The “Or” Game

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.

I knew that was my mission statement the first time I heard it over twenty years ago.   What connects humans is our fundamental humanity, our shared human nature, and that connection transcends all our essential differences, the wide range of flavours in the human experience.

People, though, like separations.   The world is more comfortable when we perceive walls between  people like us and people like them, no matter if shamans keep walking through those walls, showing they are illusions.  Those mental walls keep us from having to face human truth we would rather compartmentalize off.

The “Or” game is expected in this culture.   Is someone a boy or a girl, black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, good or evil?

The centre of the “or” game is the gotcha.   If you claim to be one thing and I can find one tiny contradiction in your assertions, then I gotcha!   Any inconsistency I find destroys your standing to speak (2013).

Transgender people are tormented, demonized, dehumanized and stigmatized simply by using the “or” game.    If we are not one or the other, then we must be liars, deceivers, fools, sick and perverted, not worthy of respect and dignity. Our standing as humans can be stripped from us because our biology and our choices are deemed to be incongruent, at odds, and therefore false.

The challenge transpeople have is to exist as authentic in the world that is obsessed with the “or” game.    We have to learn to police our expression in a way that hides what might be seen as contradictory, that which might make us losers in the “or” game.

That started for most of us when we were in the closet, working hard to keep our trans nature hidden so that we could fit neatly into the gender expectations of our family and our peers.   We control our choices to try and make our heart invisible, inevitably using fear and shame to constrain our own desires.

We try and pick our way through the “or” game, building walls and compartments inside our minds to keep who we are fragmented and hidden, even to us.   We learn to dissemble and obfuscate, to deny and duck, trying to avoid the loss of having someone find us unwholesome and worthy of abuse.

Rather than learning what we are, we are clear about what we are not, about the places we must not stray to stay safe in the “or” game.

This is why transgender emergence is often called transition: we dream that it can be the tipping point in our lives, flipping the switch, inverting the binary, going from one pole to another, avoiding being caught in the “or” game.

Existing in “or” spaces without being the enemy seems to means that we are forced to play the “or” game for admission.

What do we make invisible, what do we let people see?   How do we substitute the projection of binary purity for liminal authenticity just to keep down the noise and the loneliness?  Are we on the side of the social justice people or the capitalists, of the NRA or the bleeding hearts?

We quickly learn that in gay & lesbian spaces, bisexuals get very little respect and a lot of derision as dilettantes, traitors and generally dangerous people.   Declare your allegiance, we are told, so I can be sure that you are politically correct and I can trust you, can trust you won’t abandon me for one of “them.”

The “or” games serves commerce, showing humans to serve the machine by compartmentalizing off emotions.   It works to replace emotion with commercial desires, machine made and mass produced.

The “or” game serves the ego, keeping us small, unthreatening and working hard to stay comfortable, being one of the crowd.

The “or” game serves identity politics, allowing the construction of power bases constructed by enforcing identity labels,  who you must be to be in, and how those who are out betray us.

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.

As I struggled through the questions about what is truth and what is a lie (1997),  I came to one simple conclusion.

For transpeople, trying to play the “or” game would continue to destroy us.

We had to stand up for a new game, one where the beautiful complexity and nuance of humans was valued, one that respected authenticity over some idea of imposed purity.

We had to move beyond “or” binaries to “and” dualities, to speak for the continuous common humanity that binds us below our surface differences.

This was the same thing that gender crossing shamans had always stood for, according to the anthropologists.  The connection between nature and civilization, between body and soul, between the divine and the profane, between this tribe and that, even between the masculine and the feminine was at the heart of the liminal space we operated in, at the heart of what we contributed to our community.

In a world where the “or” game is seen as real and powerful, standing for that is a challenge.  So many don’t want to make that stand, rather trying to find ways to play the “or” game, effacing purity and denying messy humanity.   We want to use the “or” gotchas for our own purposes, silencing those who would challenge our claims and assertions.

Yet our histories and our biology tells the tale of connection, not of separation, of how much the walls between humans are just comforting illusions.  We stand with the bi-people, saying that no one is simply one or the other, fitting into one social construction or another, but instead, threading through them.

The tensions of the “or” game are deeply felt in every member of society who felt the need to  cut off part of who they were to fit in.    They saw no other way to get what they were told they wanted or needed than by playing the “or” game, so they took those demands inside.

Those tensions, though, lead to their pain and frustration needing solace, though anger or addiction, trying to fill the emotional holes left by the walls they built inside of themselves with what they could purchase or steal.  People left divided and broken by the “or” game have to find recovery, a way to claim back their integrity, authenticity, their own creation and creativity.

People who feel the demand to play the “or” game often feel the need to humiliate and attempt to destroy those who seem to make a mockery of their own sacrifice, those who move beyond the separations of gender, race, class, belief and other imposed social divides.

The idea that those social divides may not be real is not only insulting, it is also so terrifying that those deeply invested in the “or” game cannot imagine any other way of seeing the world.   “Or” is deeply written into the way they communicate and connect with others, so “or’ must be real and true, “normal” and “natural” the way that the church told us that God intended us to live.

When our identity and our power is based on “or,” on walls and binaries, “and” is immoral heresy that threatens their way of life and the sanctity of their children.    It becomes easy to believe that our assertions are true, that where we cross boundaries is virtuous, but where others do are just sickness, lies and perversion.

We try to carve out our own space in the “or” game without challenging it by establishing our separation from those people, offering rationales and diagnoses that explain why we are healthy and real even as they are disruptive and broken.  This seems much easier and less scary than challenging the “or” game itself.

Being cast into the “no man’s/no woman’s” land between the genders though, asked to surrender our voices to the group for entry, asked to cut off the parts of our story that might change the “or” position of the group, transpeople find hard, hard choices in going back into the “or” game.

Who do we betray?  How do we police ourselves, cutting off and walling away offending parts of us that reveal continuous common humanity?   How do we do all the work to hide our truth so those around us never have to feel confronted or challenged with their comforting “or” beliefs?

I don’t see any way for transpeople, those who have crossed the huge boundary that gender appears to be in the world, to be whole, healthy and actualized in an “or” game.   The old ideas of passing, making a clean break that cuts us off from our rich past, denying our history and biology, seem to be disempowering, more focused on erasing and playing small than on finding ways to take our own unique and transcendent power in the world.

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.

Those who cross gender lines remind us that separation is an illusion and connection is the essence of open and loving humanity.   Like shamans who walk through walls others think are real, living in the liminal state of intersection, we embody a message of “and.”

And that will always be challenging to those who feel comforted playing the “or” game.