The Hardest Thing About Being Trans

Callan Williams Copyright 1996

A proposition: The hardest thing about being trans is the fact that you become a lightening rod for all of the anger and venom people feel for this system of gender separation -- however they express it.

Boys who run from homosexual feelings, women who have been abused by men or even taught to fear them. People who are angry at the limitations their role has put on them -- and are furious that you seem to have broken those limitations. People who fear their children will break the rules, and don't want you around as an example. Those who feel hurt and unloved and see the other sex/gender as the cause.

You become a participant in the drama of all of this because people see you and project motivations onto your skin, decide why you are doing it -- and then decide that they hate you for it.

Or you test your wings, explore your boundaries in a new gender and give messages that push their buttons. Messages of power, stereotypes that contrast with the mixed messages of your body -- and people get angry.

People see in you who they want to see, who they think you should be, and then you violate that because you are working to become who you are -- and that shift surprises and disorients them. You walk though a wall -- and they begin throwing things to silence & hurt you.

The system of gender is related to pain for each of us, the pain of adolescence, the pain of being socialized, of being separated, of being tamed. It is the pain of being humiliated out of our own uniqueness into a good girl or a strong boy -- a sort of soul suicide that hurts forever. Pain meant to enforce the system.

Who reads out TG people in malls? Kids, kids who are told everyday that it is OK to humiliate people for their deviance, that the only acceptable way to be is as one of the group. The pain of that socialization continues and festers. In we TG people sure, but in everybody.

And we step into that no-humans land between man and woman, and the reactions start. We misstep, and people get crazy -- and we are the target of their pent up rage and shame and hurt.

Old joke: In the war between the sexes, men see crossdressers as traitors and women see them as spies -- but in any case, they want to have them shot.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there are harder things, or the drama that many people feel about how they were gendered, about the limits of their role, or about the expectations for their kids isn't focused at TG people.

But I suspect it's why we always feel like targets.

The History Question

Naturally, when a transexual is in front of me, I can see that he/she is changing. Has changed.

And so I refer to her/him in the gender she/he has chosen.

But I am also aware of the person's upbringing.

I mean, I go down to the sea and I look at the great expanse of water, but I also feel where all that liquid has come from, all the rivers and estuaries.

Is this wrong? Shall I just ignore all that?

Ah. The history question again.

How much right do you have to consider someone's history?

I mean we all have histories and they affect who we are, right?

But for TG people our history and our present and our future may not be linear. To assume from history may lead you to the wrong places.

This is true for lots of people. There are historical facts about them that they have transcended. That youth time when they were in the gang. The drug problem. The abusive relationship. That bizzare period when they were the Secretary of the local Young Republicans.

How much history do you have a right to consider?

I would argue that you have the right to consider as much as they tell you and no more.

You don't get to guess what it must have been like for them as a little whatever. That's making assumptions based on your life and not on theirs. If you want to know what it was life for them, ask -- and if they choose not to tell you, that's your choice.

We live in the moment. People are who they are right now, and you have no right to blame or to absolve them because of their history. If they choose to bring up their history as a mitigating factor, then they put it on the table -- not you. Then it's open.

You may look at the sea and see connections, think of rivers and lakes you have loved. But that doesn't mean that this patch of water doesn't have it's own unique life within -- or it's own dangerous undertow. To assume that all of the sea is the same as other parts you have seen is to miss the beauty of this place, this moment.

And you may use things you have learned and test to see if they are true here too -- but you just can't assume they will be.

We all like to make up stories about people, to wonder "Why?"

But just because we can come up with an answer doesn't mean it's right -- or even relevant.

People look at TG people and wonder "Why?" and they come up with answers, about pain and suffering, about perversion and dissocation, about queerness and sex, about lots of things.

But unless they test those guesses, they have no idea if they are right. And most people don't question their own assumptions.

My life is my life. My history is my history. Looking at me and seeing other histories -- other bodies of water -- is fine. But don't assume their history is my history.

If I choose to share my history -- and you find it interesting, compelling, funny, whatever, fine. There are many things we can learn from sharing our pasts.

As scholars have show us, there are many ways to read any history -- you can see what you want to. Ultimately, though, to know someone, you have to know what their history means to them -- not what it means to you. For example, I guarantee that mothers of TG people don't see the same formative events that their child sees. Do you read me queerly -- or from another political stance?

The key issue is that TG people know that there are many expectations and limits that can come up when we share our histories and people choose to read what is important to them, not to us. And for someone moving to transcend limits and expectations, that can be tough -- so we are careful about the history we share and who we share it with. And that doesn't allow you to make up your own version of our history to fit in your world view.

As Geraldine Jones said, what you see in this moment is what you get.

And you only get my history if I choose to let you see it -- not if you make it up for me.


Explain! Defend! Justify!

Callan Williams Copyright 1996

Who can demand we "Explain Yourself! Defend Yourself! Justify Yourself!" to them? Everybody seems to think that they can.

The worst part is that if you don't choose to educate them, they just make up their own explanations for your life from old bits of theory, snippets of TV talk shows and extrapolations from what they feel in their own life. They decide the way it should be and help you see it. "You gotta be confused, otherwise why cant you just be hap-hap-happy like me?"

They want you to explain in a way they understand. But the way they think doesn't have any space for people like you. You can only explain the way you understand -- and they like their own explanations better, even if it is your life. You can never justify yourself on their terms, because their terms don't include you.

In fact, you tend to challenge some of the key assumptions they built their life on -- like the fact that men are men and women are women, and never the twain shall meet. But you say that wall is just an illusion.

And when you do take the challenge of explaining and they don't like the answers, they find things to blame you about. You are too well defended, too deep in denial, too isolated, too out of touch with who you are. You just don't get it.

One thing that scares me is that I will always be a professional tranny -- I will spend my life explaining the same thing over and over. After a long rehearsal period, I have the rap down, and I need to get past it. It's the challenge of the missionary, explaining the same thing over and over again to a new audience. Not much room for growth in that gig.

My life will change, I know it. I will be able to take my power and live my life. But somebody will always want to demand that I "Explain Yourself! Defend Yourself! Justify Yourself!"

And I will have to figure out a new way to do it. For example, I don't tell my life story anymore. My history is not the point. An amusing anecdote or two, create some connection -- but not my whole life. People don't need to know -- and don't need to make assumptions from what I was in the past.

I don't mind educating. But I am a bit tired of having people ask for justification, demand an answer to "Why?" that makes sense in their terms. But I'm also tired of their half-baked assumptions about me, and unless I change them, we cannot move forward.

It is true that the more we look at ourselves in the mirror of other people, the more we understand ourselves. We must go though that process of clarifying our own ideas, beliefs and understandings by viewing though the filter of society. I encourage TG people to come out specifically for that reason.

But there comes a point where you get sick of it. When you have explained the best you can and they don't get it. And it's clear that the reason is because they can't get past their own issues that they can't even see yet -- what's the point?

So I'll be glad to show people my world, if they are interested. But explaining myself in their limited world? Today, at least, I'll pass.

Rush: A Woman?

Callan Williams Copyright 1996

What finally makes someone born male into a woman?

Some people argue that it's surgery, usually Genital Reconstruction Surgery (SRS) or even sometimes simply castration.

Does this mean that a male who has his testicles removed because of cancer, for example, becomes a woman? No, we still consider him a man.

And if we kidnapped Rush Limbaugh and gave him SRS -- and even, say, breast implants -- would he wake up a woman? No, he'd just be a dick without a dick.

Others argue it's the hormones. If we slipped estrogen into Rush's coffee for a year or so, would he turn into a ranting feminazi? Why don't you ask the old guys down at the American Legion post, even the ones who are being treated for prostate by reducing their testosterone levels -- and many of whom are rabid dittoheads, followers of Rush. It's not the hormones.

Maybe you have to be born a woman, even if you have male genitalia. But take one look at a gender conference, and you'll see that even people who feel they are not men often act like them -- and seem like them to everyone around them, no matter what clothes they wear.

It seems clear that it's not simply genitals, hormones or genes that make a woman.

A woman is someone who makes the choices of a woman, in words, in voice, in movement, in dress and in many other ways. As Simone DeBeauvoir said, "One is not born a woman, one becomes one" -- in other word, one learns how to make the choices, speak the language of women.

The difference between women born female and women born male are two. One is the simple fact of living with a female body -- it's vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. The second is that women born female are socialized, trained as women -- they go though puberty and adolescence as women. They never know what having a male body, or being socialized as a man is like. It seems clear that if a transgendered male was raised as a woman, including though adolescence, they would not see themselves as transgendered -- simply as a woman with different genitals.

To transform from man to woman does not take place only on the physical plane -- looking like someone born female is not enough. We must also feel like a woman, think like a woman, and trust the spirit of the woman inside.

There is no magic shortcut to becoming a woman -- what it takes is the same for every woman, and that is learning how to act as a woman in this culture -- and having other women accept you as one of them.

Thirdhand Fear
Copyright Callan Williams 10/11/98

"Well, you know that I have no trouble with you or transgender in general, but I am a bit concerned that some people won't be as open minded, and that's not a risk I want to take. After all, what will my mother/clients/friends/co-workers think? I am sure that some will have a problem, and that would take the focus off the real goal, lead us into clashes that are just simpler to avoid. Thank you for offering, though, and I would accept, but I just have to be concerned about what other people think, you know?"

That's the way stigma works. It prejudices people to expect problems and says that they should stay away from the stigmatized person if they want to avoid those problems. It lays a groundwork of fear of what might happen, about what other people might think, and though that fear, the stigma becomes self perpetuating.

Very few people have the courage to ally themselves with people who they fear will be a liability, no matter how much it is the right thing to do to judge people on the content of their character and not how people will have irrational fears and hatred about them.

The traditional response to TG is "Wow! I really enjoyed this, and I will call soon," and then the call never come. What happens is that the person starts to think about the fears of others, or talks about the TG person with another who doesn't see the TG person as a human but as a "phobogenic object," something to be feared and avoided. "Well, they may be very nice and interesting, I'll grant you that, but do you really want to introduce them to grandmom/the big client?" Cold feet ensue and the relationship goes cold.

I met a woman at a church group discussing A Course In Miracles. She took a shine to me, and a date turned passionate. Her fears flared. "I can handle you but other people can't!" she said.

"Wait a minute. Look at that group you met me with. 20 people, many older, more conservative. Did any of them have a problem with me? Did they accept me just fine?"

"I guess, so yeah. But -- but what about other people?"

It's hard to fight our first hand fear, the fear we have been taught about our own transgender as we grow. We can also address second hand fear, the fear of someone we meet and communicate with. With a little time, most people can see a transgendered person as a human, with benefits and gifts. Rather, it's the thirdhand fear that this person holds about the rest of the world, the world that they have to confront that is almost impossible to overcome. People fear introducing queer friends because they fear being shamed and stigmatized for supporting them.

Unfortunately, this fear is grounded in real events. At IFGE Toronto, the mother of a transgendered woman talked of her coming out struggles when her daughter's transition became known. Even though this person had been totally a failure as a teenage boy, angry and in homes, her friends would rather she and her daughter tolerate this pain than ask that they accept this male child as a daughter. She told of being denied the return of a security deposit just because there were reports that TG people were at the party, of losing friends and acquaintances she had known for years, just because she refused to be silent or ashamed about her transsexual daughter.

There is a price for standing up against stigma, for doing the right thing, and many people are unwilling to even risk paying that price. They are positive and encouraging until the fear-mongers get to them and then they become afraid and separating. They let thirdhand fear work on them and crumble, refusing to make our fight their fight, just bowing out.

Even gay and lesbian organizations hold these fears. "We fear that to embrace transgender will get our agenda stalled in its tracks. It is important that we reach a broad coalition, so we have to not embrace the edges, not offend anyone." It's the same argument some women's suffrage groups made when they were willing to accept the vote for women but not for black women.

This is the challenge we have, finding ways to change the climate so thirdhand fear, the fear that someone might be called a "tranny-lover," and have to pay a price for supporting us, is reduced. This happens slowly, but it happens. In large urban areas, there are fewer stigmas attached, but there is still stigma. It costs us job and relationship prospects, not because we are not good and valuable, but because people fear that we may be more trouble than we are worth, even though they know that the trouble will not come from us but from narrow minded bigots who cannot accept us.

The challenge of thirdhand fear is the biggest one we face. No one can get ahead without others to support them, and when others fear that support will cost them too much, we are left abandoned with no way to address the free-floating stigma and fear that keeps us down and isolated. We need people who will stand with us and care more about standing for the right thing than the cost bigots might impose on them .

"By being bold in your own life
you give other people the chance
to do the right thing."

Callan Williams