I have spent the past few weeks struggling to get this post completed. It has been difficult for me to form my thoughts and feelings into words when dealing with such emotionally charged issues. I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about the infighting I have seen within the trans community. I know that every community has to deal with some infighting. We are, after all, only human and no matter what the topic, people are going to have strong feelings about their opinions. But in the trans community there seems to be an inordinate amount of eating our own.
It is often said that those who are abused are at greater risk to become abusers themselves. So what happens when the lowest group on the social ladder is marginalized and abused? There isn’t anyone else on whom to take out our anger, so we fracture our community into further sub-classes and abuse each other.
One of the starkest dividing lines is between those who are pre-op and those who are post-op, as if it’s the surgery that makes a person a man or a woman. This is in reference to the surgical procedures known as Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) or Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS). The surgery is a physical correction needed for some transsexuals to align the body with a gender already present in the brain. But these surgeries are not necessary for every trans person. There are some whose body dysphoria is so great that it is difficult for them to function in a body that does not match what their brain expects. I fall into this category, so surgery for me is necessary. But I know others for whom SRS/GRS surgeries are not necessary to feel comfortable with their body. There are still others who need surgeries but cannot get them due to cost factors or medical complications that make the surgeries impossible. This is one of the reasons that requiring SRS/GRS in order to obtain corrected legal ID documents or anti-discrimination protections is such a harmful practice. It would exclude a great number of people who are unable to get these surgeries due to a lack of medical/financial resources or contraindications for surgery. It would also force those who are comfortable enough with their bodies into invasive and unnecessary surgeries that actually have the potential to increase their body dysphoria.
There are those who are afraid that if we allow surgeries, then surgery will become mandatory for every person. On the other side there are those who are afraid that if we do not make surgeries mandatory, then surgeries will be considered optional and will become harder to get for those who need them. This black and white, all or nothing, fundamentalist-type thinking only works to divide us and will guarantee that none of us will get what we need. There IS a middle ground, and it is the same approach that ought to be used for every other medical decision made in every medical facility all over the world. A doctor treating a patient tailors the care of that patient based on the needs of the individual. Every individual is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment in standard health care. We should not be advocating for such treatment in trans care either.
While the dividing line on surgery is an issue that brings up a lot of heated discussions within the trans community, there is another dividing line that often does not get discussed. It is the dividing line on “passing.” I really hate the term “passing.” To me, it implies a deception to “pass” myself off as something I am not. I am transitioning to become my true self, not to deceive others into believing some false identity. If anything, I “passed” perfectly well as a woman, even though that is not who I am or who I have ever been. I recently read an incredible article on this subject on the Transadvocate’s website. The article is titled On “Passing” written by Dr Cary Gabriel Costello. I highly recommend it. One of the things he talks about is how the push to “pass” is driven by cissexism. Here is a quote from the article that I want to elaborate on further.
“To think of a trans man as a “fake” man is the essence of cissexism. This is why every time I listen to one of the many people I’ve met who are afraid to transition cry, “I can’t—I’ll never be able to pass as a man/woman,” I sigh, because I know that the real battle they face is not their bodily structure, but their internalized cissexism, which tells them they don’t have the right to claim their true gender identities because their bodies trump their inner truth. Cissexism holds that appearance is all, and that trans people who don’t conform to binary sex ideals are fakes, freaks who deserve to be mocked and harassed. As if cis men never looked down at their bodies to find themselves short, or sporting moobs, or sparsely haired. As if cis women were never tall or flat-chested or strong. As if people were never born intersex, like me.”
Trans people are held up to an impossible standard by a cissexist, transphobic world. We are placed in the impossible situation such that if we do not conform to every stereotype of our affirmed gender after transition, we are decried as “fake” for not looking and acting like “real” men or women. Yet at the same time, if we do conform to gender stereotypes we are decried as “fake” for looking and acting like stereotypes. It’s the perfect catch 22. But the sad part is that the trans community has those within it who would use these kinds of arguments against other trans people. In a desperate attempt for some small measure of legitimacy in the eyes of the greater society, they have adopted the language of their oppressors to use against those whom they view as “less than” or “freaks.”
Those with more privilege tend to distance themselves from those with less. Those with “passing” privileges tend to distance themselves from those who can’t “pass.” We draw arbitrary lines in the sand in an attempt to categorize who is worthy of certain labels or legal protections and who isn’t. But while we are busy arguing and nit picking amongst ourselves over who is “true” or “authentic,” those who oppress us not only do not see our differences, they don’t care. They don’t care how you identify or what surgeries you’ve had. They don’t care if you can “pass” because if they ever find out you are trans (or a “person with a medical history” if you don’t identify as any type of trans), your “passing” privilege goes out the window. To them, we are all the same. We are all deviants. We are all freaks. At least until one of them actually gets to know a trans person and sees how we are not so very different than they are after all. We are humans trying to find our way in this world. We were just given a few extra obstacles to overcome. Once that acceptance begins to grow, we are no longer seen as a label, but as a person and potentially a friend. As each person better recognizes the common humanity in another, our differences no longer have to divide us.
If those who are not trans are able to support us as individuals, I think we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the trans community to support each other as individuals, each with unique needs and challenges. We are defined by our own declarations of who we are, not by a set of medical procedures. It’s time for each one of us to take a long look at ourselves in the mirror and admit our own bigotry and prejudice towards those whom we see as “other.” Then take time to get to know someone from a different side of the dividing lines. Take time to understand their decisions of identity and their fears of erasure. Explain to them your own. Find some common ground and then start to work together towards a better world for us all. How can we expect the rest of the world to listen and accept us if we can’t even do that for each other?
People often question why the trans community is included with the LGB community since gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. While the two are separate, going through my own transition has shown me that they may be more interrelated than I previously believed — but that is for another post. Many people believe, erroneously, that the trans community was lumped in with the LGB community, almost as an afterthought because the T community did not have anywhere else to go. But it was actually the LGB community that came out of the trans community, both of which originally came out of the intersex community.
At one point in history it was believed that all people who did not conform to societal gender norms were intersex. It was known that there were people who were physically intersex so it was just assumed that people who went outside of social or sexual gender roles were mentally intersex. If a woman wanted to have sex with other women it was assumed she wanted to be a man and if a man wanted to have sex with other men it was assumed he wanted to be a woman. We still see this type of thinking in some heterosexual people towards effeminate men and masculine women. Of course this does not explain masculine gay men or femme lesbians, but it is this type of thinking that causes those who are not gay or trans to view us as all the same. It was because of how we were perceived by the cisgender heteronormative world that originally made us natural allies.
As sexual orientation became understood as something distinct from gender identity, the different factions of the LGBT community started to emerge. When we were all marginalized equally it was easier for the community to bond together against our shared oppression. But as some parts of the community began to gain acceptance in society, it became harder to keep community cohesion and unity. Each segment of the LGBT community started to identify their specific needs and only wanted to fight for those things that would further their own goals. Granted, there have been some voices in the community that have spoken to the necessity of keeping some kind of alliance even while we push for different goals. But often there has been a lot of conflict around what direction the LGBT movement should take as a whole, as if we can only do one thing at a time. Those in the marriage equality movement get frustrated with those pushing other agendas like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) saying that marriage equality will gain us more acceptance from mainstream society. Those in the DADT repeal movement argue that gaining the federal acceptance of open military service will gain us more acceptance. Those fighting for the ENDA complain that marriage equality or open military service doesn’t mean much to someone who can’t find job to support themselves. Within our community we find a myriad of things that threaten to fracture a cohesive movement towards equality, from socioeconomic disparities, to disagreements on effective strategy, to outright bigotry and prejudice.
While the LGB community and the T community often have different political agendas, it has not generally been the political differences that threaten to split the community in two. It is rather the need to create and reinforce a distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some in the LGB community fear that associating themselves with the T community reinforces the fallacy that gay people who do not follow societal gender norms are really trans and want to be the opposite sex. Some in the T community fear that even though they identify as straight, staying in the LGB community reinforces the fallacy that they are really just gay people who couldn’t handle being gay. Both of these fears, while not uncommon, seem to be rooted in internal bigotry and prejudice. As one group’s acceptance in society increases, they try to distance their association with others in the community whom they see as a hindrance to full acceptance. They don’t want to be associated with the more fringe elements in the community and will do whatever they can to show how they are not like “those people.” Unfortunately those of us in the trans community see this within our own ranks. It saddens me that the LGBT community not only has to fight bigotry and oppression from mainstream society, but we have to fight it among ourselves as well. It seems as though our desperation to be seen as legitimate or acceptable to others causes us to be willing to throw overboard the most marginalized among us.
But we should not be struggling for acceptance. That should not be the goal of any segment of the LGBT community or any other marginalized community. We do not need acceptance in order to have equality under the law. Acceptance would be nice, but acceptance and equality are not synonymous and we should never make the mistake of believing that they are. Bayard Rustin once said “The job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That’s our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.” And the way to create that kind of society is to fight for the right of every person to live the life that is best for them, as long as they are not harming anyone else. No one should be prevented from expressing their true self in whatever manner they wish. This applies to everyone equally. Respecting another person’s right to live whatever kind of life they see fit to live does not mean I have to like the person or approve of what they do. But as long as they are not harming anyone else, they have the right to their life every bit as much as I have the right to my own.
We have to fight bigotry wherever we encounter it, whether it is in mainstream society or in our own communities. We cannot allow our own prejudices to rip apart our alliances. We have to stop focusing our energies on fighting each other and start focusing on creating an equal society that respects every person’s right to live as they so choose, no matter what anyone else thinks of their choices — even we ourselves.
I have often struggled with how to adequately explain why I had to transition to living as a man and couldn’t be content living as a different kind of woman. Trying to explain the trans experience to people has often felt a bit like Spock in Star Trek IV when McCoy asks him about what it was like to be dead. Spock replied that it would be impossible to discuss without a common frame of reference. The experience that your body is so completely wrong is so foreign to most people that there is no common frame of reference. And when I say wrong I am not talking about the common feelings we all experience about how we don’t like this or that about our bodies. I have those feelings, too such as wishing I could lose more weight or wishing my calves weren’t so bulky. I am talking about a feeling of having parts of your body that don’t belong there at all and having other parts completely missing. I am talking about looking into the mirror and not being able to recognize yourself because what you see is so different than what your brain keeps telling you should be there. It is a cognitive dissonance that becomes physically painful to endure and almost impossible to explain. Try to imagine, for a moment, a time when your body was the most uncomfortable you have ever felt in your life. Now step into that experience and wear that feeling for a few minutes. Feel into how uncomfortable it is and how you could crawl out of your skin to get away from it…. Now imagine living that way every waking moment of your life. It is this internal pain that drives a trans person to the point that their only options are transition or die. It becomes a matter of survival.
I could no longer survive living as a woman. But I am finding it even harder living in this in-between place. I am comforted by the knowledge that this is a transitory state and I won’t have to live this way for the rest of my life. It doesn’t make the actual living in transition any easier, though. I have come to find that even in the safest of places, with good friends or among other trans people, my level of discomfort with my body, specifically with my breasts, is worse than ever. There is no relief to be able to just be myself without care or concern about my body. I recently spent a wonderful weekend with a group of other trans guys. These are all guys who don’t judge me on how my body looks and they all completely understand the discomfort I have with it and yet I found that I spent a considerable amount of time attempting to hide or minimize my breasts. When my wife and I went to the opening of Pride, I also found myself constantly trying to hide them, even though no one would have given me a second glance based on how I look. So if other people don’t care, why does it bother me so much?
78 days and counting.