or part time, “he,” “she,” “they,” “sie,” or “it.” I value people as individuals. And I judge people as individuals. I’ve known folks that are jerks and folks who are lovely in all walks of life and of all genders and sexes.

So I understand that ENDA may ignore folks whose expected genitals don’t match their presentation. Especially in the United States we’re pretty conservative about sexuality and genitals. I’d be comfortable with unisex restrooms as the easiest way to solve a lot of these issues, but I know most of my fellow Americans aren’t down with that. I hope there’d be more understanding on all sides, but it seems like that isn’t the case.

I haven’t even really talked about labels, because I’m tired of them and they just cause fights. I’m finding labels difficult to discuss even amongst some of my closest friends. Everyone finds the way to define themselves that works for them, and I’m a big supporter of that.

My mommie told me when I was very little: “You’re no better than anyone else, and you’re no worse either.” I believe that. It’s a small planet, and we’re all in this together. Disagreements are bound to happen, but they don’t need to degenerate into name-calling and anger and hatred.

Be excellent to each other…

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