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.