Subj: Re: Lesbians have two reasons to be wary of transgender.
Date: 1/17/00 02:23:00 AM Eastern Standard Time
From: Jamison Green
I am so embarrassed to admit that it has taken me until now to read your mail containing this great article. Thanks so much for sending it to me, and for quoting me so appropriately, and for stating so succinctly such important concepts. Where did this appear, and did you receive any feedback from lesbians on it? It think it's great, and I hope to find an opportunity to quote you! I'll let you know when I do...
All the best,
Lesbians have two reasons to be wary of transgender.
Copyright © Callan Williams 7/7/99
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 on being themselves. For a community whose identity is based on who they sleep with, this notion of identity based on personal expression can be confusing and difficult. Trans people often don't shape their expression on whom they want to attract, but rather on whom 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 comfortable 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 expressing 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 individual expression, there may be pain and ideas that 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 working to claim their own individual voice, even as they desire to be accepted as one of the gang.
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 our crowd, we often see people who don't make the choices of our crowd as being challenging and negative. Some feminist authors have even said that individuals born male who express their own trans nature are somehow undermining the status of women, that it is not about their individual drives but about systemic oppression. While it may be true that many people who have not been raised as women have consciousness raising to do about the heterosexist society we live in which limits people based on reproductive biology, in the end they make their own choices based on inner desires, not social oppression. They work to tell the truth about who they are inside, even if that truth conflicts with the social assumptions & expectations placed on theitr biology.
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 whom they wanted to date.
There are good reasons to be wary of trans people. Some are not yet mature, still acting out to find themselves. They 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 each of us to find and sing their our own individual song, beyond the expectations of the group.
Just as teenagers always have, transgendered people make us question the assumptions we hold, reconsider our choices. They remind us of the vitality & power of change, of reinvention and transformation, examples of the struggle we all go though to both be a functioning member of society and truly be ourselves. They show us that the walls we build to separate groups are just illusions, revealing our continuous common humanity. They bring a new, clear and often insightful vision of what matters.
Be wary of adolescents who are striving to become themselves, but don't stay away from them -- they have much to give.