by Nancy Nangeroni
If you aren’t “transgendered” and don’t know someone who is, then why should you bother reading this issue of One in Ten? After all, you know who, and what, you are — and you aren’t someone who feels compelled to have their genitals reconstructed. You aren’t a guy who feels a need to wear a dress, or a woman who wants to grow a beard. What, then, is all this fuss about transgenderism, why should it be of any interest to you, and what, if anything, does transgenderism have to do with being gay?
First of all, transgenderism isn’t about changing sex (though for some people that’s part of the package). Rather, it challenges the expectation that if you have a cock, you can be expected to be tough and competitive and wear pants, and if you don’t have one, you should look pretty, focus on relationships, and wear dresses. Simply put, transgenderism asks why we should be expected to behave certain ways based on the shape of our genitals.
After all, gender is a presumptively imposed set of rules that were not negotiated, have not been written down or agreed upon, and yet are enforced — often viciously — by almost everybody. Previously, feminism led the challenge to gender norms. Unfortunately, it made itself a champion for only some people. If you were privileged enough to be born female, then feminism worked for you, highlighting your oppressions and advocating for your rights and freedoms. If you were unlucky enough to be born male — and effeminate — feminism was your nemesis. It presumed that your intention was to lampoon the trappings of femininity and womanhood. Today, transgenderism follows in the best traditions and teachings of feminism. It builds on the principles of respect and honor and opportunity for each individual irrespective of gender or sex. And in doing so, it raises questions about the difference between gender and sex, and the diversity within transgenderism.
The dividing line between sex and gender is no more clear than the dividing line between night and day: the two fade into one another. Though we tend to think of anatomy as relating to sex rather than gender, body shape is something that’s consciously developed to enhance our sexual/gender appeal. Today, technology gives us ever greater ability to make sophisticated changes to our bodies to make them appear more or less masculine or feminine. Electrolysis allows the removal of facial hair, while testosterone allows it to be added. Plastic surgery allows the reshaping of genitals, chests, and faces, providing ever more subtle control over our bodies’ apparent gender and sex. As more aspects of our “sex” come under conscious control, the difference between sex and gender blurs further.
Transgenderism seeks to make it okay for us to recognize and respect that some people’s gender is not what the rest of us might expect it to be — given their sexual polarity. Transgenderism seeks to win the right for all individuals to choose their own gender, and to change that choice at will. Transgenderism joins with all who are stigmatized for their gender-transgressive appearance. This includes those gay, straight, and bi men who are stigmatized for being effeminate, as well as those women — lesbian, bi and straight — who are singled out for being butch.
Still, not everyone buys into this definition. The first time a crossdresser told me he was not transgender, my first impulse was to discount his opinion. After all, what could be more gender-transgressive than a man wearing a dress? And not only are some crossdressers as straight as can be, and totally sold on the binary sex/gender system, but there are also transsexuals who say they’re not transgender! I was taken aback the first time a Female-to-Male transsexual, a guy to every outward appearance, told me he was not transgender. To me, a man with a vagina isn’t exactly male, he’s a transgender hybrid, just as I am a hybrid, living as a woman with a penis. However, I have to respect the beliefs of such men, because fostering greater respect for diversity of identity and expression is the purpose of my work.
As for numbers, the number of people who crossdress is estimated at somewhere between one and five percent of the population. The number of transsexuals is much smaller, perhaps .02%. Intersexuals by one estimate comprise 1.7% of the population, though many forms of intersexuality are subtle and may not be recognized. In all, the community of “out” people who self-identify as transgender is a tiny — but growing — fraction of the size of the GLB population.
The thing about gender is that it’s visual. And transgenders are visibly queer. As such, they contradict those gays and lesbians who have made — often earned with sweat and blood — progress towards acceptance with the approach “we’re just like you, except for who we sleep with.” Transgender folk obviously aren’t “just like you”, because they’re visibly queer. Even worse, some of the more visible transgender folk are seriously dysfunctional people who have truly fallen off of the bottom edge of the culture. Those who emerge as transgender during their childhoods are often rejected by family, and wind up fending for themselves at a very early age. Struggling with self-esteem crippled by parental rejection, they may have difficulty functioning in mainstream society, and all too often wind up scraping by with a high-risk street existence in a world of drugs and prostitution. To those queer activists who are struggling to elicit a modicum of respect from a world that gives it begrudgingly if at all, these people constitute an unbearable burden, a load not just unwelcome but one that would undermine their efforts to establish a “respectable” identity for queer folk. Visibly queer people, like those who flaunt their sexuality in public, are an embarrassment to those activists who are saying that they’re no different from ‘normal’ folks. By confronting people’s discomfort with visible difference, the transgender movement exposes phobic sensibilities. By insisting on the right of individuals to determine their own gender, and also establishing spectral instead of binary gender consciousness, we work to increase the general level of social comfort with individual gender difference. By stimulating the discomfort others feel about gender transgression — as gently as possible — we elevate individual gender hang-ups to a higher level of attention. Like the squeaky wheel, we draw attention. The issue is, what do we do with it?
For the longest time, there was a small community of crossdressers and transsexuals struggling for respect. Their pleas fell mostly on deaf ears. Then things began to change. Leaders emerged with fresh ideas and a new approach. Their mantra: this is not just about us. It’s about a social problem that pervades our society. It’s about the location of the pathology that has for years been presumed to reside within us. These leaders — Kate and Leslie and James and Riki and Phyllis and Tonye and many more, including myself — took the attention and turned it back on society. We who are virtual magnets for attention, favorite fodder for ratings week, choice target for predatory humor, we are turning the lens back on society, and saying, “Look, it’s not us, it’s society that is confused! We are not sick, society is sick to presume us so.”
And the amazing thing is, they’re buying it. People are coming out of the woodwork, saying “please educate me about transgenderism!” Organizations are adding “transgender” to their names or stated constituency faster than anyone can track. One of the most remarkable attributes of the movement that I’ve observed is the absence of determined resistance. When Cambridge held a hearing on the proposed ordinance protecting freedom of gender identity and expression, nobody opposed it.
This movement is not simply political or social strategizing, it is heartfelt belief that resonates in a growing population. What makes it happen, though, is a belief in the strategy of working together to open minds. So as more and more people express a genuine interest in transgenderism, we do well to give thanks to the heart that provided the will, the clear thinking that provided the way, and the willingness of our friends, family and neighbors to listen and learn.
Of course, there will always be those who resist, and surely lots of people will never come around. That’s the other thing. The world has to be big enough for all of us, including the Howie Carrs and Newt Gingrichs. We’re never going to get anywhere if we remain stuck in “you’re wrong” thinking. Instead, focusing the blame on society leaves lots of wiggle room for individuals to avoid feeling wronged and defensive, and makes it easier for others to join in our cause. At the same time, we can grow large enough within ourselves to leave room — and distance — for those who don’t like us.
If nothing else, the transgender movement is a fascinating case study in how a tiny population can have a powerful effect on a culture. To an increasing number of people, though, it’s a fun ride towards a pleasing destination.
Published in The Boston Phoenix, Nov 1997