An Introduction to Transgender

Hello From Hell

Lesbians have two reasons to be wary of transgender.

An Introduction to Transgender

Callan Williams         Copyright 1996

You have a list in your brain. I know it's in there, but you have never probably looked at it as a list. It's a list of the things that boys do and boys don't do, a list of the things that girls do and girls don't do. You even have lists of things that good girls and good boys do, and lists of things that cute boys and cute girls do.

Those lists are a description of your view of gender. They describe what the gender roles of man and of woman mean to you. You may think that those differences are natural somehow. But most of them are constructions you have been taught. After all, is wearing pantyhose somehow "naturally" female or not "naturally" male?

In most people's lists of what boys shouldn't do, "wear dresses" and "sleep with other boys" are on the same page.

And girls aren't supposed to sleep with other girls or swagger about with a dick packed in their jeans.

To do things that are not on the list for your gender, the one you were assigned at birth after people saw the shape of your crotch, is to transgress gender.

If you had a penis, within hours of your birth your parents may have talked about how tough, how strong and how invulnerable you would be, how you would be a "good little soldier." If you didn't have a penis, they thought about how you would grow into a graceful woman and get married to a nice guy, have cute kids. They assigned you a entire gender path, determined by your reproductive organs -- reproductive determinism.

The system of gender is the visible part of a heterosexist school of thought, one designed to promote breeding.

Heterosexism uses gender based limits to separate what is assigned to men and what is assigned to women, to force men and women to come together in relationship if they want to become a whole person.

Men face the requirement to be tough enough to take their place in the hierarchy, to not show vulnerability, sensuality, or other seeming weaknesses. This limits them, causing more addiction, disease, stress and death.

The Women's Movement has been a rebellion against this separation -- after all, men got the money and the property. Feminism has been about redefining women's gender roles, about removing arbitrary limits placed on people just because they happened to be born female.

One reason people have homophobia, feel the need to stigmatize and berate homosexuals is because homosexuals transgress the heterosexist gender system that is designed to enforce breeding.

But times are changing. We have enough people on this earth, enough warm bodies. What we need now is ways to get more brain power, more ideas, not just more muscle. As in early hunter-gatherer civilizations, we don't need a focus on breeding, we need a focus on creative and individual thought. We need to empower every person to be their own unique selves.

People simply can't be the best they can be if they are focused on living within arbitrary limits and rules about what girls are supposed to do, about what boys are supposed to do. Gender is always about generalizations -- and enforced generalizations are always wrong.

Who are the transgendered? They are the people who transgress gender limits, some in small ways, like changing clothes, and some in profound ways, like completely changing the gender role they were assigned at birth -- women born male & men born female. They are butches and fags, drags and femmes, writers and players, crossdressers and transsexuals, old and young. What they share in common is that they break the rules they were taught about what a man is and is not, about what a woman is and is not.

These people push the edges, the limits of gender. For many, transgendered people are too far out there on the edge, just too queer, too transgressive. Some gay activists want to convince people that "we are just like everyone else" -- but they think the way to do that is to look like everyone else, to fit into a nice, tasteful, presentable gay or lesbian gender role. They want to create their own arbitrary gender limits based on reproductive determinism that simply include homosexual desire, to mimic the limits of heterosexism.

The transgendered also say that we are just like everyone else. But our message is a bit more profound. It doesn't matter how we choose to look, the color of our skin, or anything else -- we are all the same. According to our DNA, we are all 99% human and 1% added ingredients, including race, sex, gender, language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, appearance, size and more. To truly let individuals blossom, we must remember that we are all alike in our hearts, and not simply be coerced to look alike on the surface. This is embracing true diversity by embracing the core humanity of each one of us, focusing on the human spirit and not on the externals. We transgendered people don't wish to end gender and gender expression -- most of us love to play with gender symbols -- but only to end compulsory gendering.

To empower yourself, to become all you can be, you have to look at how the system of gender -- a system enforced with humiliation and stigma, calling us sissies, faggots, even getting people angry enough to bash us -- how that gender system limits you. We must look at how being who you are expected to be, shaping yourself in a way you have been told that others will find pretty, rather than in a way that is powerfully, uniquely and authentically you, limits you.

This is the message of the transgendered. The barriers that we see -- even the barrier between men and women -- are all constructed by humans. And every wall that protects us also limits us, so we have to carefully examine the tradeoffs.

The transgendered have walked through walls of gender, some in small ways, others in large ways. We have shown that we can transcend the limits of culture, of expectations, of biology and of history. We do this now, and have done it in other times and places in human culture as shamans. For the culture to get better today, more people have to break down the arbitrary walls between humans and learn to share and work together -- and gender is one of the biggest walls of illusion we have.

Hello From Hell
Callan Williams        Copyright 1996

Notes For Clinical Issues in Sexual Orientation for MSW Candidates Class

Hello From Hell.

What is hell? It is the feeling of being separate from others, cut off, isolated. It is the sense of being humiliated and shamed because of who you are.

Hell is the place you go when you face the belief that you are unlovable. Hell is the place you go when you believe you are so odd that no one can love you.

Hell is the place past what you think others can understand, can grasp, can accept.

Transgendered people have been to hell. We walk through a wall between men and women that most people see as inviolable, as solid, as sacred. Something in our soul drives us to transgress. And that makes people uncomfortable.

The nail that sticks up gets pounded down. Every TG person has been pounded by the system of gendering, the stigma and the fear, the forced shaping to become what others think is supposed to pretty and attractive.

Heterosexual or Homosexual, there are rules of desire. Gender is enforced by affection, love, attraction -- and the denial of this human affection.

All this leads to the creation of a false self, a facade to satisfy the expectations of parents and partners, teachers and chums. The hell of having to try to kill our essence to be accepted.

TG people live in the hell of feeling shame, feeling that we are somehow defective and sick, hiding behind a false self built to satisfy the culture.

The most ironic thing is that the only way to leave this hell is to plunge into it. The route to heaven is go beyond our own hells.

Walk down your own path of strangeness, and find both your uniqueness and your connection. Go down the dark pathways of your queerness to find the light of your essential humanity.

We must go to hell.

I have been to hell, the seven unnamable hells. I have walked into my own madness to find my own sanity.

I have tried to talk with clinicians about my trip to hell, about my personal, complex, bizarre hell. Talk about those transgressive, separating parts of me. Talk about the line between insanity and function, between normal and strange, between assimilation and wildness.

Needless to say, they blanch. The rock solid foundation of gender, of relations between men and women, are powder soft in my life. My history does not predict my future, and simple rules are inadequate. I must break the rules to find my own stability and my own joy.

How do other people face that? How do they understand? My own personal hell includes being too hip for the room -- watching people glaze over as I speak my truths. My overwhelming sprit overwhelms my attempts to fit in -- and scares others.

The truth is that there are more realities than any one of us cares to admit. What is real for you -- or for your mother -- may not be real for me.

Are you ready to go to hell? Are you ready to face the strange, the challenging? Stare at the ugliness of those twisted by the attempts to kill their own nature, those who have been shamed into soul suicide?

Looking into hell in the eyes of a transgendered person will be looking into your own hell. You will see the hells that torment you, the parts of you that you have shut down when you faced them, the echoes of others who have hurt and shamed you.

To embrace transgender is to shake the roots of identity in each and every person. "He or She?" is the first question, and when the answer to that is ambiguous, all other answers are ambiguous too.

To embrace transgender is to embrace the full circle of humanity in each and every one of us. "In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender transgression remind us of our continuous common humanity."

Transgender is hell, the hell of separation, of isolation, of stigma, of humiliation.

Transgender is heaven, the heaven of connection, of diversity, of the circle of life, the embracing of our entire soul, our full spirit. It is the heaven of being authentic, in touch with ourselves, the universe and all the people in it.

It is this path through hell to heaven that we must walk. Few of us have been able to find guides who have been to hell and know the way. Many smell the sulfur and run, trying only to patch up the false self, rework the facade.

I have only one question for you. Are you ready to go to hell?

Lesbians have two reasons to be wary of transgender.

I've been thinking about what I have to say to lesbians about transgender.

I think Lesbians have two reasons to be wary of transgender.

The first is that the vast majority of visible transgender people are very adolescent. They are out in transition, learning a new gender role (and maybe a new body) and this means that they are as gawky and immature in their expression as a teenager. They have a whole new set of skills to learn, and this includes the drama of high school all over again, a whole group of firsts which have been delayed, the power of acting out as exploration of feelings for which they do not yet have mature expression.

Beyond this, there is no official system to help trans people grow up, no parents, teachers, high school groups and so on. People don't expect a 40 year old to act like a teenager. It becomes a very individual journey, these people who missed what they needed from adolescence the first go around. In fact, there may be no end to adolescence for these people, because there is no mature, accepted role for women born male and men born female, which can cause them to get stuck unless they can change their body to appear normative and blend in beyond being visibly transgendered.

This notion of the dangers of adolescence and the high drama learning that comes with it is not foreign to the lesbian community. There are always people coming out who have to learn how to live in a new way, which is why newly out lesbians often play romantic games that remind us of high-school, but these people have less to learn than a transgender person who is learning a whole new way of relating to the world and relating to other people, often a way which is made rough by the perceived dissonance between body and role.

The second reason for lesbians to be wary of transgender people is the fact that transgender is a very individual journey. James Green, a man born female, and respected leader of FTM International, likes to say that when you hear the term "trans," that's a signal to open up your mind to the possibilities of unique individuals. "Trans" is not about a group, but about individuals who have chosen to express who they believe themselves to be in the world.

What this means is that trans people cannot be easily put into one category or another. They are often not focused on being a lesbian or a man, but rather focused on being themselves. For a community whose identity is based on who they sleep with, this notion of identity based on expression can be confusing and difficult. Trans people often don't shape their expression on who they want to attract, but rather on who they want to be.

Trans artist Greer Lankton had an exhibit titled "It's About Me, Not You." This may be a simple idea, but when the social expectation for people to dress and behave in a way that makes others conformable or attracts others, this is often a difficult thing to remember. Lesbian life has lots of codes which signal our status to each other, and when someone doesn't follow those codes, be they femme, a person born female who chooses to male themselves, or a person born male who chooses to female themselves, we often feel challenged and uncomfortable around them.

For many transgendered people, who have lived a life denying their own dreams and desires in order to fit into a social role, the exploration of expression of transgender is a time when they choose not to listen to other's fears and discomfort. This is completely understandable -- if they were responsive to others, they wouldn't have the power to follow their own hearts.

One of the most important thing any transgender person has to deal with is figuring out how to survive in a world which has cast them beyond the pale, a world where almost everyone feels empowered to criticize the gender expression of someone else based on how that expression makes them feel. "You make me feel uncomfortable, so why don't you change? " Because it's about me, not you. Every trans person has had a barrage of demands to be more acceptable, more normative, and has had to find some way to handle that, though disconnection, denial, attempts to pass, ignoring challenges and so on. In facing this wall of stigma designed to crush indvidual expression, there may be pain and ideas which seem counterproductive, even heterosexist.

Transgender people don't usually define themselves by who they want to sleep with, but rather by who they are. They don't usually find it easy to follow the norms and expectations of a group, rather claiming their own individual voice.

It's when people who cling to a group identity face the challenges of someone who can't easily accept that identity, because it doesn't fit them, that clashes often occur. Like fighting cliques in high school, when we define ourselves as crowds, we often see people who don't make the choices of our crowd as challenging and negative. Some feminist authors have even said that indviduals born male who express their own trans are somehow undermining the status of women, that it is not about their indvidual drives but about systemic oppression. While it may be true that many people who have not been raised as women have conciousness rasing to do about the heterosexist society we live in, they make their own choices based on inner desires, not social operations.

There is much to be learned from mature transgendered people, who face the challenges of being themselves in a culture which tries to enforce normativity at the cost of breaking hearts. It is usually not our sexual orientation we are tormented about, but our breaking of gendered expectations placed on us, in dress, behavior or role. In high-school, it's not the cheerleader who had girlfriends sleep over who got the hard time, but rather the butch girl or the femme boy, no matter who they wanted to date.

There are good reasons to be wary of trans people. Some are not yet mature, stilling acting out to find themselves. Some act out of pain and isolation, not at all aware of our needs because they are focused on their own. And some feel threatening because they assert their own individual voice over the group process and group identity, which many have come to value.

There are also good reasons to connect to transpeople, not the least of which is that their own individual journey to find their hearts, and their own bold freedom of expression can help create space for others to find and sing their own individual song, beyond the expectations of the group.