We’ve all heard the expression LGBT Community. Yet too often that very thing – community – is most lacking. There are lines drawn in the sand all over the place: between gay men and women; between gays and bis; between trans* and everyone else; and between all the different shades of grey that make up each stripe of our little rainbow. Humans are essentially contrary creatures and too often it’s the case that the more marginalised we are ourselves, the quicker we’ll kick discrimination down the line to someone else.
Why that should be, no-one knows. Personally, it riles me no end that we can’t all get along as human beings without having to distinguish between creed, colour, race, religion, gendered or sexual identity. Someone once said that the day we actually discover alien life will be a watershed, not because we’ve proved that we are not alone in the universe, but because for the first time we’ll all be united as a single species. Chances are that even then we’ll find something to disagree with our neighbours about.
A couple of caveats before I start this post. Firstly, I don’t know anyone on a personal level who identifies as trans*. Secondly, that little asterisk represents all the different variances of trans-. Sometimes I’ll distinguish between them, but trans* stands as an all-inclusive term for the purposes of this post. Thirdly, I have met and spoken at length with a number of people from all walks of trans* identity and those conversations, plus my academic studies in the fields of queer theory and – specifically – the nature of gendered identity will form the basis of my thoughts. Finally, if I get anything wrong then I apologise profusely. I’m speaking here in sweeping, theoretical terms, and YMMV.
So back to my post.
Trans* people often find themselves the most maligned in our community – and in general. For most people, their sex is the most concrete thing about them. Whatever your sexuality, whatever your race or colour or class, your sex is generally the thing you take for granted. You’ve lived with it all your life and you probably don’t question it in any conscious way.
Yet gendered identity is a whole can of worms when you actually start looking into it. We all know people we consider girly-girls or butch-boys, people who seem to conform absolutely to the gendered norms of their physical sex. But then we all know exceptions to that. My own sister, who’s a total girly-girl most of the time, has a bit of a thing for cars. Not as in she thinks they’re pretty or she’s a driver groupie, but as in she follows the F1 around the world talking about torque and bph and all manner of things that are essentially a foreign language to me. The majority of us, when you scratch the surface, are like that, because gendered behaviour exists in a state of flux. We’re properly femme in some ways and really rather butch in others, no matter what our genitals say.
That doesn’t, of course, make us all trans*. My point is more that even the most cis-gendered, heterosexual individual has something a little bit queer about them. Pitch-perfect gendered performances are actually sinister (Stepford Wives, anyone?). We expect people to deviate from the “exact” rules of how a man or a woman should behave. It’s a thought worth bearing in mind the next time you feel tempted to judge.
No-one thinks anything of women wearing trousers. Most hetero women that I know really rather enjoy looking at men in kilts. Yet that’s a woman wearing traditionally male clothing; and a man wearing something that bears more than a passing resemblance to a skirt. But if you stripped your boyfriend off and found him wearing a pair of lacy pink panties, you’d probably be a little bit surprised (unless you knew he was into that, of course!). So what makes some clothing acceptable and some not? Of course a large part of it is cultural: kilts are fine if you’re Scottish, you’re claiming some kind of convoluted throw-back Scottish ancestry or you’re at a wedding (where it seems everyone, Scot or not, wears a kilt these days). My uncle bought himself a kilt off eBay recently and has taken to hillwalking in it. He has yet to learn that the last thing I need to see on facebook is a picture of him wearing it, taken from ground level, looking up *shudders*.
Equally, in a lot of warmer countries men and women wear outfits that allow a bit of breeze to circulate around the nether regions. No-one thinks those men are cross-dressing. And western women can wear pretty much anything without any eyebrows being raised. Some ranges of women’s underwear have long been modelled on male boxer shorts, and very comfortable they are too. They also negate the dreaded VPL, which makes them very popular even among the most cis of cis women.
So transvestism; the act of wearing clothing of the opposite gender, is pretty subjective behaviour, although the very nature of male/female clothing (particularly in the west) means that usually more men identify/are identified as transvestites. It’s a behaviour common to people across the entire spectrum of sexuality, but it’s not necessarily sexual behaviour. Some people cross-dress because it gives them a thrill; some because they feel more comfortable in opposite-gender clothing; some because it’s funny or they feel freer or they’re curious what it feels like or, hell, a million and one different reasons. Don’t assume you know why a man has put on a bra, because chances are you don’t. And certainly don’t assume the fact that he has says anything else about him, because it absolutely does not.
Wearing the clothing of the opposite gender – doing it for kicks, to mimic/parody/emulate or pay homage to the opposite sex, or because-it’s-fun-so-stop-trying-to-analyse-me – doesn’t necessarily say anything intrinsic about your fundamental identity as male/female. A man wearing women’s underwear can still identify as a man, and still be perfectly secure in his male-ness.
As an aside, I cross-dressed once for my bestie’s mother’s hen party (convoluted, I know). She really wanted him to dress in drag and he refused to do it on his own so the two of us got ourselves all dolled up. I looked properly dashing (if I say so myself) in my tails and spats, and we went to the party. We clearly went a bit far because she didn’t recognise us until her son spoke to her, at which point we genuinely thought we’d given her a heart attack, she was so shocked (and thrilled). But half-way through the night I honestly had a moment where I stopped, looked around and thought to myself I’m the only man at a bloody hen party. How did that happen? Except of course I wasn’t. The only man at the party was the one doing the Macarena in a mini-skirt. Which suggests that passing as the opposite sex can change something fundamental in the way you perceive your own sex – and I say that as someone who is perfectly comfortable and satisfied with being female.
Some people, however, do feel unhappy in their gendered bodies. When you say trans* most people think automatically of sex changes, but of course the waters are far muddier than that. Plenty of people are gender-fluid, embracing elements of both sexes within their own psyches and identities. Sometimes that identity is purely psychological, sometimes physical, oftentimes a combination of the two unique to that individual. Others are androgynous or identify to a greater or lesser extent with the opposite sex above their own. Those who are diagnosed as gender dysphoric may (or may not) undergo medical procedures at some point in their lives and/or transition to live fully as the opposite sex.
Just as sexuality is fluid, so too is gender. I think most people have heard of the Kinsey Scale, with 100% heterosexual people on one end and 100% homosexual people on the other and the majority falling somewhere between the two. Equally, if you have a sliding scale with a cis man at one end and a cis woman at the other, most of us will fall somewhere in the middle.
So much of our gendered behaviour is learnt that it’s only natural that this should be the case. A hundred years ago a woman wearing trousers would be considered pretty odd; these days most women live in their jeans (I know I certainly do!). Two hundred years ago male friends would often greet each other with hugs and kisses, which today would be considered pretty damn gay. Prior to the first world war, you’d put your baby boy in pink and your baby girl in blue, and both sexes would wear frilly dresses until the age of three or so. Do that these days and you’d probably find your child’s name on a register; or certainly the neighbours would eye you oddly.
None of that is to belittle those people who feel that they’ve been born in the wrong body; that their mirror plays a cruel trick on them whenever they look at their own reflection. The fact is that we all exist in a state of flux every single day, every single one of us, and no-one notices or comments on it. So why should it matter if someone wants – needs – to go that step further; to change their physicality to match who they know they are inside? And, more to the point, what the hell does it have to do with anyone else if they do make that choice anyway?
Science has some interesting thoughts on our gendered identities. It has been pointed out, for example, that all foetuses start out female. A hormonal imbalance at the wrong point in gestation is all it takes for a baby with a Y chromosome to be born a girl instead of a boy (or, for that matter, for a baby with two Xs to be born male). Hundreds – thousands, probably – of children are born every single year whose sex is not immediately obvious. It’s always the first question asked of the doctor when a child is born – Is it a boy or a girl? Well sometimes the doctor isn’t sure. Sometimes they hold off making that decision for days or even weeks after the baby is born. More often they make a snap decision and that’s how the baby is registered and raised – usually until they hit puberty, when they suddenly start exhibiting the adult traits of the “opposite” sex. Scariest of all is the historically widespread (and, for all I know, continuing) practice of whisking the child away and performing a quick “corrective procedure” to make them conform to one sex or another (usually, female). Particularly during the period when the woman gave birth unobserved by any family, it was too easy to take the child and do practically anything with it before anyone even realised.
Go back further, to the beginning of life on Earth, and the only thing that existed was amoebas: single-cell organisms that were neither male nor female. They started splitting; creating carbon copies of themselves. Then they started mutating. From a scientific perspective, separate sexes and sexual reproduction are both mutations. Much of the life on our planet is still sexless, and much can also change sex if necessary. Among all manner of families of plant and animal life the ability to change sex is evident even today. Among molluscs and fish and reptiles and amphibians. Even among humans there are several naturally-occurring conditions that can cause someone’s sex to change (the majority being from female to male, again around puberty). Is it not more likely that what is innate in gender dysphorics is not something at odds with nature, but a natural result of our evolutionary history?
So why the hysteria that so often accompanies someone defying the conventions of their physical sex, up to and including altering their bodies to conform to what they know inside to be true? I’d posit that a lot of that hostility is the rage of Caliban; the nervous reaction of people who recognise – but seek to deny – within themselves their own particular brand of gender-queerness. Those who insist until they are blue in the face that there is an uncrossable line between male and female are most likely those who are the least secure in their own sense of gendered identity.
As a species we thrive by conforming. We all want to fit in, to belong, and the most fundamental way in which we do that is by identifying with those who resemble us. The broad strokes consist of sex and race. The colour is added by creed, orientation and class. Fine detail include background, beliefs, the brand of clothes that you wear and the music you listen to. We spend our lives trying to fit in, finding things in common with each other and seeking out like-minded individuals. There are huge online forums dedicated to almost every single band, group, book, film, genre and event you can think of and the members might have nothing else in common but their shared enjoyment of that particular thing, but it’s enough to make them cling even closer as a result. So when someone defies the norm of one of the ruling tropes, people get scared. They get angry. If a man can announce that he wants to revoke his maleness, it’s perceived as a slight on every other man out there. Worse, the slight comes from their own side of the fence.
As human beings, we need to learn to accept the fact that what one person does is no reflection on anyone else. That gay marriage doesn’t negate straight marriage; that one person’s gendered identity doesn’t affect anyone else’s – more; that these institutes are not threatened, damaged or undermined just because they’re not universal. We fill our lives with binaries – black/white, gay/straight, male/female – when the vast, vast majority of us exist in the grey areas between those opposites.
Those of us who are marginalised or belong to minorities need to remember this more than others; that just because someone isn’t a part of your specific minority niche, that doesn’t mean they don’t need just as much love and understanding as you yourself. That they don’t deserve as much love and understanding. There is no valid distinction between racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia. Remember that.
Clearly, that message didn’t get through to some. Just today in the Guardian, Julie Burchill wrote a reaction piece defending Suzanne Moore, a personal friend of hers, after Moore was accused of transphobia in an earlier article she wrote about feminism. I have no doubt that Burchill’s horrible, nasty little tirade will be taken down before too long, but in a nutshell she argued that as a working-class gal done good she feels bullied and threatened by the trans lobby, whom she describes in the most aggressive, ignorant and offensive of terms.
This is not something that is happening in the abstract, but every single day. Terms that would be considered unacceptable in a school playground are printed – one after the other – in national newspapers. As the gay rights movement gains momentum across the globe, and more and more nations see fit to bestow us with full rights as equal citizens to our heterosexual counterparts, then so too the trans lobby is going to fight harder and longer for the same recognition under law. This is an argument that is not going to go away; I predict it will – sadly – get far worse before it gets better. Which is why, now more than ever, we need to stand together as one proud, united community and not rest until we are all considered fully equal under law.