Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for Politics

Transgender, Transsexual, and Trans Identity, Labels, and Language

For as long as I can remember, I have found the way that trans* issues are discussed has been wholly unhelpful in describing my own reality and personal story. I’m sure this is true for many people that are lumped into categories by social scientists, but I can only speak on this from personal perspective. While I have noticed heads nodding in agreement many times when I have given voice to these thoughts and theories, I can only talk about how the language around trans* issues has impacted my life, and how it continues to impact my story.

Because I will only be talking about how the language affects me personally, I won’t be commenting much, if at all, on the history and etymology of these terms; I simply don’t care where they came from – I care what they mean (and have meant) to me. Likewise, I will attempt to tackle this language in a way that still leaves plenty of room for people who do find these words helpful in telling their own stories. I will be touching on some of what I perceive as some of the politics around this language, but I will try to do that as carefully as possible. I recognize that it’s possible that my use of this language will feel wrong for some people. I’m not sure I have a solution for that. As always, it is my goal that everyone’s story is respected for its own merit.

First, I’d like to say that I will be adhering to a differentiation between sex and gender; I feel like a big part of my problem around this language is the confusion between “sex” and “gender.” My definitions for each will remain at least partially fluid, as the differences between “male and female” and “man and woman” are so loose as to be nearly impossible to define in ways that don’t produce many overlaps to the point that the terms can become nearly meaningless. Indeed, simply trying to define “male,” for instance, leads to many exceptions. These words are all moving targets. As definitions are refined there is often change in the fundamental meanings of the words themselves. I will endeavor at all times to be clear with my meaning, even if the language is, by it’s very nature, imprecise. For simplicity sake, “sex” will refer to the coarse physical differences between “male and female,” and “gender” will refer to the more sociological and cultural differences between “man and woman.”

Next, I’m choosing to tackle this subject now because it seems as though so much of this language is becoming codified in the popular lexicon. People are aware around this language in a way that I never expected even a few years ago. But that very public awareness is exactly why I feel it’s important for me to speak up now. Frankly, this language has never worked for me; it has never felt comfortable, has never truly felt a useful part of telling my story. If there are people it works for, that’s awesome, but I want to find a way to tell my story authentically, and this language is flawed for that purpose. I don’t care what these words mean for other people, I care about what they mean when I hear and use them. If language is an ongoing discussion, I’m engaging that discussion.

One last thought before I actually dive in. If I were just trying to tell my story in the past tense, I might not care so much about this language. However, I remember all too well the confusion that this language caused when I was in a place that my story was more struggle than it is today. This language is important to me when I try to tell people my story, but also because I firmly believe that I am not alone in being poorly served by this language. If just one person finds some truth or similarity in my story to their own, this will all be worth it.

 

Transgender

Let me start with the big dog: “transgender.” I hate this word. This word has never felt comfortable, or like it describes my life in anyway. If gender is in anyway who we see ourselves to be, I am exactly the same person I always was. That might seem like an absurdity, but any part of me that is the deepest level of “me” has been here all along. Let me dig in a little: my gender, that is “woman” (or, “girl” when I was younger), has always been what it is now. It is fair to say that for a very long time people ~thought~ I was a boy and then man. I mean, goodness, I went to an all-boys Catholic High School after all. But that really gets to two different concepts in my mind. The first is what I’m going to call “gender perception.” This is that instinctual drive that seems present in so many to instantaneously determine someone’s gender. Indeed, often the first fact people will notice about each other is what they believe each others gender to be. People perceived me as a boy and then a man. When this first started happening, I was very young, and certainly not able to piece everything that was going on together, so I believed people. I mean, why would they lie about that? [I know that it’s not lying as much as it was faulty assumptions, but the effect it had on me was as if people had lied to me.] But that colored my way of dealing with the world. I went along with their assumptions for a very long time. That brings me to my next term, which I’ll call “gender presentation.” I ~presented~ as a boy and then a man. I didn’t have the self-awareness or strength to stand up and say that the way people were perceiving my gender was wrong. Which brings me to the third important term around gender, and that is “gender identity,” which is one’s self perception of gender. My gender identity has always been that of a girl then woman. It’s fair to say that I was very confused about that for quite some time, and that I floated along with others perception of my gender, but I was always who I am today, just younger.

My gender never “trans’ed” anything. Indeed, I’m not completely sure what that means. Any way in which I can understand the word “transgender” it just fails to feel like it fits with my life, my story, and my identity [don’t worry, I’ll get to “identity” in a later post]. At no point along my journey have I positively identified as transgender. I have used the word, to be sure, but I’ll save an explanation of that for the wrap-up. It seems to me that “transgender” is trying encapsulate “gender perception,” “gender presentation,” and “gender identity” all under one tag, and that has just never worked for me. During my social transition, I tried to be clear that I was transitioning my gender presentation, and it took a while for people’s perception of my gender to catch up. But my gender identity was consistent throughout (which for me is kind of the whole point). I find transgender to be wholly unhelpful when trying to tell my story.

The current definition of “transgender” seems to be coalescing around the concept of the gender one was “assigned at birth.” I despise this concept. I believe I have a fair sense of what this concept is trying to get at, but I find the thought that my identity would have anything to do with what some person I don’t even know said about me at a time that I was unable to speak extremely distasteful. The very idea that what someone said about me at my birth would be so hugely important about me forever I refuse to accept. More importantly, though, I feel this definition of “transgender” fails to address two of the three issues in play here, those being gender presentation and gender identity, and worse, confuses “sexual perception” [we’ll get to that one in a moment] with gender perception. I just personally detest the word “transgender.”

Likewise, I find that transgender has politically and publicly become a catch-all to lump lots of people together who may have one or two specific things in common, but aren’t really served by being seen as the same thing. This will be my one divergence into how I see this language in a more macro sense, and how I can see this language not working for more people than just me. The term “trans” or “trans*” seemed like an attempt to broaden the reach even further, though I wonder if having words be such loose associations is truly helpful. More and more the only times I see “trans” is when it’s used as a prefix (as in “trans woman” or “trans man”). I find those problematic because they so aggressively segregate a very broad base of women into a specific type, and then over-emphasize the importance of that one fact. [Ironically, “trans” is one of the few words in this group that has ever felt truly useful in telling my own story, but only because its very vagueness was a jumping off point for further discussion.] I know that sometimes joining people together for common cause is helpful, and there seem to be painfully few people for whom any of these words have any personal meaning, but I worry that by loosening definitions so much these terms lose meaning all together. If a collective of folks is trying to be built to guarantee equal rights and promote equal respect for all, I can totally be apart of that. If the aim is to define “transgender” to cover every single instance in which someone’s gender perception / presentation / identity might seem societally “out of alignment,” even briefly, I have trouble supporting that, and I will continue to resist being dragged under that umbrella.

 

Cisgender

I feel like now is a reasonable time to bring up “cisgender.” Cisgender is the supposed corollary to transgender, from the Latin prefix “cis-,” meaning “on this side of.” “Trans-” meaning “across from.” When I first heard “cisgender” several years ago, before it’s current usage was so popularly known, it seemed to me that the definition must be that ones gender perception, presentation, and identity were all in alignment (I remember flippantly saying that the brain and the crotch “match”). This is how I used the term for years, and when I do use it, how I continue to use it. Recently though, the word seems to have been codified around being the oppositional state from transgender, that is, it’s all about what someone said when one was born. So, “cisgender” is when someones gender assigned at birth matches their gender identity. Again, I find the concept of “assigned at birth” repugnant, I simply feel it gives an unacceptable amount of weight to one specific instance before someone is self-aware enough to have any say in the matter. I refuse to accept that as a lifelong statement of my reality. Also, I have the same problem with cisgender that I do transgender, that is it focuses totally on sexual perception (and mistakes it as gender perception) and ignores presentation and identity. I feel that makes the word all but unusable when it comes to my own story; there is no point in using a word if I have to so fully explain it any time I use it. On top of all that, many people who are described as “cisgender” feel that the word is a slur (my brief explanation of at least some of the push back is that “cis-” can sound awfully like “sissy” and be triggering and / or offensive to some folks). I understand the need for a term like “cis-;” it’s necessary to have a way to say “not trans” that doesn’t make trans folk out to be perversions of nature. Here’s a place where my desire for the language differs most extremely from some: I prefer the language of medical malady, of pathologization over that of identity. I don’t have a solution to the fact that I see my transsexualism as a medical condition that I sought treatment for and now see as cured while for so many that language feels uncomfortable. For a while I attended a support group for women like me, and we often struggled to find words for “non-trans-folk.” We struggled through “genetic woman,” “natal woman,” “biological woman,” “cis woman,” and many others. None of them satisfied everyone in the group, though, and in frustration I began using “regular” and “irregular” woman. I was only mostly joking. I’m not sure I have yet hit upon a way to refer to folks as “not trans” that works for me. Again, I suspect that is largely because “trans-” can mean so many different things; it becomes nearly impossible to exclude someone from a group that has so poorly defined boundaries.

 

Assigned at Birth

While I’m here, I want to finish up with “assigned at birth.” I understand the impetus for a term that includes this sort of concept. I think the premise is that the thing that makes trans folk similar is that they spent some time mis-identified in terms of their gender identity or sex identity. I do understand the desire to tie as many people as possible together with seemingly common issues. I understand why that is in some ways politically helpful, though I have found it personally extremely confusing when trying to figure myself out. I feel that the “assigned at birth” paradigm focuses exclusively on ones interaction with society, giving extreme weight to initial (“at birth”) sex perception and gender perception, and ignores ones concept of self and interaction with others.

Finally, it has been extremely unhelpful for me to see the trans part of my story as an integral part of my identity; it is a part of the story, clearly, and is a vital part of my experience and history. However, it has always felt much more comfortable and true to look at the trans part of my story as a medical condition. I know this language decidedly does not work for some people, but thinking of it as a birth defect really works for me. Perhaps a softer way to say it would be that I consider it a congenital neurological issue. I remain unconvinced as to the specific cause, and indeed, I believe that several different issues are at play in various combinations and degrees. I believe that lumping all of these issues into the simplicity of what sex and gender one was assigned at birth causes needless confusion for many.

 

Transsexual

Which is probably a good place to segue into “transsexual.” It has been helpful for me to use “transsexual” quite a bit in describing my story. Transsexual is almost always used to describe sex perception and sex presentation. “Sex perception” I’m using to mean the sex that one is perceived to be by another, and “sex presentation” I’m using as a very coarse differentiation between the physical male and female. “Sex identity,” which is very different from “sexuality,” means the sex organs one feels they should have. This is exactly why I see my story involving a “cure.” My “sex” is exactly what “trans’ed” (specifically my “sex presentation,” coupled with my “sex perception,” my “sex identity” remained fixed). I was born with what would loosely fall under the definition of ambiguous genitalia and I had my first genital surgery when I was three years old. Having said that, it’s fair to say that early on, I was certainly more physically male. Likewise, proving that there is a lot going on here, I have had my karyotype tested and it is indeed XY.

 

[intersex]
[I could possibly assert a thin case to use the term “intersex” to describe myself, but there are three reasons I don’t. First, my level of genital ambiguity was fairly low, and while I did have genital surgery when I was three during which an unidentified “mass” was removed, I feel that the majority of intersex folks I have read about go through much more profound physical trauma at a young age than I did. Second, “intersex” has become a very charged political label (perhaps even more so than “transgender”) and I don’t feel like wading into that minefield. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this context, the term has never been overly helpful in telling my story; I sometimes will use it for context, and will sometimes allude to the phrase “neurological intersex” (which is also an extremely touchy phrase for some people), but using “transsexual” in the context of a neurological medical condition has been the most effective language.]

 

So then, if “sex” is about physicality, I view my genital reconstruction surgery as having cured my transsexualism. It’s true that I believe this makes me a female with XY chromosomes, but there are many conditions that can lead to this situation, and being born with the wrong genitals is hardly the most unusual.

It seems like lots of folks recoil from “transsexual” because it has the letters “s-e-x” in the middle, and that makes some folk uncomfortable. I find that the willingness to talk directly about the issue is very important for me. I have no shame over my story, and I categorically resist the notion that there is anything wrong with speaking frankly about the human condition.

 

Trans / Trans*

Briefly, I find “trans” and “trans*” to both be so diluted as to be sort of meaningless. They are an attempt to draw everyone who ever uses (or has used) the “trans-” prefix into the same community. I just don’t think that works in a practical sense. The terms are slightly less specific than “human,” but they require so much further clarification and explanation as to make them slow down discussion rather than aid it. They lump everything together: gender and sex, perception, presentation, and identity all into one big commingled lump. I just find it all very confusing.

 

Trans-masculine / Trans-feminine

Recently I’ve become aware of “trans-” being tacked onto “masculine” and “feminine,” as “trans-masculine” and “trans-feminine.” These feel so much like overly manufactured terms. I get what they’re trying to say, that is that a given person is displaying traits of the “other” gender. I feel like these terms muddle the field even further, though, as they add to the discussion the need to understand the specific relevant cultural rules of what constitutes masculine and feminine traits and mannerisms. This adds one more level to these terms that removes them from lived-world experience. Not only that, these two words seem to strongly reify the gender binary [more on “gender binary” soon]. Making ones trans-ness solely based around the gender binary seems all sorts of problematic. I believe it would be much more helpful to work on expanding the concept of “masculine” and “feminine” until they are freely open to all (in reality, everyone is a mix of masculine and feminine traits anyway). Needless to say, I find these terms useless and confusing, not to mention regressive.

 

And the rest

There are other terms: “transvestite,” “crossdresser,” “ hermaphrodite,” “bigender,” “intergender,” “two-spirit,” “she-male,” and a million others. Some of them are seen as slurs by some folks, and some are pretty culturally specific. None of these terms have been terribly useful in telling my story, nor have they really felt like “home,” even though I did try on a couple of them for a time. I tried on “bigender” for about thirty seconds before realizing that it wasn’t a good fit. I tried to use “crossdresser” for longer, but it was clearly never a good fit, and during the whole time I was using it my sense of self was extremely confused.

 

Tranny

I do want to bring up “tranny,” which is very much a hot-button term. “Tranny” is pretty widely viewed as one of the worst of all slurs to use about trans folk of any kind. The problem is that this is the one term that has felt the most comfortable for me all the while. I suppose it’s possible that some of this is due to my contrarian nature, but really I’ve just always found the word playful and light-hearted. I’m well aware of that irony. For many folks the word “tranny” is one of the most hate-filled, dehumanizing words they can hear. I have a problem with the concept of “bad words,” but I do recognize the power of this word, and I do try to be circumspect around its use, though I do still use it.

 

Last thoughts

There are three terms / phrases I want to bring up that will later be explored in more depth, but I feel are important to at least mention here. The first is the phrase “born in wrong the body.” This phrase has always resonated with me: my body was broken, and I fixed it to the current ability of medical science. I have a vivid memory of someone saying that this statement was untrue about transsexualism. This was at a time when I was still trying to figure things out, and I remember thinking, “Well, if transsexualism ~doesn’t~ mean ‘born in the wrong body,’ then I must not be a transsexual.” I understand this phrase is anathema to some people, but for me it has been very helpful. Of course, it’s not a perfect or literal phrase, but it helped to figure out what was going on in my head. The next phrase, which is similarly flawed while still being very useful, is “feel like a woman.” This one always held me up; I still don’t know what it means to “feel like a woman,” I just feel like me. However, this over-simplified, fairly corny phrase was actually a useful jumping off point for me; it enabled me to open the door to really get at what was going on. I remember when I was much younger having the thought “I think I’m a girl,” but that was always overwhelming; I just couldn’t process that or ask for help. “Feeling like a woman,” while being an almost silly thought, really was helpful. Lastly is “cure.” Here’s another one that seems to cause a lot of controversy. As I said above, for me, the concept that this was something that was ~wrong~ with me that I needed to “cure” was what made (and makes) the most sense. I understand that the idea of pathology doesn’t work for many people, but it’s the only way of thinking about it that works for me. I’ve heard it said that if one was born trans, then you’ll always be trans. I’m here to say that’s not true. I am not trans anymore.

 

Why

So, if I’m not trans anymore, if I’m cured of my transsexualism, why talk about this? Shouldn’t I leave it to the people who are either still living their struggle or who see these terms as more of an ongoing identity? No, I don’t believe I should. I have observed so many women like me, that is, post-corrected, hetero-normative, women who blend into society drift away from these discussions. I feel it’s important to have my voice be part of the discussion. Honestly, I firmly believe that there are still little girls and boys as confused as I was, who continue to be under-served by the language as it stands. And I believe the language is only moving away from these kids as well. The language seems to work well for many, but I feel like the language literally held me back, and I think we can do better.

The other reason to continue talking about this part of my story is that it is simply that: a part of my story. I am tired of being scared or ashamed of my past. I’m tired of thinking that if people know about my past that it will change how they feel about me. I’m tired of not talking about certain subjects because I’m not supposed to. I need this language because my ex-wife is still my best friend. I need this language because I refuse to deny my friends from my all-boys Catholic High School. I need this language to tell my story, my whole story.

 

Hypocrite

But, wait, some of those who know me have heard me refer to myself as “trans” or “transgender.” What gives? I was even in a major newspaper letting them call me “transgender.” Am I really that big a hypocrite? Well, maybe. The truth is that sometimes I need to explain certain parts of my story briefly, and the reality is that people are starting to know the words “trans” and “transgender.” Whenever I can, I make it clear to people how uncomfortable I am with those terms. A big part of the reason I’m engaging in this discussion is because I sometimes find myself forced to use these words because there are none better. I’ve used the phrase “woman of transsexual history” before, but, while that feels more accurate, it’s about as inelegant a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. My current approach seems to be to not really talk about it with people too much until I have time to actually explain things fully, in a way that feels authentic.
Closing

Finally, I know that my preferred language feels uncomfortable for others. I know that some women and men who choose different or fewer or no surgical options often find the concept of a “post-corrected” woman difficult. I understand that some people refuse to accept that I have been cured. I get that “transgender” seems to work for so many people. I’m not sure what to say about that; I am trying to positively, definitively, and intentionally tell my story. It is not my intention to invalidate the stories of others. I am hoping that this language continues to grow to tell all types of stories.

My, How We Categorize Each Other

I’ve never cared much about the groups to which people belong. I’m human, and I do tend to lump people together in categories, especially people I don’t know, because it just sort of helps to keep track sometimes of populations of people that far outnumber my ability to have an accurate or detailed idea of everyone. These lumps are fuzzy and coarse, and I’m not remotely attached to them (so, if I label someone as “Brown-eyed” and later find out that they actually have hazel eyes that are only brown sometimes, I’ll have no problem letting go of my erroneous classification and I’ll hope that they weren’t offended by my mistake – similarly, I try not to be frustrated when someone mislabels me, because I know how easy it is to do). I hate labels and classifications, and yet I use them all the time just to keep track of folks. I have some friends who love Broadway Musicals; if I were to organize a trip to see “Evita” it would be helpful to know who I should ask. But then maybe a friend who usually hates musicals just happens to love “Evita” for some reason. So the distinctions are useful, but they can also be a trap if they’re held too rigidly.

I try to never use these lumps as ways of segregating folks. I have a hard time with spaces that are exclusive. My church is “Radically Welcoming,” the generally queer open-mic that I attend is certainly inclusive, when I open my house to my friends it is open to all of my friends. I become overwhelmed at rallies and sporting events because the “hive mind” feels oppressive to me (I’m very empathic, and I feel the weight of so many people thinking the same thing as suffocating – I find it physically uncomfortable).

I don’t understand why we don’t celebrate our differences. Labels are fine for groups of people, but they’re really too coarse to do a good job of describing individuals. Groups created around labels can be great, but I don’t understand why they need to be exclusive. I posted pretty regularly on a message board a few years ago, and the rule was that content could be moderated, but people would not be (so, anyone could post, they just had to stay on topic). I tend to live my life much that way, finding open assemblages of folks who come together as much out of some random commonality as any of their labels.

I simply have never understood why it is necessary for folks to work so hard at othering other folks. People are “gay” or “Republican” or “Communist” or “hippie” or “geek” or “hipster” or “straight” or “trans” or “Catholic” or “foreign” or “Irish” or whatever. And the labels aren’t really that problematic, honestly no matter what they are. So much of the trouble starts when people use the labels to be a form of “like me” vs. “not like me” which all too quickly turns to “like me (=good)” vs. “not like me (=bad).” I’ve mentioned before how I simply have never understood the prevalence of “us vs. them” thinking that so many people engage in. I watched liberals call George W. Bush “Hitler.” Now I’m watching conservatives call Barack Obama “Hitler.” It’s pretty depressing, and from my perspective I just can’t understand. I believe that people are generally good, and want what’s best. Good people can disagree. Why do disagreements turn into personal ad hominems so easily and so often? I get uncomfortable when my friends start bad-mouthing groups of people, it doesn’t matter which group is being slammed. My Darling Boyfriend says this is deep-seated and has to do with our tribal roots, but I hope and pray that we can grow beyond it and start to see all other people as connected to us.

I’m expected to think a certain way because of the groups I belong to – the labels I wear, and it’s as frustrating when friends do it as it is when people who dislike me do it. It might explain why my favorite label is, shockingly enough, “Penny.” When it comes down to it, the labels I wear, and the rules I break and follow, all combine to make me a unique whole. Shoving people into lumps can be useful sometimes, but everyone is unique, and I work hard to always remember that.

I’ve been watching several things happen online lately that have just made me so sad…

I’ve been reading and expanding some of my ideas on the Chartreuse Flamethrower. I’ve had trouble processing some of the ideas expressed there, but I think it’s important, most notably because I’m having trouble understanding. And I’m most interested in understanding folks different from me – I already understand me.

I read about one way of looking at being trans written by Dyssonance, and  I found myself disagreeing strongly with her thoughts. I have found the concept that my SRS was a “cure” to be just about the perfect way to express what was going on both internally and externally. But I’m not threatened that the idea that transition or surgery is a cure doesn’t work for everyone. For me, it was pretty clearly a physical birth defect. I get that different people have different experiences, and again, I think that’s really cool. Other folks’ experiences do not invalidate my own – how could they?

I read about the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, and the many people boycotting businesses in the state, and how that’s effecting trans folk in the state.

I read about ENDA, and how trans folk (and really anyone who transgresses gender stereotypes) may get stripped from the bill once again.

I read about how WPATH is encouraging the depathologization of trans folk in the new DSM, and how an intersex group feels that can lead to their further pathologization.  And I wish there was a way to make it possible for folks who want or need medical intervention to get it while not stigmatizing everyone who is either trans or intersex.

And I read Zoe Brain, whom I continue to think is the bees knees, talk about the incidence of intersex, and say this: “I just see that while there are two distinct sexes, there’s an area between, neurologically and anatomically, where things are not so straightforward. Someone can be neurologically usual, but otherwise anatomically unusual, or the reverse.” And I just think that makes so much sense, but then I wonder if that would make others feel squeamish (with the word “usual” being so close to “normal” and all).

I just can’t understand why defining oneself is so often a leaping off point for saying how others definition of themselves is either wrong or evil. I love the diversity of expression that I see in the world around me. And I’m always surprised by the people whom I end up loving and disliking. I’ve met Swedes and drummers and trans folk and Christians and liberals and conservatives and a million other people from a million other labels and descriptions, and whether I like or dislike them (and vice-versa) seems much more often to be about who we each are as people – not about their or my labels.

This post has turned into my usual quoting of Rodney King, Bilbo Baggins, and Bill & Ted, respectively: “Can’t we all just get along” … “I simply do not understand war” … “Be excellent to each other; party on dudes…”

But there it is – can’t we just be gentle with each other?

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…

Learning the Language

Tell me about the man who became a woman.
— ten year-old to Bishop Tom Shaw after he received me into The Episcopal Church
Did you used to be a guy?
— The Darling Boyfriend right after I told him about my history of transsexualism

I’ve been talking a lot lately to a lot of people. I’ve been meeting new people. I’ve been reconnecting with old friends. I use specific language to tell my story when I speak with people, but other people make a muddle of all the words and concepts that they have for transsexualism, transgender, intersex, genderqueer, and queer folks. I’m not talking about people who think I’m some sort of freak or abomination; I’m talking about folks who are very new to the concept that a woman could be born with the wrong body – or that someone might not be comfortable with our easy little binary of “man ~OR~ woman” – or that someone might dress like what is perceived to be their opposite sex for either fun or profit – or that someone might feel more comfortable identifying with the opposite sex but might not need or want medical interventions. I’m talking about folks who are eager to understand, but don’t yet. And maybe they can never fully grok the experience, that’s fine. The very fact that they’re asking questions and interested in understanding as best they can is something that is really lovely.

All this expansion has taught me that I need to let go of my rigid sense of self when it comes to other peoples word choice. What does that mean? Well, I’m a woman. I get that. I was born with a birth defect. I get that. I’m heterosexual and so is my boyfriend. I get that. I’m my mother’s daughter. I get that. I’m infertile, and my infertility bites at me just like it would at any woman. I get that.

But I didn’t always have words to describe it. I don’t know anything now that I haven’t known for my entire life. But when I was six I didn’t have words – I just hurt myself. And when I was 12 I didn’t have words – I just tried to figure out why I felt like I might be a girl even though I had a penis. And when I was 16 I didn’t have words – I just knew I hated the effect testosterone had on me. And when I was 18 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to have sex with men. And when I was 20 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to wear feminine clothes. And when I was 25 I didn’t have words – I just wanted to paint my fingernails. And at none of these points could I see the whole picture. I was glimpsing pieces of the puzzle, never able to fully accept or process what I was seeing. What seems so annoyingly obvious in retrospect was completely confounding at the time – in the moment.

And so, if I didn’t always have the words for it ~while I was living it~, how can I possibly hold others to a higher standard than that? Why was it ever difficult to be patient with others? Maybe it was an expression of my own frustration finally coming out. Maybe I’ve been militant about language simply as a reaction to my own inability to find the right words for so much of my life. I guess I still have a lot to learn.

It was the bishop telling me about that question the 10 year-old asked him: “Tell me about the man who became a woman.” Six months ago my skin would have crawled and I would gotten all language-police about it – yes, even with a ten year old. But in the moment when the bishop said that I finally put it all together. I fully support the people who live very quietly about their medical history, but I think it’s important for the world to understand transsexualism and transgender and intersex. I think it’s important because people still misunderstand and hate and hurt. I believe that the world can be a better place. And so for me, right now, what I need to do is, as I said in my last post, tell my story.

For that ten year old, the words he has are “the man who became a woman.” For my Darling Boyfriend it was “used to be a guy.” Another thing I’ve heard from people is that I “decided to be a woman.” There are many more misconceptions and poor ways to word things, but almost always it seems like it’s done more from ignorance than hatred.

And so I have decided to make a conscious effort to not take the way anyone else describes me personally. It won’t always be easy, I’m pretty sensitive after all. But most people seem to be just curious and they’re doing their level best to understand. It’s tempting to react with Calpernia Addams’ “Bad Questions” when people are ignorant in ways that cause some discomfort, but I’m feeling like I don’t want to do that. I’m very lucky in that I blend really well, so nobody ambushes me with these questions anymore, and that is a help. I’m consciously putting myself out there from a position of strength to be a tool for education. Few people know the answers to these questions better than those of us living it; I think it makes sense for me to be answering those questions – even when they’re really personal. Who better, right?

So, while I will maintain my own focus and integrity with my story and will endeavor to be even more clear with my choice of language, I will also allow for the fact that many other folks will be learning things that they may have never considered before. They will need time, space, and patience to learn the correct language. It makes it especially difficult because there are several different ways to say so many of these things; there are so many different ways to tell the stories. I can offer my story, and I will do it sincerely, openly, and gently.

Let’s all educate each other…

Trans Lobby Day 2010

“I might have to become politically active.”

I said that to my Gram about five years ago, when I first told her that I was trans.

I was never one to stand up for myself. I was never one to separate myself from the crowd. I was never one to be political. And yet here I am, going to meet with my state legislators to urge them to support the Trans Civil Rights Bill in Massachusetts.  My words to my Gram have come true, and I’ve become politically active.

Of course, it’s been building for a while. I met my state senator about two months ago and urged him to help move the bill out of the judiciary committee. I’ve volunteered a few times with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. I marched in the Trans Pride parade in Northampton. I marched in the Pride Parade in Boston. I organized an open mic night at my church to support Trans awareness. I went to The Day of Remembrance. I blog. I tease and pretend that I’m not really that active, or that I don’t do too much, but I guess I really am pretty out there.

And so it never dawned on me that I wouldn’t go to the Lobby Day today; it was just something that I knew I would do.

It was an amazing day. I saw so many people I know, and so many people that know me. This really is my community – not because we share some connection to the “trans-umbrella,” but because these are my friends; these are lovely people; these are special people. These are people that I am proud to call my community.

I listened to the speakers at the rally, and there were many, and they were moving. I was surrounded by members of my church, including my priest, and I was moved to tears several times. Hearing folks talk about the discrimination they had faced simply for not conforming to what society thinks a man or a woman is supposed to be was heart-breaking. Hearing some of the legislative co-sponsors of the bill speak helped to balance that heaviness with positivity.

After the rally I went off to see my legislators. I saw staff members in both offices. My Representative, A. Stephen Tobin, is a co-sponsor of the bill, so I offered my thanks. My Senator, Michael Morrissey, was on vacation somewhere warm (smart man). He is a supporter, though not a co-sponsor, so I again offered thanks and urged his staff member to have him write a letter to the judiciary committee to help move the bill to the full houses of the legislature for a vote.

I also made a new friend who lives about a mile from my house. That’s pretty cool!

From chatting with folks, it seems like Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, the chair on the house side of the joint judiciary committee, is holding the bill in committee. And it seems the issue, as it seems to always be, is scary trannies in bathrooms. It makes me really frustrated that the issue is framed this way. In my experience, people who are trans tend to get in and out of the restroom as quickly as possible to avoid any stir. When I was in the midst of my transition, for example, and wasn’t sure whether I would be seen as an intruder in the ladies room, I went to great lengths to avoid using public restrooms at all. I would purposely dehydrate myself so that I wouldn’t have to use a public facility that everyone should take as a public accommodation. When I would go out to gigs I would refuse to use the restroom out of fear that someone might make an issue of me being in the “wrong place.” I often ended up in great physical discomfort, and I’m sure it’s possible that I did some damage to my kidneys, but I was that terrified of using the ladies room. I finally got over it when I flew to Iowa for some gigs. When I was at the airport I had to pee, so I went and peed – I even stood in line. And the world didn’t end. I had been living full-time for eight months by that point, and I had still been too scared to use the proper restroom. It’s just so sad that something that most trans folk are terrified about is turned around and used as if we are just trying to get into public restrooms to cause mischief. *sigh* I have yet to see a report of a trans person causing trouble in a public restroom (short of “causing trouble” by merely having the temerity to exist). It’s just so sad.

So, I feel positive about the day, and my activism. But I also feel sad that it seems so easy for others to hate and fear people whom they don’t understand.

Trans. Rights. Now.

Meeting my Senator

So, I’ve been super-busy these last few weeks (as regular readers would notice), but I’ve got to try to catch up a little bit, as so many amazing things have been happening.

A couple weeks ago I met with my state senator to urge him to support the transgender civil rights bill before the legislature. I can say whatever I’ve said about labels, both my own and others, but I feel very strongly that no one should be discriminated against based on how the world perceives the rightness or wrongness of their gender expression. And so I think this bill is important. To say nothing of how much easier (and earlier) I think my own transition could have been in a world that understands the diversity of the human condition.

Anyway…

I met with the head of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition before the meeting, and also met a wonderful couple who went with me to meet our senator.

We didn’t get to see the senator for long, as he was late for a caucus, but we did sit with him for a few minutes. I told him that we were there to ask him to support the transgender civil rights bill, and he said that he would. It was sort of weird, because I had been lead to believe that he was a little more luke-warm on support than he seemed. He looked me right in the eyes and said that he couldn’t see why he wouldn’t support it.

So, yay!

I was pretty damned nervous going into the state house, but the day became a very empowering experience.

I am amazed at the person it turns out I am.

Privilege. Who, me?

I have lots of privilege. Truth be told, most of us do. Sure, there are varying degrees of privilege in this world, but every time I see or hear privilege being discussed I think of the old saw that goes: “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw the man who had no feet.” It’s not to minimize the concept of privilege, or to deny that some people clearly benefit from not much else than the luck of their birth. I guess what I’m saying is that for me the concept of privilege is most useful when I’m examining my own advantages. I find that if I worry too much about anyone else’s privilige I can quickly get caught up in divisive language and attitudes. So when it comes to privilige in the sociopolitical sense, I’ll examine my own, but I probably won’t talk too much about anyone else’s.

So, yea, I’m a pretty blessed lady. I spent a long time being pretty depressed, and then I spent some time being pretty caught up with my disadvantages. It was only a few months ago that I started realizing how blessed I truly am, how much privilege I have. It’s true that I have worked very hard to get my life to the point where it is, but I have had help and blessings along the way. And now that I am where I am, I have blessings and privilege that I never imagined would be possible.

The first is this thing called “passing privilege.” Simply put, it means that when I walk around, people look at me and interact with me and see a “big girl.” Very few (if any) people are able to discern anything about my unusual history unless I choose to reveal those details. This is something that most people take for granted; most men and women never have to give a second thought to being seen as the man or woman that they are. With people with similar histories and life struggles as me, though, this is not always the case. For many people, being seen by the world as one wishes to be seen is a constant struggle. I knew I was ready to give up trying to be something I wasn’t when I knew that even if the world always thought of me as transgender, I had to live an authentic life anyway. It was almost shocking when I realized that the world sees me as the normal woman I always wanted to be. I work everyday to not take that for granted, because it would be so easy to, and I know how hard I worked for it, and I know that it will never happen for some people.

Passing privilege carries a lot with it, and it sort of piggy-backs with “heterosexual privilege.” When people ask about my ex-spouse, unless they know about my history, they ask about my “ex-husband” (depending on the context I correct them or not). When I tell people I’m dating they assume I’m dating a man (and I am). People ask me about having kids (which touches on one of my burdens, my infertility, but it’s still part of straight privilege).

I’m realizing that there’s a lot of overlap here. People make assumptions about me because they perceive me to be a heterosexual woman. I am, which means that those assumptions are correct and validating. But those assumptions could just as easily be wrong. This is one of those things that makes privilege such a sticky concept. Back in the before time, one could make an argument that I possessed “male privilege,” but I never wanted it, I tried to disavow it whenever possible, I tried to never benefit from it, and I found the very fact that I was ~assumed~ to possess it incredibly invalidating.

Anyway, onward…

I could afford surgery. I guess I’ll call it “surgical privilege.” This is a big one here. Yes, I have a mortgage on my home solely because I needed to finance my surgery and other costs of transition (I think the total is probably around $70,000 at this point, and I’d say I’m basically “done”). I certainly don’t think of myself as well-off financially. In fact, I joke about being poor and broke quite a bit (and I’m not really joking). But when it comes down to it, I have financial advantages that lots of people don’t have. I have health insurance, yet treatments for transsexualism are ~specifically excluded~ from coverage under my health insurance plan (as they are from most plans). Even though I was able to fund my surgery, this is one of those pet issues for me. Sex reassignment surgery should be covered by insurance. I’m pretty adamant about that. I do not consider it elective or cosmetic any more than surgery for a cleft palate is cosmetic or elective. This is a surgery that is medically necessary for some people (and it’s a vanishingly small percentage of the population) and it should be covered by insurance. But, back to the point: the fact that I could afford SRS is a huge privilege, and I am very cognizant of that fact. [I didn’t even touch on the fact that surgical options for women seem to still be much more advanced and less costly than they are for men, which certainly grants me some privilige.]

I’m not sure how to word this one, but I have “support privilege.” I am horrified that so many transsexual people seem to lose their families and/or friends and/or jobs simply because of their medical condition. Society seems to be working its way toward understanding, but there are many who think of this as something wrong or evil or sinful or hilarious. Parents turn their back on their children. Employers fire their best employees. Friends stop calling their best friends. People lose people because of this condition, and I think it sucks. I don’t understand, and I may never understand. I do recognize, though, that I am blessed beyond words in this category. My grandmother, who messed up my name and pronoun until she passed away (at 94!), loved me and kept trying to get my name and pronoun right until the day she died. She would introduce me as her grand daughter. My mom has said she always wanted a daughter, and I am that daughter. My extended family has been amazing and loving. My friends have been, simply, my friends, always. What more can I say. Then there’s my church. My church gathered around me and layed their hands on me and prayed over me the day before I left for surgery. My church has encouraged my spiritual growth. My church has helped me to find my voice as a leader (a process that continues). My church has been the hand of God in my life (it’s funny how that’s works, eh?). There are so many other ways in which I’ve experienced support privilege. Even something silly like living in Boston, which has such a plethora of support options for transsexuals, is not lost on me.

There are a million other ways in which I’m privileged. One of the ones I’m sure that I don’t pay enough attention to is “white privilege.” But there are scads more. I think the most dangerous ones are the ones that go unnoticed.

Anyway, yea, I’ve got lots of privilege, who’d’ve thunk? And I think it’s important to examine my privilege. I probably won’t go around pointing out other peoples privilige, because I have found it unhelpful for me. I find the concept of privilige most useful, as I said earlier, when I’m examining my own.

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