We’ve all heard about the tragically closeted homosexual of the 1950s or ’60s. It is hard to feel anything but pity when imagining what drove gay and lesbian people to marry, submit to blackmail schemes or abuse at the hands of police officers rather than be outed — or any one of a hundred other incomprehensibly self-hating acts we’ve heard about.
But recently I found myself in conversation with a trans man who is afraid to shower at the gym for fear that people in the locker room will challenge him for his lack of penis. I myself am wondering which locker room to use, and whether I should go to a different gym for a while so I don’t go directly from the women’s to the men’s at the same gym. Is this equally tragic?
Perhaps gym-going can never quite be tragic: point taken. But another trans man I know was driven from his job when his co-workers learned what was in his pants. Trans people are making choices every day, however small or large, about whether they can safely come out to people who have no frame of reference for transsexuality. It’s one thing to tell someone that you belong to a group that’s considered less than ideal: Imagine confessing that you may have to declare bankruptcy. But it’s another altogether to confess to something unspeakable, something that puts your very humanity in question.
Judith Butler wrote that the language that introduces your existence on this earth genders you (It’s a girl!) and when your gender is in question, your humanity may as well be, too. Am I a person or am I a Frankenstein? If I transition completely, will friends and family outside my queer bubble be able to see me as still me, with some important but ultimately cosmetic changes? Or will they see me as a costumed Cameron, an ersatz human being?
It’s easy to wonder how gays and lesbians of a bygone age could fail so tragically and so prolongedly to acknowledge what they so clearly (in retrospect) were. But that is only because we can’t imagine what it would be like to be so close to mainstream society’s damning view of us that we didn’t see it as a misguided absurdity.
As homosexual identities become increasingly socially acceptable despite pointed efforts by social conservatives to compare them to pedophilia and beastiality — things that clearly aren’t okay — transsexual identities have come to occupy the borderlands of what’s okay. At a recent talk, the black activist Angela Davis hammered on trans liberation as an urgent civil rights issue. She sees the historical pattern in which somebody is always left out.
Since 1970, the mainstream view has continued to judge gay identities, but it cannot pretend not to see them as human. Trans identities are just beginning to be seen as human in the Bay Area. Elsewhere, transsexuality remains a sad — and exotic — joke. I look with envy on trans men and women in their 20s, who have the luxury of never having known another way. They wonder aloud how their parents could possibly fail to support them; I marvel silently at the parents who somehow do.
I can still see quite clearly the image of trans people as hardly human. The ready accessibility of that image — the knowledge of how others may see me — makes it hard to find the causal self-confidence required to say, with feeling, that I am human, that being trans is not a tragic attempt at self-effacement but a simple gesture towards being myself, like cutting my hair short or refusing to work a corporate job. It is not a lie or a regret; it is a complex reality.
Gender is either a tragedy or a comedy but it can’t be both.
People always talk about how huge a decision transitioning is, and how permanent. But is it really any bigger than a tattoo you don’t much like, or a scar that resulted from something foolish? Every decision comes with the possibility of regret, but parents and other spokespeople for yesterday’s order of things wield the catastrophic permanence of particular decisions over us. The narrative evokes death just enough to engage in a dangerous echo chamber with the idea that trans people aren’t human.
There’s a certain biological inability to see yourself as something less than human. If you’ve been taught that trans is less than human, it’s fairly difficult to see with clarity that you are trans without also seeing with clarity — and serious mental health consequences — that you are sub-human. Look at me saying this so painfully clearly and still not being able to find an emotional way out of the paradox. Isn’t this the battle fought by early homosexuals who knew they were human even as they wanted sex and intimacy with people of the same gender — and even as they were forced into dangerous situations to get it?
The image was so powerful that the word homosexual had to be overthrown before real activism could take root. Just as now we are jettisoning the word transsexual (with its implied adjective, tragic) for its friendlier versions trans and tranny and for more specific (though still somewhat cyborg-ish) appellations like MTF and FTM.
But re-appropriating the word queer might have been the most important move of all, defining the queer ethos of irony, dark humor and welcome perversions. Will there be a defining twist be for trans people that renders the old views of them comic, absurd and harmless — mostly?
If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buy a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.