The Sucking Sound of Secrets


The Sucking Sound of Secrets

Nancy R. Nangeroni

It seems like you can’t do much of anything these days without encountering gender transgression of one flavor or another. While it’s nothing new in music, it has become a mainstay of the television ratings race over the last decade. Lately, Hollywood has caught the wave, and transgenderism has become a popular presence in movies ranging from the fanciful Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the deadly serious The Crying Game. In books, transgender authors have moved beyond the soul-baring tell-all, and are now being published in serious works on the subject, such as Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, and the latest, a thought-provoker by Martine Rothblatt called The Apartheid of Sex.

If the media is any indication, interest in gender transgression is definitely on the upswing. Perhaps this surge in interest is what led Beacon Press to recently reissue Janice Raymond’s THE TRANSSEXUAL EMPIRE: the Making of the She-Male. Whatever the reason, we are once again confronted with this book which is so offensive to transsexuals. It’s reputation precedes it as being most unkind in its portrayal of transsexual motivation, integrity, and very right to exist. It supposedly depicts transsexuals as men so hungry for power over women that they mutilate themselves in order to infiltrate women’s groups. Once ‘in’, they are free to seize the reigns of power, once again asserting male domination over women. The author, a prominent lesbian feminist, stirs up considerable resistance among women to the acceptance of these men-become-women. Among transsexuals, the book’s reputation makes it out to be a sort of Mein Kampf for transsexual hatred.

For the longest time, I avoided reading Raymond. After all, it was said to be mostly hate and vitriol. Then one day I was asked to do a presentation on transgenderism at the Northampton Women’s Music Festival. I did so, and in attendance at my presentation was a young transsexual woman who later accused me of naivetÈ, suggesting in no uncertain terms that to make such a presentation without having read Empire (along with other feminist writings), was presumptuous and neglectful. Fortunately, she also expressed respect for my overall views and hope for the future. Though at first taken aback, I soon figured it probably wouldn’t kill me to do some extra reading, and it might even teach me something. So I read it.

Raymond’s book turned out to be quite different from what I had been led to expect. I actually liked some parts of it. No, I’m not a transsexual hater. Some of my best friends are transsexuals, including me.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is kind to transsexuals the same way the iceberg was kind to the Titanic. And just as cold. But, like the iceberg, the book underscores certain truths.

The problem with The Transsexual Empire is that it’s packed with fallacy. Though Janice Raymond manages to generate a few good ideas, she falls into the all too common myopia of victimizing women, this time at the hands of transsexuals who fail to take up the cause of deconstructing gender. She presumes agreement that social norms of polarized gender display are inherently evil. Thus the transsexual, by choosing to change poles rather than fight the presumptive imposition of poles, merely reinforces the evil. The assertion that the transsexual is the agent of patriarchal evil (and Raymond excuses Female to Male transsexuals from blame by identifying them as dupes of the patriarch, hence blameless victims) is repeated throughout.

The book was originally published in 1979, and in a new introduction to the 1994 edition, Raymond addresses her detractors and attempts to justify her views. Disappointingly, she exhibits little growth in understanding over the 15-year intervening period, and the lengthy introduction only reiterates her established position.

The important point that Raymond misses is that difference is exciting. Androgyny has been around for a long time, but never caught on in a big way. Why? Probably because it’s not what most people want. What people want is freedom of choice with respect to the elements of masculinity and femininity. In other words, we don’t want others telling us that we have to wear a dress and makeup, or that we have to cut our hair and play football. But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate beauty in a woman and strength in a man.

This is not to say that things are fine the way they are. The social hostility towards those who run against the norm is terribly damaging. There’s nothing wrong with someone desiring and choosing to migrate to the opposite pole, though there are some who would do violence against such exercise of freedom. There’s also nothing wrong with migrating towards the middle, as many women have done for years, though some women and men alike resist allowing the same freedom to men. What’s wrong is when people are denied the freedom to autonomous pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. This denial is terribly hurtful to the individual, and, as all things tend to come full circle, it ends up being hurtful to all of us.

So what of Raymond’s good ideas? Unfortunately, those who might benefit most from them, i.e. transsexuals, tend to get so out of joint at her scornfully presumptive fallacy that they fail to see them. Which is no big loss, truly, since her ideas are no longer unique. However, there’s one concept for which she has found appealingly succinct expression. It is a fundamental dilemma in the transgender community, and the most grievous fault she finds. It boils down to integration vs. integrity: integration as blending into society; integrity as loyalty to the truth of one’s self.

Fortunately, this is not an idea which has escaped the transgender community. Today, more and more transsexuals refuse to lie about their past. More and more crossdressers are owning up to others about their fascinating pastime. Finally, a community of transgender is emerging from the closet, reaping the benefits of brother- and sisterhood, not to mention self-respect.

I agree with Raymond. I do question the integrity of ‘changing’ one’s past. It’s not evil, as she implies, it’s just dishonest. It’s not indicative of collusion with some sinister dark force, patriarchal or otherwise. But it does violate the integrity of the individual the first time he or she has to stretch the fabric of the truth in order to preserve a semblance of something that wasn’t. Is this wrong? Is it wrong to choose a life course whose attendant is paranoia? That’s hard to say. If the alternative is an even greater – and justified – paranoia, then perhaps not. Is it wrong to counsel such a choice? Possibly. One has to wonder why transsexuals have been — and are still — counseled by professionals to commit themselves to a life based on a lie. Does the potential – proven to be highly likely – for a lifetime of discrimination justify living a lie? I don’t think so. After all, the person who is short and ugly faces the same likelihood of discrimination. So too do others who are not stereotypically attractive within any dominant culture.

Would we counsel our citizens that a lie is preferable to the truth if it might bring more happiness? We’d better not. If we do that, then we build our society along invisible lines of prejudice. We’re already misled into seeking happiness rather than creating it. Heaven forbid that finding happiness depend on pretending to be something we’re not, already a chillingly familiar notion. Once we start pretending to be something we’re not, we bind ourselves into an ever-tightening web of lies. Our lives become driven by the need to protect secrets. Happiness fades from view while daily existence becomes a struggle of constant vigilance and invention. The truth is simple: lying hinders happiness.

Likely victimization due to prejudice doesn’t justify dishonesty for the general population, nor should it for transsexuals. Instead, likely victimization due to prejudice demands that society take action against the prejudice.

What if that victimization is physical, should one lie then? Absolutely, I’ll do it every time, at the moment of threat. But one should neither have to lie repeatedly nor to everybody. If so, one is living in the wrong neighborhood.

For some people, though, the neighborhood spans the entire culture. How do you escape a culture, especially one as pervasive as ours? You don’t. You change, either yourself or the culture.

Welcome to the world of the transsexual.

Of course, transsexuals are a little different from some others who face discrimination, in that they can hide their difference. This potential to appear ‘normal’ — within easy reach for many — makes the lie all the more tempting. But there are lots of things that people hide from others every day. Fear of victimization for all kinds of reasons keeps a part of virtually every one of us in the closet. We find ourselves in a society which frowns on difference, even while finding it exciting. So we fear exposing ours, hanging out our dirty laundry. Yet, it has been my experience, and that of many people I have met, that coming out — exposing fears — is a reliable way to eradicate them. It may be the only way.

I posit, then, that it’s not just transsexuals who need to come clean about themselves, but it’s everybody who has a secret. Secrets are unhealthy. Secrets become secrets through lies. They force us to violate our own integrity. They place obstacles to understanding between our selves and others. They create estrangement, and ultimately in some cases violence, psychic and/or physical.

Secrets are like leeches. They suck our energy, our power, our potential, our happiness.

Secrets suck.

Nancy R. Nangeroni