When I signed up for trans, when I chose to self identify as a transperson, I signed up for queer.
It was at that moment, back in the mid-1980s, that I stopped trying to be normal, or at least to appear normal, and chose to acknowledge myself.
What was the first thing I was told at my first trans support group meeting?
I was doing it wrong.
I came as a guy-in-a-dress, engaging in gender play. My own hope was that I could stay stable in my assigned gender role but just be more androgynous. I didn’t think I could be ambiguously gendered, as I knew I didn’t have the body for that, but I could own more of my own feminine heart through wielding feminine symbols.
Back in the 1980’s, feminine symbols were rather extreme, big hair, eyeliner, shoulder pads, platform shoes, all that, but that seemed fun and potent to us back then. It was a time of contrast and extreme in fashion.
Walking into that meeting and using my given name, not trying to appear femaled, but instead letting the body I went through puberty with be obvious, well, that seemed like the honest thing to do. I was a product manager in integrated software back then, and integration was my grail, that kind of actualization and integrity that comes from embracing the ambiguities and contradictions of truth.
My quest for a decade was how to be trans without deception, how to focus on revealing myself as whole rather than concealing one part of me or another to fit into a predefined role.
That was the core of queerness to me, that standing proud as an individual, unique, quirky, not tailored to fit in one box or another. I wanted to move beyond the social pressure to conform to the personal expression of the essential queerness and connection of all people. We are all fundamentally the same and all essentially different, so let us celebrate both our continuous common humanity and our bold, personal specialness.
But in that first support meeting, they told me I was doing it wrong. Their first question was if I was a transsexual or a transvestite.
Transvestites, you see worked to assume a kind of role, with layers of dressing and a femme name, and I wasn’t doing that.
Transsexuals worked to reject gender and blend in, planning how they would disconnect from their past so they could show their true nature, and I wasn’t doing that.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help me be a proper TV or a proper TS, explaining what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to fix it. They wanted to tell me, in other words, how I could be more comforting and less challenging to them.
I rejected all that shit. I let my freak flag fly, embraced my own queerness. That choice shaped all my actions in the community, where I worked to affirm people’s choices rather than correct them.
Learning to embrace took work on my part as I saw other transpeople whose expression squicked me and they had to remind me that my discomfort was my issue, not theirs and I had to work on my own feelings and thoughts rather than changing them. My growing up and getting clear was about engaging the lessons others offered me, not about separating the world into those who were doing it right and those who were doing it wrong.
For me, the transgender journey was a walk away from the pounding of social pressure, way from the demand to fit in by appearing normative, away from the threats to be separated and cast out unless we denied our nature and modified our choices for the comfort of the community. That was the kind of abuse and oppression that I saw as the problem.
To have people leave behind the demands to actually explore their own heart and mind, to create a new and integrated way to be in the world, well, that was the heart of the transgender journey as I saw it. It still is.
My fight has always been against the groupthink of imposed identity politics, the demand that others do the right thing or get ostracized, the pounding of others to fit into assigned roles. I did that in the 1990s in coalition building retreats where I asked the basic question if our goal was to build a strong LGBT voice or to build strong LGBT voices. The goal to me was obvious.
It never mattered to me who thought they had the right to demand that others surrender their voices to the official doctrine of the group. I have seen many, many people with many positions take that pose and they were all wrong. That was my position on the first day I came out as trans, and it is still my position today.
Recently, the legendary Jayne County got suspended on Facebook because she used queer and reclaimed language to offer and inclusive invitation to an event. I have certainly done that and been punished for it, but I know that unless we have the freedom of language we do not have the freedom of thought. Silencing other people for their word choice may seem simple, but all it does is obscure belief and understanding, not erase it.
And a letter has been passed around to be signed by hundreds of transpeople who consider themselves cool and proper to attack a few transwomen for expressing their views in public. To me, this seems like an updated slam book, a junior high school thing where kids who consider themselves cool get to pound on uncool people for challenging and flaunting the norms that the cool kids sacrifice so much to conform to.
The first point in this slam is that these transwomen do not speak for the community.
Of course, that is correct. What one person speaks with absolute, inerrant authority for all other transpeople? None of us have that power, nor would we want it, because all it would lead to is being attacked by people who believe we are wrong.
When I came out as trans, I came out for queer. I came out to celebrate and value the power of the individual standing against the social pressure to be normative which forces people to deny and damage their own beautiful hearts.
From my first trans support group meeting, I was told how I was wrong, how I had to modify my behaviour to fit in, to follow the norms, to do it right.
Over the last 30 years, I have pissed off lots of people who wanted me to agree with them or to be silenced, but I didn’t take all this shit to stop speaking my tiny shard of truth just to placate them. I may try to be gracious in my language choices to help facilitate communication and connection, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love reclaiming words and concepts to help reclaim pride and expression.
My basic trick is simple: I speak for myself. I don’t make any claim to speak for others even if others have chosen to believe that somehow, my words should reflect their expression and not my own.
I speak for myself and delight when other people speak for themselves, speak boldly proudly and queerly about their experiences in the world, when their share their own tiny shards of truth. When they do that, they expand my vision and my understanding of our shared world and that is a wonderful gift.
Anyone who wants to get together with the other cool kids to demand that people surrender their voice to the group, that they follow the accepted trans expression or be silent, well, those people are resisting queerness, resisting the glory of empowering individuals to speak their own queer truth in the world.
Over the decades, I have come to understand myself as a woman, come to appreciate assimilation and the power of the shared knowledge of women. I have come to know that the real power of women, too, is not to surrender their voice to the group, but to speak boldly for their own personal shard of our shared truth.
When I signed up for trans, I signed up for queer.