On being both transgender and transsexual
August 29, 2011 § 16 Comments
Oh, words. Lovely, horrible, limited, changeable words. And activist communities. And confusion/blurred lines/regional variations/unique personalities – and the unfortunate trend for some oppressed people to try to make themselves feel better by spreading the pain around whilst playing the martyr.
Oh, I almost feel like I’m cuing up a prize fight. In the blue corner we have the radical genderqueer, transgender crowd – socking it to the patriarchy, breaking down the very concepts of sex/gender/desire/identity/relationship. Or, if you will, the confused and irritating queers who just want to cause a fuss. The butch lesbians and sissy gays who got too big for their boots. Little kids throwing a tantrum because they want daddy to pay attention to them. And, over here in the red – ladies and gentlemen (and yes, those are your only options) – the transsexuals. Or women and men of transsexual history! Sell-outs to the heteronormative majority! Dupes who couldn’t face their homosexual desires, and changed their bodies to conform to society at large! Or, wait – would that be brave pioneers who told the world that each person deserves the right to dictate their own future – that the mind and soul of a person cannot be constrained by the circumstances of their birth?
Urgh, false dichotomies – aren’t they disgusting? And yet, according to some activists, activists who, mind you, have far more in common when it comes to their goals and lived experiences than they might care to admit, there is a terrible line to be drawn. An imaginary line which is constantly disrupted by the actual lives of many people – and to this messy, irritating group I would sign my name.
To try to define ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ in the broadest and most benign terms (bearing in mind, of course, the fantastical nature of signifiers, and the mutable, historical meanings of both ‘gender’ and ‘sex’) – I might say that to be transsexual is to feel a difference between the physical presence of the ‘sexed’ body (secondary sexual characteristics, genital configuration etc.) and the proprioceptive presence of the sexed body. To be blunt – what IS there is not what the self FEELS to be there. And to be transgender? To challenge, in any variety of ways, the many forms of identity that society casts under the umbrella of the word ‘gender’. Ways of presenting the body through clothes, adornment, make-up, posture, gesture, voice, interpersonal interaction. Ways of presenting the self through thoughts, words, deeds. Philosophical challenges. Intellectual challenges. Romantic challenges.
It’s easy for me to say that I’m both transsexual and transgender – and to take, therefore, the shortened terms of ‘trans’ to heart. It’s a constant effort to remember that, to the world at large, my body is sexuated (let’s adapt some Lacan here, shall we?) as traditionally female. When puberty hit the parts of my body that were consistent with the old XX chromosomes simply didn’t feel like me anymore – like they genuinely weren’t represented in my mind – a blank, where flesh ought to have been – or vice versa. Before top surgery I felt like I was being driven mad through claustrophobia. I’m pretty much shuddering as I write this.
But it also took me a long time to think that the word transsexual could include people like me, because traditional notions of gender made no sense either. I didn’t see the world as divided between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Nothing I’ve ever read or seen has convinced me of those immutable, eternal, external categories. I think that so many of the world’s troubles come from trying to force humanity into narrow categories that cannot possibly allow or contain the diversity of the creatures within them, and that a social movement to challenge that process of categorisation could do a lot of good.
In effect – the corporeal body is a modified variant on what is, fundamentally, considered female. The mental map of that body is a modified variant on what is considered male. And the self that encompasses and transcends that is just, kind of – you know – itself. Something that can barely even start to understand what people MEAN by ‘male’ and ‘female’. Very contradictory, I’m sure. And transgender philosophy has certainly helped me come to terms with, and be proud of, a body and an experience that cis society has deemed pathetic, shameful or disgusting.
In short, a big of mess of unique. Just as I am convinced that everyone else in the world is a big mess of unique. That, if we were to break absolutely everything down, to examine the last little corners of everyone’s minds, not only would ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ cease to make sense, but so would ‘male/female’, ‘butch/femme’, ‘bigendered/unigendered’ – and, ultimately, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’.
And, to bring it back to activist communities, and the words we use – I’m sure that some people reading this will agree with me. And others will think it’s a load of what my Nana would call ‘tosh’. I think that’s wonderful. I also think that it’s largely irrelevant. When people across the world are murdered for changing their bodies or changing their mannerisms – children to elders and everyone in between. When, regardless of what they would call themselves, kids who LOOK like they transgress sex or gender norms are gunned down in classrooms. When employment is denied. When healthcare is denied. When families cut all ties. When suicide looks like the only option. And when, with all of this, a person could think that an argument about who gets to be in the club and who gets left out is valid? Frankly, I don’t give a damn if someone feels like they’re cis or trans, or a drag king/queen, or a woman of history, or a femmeboiqueer – just so long as they’re committed to fighting injustice they sound fabulous to me. And I hope that, if legislation does get held up, if communities do break down in fighting, if personal attacks are made – that there’ll be people like me who throw the proverbial spanner in the works to make a fuss about the cause we’re working for being more important than the words we use to describe ourselves.
I’m not fighting for the right for everyone else to be exactly like me. Not even vaguely like me. But I would give everything for each person’s right to be wonderfully, and strangely, and totally themselves.
Thank you. I think the clincher for me was when an xtra-special TS woman told me that the rights of FTM’s weren’t “her fight.” God, that’s gotta be one perfect partyin’ crew, huh?
Thank you again for a sweet and reasoned dose of reality.
I’m sure you’ve had a look at Ansara & Hegarty’s ‘Cisgenderism in Psychology: Pathologizing and misgendering children’
in which they promote the term ‘CISGENDERISM’ as a prejudicial ideology … not to be confused with a state of personal gender identity or experience:
“… unlike ‘transphobia’, cisgenderism describes a prejudicial ideology, rather than an individual attitude, that is systemic, multi-level and reflected in authoritative cultural discourses …
… We consider cisgenderism to be a form of ‘othering’ that takes people categorised as ‘transgender’ as ‘the effect to be explained’ ”
There should be no need for any of us to explain our gender to anybody but ourselves [if we feel it is even necessary to go beyond comfort in our own gender presentation or body sex]. Turn the argument out …
… In saying this I think we do need to acknowledge, as you do, that ‘TRANSGENDERISM’ and ‘TRANSSEXUALISM’ are too often presented as prejudicial [and mutually incompatible] ideologies as opposed to a personal gender identity or experience.
personally, i think Patrick McGoohan said a lot more succinctly…a lot more powerfully:
“I will not make any deals with you… I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”
I don’t disagree with the sentiments, Jane, but perhaps Patrick McGoohan is an unfortunate choice although he actually illustrates the core problem rather well. As a white, male, educated actor, throughout the Danger Man series he developed a persona as the defender of middle-class British values [and casually ‘modern’ masculine clothing styles], who patronised women and foreigners and never questioned his own position as the moral compass of each episode. Even the accent, despite its enticingly classless Irish edge, might be described as assimilated posh. The only difference between him and James Bond was his more courtly style and determined resistance to fleshly temptation from ‘the fairer sex’. Perhaps Lisbeth Salander of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’, with her gypsy blood and her ASD issues, might make a better example although its debatable whether her genesis in the mind of a middle-class Swedish journalist makes her more a sexually fascinating male fantasy figure than a true champion of marginalised people.
This may all seem a rather absurd quibble but I don’t think it is. What Asara and Hegarty are on about is how embedded patronising cis-genderist attitudes are in academia and in the culture more generally. You can’t just say to trans people … particularly young trans people who may have been denied family, education, housing, even human love and friendship. … “Get like McGoohan!” and expect it just to take.
This is particularly brought home again by an article in the Huffpost yesterday by Ja’briel Walthour: “One Day Our Change Will Come: A Call to Raise Awareness and End Violence Against Transgender Women of Color”, in which a couple of sentences particularly stand out to me:
“There isn’t much that compares to the humiliation, rejection and fear of living your life as an out and proud transgender woman of color. To face discrimination and biased attitudes is one thing; to stare down the barrel of a loaded weapon, is another.”
My point really was that the argument must be turned back on the cisgenderist establishment. It is not just that trans people need to move beyond glad acceptance of any toleration offered and start to understand we have equal human rights also. It is going to be very hard to persuade many that this is the case unless the great majority of cisgenderist people start to recognise their assumed privilege … and I would say we are currently almost at zero on the scale of their understanding of this. This may seem to stray from the point of CN’s blog but I don’t think so. So long as different cliques within the trans community continue to promote their own prejudicial ideologies and, as soon as they’ve acquired some privilege, energetically to protect it, there’s always going to be a problem. And, as we all know, protecting privilege very often exists under a cloak of either lack-of-awareness of that privilege or … more sinister … a deliberate blindness. There is some fury among non-binary folk in the UK at the way their existence has so often been erased by transsexual folk. In the USA, where transsexual rights have lagged behind the UK, there is a backlash by transsexual folk against the way they perceive their call for medical rights being erased by middle-class, middle-aged, affluent white ‘transgenders’.
These divisions are terribly destructive to all trans activism but it seems to me there is a simple and blindingly obvious solution. THE WHOLE PROBLEM IS CISGENDERIST IDEOLOGY combined with our own supine acceptance that we are ‘the problem to be explained’ … How long have we all spent trying to explain ourselves? How many millions of words have we read where other trans people try to explain themselves? How many words by one set of trans people ‘explaining’ or erasing another set.
The major caveat I would always add is that this ideology must be separated out from the acceptance of any person’s experience of being cisgender, transgender, transsexual, non binary or whatever. That’s a personal thing and the thing is … IT’S ALL FINE … end of story 🙂
Jane, I agree that Patrick McGoohan is more succinct and I enjoyed reading it. We were of course constrained by the dictates of journal article writing, as you will no doubt appreciate. 🙂
CN Lester, I agree with misswonderly’s empowering reminder that you should not have to justify or explain your gender to anyone. I hope you are able to surround yourself with people in your personal life who respect you as you are.
No notion of gender (or race or creed or mental capacity or anything else) can be more important than the notion of humanity. Live at peace with all starting with your self is the whole of the law.
Thanks…liked this very, very much and now feel definitely spurred to get on and riposte…
First time I’ve read your blog, and I’m already head over heels.
Thanks for writing this – it’s pretty much what I think and try to express, but every time I even start to think about it the rage drowns out the words.
[…] On being both transgender and transsexual « a gentleman and a scholar In short, a big of mess of unique. Just as I am convinced that everyone else in the world is a big mess of unique. That, if we were to break absolutely everything down, to examine the last little corners of everyone’s minds, not only would ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ cease to make sense, but so would ‘male/female’, ‘butch/femme’, ‘bigendered/unigendered’ – and, ultimately, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’. […]
I love your blog! As a (mostly) cisgendered, (mostly) straight individual, I find it really helpful that you take the time to write these kinds of posts in your blog, as although this is obviously the experience of one unique individual, reading this and other articles has given me a small window into ways that my own thinking and behaviour, and that of wider society, may unthinkingly be negatively impacting other people. I consider myself to be an ally, but it is still hard to shake off some of the negative or patronising stereotypes and attitudes which pervade our culture.
Loved this piece. Thought-provoking; nice sense of personality – and the dense complex patches weren’t dull. A definite pleasure to read aloud, as well. The stretch of “When . . .” sentences is almost Churchill.
The interesting thing is that, by one direction of logical conclusion, everyone is transgendered…
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[…] When it comes to terminology I’d say use ‘trans’ as default and then ask politely for any further clarification? I do think that there’s a tendency for online debate about labels and descriptives to spiral into a black hole of despair – that being said, it’s often a job that needs doing. I would certainly say that parts of my life could be described in the crossover between ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ (see post here). […]
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