If living a transgender life isn’t about context, what is it about?
Heck, if living a human life isn’t about context, what is it about?
I told the story of a crossdresser I knew, and how our relationship broke down because while I proved I could enter his world, using his language, he couldn’t enter mine.
Well, some got peeved.
Wasn’t it OK that he just lived in his world, using his language? Sure.
Old Joke: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.
Marginalized people learn early that they have to learn to speak the language of the mainstream and the language or languages of their culture. We have to operate between worlds, between words.
But normies, people who consider themselves normal? They think others have to learn to speak their language. Women may have to understand men and women, but men have to understand men, and women have to understand them.
Sure, yes, you can be uni-lingual. You can stay in your own world of privilege behind your own comforting walls. But if you do that, you can never really be in relationship with people who speak another language, even if you think that you are, because so much of them will be invisible to you, disconnected from you.
That’s what happened here. I had to do the work, and he kept being deaf, no matter how I reached out. So I ended our relationship.
And I called this person “he.” I said that I couldn’t imagine anyone who identified as a heterosexual crossdresser being upset when they were called he, because that very identification means that they see themselves as primarily a straight man who dresses up.
Wasn’t that oppressive, removing their gender choice? I thought not. I was respecting their self identification.
But mightn’t they prefer being called she? Mightn’t it be more appropriate?
Well, no, not when they were at work in their boy clothes, and they wanted not to be outed as a crossdresser.
It’s about context, or at least it is for me. I’m more than willing to use their chosen name and chosen gender when we are at a gender event.
I’m even willing to address their virtual self as she when talking directly to them, or even when talking about a role they perform “en-femme.”
But none of that means that I have to think of them as a woman, or see them in any womanly context. They don’t get to be a woman in my mind just because they prefer to dress like a woman on Saturday nights.
When I came out, I was clear that I was a guy-in-a-dress, hoping that was enough for me, because I knew it was a role I could sell. My first 10 years out were mostly about finding a way to tell the truth. I knew I wasn’t female and wasn’t a woman, and I also knew that the guys-in-dresses I saw mostly weren’t women either.
The eventual outcome of this struggle was the piece Claim & Substantiation in 1997. It’s not mine to just believe your claims, it is mine to understand and evaluate your choices. While politically I want to keep open the space for transformation, so I will call trannies by preferred pronoun, that doesn’t mean I have to buy their stories.
This has often become a problem with transsexuals who don’t think it’s enough to affirm their choices and their position, but demand that others affirm their beliefs or be accused of abuse. If I don’t believe that we can change the sex of a human body yet, and they believe they had a sex change, it’s not enough for me to affirm that people have the right to reshape their own body, I’m abusing them. If I don’t see them as a woman, it’s not enough for me to always refer to them as they self-identify, I have to affirm that their claims about themselves are true.
I can’t do that. I don’t think that’s the way a pluralistic society is meant to work. I need to affirm your choices, even ones that I would never make, as long as they are within the bounds of consent, if I want you to affirm my choices. But I don’t need to believe what you believe unless you are willing to believe what I believe, and that doesn’t make much sense. You know, golden rule and all that.
I know that this notion, that trans requires engaging ambiguity and sensing context, isn’t something many want to deal with. Many transvestites, transsexuals, drags, and others want to be simply who they claim to be in this moment, not some complex entity who carries history and possibility with them in every moment. This society values purity as truth, even if that purity is just a claim belied by the ambiguous truth of all those who live between, between birth and death, between animal and god, between shit and sun.
And what does all that mean? That our lives aren’t just about who we claim to be in this moment. They are about who we are as seen through the context of this moment. Women tend to understand this, as we flash though roles of wife, mother, co-worker, friend and more.
In a certain context, crossdressers are she, but in other contexts, well, he.
And transsexual women are women, but that doesn’t mean they are always the kind of woman they claim to be, or that they are never the kind of person they don’t want to be.
It’s about seeing in context, in the context of the moment, in the context of an entire life and maybe even in the context of where we came from before we got here and where we go after we leave here. Just ask Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Peripheral Visions, an essential text, about ways to read a life.
And often, when talking to newbies, I find that hard to explain.