It’s easy for transpeople to feel like fraudulent bastards.
We have no family that really wants to claim us, from our family of origin to the lesbian and gay community. For their own reasons, they all seem to want to keep us separate and apart so as not to reflect badly on their reputation.
Because we are seen as bastards, we feel the requirement to work towards proving our legitimacy. We are, we are, we are really loved children, worthy of respect. Our claims about our identity are legitimate, not bogus, and need to be honoured.
How do we become seen as legitimate and not as fraudsters? Every transperson has to face that question in their own emergence as they assert the truth in their heart into a world that wants simple credentials to prove standing.
One of the key reasons for genital reconstruction surgery was to prove legitimacy. It proved that we were approved by doctors as “real women” and were then transformed by their pills and scalpel, having a “sex change.”
We took on the authority of medicine, credentialed experts who found that we met their criteria for being “real,” which meant following gendered stereotypes from who we loved to how we dressed. It wasn’t good enough to claim that we wanted to be a woman, rather we had to prove that we were a woman, just with a birth defect that could be corrected.
As powerful as doctors saw themselves to be, though, there was no way they could offer a sex change. Especially at first, the surgery they offered was crude, more a removal than a creation of real function. The limits of genital reconstruction, even when sympathetically done by another trans woman, are still very real, and real, reproductive function can never be achieved.
For trans men, of course, this kind of surgical legitimacy was always more problematic. Phalloplasty has very clear limits, so the desire to build good looking and well functioning genitals was just not really even conceptually possible.
Differential diagnosis became the next battleground for legitimacy. By attempting to find criteria that drew a clear line between real trans people, those who were genuinely entitled to assert a gender not assigned to them at birth, and false trans people, just dilettantes, fetishists and players who were only interested in sensation and deceit we could try and prove our authenticity.
Instead of finding reasons that we were entitled, we strove to find reasons why others should be denied legitimacy. Many complained about how others were colonizing and usurping legitimate identities leading them to destruction. This process often went to extremes, with those who could not have genital surgery finding other reasons to attack and destroy “transgender” people as destroying the high ground of “transsexual” legitimacy.
The goal of the process was to find ways to rebuff the world when they denied us legitimacy based on our similarity to other people who also crossed gender lines. Weren’t we really just a drag queen, a crossdresser, a man-in-a-dress with delusional claims?
The word “really” became our bane as others used it to paint over our truth with their own, simpler and more restrictive heterosexist ideas about sex and gender. “Really” became the club people used to demolish what we worked so hard to claim in the world, smashing us back down into the cage we were placed in at birth just because of the shape of our crotch.
The choice we had to make was difficult. Was our job to prove that we were really legitimate by showing how those other people were pretenders & fakers, or was our job to change the criteria for legitimacy itself? Did we want to have to try and change the world, or was it more important to just change our place in the world the way it is now? Should the world let in people like us, or did we have to accept and embrace people like them, too?
For me, the line between those two approaches was the line between group identity and queerness, between moving the walls to benefit our people and transforming the boundaries to affirm individual expression. Many rejected their own queerness, especially if it got them mixed in with people who they saw as queer, trying instead to redefine normative to include them.
How queer is too queer and how queer is not queer enough has always been the defining question in the group of people who were deemed illegitimate because of their gender variance. The sissies, the fags, the homos, the butches, the dykes, all those people who couldn’t follow the simple heterosexist plan that people with penises had to be men and fathers while those without had to be women and mothers, and anyone who failed in that obligation should be ashamed of themselves, should be shamed by the neighbourhood.
Do we work to draw a line between legitimate is and illegitimate them, extending identity politics, or do we take a queer approach to legitimacy, affirming the standing of each and every human, finding new ways to validate truth through valuing the content of their character?
The obligation for transpeople to create narratives of absolutes, stories that demand concealment of part of us and rejection of others who are too queer has a high cost. We are forced to deny and disconnect from some of our truth in order to assert other parts of it. We were never simply one or the other for the basic reason that nobody, nobody is one or the other. We are all just human, a bundle of tensions, and not a player in some binary game of us versus them where birth genital status somehow totally defines who we are.
How do we work to assert legitimacy in the world?
We each swim in our own pond. Working to find a story that is effective for us is important so we can get on with our own work, rather than being saddled with the demand to change everyone’s view.
We still have the opportunity, though, to use our hard won legitimacy to speak for or against the legitimacy of others. Do we delight in pointing out fails, working to entrench ourselves as one of us and those seen as freaks, challengers or imposters as just one of them, or do we take pride in pointing out connections, working to show continuous common humanity?
Is our legitimacy in how we neatly fit into boxes, cutting off everything that others might use to challenge our standing? Or is our legitimacy in what we bring to the world, in the kind of complex and beautiful humanity that we reveal through our choices?
Do we look for some seal from an expert, or do we stand on our own two feet? Should we prove we are one of the chosen by attacking those the group fears, or should we open possibilities by looking to deeper qualifications and values?
Being cast out as illegitimate is very hard. Working to claim some kind of legitimacy after that is even harder.
The way we choose to assert legitimacy in the world, though, defines who we are, what we believe, and how we can make the wold a better place.