There are compelling reasons for offering a simple model of transgender, of the origins and of the repairs. Simple models are easy to explain and don’t demand the kind of depth or precision that more complex and nuanced models require, so they are easier to buy, easier to sell.
The problem with those simple models, though, is that they don’t end up getting to the root of the matter, don’t explore all the costs and ramifications that go along with engaging transgender in the world. By simplifying the model. they trivialize the model down to an either/or, personal choice kind of narrative that can be dismissed as just a kind of whim or hobby.
For twenty years now, I have been focused on the costs and ramifications of trans, going deep to look for meaning, stresses and connections. Instead of working to create a simplified, easy to sell model, I have worked to construct a model that faces the hard, hard parts rather than bypassing them, one that offers potent truths rather than just plays on the expectations people already have, keeping the powerful and scary bits hidden.
I came out in a time when lying to yourself about the depth of transgender meaning was just the way that things were done. You just had a birth defect, to be corrected by surgery, or you liked to dress up as tribute, a way to honour women. You weren’t queer, different, unique, transgender at the core, rather you were a woman locked in a man’s body or a man who just liked to party in heels.
I watched people like me explain how their expression had nothing to do with sexuality, wasn’t deeply erotic, didn’t mean that they were not just one of the crowd. And I watched others listen to these explanations, these narratives and know that the whole truth wasn’t coming out, it just wasn’t.
When an article came out recently telling one transwoman’s stories an older co-worker felt the need to defend her. “That’s horrible that someone would post that in your cubicle!” he railed. “How can anyone say those things about you?” While the transwoman explained that she wrote the article, that she was proud of it, he was still upset. How could someone say those truths out loud and be anything but impolite?
The co-worker understood the ritual of classic trans: what is ambiguous, off-putting and challenging needed to be erased for ease of telling, rather than to be shared widely and aggrandized.
The costs of honesty are still there. Even after two years of working there as a woman, once the article came out some women staffers started rumbling about not allowing her in the women’s room. They want their simple walls back.
We know that many around us love those simple walls, even if they are illusions, love their fundamentalist view that separations are real, which is why we learn to shut up, to simplify our narratives, to keep our head down and not make waves.
When we do that, though, we not only don’t make the change in the world that makes life better for other transpeople, we also let people minimize and diminish the cost and the power of actually, really being trans in the world. They don’t see the need to stand up for trans truth, instead diminishing our needs to just being able to crossdress and have plastic surgery, just have a kind of television makeover.
The price of being pounded into compulsory gender or being marginalized by abuse never has to be examined. The challenges of engaging continuous common humanity beyond easy groupings can continue to be ignored. The lessons that transpeople bring can continue to be erased.
I know why so many transpeople choose simple models to explain who they are, models that do not deeply challenge the people around them and models that do not challenge the old tapes they themselves built to rationalize and compartmentalize their own trans nature. It can seem easier and more sensible to just not go to the tough, dark places, not to engage the real questions that the very existence of transgender hearts reveal.
I just believe that trying to squeeze into the cracks in the system, trying to erase the bits that cut through the walls of social conventions, trying to appear not challenging to the old mindsets, the status quo, robs us of our voice, of our power, and of the ability to get our real needs met in the world.
Everyone has a passing distance (1998), a radius within which our deep, sinuous truth is revealed. It is inside that circle that we exist, where we aren’t bounded by lies, even by lies of omission we use to make our truth easier to swallow.
The truth shall set us free (1997), even if we believe that lies will make our life easier and simpler. The work has to be done and others see our comfort level rise when we do the truth to engage that truth rather than staying policed and squirrley in a way that they sense but will not call out.
The more we tell the cover stories, the less they seem real to others. Cutting out the mess and nuance out does not make them more effective, only easier to crank out.
No matter how much simpler it seems to offer the third grade model of transgender our editor says is all people can handle, we need to know that simple model will never unlock our own power, never satisfy our heart, never set us free.
Trans isn’t that simple. And that’s why it is so powerful and so gorgeous.