The Challenge Of Transgender

Sex Vs Gender, Simplifed.


The Challenge Of Transgender

Callan Williams
Copyright 1999

The challenge of transgender is this: How do we be true to both our heart and our family/society when they conflict?

Our hearts are clear: we are not simply men or women, neatly matching the expectations attached to our genitals. We feel the call to cross gender boundaries to find symbols and choices that express something deep inside of us. We are men born male and women born female who feel a call of spirit.

Our society is clear: genitals define the boundaries of what is appropriate. To violate those gender expectations which tie pantyhose to females and neckties to males is to be exposed to shaming, harassment and humiliation, in an attempt to push us into what others are comfortable with, in an attempt to paint transgender behavior as a destructive and damming choice to children.

To express gender in a visibly transgressive way is to live in a minefield, where we can be reduced to a thing, an it, where we can be abused and despised for simply showing the contents of our heart in the way we dress, the way we act. To be visibly transgendered is to risk hatred, fear and danger in every moment, to have people see us as circus freaks, less than human.

This is the challenge of transgender. We can appear normative, as opposed to humans with uniquely formed bodies, by birth or by accident. To be true to ourselves, however, we must make the choice to show on the outside what we feel on the inside, to express how we are as unique as a snowflake. There is a high cost to this expression though, in the loss of families, friends, opportunities and safety. To walk between, to not simply be man born male or woman born female, is to be without refuge -- for example, going into the men's or women's room is uniquely unsafe.

We face the impossible choice of facing the pain of our heart or the pain of culture, the cost of destroying ones sprit or the cost of destroying our standing in culture. Every transgendered person, every gay or lesbian person, knows the pain of the closet, the challenge of hiding and feeling destroyed by ourselves or being exposed and feeling destroyed by culture.

What defines transgendered people is the way we find to deal with this challenge. We balance what we face, the pressures we have, and find a solution. Do we live as fetishist, a drag queen/king, a crossdresser, a transgenderist, a transsexual, or some other choice?

The question is how out we are willing to be. We balance the need for exposure with the need for protection, the demands of our heart with the demands of culture. We find ways to stay protected while showing ourselves, and it is the techniques we choose that define our lives.

Do we "do it for the performance," "only do it to get off," "make sure its non sexual and we stay a man," "not care what other people think," "know that everyone loves us," "pass perfectly as being born the right sex for our gender"? These are just some of the ways we stay protected. We can disconnect from social condemnation, respond with anger, rationalize our behaviors as not as bad as others, or other choices.

Whatever we do, though, transgender is usually more about concealment than revelation, as we try to conceal our big and bright spirits to fit in with culture. We find ways to play small, to not make other people uncomfortable, and that costs us by denying us a flow and grace, by denying us the full repertoire of the gifts that our creator has given us. In many cultures transgendered people were seen as having a special gift, being able to walk between worlds and remind us of the connection between all humans, our continuous common humanity

The maturing process for transgendered people is simple yet difficult. We need to learn to remove the stick from our bum and become more and more trusting of our spirit, of singing the song our creator taught us. We have to find ways to expose ourselves enough to give the best of us, in all its non-normative glory.

The way we do this is by finding powerful ways to stay centered and safe while also expressing our spark of spirit. For me, the only way to do this is to trust in the spirit that made us, trusting that God doesn't make mistakes, not even when he puts a feminine heart in a male body, or a masculine heart in a female one.

There was a 6 year old girl in New Orleans during school desegregation who had to face a protesting mob everyday when she attended school. When asked how she handled the crowds cursing and screaming at her, she said she did what her mother told her to do to people who saw themselves as her enemy: she prayed for them.

What comes easy to a 6 year old who is still close to the grace of God often comes hard to a grown up whose body and soul is covered with the scars of being pounded into normativity. Fleeing or fighting comes more easily to us than just the power of belief, but the heroes of the world have often been those who clung to the belief in the dignity given to them by their creator. Nelson Mandela, though his long imprisonment, was able to act with dignity and in grace, and so gain the respect of even his captors, which was what made him successful in the long run. He was a child of God interacting with other children of God, believing in the grace which connects all of us, even when it is buried deep under fear and pain.

I believe in political action, but more than that, I believe in personal action, the ability to be out, mature and grown up as transgendered. I believe in doing the work to find who we truly believe ourselves to be, our spirit, and then to find a way to express that in a world which doesn't want us to act from spirit, because the challenge of spirit makes the world uncomfortable. The world wants people to fit in, but the creator wants each of us to stand out and give what we have been given in our own way.

To be wild, free, individual, while also being tame, civil and social is the challenge we each face. We need to be responsive enough to others to work together with them, but also true enough to ourselves to feel whole and centered. This means we have to find a way to express ourselves with grace, to be confident enough to hear what people have to say about us, even the negative and nasty stuff, to accept that, and still trust in the spirit we have, to boldly and gracefully play our part in culture.

This is the challenge of transgender, but it is also the challenge that every human faces.

Sex Vs Gender, Simplifed.
Copyright Callan Williams, 1/27/97

Sex is between your legs.
Gender is
between your ears.

Sex is male & female.
Gender is
man & woman.

Sex is biological and cross-species.
Gender is
cultural and changes across time and place.


Saying "males don't cry" would be wrong. They clearly have tear ducts.
Saying "men don't cry" would be right at some places and some times.

Saying "females wear hose" would be wrong. Being female has nothing to do with clothes.
Saying "women wear hose" would be
right at this time.

Saying "males tend to go bald" would be correct.
Saying "males have short hair" would be
Saying "men have short hair" would be correct.

Saying "males wear pants" would be wrong. Male don't come with clothes.
Saying "males have penises" would be
right. That's the definition of male.

Saying "women wear makeup" is correct, they do at this time and place.
Saying "females wear makeup" is
incorrect, because female cows don't.

Someone without developed breasts is probably male.
Someone without developed breasts
making the choices of a woman is a woman.

Sex is anatomical difference based on reproductive organs.
Gender is the
social notions we build around those differences.

Sex has remained unchanged though humans, and in fact across mammals.
Gender changes like the wind, with lots of different models.

Sex is natural, essential, enduring.
Gender is
social, constructed, ephemeral.

It may feel like females/women have always done X, but it's a lie.
Not too long ago women never:
wore pants
worked outside the home
had the vote
cut their hair
played high school sports

Their sex didn't change, but the manifestations of their gender sure did.

That's why males are males, but men are made.

Sex is biology.
Gender is the choices we assign based on biology.

Woman born male is someone making the choices of a woman born with a male sex.

She is not female, or making female choices, simply choices that we associate with females, and there is a difference. Female choices are menstruation, for example. Woman choices are how to control and capture that flow -- something that has changed over the years.

Gender is transient, in the mind.
Sex is permanent, in the body.

We don't understand sex completely. Some is in the genes, some in the hormones, some in brain anatomy. The differences between the sexes at a deep level are not understood, but we think we know enough by looking at someone's crotch.

That's why we can't talk about genetic females, but only anatomical females. We don't look at their genes, only their crotch. For all we know, the predilection to transgender is genetic too. We may find that the brain anatomy of transsexual women more closely approximates the anatomy of males than females, and in fact they have discovered one facet of this to appear to be true in post-mortem examinations of a few people in the Netherlands.

That's why crossdressers are never MTF, male-to-female, because they only female themselves on the surface, with padding and makeup. They don't change sex, they change gender, so they are man-to-woman.

That's why sex-changes appear to work, because changing the hormones & anatomy, the only bit of sex we can change, is enough to accept someone as the typical sex for their gender. MTF TS who are femaled appear female in the crotch, having a vagina, and that's enough for most, who don't check genes, brain structure or internal anatomy. As Dr Sheila Kirk says to MTF TS, "If your gynecologist can't tell you have a man made vagina, get a smarter gynecologist -- the differences should be obvious to an expert."

We don't know enough about sex differences -- sex & the brain, sex & the genes -- to declare that sex is simply binary, one or the other. In fact, the more we learn about sex, the more we learn that it is, like any other natural phenomena, on a sliding scale -- some are more male, more female than others. Even exterior anatomy can be indeterminate, as the intersexed remind us.

What we do know is that every culture has created a system of gender to manage breeding and family. Some are rigidly bi-polar -- two sexes/two genders in a hard link -- and some are not at all that way, allowing and encouraging individual variation. Bi-Polar ones are called heterosexist, encouraging coupling over community and having a focus on breeding, and in our case, consuming.

Males don't hunt. Men hunt, and today they don't even do much of that.

Sex is between the legs, gender between the ears.

Sex is what we are given, gender the societies we construct around it.


"Women are made and not born."
Simone DeBeauvoir, author of "The Second Sex"

"Women, it is true, make human beings,
but only men can make men.
Margaret Mead

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