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?