Much has been written recently about what it means to be the T in GBLTQ and what’s the real deal of being transgender. Most “straights” like me don’t know a hell of a lot about what the T means, and I must admit that although I have a couple of friends who are transgender I don’t ask them personal questions because that would be an invasion of their privacy, so I’m not aware of the difficulties they experience on a daily basis. Transgender individuals find it difficult to talk about their sexuality, like most folks. I do know what being “gender fluid” means because of my interview with Rowan McBride two years ago linked here, however the personal toll that being trans* takes on those individuals who identify as such is not generally well known.
So I asked James Buchanan, someone who knows a thing or two about being transgender, to write an essay explaining what the term means to those who are living it every day of their lives. I wanted to do this to educate the rest of us who are either straight or GBLQ, but also to show how incredibly difficult it is to be transgender, both emotionally and financially. Here’s James’s essay:
Bisexuals often joke that they’re the bastard step-children of the queer movement. If you’re under the T wing you often end up feeling like the odd cousin everyone else wants to keep locked up in the attic.
Did you ever get invited to a party because someone felt obligated to? Like your really popular cousin who extended the invite with a glare and the “it would be better if you didn’t actually show up, but if you have to then sit in the corner and don’t talk to anyone,” instruction.
Welcome to the T in LGBTQ. It is not a popular place to be.
I’m going to set some ground rules for my discussion. First, how I use my terms. These are not necessarily the most accepted terms for discussion, but they will simplify things for this post. SEX means the plumbing you were born with. GENDER is the personal perception/presentation of identity as male, female, both or neither. SEXUALITY deals with the attraction to a particular sex. Second, I am not here to “out” anyone or speculate on whether any one person’s sex matches their gender. If you wish to ask questions of me at the end of this post, I’ll answer them within reason and if others wish to chime in with their stories, please treat them with respect.
What does it mean to be transgender? The most basic way to think about it: a person’s gender does not fit their sex. You wake up every morning feeling a little like you’re living in someone else’s skin – you know the face in the mirror, you’ve seen it for years, but it’s not truly the you underneath it.
This can manifest itself through being a transsexual; actively engaging in medical transition from one sex to the other. However, genderqueer folks range along a spectrum of those who just strongly identify with a gender that does not match their sex through those who live a 24/7 life as the gender of their identity but for financial, medical or personal reasons do seek and/or feel compelled to embark on medical transition. There are those whose gender is androgynous, who present as neither gender/sex, or gender-fluid individuals that vary their outward expression of gender from day to day or hour to hour.
If you are cis-gender, it means your outward presentation of gender is predominately consistent with your sex – a man can be a cis-gendered and effeminate-gay if his sex, gender and sexuality all line up on the same side of the street. A woman could be a butch lesbian who is not transgender if she just feels more comfortable in trucker shirts but the perception of her gender does not conflict with her sex.
Also remember that not all transsexuals who choose medical transition chose full medical transition. They may only undergo hormone treatment to create muscle or soften the body’s appearance. There maybe facial feminization/masculinization surgery. Either F2M or M2F may only undergo “top” surgery to deal with the secondary sex characteristic of breasts without seeking genital reassignment (which carries a lot of risk) or they may include genital surgery in their choices.
Just getting to the point of being allowed (yes, allowed) to undergo any transition assistance requires years of therapy and in many cases a commitment to living fully as the desired gender identity for years. That means erasing and disavowing all suggestions of that person’s current sex and conforming to the hyper stereotypes of the desired gender. Those that desire all of the available medical and surgical treatments may never be able to fund the several hundred thousand dollars it takes to achieve it. Any lapse in maintaining the boundaries, from the view of the “professionals,” may disqualify an individual, who has otherwise maintained the gender appropriate stereotypes for years, from reassignment.
Think about this outward control on a person’s gender identity.
A woman who wishes to undergo breast enlargement, tummy tucks and various rounds of plastic surgery to attain her goal of looking like a human Barbie doll requires nothing more than a credit card. Although the end result may be freaky to many people, she is conforming within the stereotype of her sex and no surgeon faced censor for not suggesting she get some therapy first.
However, a young transfeminine person (male sexed but female gendered) who has raised the nearly $4,000 a routine breast augmentation requires will be turned away by most reputable plastic surgeons unless she has proof from several psychiatric professionals that she truly suffers from a psychiatric problem of Gender Identity Disorder that can only be treated by surgery to conform her sex (Male) to her gender (Female). There is a great discussion (it is an academic one) about one man’s quest to achieve a double mastectomy and the roadblocks of achieving same – he never was able to conform his “gender” narrative to the exceedingly strict requirements to attain transition.
So, at the outset, Transgender persons labor under this medical perception that they’re “sick.” The second hurdle is whether a person is “Transgender enough.” To quote Rachel Pollack:
“What sense does it make to label some people as true transsexuals, and others as secondary, or confused, or imitation? Whom does such an attitude serve? I can think of no one but the gatekeepers, those who would seize the power of life and death by demanding that transsexuals satisfy an arbitrary standard. To accept such standards, to rank ourselves and others according to a hierarchy of true trans sexuality, to try to recast our own histories to make sure they fit the approved model, can only tear us down, all of us, even the ones lucky enough to match that model.” (emphasis is mine)
What is a gender narrative? It is, in short, the sum of a Transgendered person’s life to be regurgitated upon command whenever one’s gender is
in question. When in a group of transgendered folks, much like in Alcoholics’ Anonymous, you are expected to articulate your gender narrative in order to achieve inclusion to the group – “Hi, I’m James, and I’m gender-nonconforming” – unlike AA, in many situations, that narrative does not guarantee you immediate inclusion and sympathy from the group. Transgender persons, to our own detriment, have internalized the arbitrary standard of “genuineness” imposed by the cis-gendered world. And there is often a ferocious policing of that standard within the community.
The Lesbian and Gay community also have their own standards of conformity. If someone is female sexed but male gendered they may find themselves ostracized by the Lesbian majority upon transition – they have chosen to be a “straight” guy – one who will never be seen as a true male by outside society. Similarly, as one gay man I know said, “If I want dick, I want dick – I don’t want it wrapped up in a dress with lip-gloss and eyeliner;” too female to be gay, but not female enough to be straight. One of the more prominent gay activists of our time is constantly being “glitter bombed” by transgender activists for being transphobic. The damning words from their mouths, those who are supposedly “allies” in LGBTQ alphabet soup are often more hurtful, and sometimes more vitriolic, than that of “straights.”
Outside “straight” society also asserts control over the normal a transgendered person has to negotiate. As a friend once expressed it in the most basic way: the dilemma of standing outside the men’s and women’s restrooms and trying to gauge which one you’re going to get less flack for using that day. The bathroom-enforcers will go after you if you too strongly present as the sex opposite to the bathroom choice you’ve made. There is an entire site dedicated to “safe” bathrooms for the T community, where you can take a leak without getting harassed. There are hundreds of those types of issues that a transgendered person must negotiate every day. Crossing the boundary between perception and reality can have serious consequences – from a mere refusal to serve a transgendered person to physical violence. Most who live along the transgendered spectrum have suffered somewhere along those lines.
Personal relationships are a field of land-mines about how much to reveal and when. Will your lover still love you – or is their love of you conditioned upon your sex. If you met your lover when presenting as your gender when do you tell them that your gender is not your sex? Will your lover leave you when you feel comfortable enough to tell them something it’s taken you a life time to come to terms with? What if your self awareness comes long after you’re already in a stable relationship? You love this person…and they’re liable to reject you for who you are. It is a terrible, soul crushing fear for many.
I know I haven’t settled anything here. I hope I’ve made you think and stop for a moment and consider someone else’s gender narrative a bit. You may feel, “betrayed,” when you discover someone’s sex is not their gender…
But imagine, if you will, sitting in traffic wondering if you could get a double mastectomy by binding so tight that you actually did damage to the structure of your breasts or if you mutilated your dick enough in some “freak” accident would the doctors go with reassignment? Imagine living day to day wondering if today is the day someone makes a scene about what you look like or, even, how bad will today’s scene be? Imagine seeing yourself in your dreams and waking up to the reflection in the mirror.
Imagine living every day of your life, living in someone else’s skin.