Terrifying Transgender

Transgender, if you do it right, is terrifying.

Transvestism isn’t, be it crossdressing or drag. If all you do is change clothes for a bit of fun, retaining your assigned gender,  staying fixed in heteronormativity.

Transsexualism isn’t.   If you have a birth defect and your attempt is to hide it, fix it, blend in as the real sex you always really were, well, that supports heteronormativity.

I lived through decades of transsexuals and crossdressers fighting hard to separate themselves from transgender identification.  They didn’t want to be colonized and co-opted by those transgender people who sought to appropriate their deep cultural truth.

They knew that transgender is terrifying and they had no desire to be terrifying.   They just wanted to go along to get along.

Today, many try to take the terror out of transgender by removing its threat of challenging comforting divisions.   Their model of trans is a kind of neutering, a removal from oppressive gender constructs rather than a true crossing of them.   By specifying pronouns and staying away from the power of assimilation, they treat transgender as a kind of personal expression that floats above gendered norms rather than challenging them.   In this case, trans is the embodiment of “none of the above.”

Transgender, though, if you do it right is terrifying.

Doing it right means revealing the artificiality and limits of gendered assumptions by cutting across them.  It is when we powerfully show that we are “all of the above” that people begin to get queasy, feeling the challenge of liminality to their comforting social divisions.

Transgender opens up the power of connection, demanding we face the mixed, mired and beautiful part of us that links us to continuous common humanity.

Any transperson who has experienced the “third gotcha,” seeing their gender shift in someone else’s eyes knows the power and the fear contained in this truth.

It is why, on Halloween, no matter what costume we try to wear, we end up just being the “scary tranny” if we do it well enough.

Looking at the current sexual harassment scandals though a transgender lens leaves us seeing them as abuses of power, which always run deeper than gendered behaviours.  Sure, men may abuse power in a different way than women do, but that demand for obedience at the threat of destruction runs through the stripe of humanity.

This view isn’t comforting to those who are used to an us versus them mentality, a separation between victim and oppressor, between hunted and prey, between masculine and feminine, between good and evil.

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, my transgender mission statement when I first heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say it almost 25 years ago and it remains my touchstone today.

And its when that humanity beyond convention is exposed that transgender becomes terrifying, at least to those who crave constructed walls for comfort against the fear of what lies within them.

Transgender, if you do it right, is terrifying.

It’s why I love it, because moving beyond fear to seeing with love is a key to becoming aware.   It’s why I hate it, because being a solitary, abused, phobogenic object (2006) is lonely and tough.

But I can’t imagine living with any other stance.

Halloween marks the time when our ancestors believed the veil between this realm and others was at its thinnest.  It is the moment when shadows dance, scary and potent, revealing connection.

May yours be energetic, divine and transcendent.

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