Exploring Transsexual and Transgender Issues
November 24, 2002
This is a personal paper. It stems from my desire to be able to be a good counselor for people who identify as transgender or transsexual, should the need arise. It is intended as an exploration of trans issues, feelings, and identities to help me get past my lack of understanding, my sense of alienness and difficulty in comprehending why some people choose to alter their body surgically to change their sex. This has been harder for me to understand than simply another ethnic culture, where the differences can be attributed to socialization.
I've known a number of transsexual people, some of whom were clearly "different" and others who passed, some who were outspoken about being transsexual and others who tried hard to keep it a secret, who wanted to pass. Is this simply a social issue, and if we reduce the socially enforced distinctions between men and women would the need for this go away? What are the experiences of transsexual and transgender people? I had done some reading, I had seen Kate Bornstein perform and Leslie Feinberg speak, but I felt a need to learn more, and this seemed to me to fit the goal of learning more about a different culture.
In this paper I'll explain some terms and the pronouns I'll use, report on my explorations about transsexual and transgender issues, and then finish with some conclusions.
A Note on Pronouns and Language
Leslie Feinberg mentions a preference for gender-neutral pronouns, saying "I am a human being who would rather not be addressed as Ms. or Mr., ma'am or sir. I prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns like sie (pronounced like 'see') and hir (pronounced like 'here') to describe myself." She says, "I'm not at odds with the fact that I was born female-bodied. Nor do I identify as an intermediate sex. I simply do not fit the prevalent Western concepts of what a woman or a man 'should' look like." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 1) I will therefore in this paper use "sie" and "hir" when the person identifies as being outside the binary male/female polarity, or for someone of unknown gender.
In accordance with the common usage in the books I've quoted, when I refer to someone's sex, I am talking about their genital form, and when I refer to gender, I mean their social presentation as male or female (or neither or both).
Transsexual is commonly used to refer to someone who has had surgery to alter hir physical sex. Feinberg explains, "Transsexual men and women traverse the boundary of the sex they were assigned at birth." (Feinberg, 1996, p. x) Note that sometimes the word is spelled with a single "s": transexual, as by Riki Anne Wilchins (Wilchins, p. 15).
A transsexual man may be referred to as FTM (female to male), F2M, or MTM, the latter used "in recognition of the fact that they had not ever felt female in their lives." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 43) There's a similar usage for MTF, etc.
Feinberg points out that "Today the word transgender has at least two colloquial meanings. It has been used as an umbrella term to include everyone who challenges the boundaries of sex and gender. It is also used to draw a distinction between those who reassign the sex they were labeled at birth, and those of us whose gender expression is considered inappropriate for our sex." (Feinberg, 1996, p. x) Sie asked many transgender activists "who they believed were included under the umbrella term. Those polled named: transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bigenders, drag queens, drag kings, cross-dressers, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals, ... androygnes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, bender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body." (Feinberg, 1996, p. x). Sie notes, however, that "Not all transsexuals choose surgery or hormones; some transgender people do." (Feinberg, 1996, p. x)
Feinberg quotes Virginia Price's definition of transgenderist, "somebody who lives full time in the gender opposite to their anatomy." (Feinberg, 1996, p. x)
Kate Bornstein posits that "gay men and lesbians are more consciously excluded by the culture for violations of gender codes... than for actual sexual practices" so she proposes reclaiming "the word 'transgendered' so as to be more inclusive. Let's let it mean 'transgressively gendered.' Then, we have a group of people who break the rules, codes and shackles of gender." (Bornstein, p. 134-135). However, this seems to be a broader definition than usual.
Loren Cameron's book, although subtitled Transsexual Portraits, embraces and includes "those people who may identify more comfortably as 'transgender' or 'gender transgressive.' A growing number of people are and have been questioning the more usual representations of gender. Some have had chemical and surgical enhancement, and many have not. Inhabiting
a less static gender identification than that of typical transsexuals, they are exploring and experiencing a fluid range of gender embodiment." (Cameron, p. 12)
It's clear that there is a fluidity in the definitions and in the way that people present their gender.
In this section, I discuss the childhood recognition of being trans (or at least of being outside the norm); transitions and reactions to it; speculations on why this occurs; cultural norms; the problems caused by being forced into one of two boxes (male or female); harassment and bigotry; gender options as a spectrum or circle rather than a binary choice; fluidity in gender and sexual orientation; unity of oppressed groups vs. rejection of each other; and finally I raise the question of whether this is really a pathology.
Transgendered people often show a desire to express themselves in a way that is not socially acceptable for their assigned sex from an early age. For example, the movie, Ma Vie en Rose, shows a young boy who sees hirself as a girl, who dreams of being a girl. The books I read include a number of stories about this early recognition.
Jess, the protagonist of Stone Butch Blues, didn't really know what was wrong, just that sie was different. "I didn't want to be different. I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried my best to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown. No one ever offered a name for what was wrong with me. That's what made me afraid it was really bad. I only came to recognize its melody through this constant refrain: 'Is that a boy or a girl?'" (Feinberg, 1993, p. 13)
Bornstein was confused about hir gender from a young age. "When I was a kid, everyone else seemed to know they were boys or girls or men or women. That's something I've never known; not then, not today. I never got to say to the grownups, 'Hold on there--just what is it about me that makes you think I'm a little boy?' As a kid, I just figured I was the crazy one; I was the one who really had some serious defect." (Bornstein, p. 8)
Sie further comments, "I was a lonely, frightened little fat kid who felt there was something deeply wrong with me because I didn't feel like I was the gender I'd been assigned. I felt there was something wrong with me, something sick and twisted inside me, something very very bad about me. And everything I read backed that up." (Bornstein, p. 12)
Cameron also felt at odds with his assigned gender. "A tomboy as a child, I shunned dresses and rolling down my socks. I loved playing Army games, and my favorite doll was a G. I. Joe ... During my teens and even before then, I had begun to feel terrifically uncomfortable as a female-bodied person." (Cameron, p. 8-9)
Linda Phillips, a heterosexual cross-dresser who now lives full time as a woman, had to deal with the expectation that a male who dressed in women's clothes was gay. "In my case, I always knew what I was regardless of evidence to the contrary between my legs. The awful part came when I realized that I was attracted to women and not men, which I just naturally assumed I would be. Imagine a little girl peering into her mother's mirror wondering where she could find another little girl who would be interested in her." A famous therapist "deemed that I was indeed a homosexual because I wore girl's clothes. While my mother was upset, I was almost relieved. I knew inside I was a girl but was confused about the sex part. For some time I would wake up in the morning thinking this was the day I would start liking guys... I still mooned over the girls; I wanted to not only love them and be with them, I wanted to BE them." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 36-37)
This early recognition was often painful and difficult. As Wilchins comments, "I was constrained from feeling things about my body and obliged to feel others. I was denied access to the broad range of nonverbal language with which we express our sense of self: in posture, gestures, clothing, adornment and inflection... To avoid displaying any of the 'inappropriate and prohibited signs about myself, I policed myself from feeling them, lest I give myself away with a gesture, a stance, or anything that would allow others to smell that something about me was not right, that would single me out and make me a target for social retribution... I got better and better at hiding my feelings deeper and farther away, until they were completely hidden, even from me." (Wilchins, p. 131-132).
How do the people who do have a sex change feel about it after the fact? The people represented in these books are glad they did it, even if it was hard.
For James Green, the sex change was
"descending into Hell and clawing your way back out. People talk about how happy they are when they're just starting hormones, when it's all new. That experience was obliterated for me because, during that time, I lost my relationship of thirteen years, the relationship that I thought was the center of my life and one of unconditional love. Having my children taken away from my daily life was shocking and incredibly depressing.
"I was conflicted because, on one hand, I was experiencing a kind of elation as my body was finally taking on the shape I had always wished it to be, but I was also feeling terribly lonely and abandoned. I felt I had lost everything...
"After the break-up, I couldn't be intimate with anyone. It was just too painful. It took a couple of years before I could allow myself to be with someone. During the second year, I began to be afraid that no one would ever want me because of what I had done to myself. I was afraid that other people would perceive my body as mutilated."
(Cameron, p. 77) However, Green does not regret it, even though it was a risk. "Had I not taken that risk, I might as well have shriveled up and died. I just feel so much richer for having gone through this incredible transition that forced me to talk to so many people in my life honestly and openly about who I am." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 145)
Max Wolf Valerio tells us:
"I think most people don't understand how transsexuals feel about our original biological selves. Everyone experiences this discontinuity between identity and body slightly differently, but there's a commonality. For me, it wasn't so much that I hated my body or hated being a woman. First of all, even as I say that I was a woman, that feels as though somehow, it really wasn't true. At some point, I realized that my deepest, most abiding sense of myself was male. When I saw that there was an alternative, that the hormones really work, I knew that I would rather live my life as a man.
"As a man, a more integrated sense of myself began to emerge. Of course, I will never have an intact and completely functional male body, even after surgery. But I am very pleased, ecstatic, with what I do have now."
(Feinberg, 1996, p. 142)
Cameron notes, "Each one of us has had to take a stand about our identity. When I photograph transsexuals, men or women, I ask about their histories. I know they have labored to arrive at the place where I've found them. They tell me about losing jobs and friends while going through the transition, and how they fought to keep them. They talk about the people who love them and how difficult it is to make them understand. I see the strain in their faces as they speak to me, and I know they've been through so much. But more than anything, I hear the relief in their voices. Satisfied with their changed bodies, they each tell me how much better they feel, and that they would do it all again if they had to." (Cameron, p. 19)
Dealing with Speculations
I have not seen speculations by transgendered people about why they experience gender the way they do. They simply are the way they are, and as the stories above show, they may feel ill at ease in their assigned gender from an early age. However, non-transgendered people often try to find a reason for the desire to change sex or gender.
Radio and TV interviewers ask Feinberg the same questions again and again.
"'But were you born male or female? Why do you think you are the way your are? Were you born this way? Was your mother overbearing? Did your father want a boy?' These questions have no meaning for me.
"I don't think the point is: Why are we different? Why have we refused to walk one of two narrow paths, but instead demanded the right to blaze our own? ...
"The real burning question is: How did we ever find the courage?"
(Feinberg, 1998, p. 34)
Some people assume sie is reacting to social pressures. "'No wonder you've passed as a man! This is such an anti-woman society,' a lesbian friend told me. To her, females passing as males are simply try to escape women's oppression - period. She believes that once true equality is achieved in society, humankind will be genderless... I know what she's thinking - if we can build a more just society, people like me will cease to exist. She assumes that I am simply a product of oppression. Gee, thanks so much." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 83)
Trying to escape oppression certainly can't explain the trans women who were raised as boys. As Bornstein points out, "Before I dealt with my gender change, I had gold card membership in the dominant culture. To all appearances, I was a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class male. I fought so hard against being transsexual because I heard all the teasing and jokes in the locker rooms." (Bornstein, p. 61)
While the trans authors I've read are not interested in why they feel the way they do, they are very interested in the social construction of gender that has made their lives so difficult. Why does society insist on people being male or female? Why are people forced in to one of two boxes?
Feinberg's search of history showed hir that not all cultures or historical periods have been limited to woman or man, feminine or masculine. "In fact, Western law took centuries to neatly partition the sexes into only two categories and mandate two corresponding gender expressions." Sie quotes historian Randolph Trumbach, "'The aradigm that there are only two genders founded on two biological sexes began to predominate in western culture only in the early eighteenth century.'" (Feinberg, 1996, p. 101) However, it is clear that there was prejudice and oppression long before that, since the Spanish colonizers of the Americas condemned and killed the men dressed as women that they found. (Feinberg, 1996, p. 23)
For Feinberg, it was important to learn that other cultures had more options. "What stunned me was that such ancient and diverse cultures allowed people to choose more sex/gender paths, and this diversity of human expression was honored as sacred. I had to chart the complex geography of sex and gender with a compass needle that only pointed to north or south." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 23)
Wilchins finds the cultural definition of gender to be extremely limiting. "Culture determines what my body means, and the meaning has to be completely one thing or another. Movement, mix and match, are strictly prohibited. This is like living in a straitjacket. So when people ask me if transexuality is learned or genetic, I conjure up the strange image. I see them moving around in their straitjackets, hopping about with great concern. Then, noticing me with my arms free, they ask, 'Are loose arms learned or genetic? Wouldn't you rather be normal?' Thank you, no." (Wilchins, p. 150-151)
Boxes: male and female
The inability to fit into the male/female box causes many problems. The one most often mentioned is, which bathroom to use? For example, Wilchins comments, "When people started reading me as a woman, I had to very consciously learn how they saw me in order to use the restroom. I had to learn to recognize my voice, my posture, the way I appeared in clothing. I had to master an entire set of bathroom-specific communicative techniques just to avoid having the cops called... sometimes it didn't work. The cops would humiliate me, checking my ID as publicly as possible, making sure everyone got a good, long look at the gendertrash being put back in its place--which was out of sight." (Wilchins, p. 151)
Identity papers are another problem. Feinberg asks why driver's licenses and passports have to have a box for male or female. After all, they both have photographs. Hir driver's license reads Male, for hir own safety, since people read hir as male. "Imagine the nightmare I'd face if I handed the trooper a license that says I am female. The alleged traffic infraction should be the issue, not my genitals. I shouldn't have to prove my sex to any police officer who has stopped me for a moving violation, and my body should not be the focus of investigation. But in order to avoid these dangers, I broke the law when I filled out my driver's license application. As a result, I could face a fine, a suspension of my license, and up to six months in jail merely for having put an M in the box marked sex. (Feinberg, 1996, p. 61) But hir passport is a different matter. "I don't feel safe traveling with a passport that reads Female. However, if I apply for a passport as Male, I am subject to even more serious felony charges. Therefore, I don't have a passport, which restricts my freedom to travel." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 61)
Harassment and bigotry
Is the danger real? The murder of transsexual people suggests that it is. The movie Boys Don't Cry is the true story of Brandon Teena, raped and later murdered by two men who were outraged to find out that this young man had the genitals of a woman. The police refused to help him after he reported the rape.
Feinberg nearly died in 1995 because of the bigotry of an emergency room doctor who told hir to leave after he discovered sie was female. "The doctor returned after I was dressed. He ordered me to leave the hospital and never return. I refused. I told him I wouldn't leave until he could tell me why my fever was so high. He said, 'You have a fever because you are a very troubled person.'" (Feinberg, 1998, p. 2)
Others don't survive the bigotry of medical attendants, for example Tyra Hunter, who was critically injured in an accident. When the EMS technician cut open her pants and discovered she had a penis, he stopped treating her, and started making jokes about her. She died. (Wilchins, p. 205)
The police are a source of danger. Drag queen Sylvia Rivera has nasty stories about them. "When the drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was. I remember the first time I got arrested. I wasn't even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me. We always felt that the police were the real enemy. We expected nothing better than to be treated like animals--and we were. We were stuck in a bullpen like a bunch of freaks. We were disrespected. A lot of us were beaten up and raped." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 106)
Feinberg was also harassed by the police. "My greatest terror was always when the police raided the bars, because they had the law on their side... Frequently we were not even formally charged after our arrests. All too often, the sentences were executed in the back seat of a police cruiser or on the cold cement floor of a precinct cell." (Feinberg, 1996, p.8)
Options, Spectrums, Circles
While "Most transsexuals opt for the theory that there are men and women and no in-between ground: the agreed-upon gender system," (Bornstein, p. 64) many question the rigidity of male/female roles. Bornstein asks why we have to be gendered, and what keeps the bi-polar gender system in place. "I started out thinking that a theory of gender would bridge the long-standing gap between the two major genders, male and female. I'm no longer trying to do that. Some people think I want a world without gender, something bland and colorless: that's so far from how I live! I love playing with genders, and I love watching other people play with all the shades and flavors that gender can come in. I just want to question... the existence of gender." (Bornstein, p. 58)
Feinberg talks about the people in the women's movement who yearned for human liberation, and "hoped that androgyny would replace masculinity and femininity and help do away with gendered expression altogether." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 53) But "Only androgynous people live comfortably in that gender space... Why would we want to ask anyone to give up their hard-fought-for place on the gender spectrum? There are no rights or wrongs in the way people express their own gender style... Each person has the right to express their gender in any way that feels most comfortable - masculine or feminine, androgynous, bi- and tri-gender expression, gender fluidity, gender complexity, and gender contradiction. There are many shades of gender that are not even represented in language yet." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 53-54)
Feinberg quotes a number of people who don't identify as male or female:
Michael Hernandez had to get past the magic number two ("male/female, black/white, right/wrong..."). Sie overcompensated when sie first started taking testosterone, but "As I grew more comfortable with myself I found a balance, a sense of peace. I am more than male and more than female. I am neither man nor woman, but the circle encompassing both." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 74-75) Sie concludes, "My life today is very different than yesterday. There are days when I know where I am going and days where the doubts overwhelm. All in all I am a better person because I found my own way in the world. It may not be the same as yours and it certainly is not better than yours, but it is the right way for me." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 76)
Dragon Xcalibur also avoids a male or female identification. "I've lived parts of my life as a straight woman, as a butch dyke, as a man - both straight and faggot. Each was and is important. I'm not about to forget anything if I can help it, but rather walk the circle as I see it. I think, as I get older, I become stranger and more generic. A generic queer, for queer is my nation and my culture." Surgery to remove hir breasts "has been very freeing for me... I think of myself as man and woman, both and neither these days ... On the whole, I like being on the bridge. And even when I am having trouble with it that day, I know it's where I belong." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 77)
Deirdre Sinnott says, "Defining myself is hard; being myself is easy. Right now I describe myself as tri-gendered. Sometime I look very masculine - I get called sir and brother. Other times I look more feminine and sometimes I try to look androgynous. (Feinberg, 1998, p. 145) Sie continues, "I have had lovers of both sexes and multiple genders. Right now I'm happy with an eclectic collection of clothes so I can decide each morning how I will present myself for the day." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 146)
Fluidity in Gender and Sexual Orientation
As we have seen, the trans movement is fighting against the need to label people male or female. They don't want to create new boxes to put people in, but allow a wide range of choices, and allow a fluidity as people shift in their internal perceptions and how they wish to present themselves. Wilchins mentions that Judith Butler suggests "that we allow identity to float free, that we stop barricading the gates of gender and encourage everyone to define themselves as they wish, even change their identity or invent new ones. Instead of merely tolerating this gender fluidity as a necessary evil, we accept the inherent instability of all identities and make it work for us... The boundaries blur, shift and open. Some women become indistinguishable from men. Some women become more distinguishable from women. Some fall off that specious male-female spectrum entirely; becoming totally new genders we haven't yet named... Fluidity is transformed into a key feminist goal and an important liberatory tactic." (Wilchins, p. 85-86)
For Feinberg, gender is not simply a social construct. For hir, "gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught." Sie asks, "How can gender expression be mandated by edict and enforced by law? Isn't that like trying to handcuff a pool of mercury?" (Feinberg, 1998, p. 10)
Bornstein emphasizes the need for people to question gender. (Bornstein, p. 14) Sie "kept hearing people define me in terms they were comfortable with... I began to look at their investment in defining me. What I found was that each person who was anxious to define me had a stake in maintaining his or her own membership in a given gender." (Bornstein, p. 50-51) Sie continues, "Gender can have ambiguity. There are many ways to transgress a prescribed gender code, depending on the world view of the person who's doing the transgressing: they range from preferring to be somewhat less than rigidly-gendered, to preferring an entirely non-definable image... Then I found out that gender can have fluidity, which is quite different from ambiguity. If ambiguity is refusal to fall within a prescribed gender code, then fluidity is the refusal to remain one gender or another. Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, or at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognizes no border or rules of gender... It was the discovery of my own ambiguity and fluidity of gender that led me to my gender change. (Bornstein, p. 51-52)
When gender is fluid, sexual orientation becomes very confusing, if not meaningless. Bornstein identifies as a transsexual lesbian, but now her female lover is becoming a man, so "it turns out I'm neither straight nor gay." (Bornstein, p. 3-4). Feinberg includes a picture of "Dan (Linda), a female-to-male cross-dresser, with Yvonne, a male-to-female transgenderist. Love is a many gendered thing." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 162) What are their sexual orientations?
Sexual orientation can go deeper than simply attraction to men and/or women. A friend of Minnie Bruce Pratt (Feinberg's partner) points out to her, "You are not only a lesbian, but very, very queer. You love a woman who is manly, and yet do not want her to be completely a man. In fact, you desire her because she is both." (Pratt, p. 103) In other words, Pratt is not so much attracted to women in general as to masculine women.
A sex change can also add a twist to sexual orientation. Many transsexuals continue to be attracted to the same gender they were attracted to prior to their surgery, for example, Kate Bornstein. This can be hard, as for Max Valerio, who says, "It took a few years for me to comfortably identify as a heterosexual man without qualifying it somehow. After all those years of living in the lesbian community and all that indoctrinated feminism of a certain type, it was really hard to confess my current sexual identity." (Cameron, p. 89) However, others switched the gender they were attracted to. For example, David Harrison, who explains that he couldn't relate to men when he was a woman. "When I was female, I was a lesbian. As a man, I find I still like that same-sex relationship dynamic. There's something more sexually exciting about it. I don't have to be so aware of what gender I am." (Cameron, p. 73)
Changing one's gender presentation can also seem to alter someone's personality, as is shown by the comments of Cynthia Phillips, whose partner is a transgenderist and now lives full time as a woman. "Our life today is vastly different from when Linda was Jim. Jim felt, as most men, that if he earned the major part of our income he was not obligated to take part in any of the household chores. He also felt that all his decisions were correct and not to be questioned, a feeling most males have. Now that I have Linda I have someone who not only helps me but who actually seeks and values my opinion." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 41)
Confusing? Yes, if we feel the need to pin down someone's gender identity and sexual orientation.
Unity vs. Rejection
Feinberg is a strong advocate for unifying to fight oppression. Sie points out that "No one's gender expression is any more 'liberated' than anyone else's." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 53) "Gender freedom - isn't that what we're all fighting for with every breath we take? Well, how are we going to win it if we don't support each other's right to be different from us? Each person has the right to express their gender in any way that feels most comfortable... People don't have to give up their individuality or their particular manner of gender expression in order to fight sex and gender oppression. It's just the opposite. People won't put their time, energy, and commitment into organizing unless they know that the movement they are building is defending their lives." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 53-54)
However, even within the MTF trans community, Bornstein has found an unspoken hierarchy, with post-operative transsexuals at the top, followed by pre-operative transsexuals, then transgenders (whom Feinberg would call transgenderists), she-males, drag queens, out transvestitites, and closet cases. (Bornstein, p. 67-68)
Feinberg writes about the pain of rejection in hir novel. "Some of the lesbians from a newly formed group on campus had mocked [Theresa] for being a femme... 'They told me that butches were male chauvinist pigs.'" Theresa continued, "'Women they think look like men are the enemy. And women who look like me are sleeping with the enemy. We're too feminine for their taste.'" (Feinberg, 1993, p. 135-136) But Feinberg hirself probably had to deal with the other side of oppression as well, since the life of Jess, the protagonist, closely parallels hirs. Sie describes a scene in which Jess learns that two butches are lovers, and gets upset. "Two butches? How could they be attracted to each other? Who was the femme in bed?" (Feinberg, 1993, p. 202) But sie grows and eventually apologizes for putting hir friend down and avoiding her. (Feinberg, 1993, p. 272)
Wilchins feels that the gay liberation movement has "lost its revolutionary potential, its moral and redemptive center" by focusing "on mainstream acceptance which will gain for acceptable queers full civil rights, while largely bypassing the issues of those queerer queers who might upset the civil rights apple cart by distressing the straight power structure." (Wilchins, p. 69) For hir, a gender liberation movement is "about working until each and every one of us is delivered from this most pernicious, divisive, and destructive of insanities called gender-based oppression." (Wilchins, p. 87-88)
Feinberg argues that trying to distance from the groups which seem more outrageous doesn't work. "A timid denial that 'We're not all like that' only serves to weaken the entire fight-back movement. We can never throw enough people overboard to win approval from our enemies." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 98)
Several books talk about the Michigan Women's Music Festival, and its policy of "woman-born-woman" only, leaving trans women out. In writing about her experience with Trans Camp outside the music festival, Pratt writes, "I don't want woman to be a fortress that has to be defended. I want it to be a life we constantly braid together from the threads of our existence, a rope we make, a flexible weapon stronger than steel, that we use to pull down walls that imprison us at the borders." (Pratt, p. 184-185)
Feinberg argues for the inclusion of self-identified women in women's space. "The inclusion of transsexual sisters in women's space does not threaten the safety of any woman... there is no high-risk group - there are high-risk behaviors. Therefore, creating safety in women's space means we have to define unsafe behaviors - like racist behavior by white women towards women of color, or dangerous insensitivity to disabilities." (Feinberg, 1996, p. 117)
In a similar vein, Bornstein contends that "It is not the transsexual person or even the issue of transsexuality that is bad for feminism: I think that what's bad for the future of feminism is male privilege." (Bornstein, p. 76)
Within the trans community, there is an objection to Gender Identity Disorder being identified as a pathological condition. Gary Bowen, a gay transman of Apache and Scotch-Irish descent, comments, "I have always had a profound disagreement with the definition of transsexualism as a psychiatric condition and transsexuals as disordered people. My own transgendered state is a sacred calling given to me by Spirit, not a neurosis discovered by white medicine." (Feinberg, 1998, p. 63)
Wilchins would like to see sex change surgery more or less on demand. It shouldn't be different than other surgery. "With transpeople, as opposed to any other medical intervention, we're forced to construct this entire narrative of legitimacy. To get surgery, you have to mount what I call an Insanity Defense: I can't help myself, it's something deep inside me, I can't control it. It's degrading. Getting medical intervention shouldn't require that; it should be a decision between a doctor and her patient." (Wilchins, p. 191-192)
Bornstein insists that "I am transsexual by choice, not by pathology." (Bornstein, p. 118) Sie feels that sie was gender dysphoric, blindly buying into the gender system, only until sie understood the constructed nature of gender. (Bornstein, p. 119) However, sie points out that "the demedicalization of transsexuality would further limit surgery in this culture, as it would remove the label of 'illness' and so prohibit insurance companies from footing the bill." (Bornstein, p. 119)
So which is pathological - the people who don't fit into the gender boxes allowed by society, or society's insistence on those boxes? As I read the stories of people who have dealt with a lack of connection to their assigned gender, I can more clearly see that the problem is society's insistence that they should behave according to certain arbitrary norms instead of being allowed a free range of expression.
Therapy, though required before a sex change operation, can be counterproductive for healing. Although Bornstein has since been assured that not all therapists advocate lying about being transgendered, (Bornstein, p. 242) in hir experience therapists encouraged lying. Sie comments that "transsexuality in this culture is considered an illness, and an illness that can only be cured by silence... We're told not to divulge our transsexual status, except in select cases requiring intimacy." Several counselors told hir to make up a past as a little girl (Bornstein, p. 62)
Sie protests. "Here I was, taking a giant step toward personal integrity by entering therapy with the truth and self-acknowledgement that I was a transsexual, and I was told, "Don't tell anyone you're transsexual." (Bornstein, p. 62) Encouraging someone to lie about hir past and experience of self seems contrary to the goal of healing in therapy.
To be an effective counselor of trans people, I need to let go of my questions about why this occurs, and accept what is. I need to empathize with the feelings of my client. I need to accept and appreciate the person as sie is and be supportive of hir determining the choice that will help hir be comfortable in hir body. I need to be aware of the tremendous variety of different choices my client might make.
I need to be in a place of curiosity about the experience and desires of this particular person. I need to let go of my own preconceptions, judgements, and socially trained reactions about gender presentation. I need to continue to examine my beliefs about sex and gender. I need to continue to listen to what the people who have this experience have to say.
I need to be aware of the ongoing traumatization by society, from fear of the police and fear of being attacked and possibly killed, to dealing with which bathroom to use. There is the pain of rejection and humiliation, and the confusion of not knowing how to fit in and why one doesn't identify as male or female the way others do.
It is clear that helping someone connect with others who have similar experiences is extremely important.
Working on this paper has helped me learn a lot and continue the process of questioning sex and gender. It has been interesting doing it after my paper on intersexuality, since there are some similar issues which are faced because of not fitting into society's boxes for male and female. In both cases, the person is encouraged to hide, and experiences shame and humiliation.
© 2002 Elaine Cook
Bornstein, K. (1995) Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York: Vintage Books.
Cameron, L. (1996) Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits. Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press.
Feinberg, L. (1993) Stone Butch Blues. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Feinberg., L. (1996) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Feinberg, L. (1998) Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Pratt, M. B. (1995) S/HE. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Wilchins, R. A. (1997) Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
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