If the ultimate battle cry of transgender activists is “People are who they claim to be and that’s that!” then they are sure to lose.
“People are simply who they are identified as at birth” is a massive falsehood, enforcing a projected binary that is easily demonstrable as an oversimplified pile of tripe, but at least it has the benefit of being based on easily verified objective evidence.
It’s not claims that define who a person is, it is the way those claims are substantiated, as I wrote back in 1997.
Who people really are is only indicated by their choices, by the decisions they make when they are under pressure, as JoAnn Roberts often reminded us.
In “No One Understands You And What To Do About It,” Heidi Grace Halvorson lists all the ways that people resist seeing what is in front of them. They use stereotypes, rely on first impressions, don’t see change when it occurs and so on. For many reasons, their perception is blinkered by their assumptions, by the limited strategies society offers for applying meaning to presentation.
Anyone who has read my work from 1994 onward knows that has been a key topic of frustration for me and for other transpeople who have struggled to emerge in a heterosexist society where “OR” binaries are supposed to define what is “real.”
For many transpeople, dreaming of neatly fitting into the binary is all they have ever done. Who the hell wants to be trans? (2006) We want to be what we always wanted, magically transformed and seen in a way we believe will make our life easy.
Transpeople, though, will never, ever fit neatly into a binary system based on reproductive biology, one designed around encouraging breeding and supporting child rearing, a system that is easy to call heterosexist.
Because it’s the only gender system we have grown up with it is almost impossible for most of us to understand that not all human societies started with this kind of rigid binary system.
While the facts of human reproduction haven’t changed much, and probably won’t in any kind of foreseeable future, still demanding male sperm to fertilize a female ova, the needs and talents of diverse communities lead to different patterns for child rearing that were not based on the notion of a lifetime pair bond between one male and one female.
In these communities everyone played a part, even if that part wasn’t simply mommy or daddy. In many, nobody knew what role a baby would play from birth, instead waiting for the child to show who they are, revealing their own special gifts. Even adult names could wait until the spirit emerged in adolescence.
These systems were not based in binary identification, but neither were they non-binary. A fixed and rigid binary was never imagined as a starting point, something to go against. Instead, individuals were honoured as individuals, be they warriors born with female biology, child-rearers born with male biology, or anyone who turned out to be intersex, from diverse modes to those just not fertile.
From the first moments when I came out as trans, I knew the fight was about seeing people as their choices revealed the contents of their heart, the patterns of their mind. My goal was to get clear, dropping my own gendered training, which was pretty cracked anyway, to find and show something real.
For me, trans has always been about valuing the individual, a notion that I call honouring queer. Nobody ever is one OR the other, everybody is jagged, faceted and unique.
A huge challenge for me is the same challenge many transpeople face. Once people identify how my body went through puberty, their binary assumptions form a gate, imposing their own expectations onto me rather than just being present and seeing my choices and my spirit. They just can’t hear over my penis.
I had a famous sexologist, born female, once tell me that she saw me as more feminine when I was wearing boy clothes than girl clothes. She was uncomfortable telling me this, fearing I would get uptight about being exposed.
Her glimpse made perfect sense to me. I know that when I wear something pretty I feel exposed, needing to be braced for defence, for the third gotcha. I am more armoured.
I am not two people, my heart and brain compartmentalized. I always was looking for integration, so that while others see my body and assign their internalized stereotype, those who have experience with transpeople, long awareness of spirit over convention, can easily read my choices and see the obvious feminine heart within.
For me, I have no problem with people knowing that I was born male, went through male puberty. I do get crazy, though, when their binary baffles tell them that I must always be on the Guy-In-A-Dress line, that whatever I express I can only ever, ever be man. This erases my heart and discounts the hard work I have done to claim my own nature and it hurts.
Holding open the space for others to transform is hard sometimes, even as people struggle to get beyond their own fears and drive for shortcuts, but I do it. Finding mature, healed, post-therapy transpeople who hold that space for me, though, is well neigh impossible.
I know why transpeople just want to be able to slip into the binary, just want to be taken at their word.
I also understand, though, why we as humans never can simply take others at their word. We need to see substantiation of those claims, need people to reveal who they are.
For people mired in the binary, though — and can include straight people, gays, lesbians, TERFs, crossdressers, drag queens and more, anyone who hasn’t embraced the trans-cendence of queer — their boxing people up by birth biological status is oppressive and abusive to transpeople.
Because they can read our body or know our history, they want to believe that they know who we “really” are, assigning motives and stories that reduce us to stereotypes that fit neatly into the boxes installed in their brain.
Those of us trying to emerge, trying to show ourselves, trying to be seen for the contents of our character as revealed by our hard won choices, well, we are demolished by this reactionary fundamentalism that reduces humans to a binary structure which can be used to oppress us all.
I have been saying this out loud for at least twenty five years now, but with the continued enforcement of identity politics which demands reductive grouping, the terrain has not changed. If anything, the binary political battles have made the world even more dangerous for transpeople, taking shots from both sides of the battle and only being respected by those close enough to know our heart.
For so many transpeople, trying to use binary rationalizations to claim some kind of space, asserting their OR identity has been the most effective survival skill they can find. They dreamed of who they could be in an OR world, so why not demand to be treated like that, even if it means explaining where other transpeople are doing it all wrong?
The binary OR model is so prevalent, so widespread, and the illusory boundaries it creates so comforting that I despair of seeing changes in it anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean that transpeople will ever fit nicely into any binary, or that change will not come, only that the resistance at change points can be brutal and killing. It is hard to let go of the dreams to embrace the possibilities which are not yet fully formed, the possibilities that demand we be new, present and exposed.
I have known from the first moment I came out that I needed to be me, someone who doesn’t easily fit any box. I knew also that every human was like me; they weren’t defined by EITHER/OR, rather they were their own special person.
Understanding the long term cost of holding that position, the price I would have to pay to try and help break this ground, well, I just didn’t know how much it could break me.