I think I’ve mentioned before that I adore my bosses (also the owners). I love them and I love their business. This is an unusual state of affairs for me and most other working stiffs–we are conditioned to hate the man, to hate our jobs, and to constantly be on the lookout for something better. But I’m actually quite happy right where I am. I don’t always quiver with excitement about my job, but that’s how life is, sometimes.
At any rate, one of the owners and I were sitting in the office the other day talking about transvestites. I had just finished reading She’s Not There, for what would be probably the third or fourth time, and I was talking about transgender people, and the conversation just sort of veered off into the land of transvestism. And then I was reading an article about Larry Wachowski in Rolling Stone, and it got me thinking about the way mainstream media portrays people with gender identity disorders, people who practice BDSM, and people who make different choices about their sexuality than society might expect them to.
It occurred to me that a lot of people tend to confuse the two, and most gender identity disorders. I think for those who haven’t struggled with gender, it’s difficult to comprehend the wide array of ways in which gender expresses itself. For many people, I suspect that gender and sex are dichotomies–there and men, and then there are women. In recent years as people have been more open about their gender issues, there have also been the weird men who want to be women, and the strange women who want to be men.
The truth of the matter is that sex and gender are continuums, and far from simple ones. In fact, a widely disputed but still significant percentage of the United States is born intersex–they are not, in fact, men or women. A variety of conditions are lumped under the intersex umbrella, including the arrangement of organs that used to be called “hermaphroditic.” The parents of intersex children are faced with difficult choices and concepts, because anyone could be born intersex. Anyone could be appear to be a girl at birth, but later turn out to be biologically male, and vice versa. Parents who haven’t thought deeply about gender could be thrust into an alien world, filled with debate. Should they pick a sex and raise their child as, say, a girl? Should they authorize surgery to give their child an approximation of organs of their preference? Should they attempt to raise the child in a non-gender way? Some people who are intersex have obvious physical symptoms–others don’t. The person who helped you at the post office might have been intersex, and you would have no way of knowing.
Other children are born, or grow into, a condition of gender dysmorphia. A child is duly identified as a girl at birth, but lives her entire life wishing she was a man. Adopting male behaviours. Feeling that she was born into the wrong body. Or vice versa–a little boy who knows himself to be a girl. Some people struggle and live with this for years, as Jennifer Finney Boylan, the author of She’s Not There, did. Others seek and receive treatment as early as their teens. Most follow the Benjamin Standards of care, which begins with “passing” and ends with hormone treatment and surgery to correct the condition. This new person is referred to as “transgender.” Some trans people choose not to undergo surgery–they may, for example, be sexed male, but gendered female. This can lead to unfortunate events, as with those that led to Gwen Arujo’s death. Gwen was a gorgeous and striking woman–but unfortunately, she wasn’t only that, in the eyes of her attackers.
If you look at a picture of Boylan today, you see a charming middle aged blonde lady, with laugh lines around her eyes. She doesn’t look like the father of children. Some people are fortunate and transition well–others look peculiar for a time before settling into their new bodies. No one really knows how many transgender people are successfully passing in the United States, because there are no reliable statistics. But it’s safe to say that there are a lot. Rarely, the transgender individual realizes that this was a mistake and tries to turn back. This is one of the reasons the Benjamin Standards are followed, to give the transitioner every chance at counseling and consideration before taking aggressive steps to change their physical sex. Some transgender individuals start out as transvestites, exploring the trappings of the opposite sex before taking the plunge. But not all transvestites are transgender, and some would be offended at the implication. Some men simply like dressing up as women, but don’t want to be women. Some women enjoy binding their breasts and wearing suits, but certainly wouldn’t want to be men.
We tend to make assumptions about people based on their biological presentation and carriage. Sex is one of the first things we notice about someone, and we have learned from interactions with hundreds of other human beings what makes someone “male” and someone else “female.” But small differences in appearance and carriage can make a big difference. I, for example, was regularly mistaken as a male until I was 16 or 17, long after I had lengthy wavy hair and large breasts. I have another friend who was mistaken as female until his early teens, although now he’s a tall, broad chested, obvious man. Our society is a very black and white one, and thus we struggle with ourselves when we see someone who possesses aspects of both genders. A particularly butch dyke, for example, or a femmey man. How are we to fit these individuals into our dichotomy? I’m certainly guilty of this myself–when I see someone who is ambiguously gendered, I tend to force them one way or the other. Partially this is due to a lack of language. There is no third equivalent to male and female, although the biological one is a reality. There is no appropriate third pronoun to him and her, he and she, although attempts have been made to forge one. The problem also is that this third, this “other,” would probably alienate the very people it was aimed at. Someone who is genderqueer may be intersex. Or they may not. But they aren’t the same in the sense that all women are “the same.” It’s unfortunate that our language is so limiting sometimes, when it can be so expressive at others. But discussions of sex and gender are inevitably bound up in restrictive language.
It’s a challenge to try and strike down a dichotomy that has ruled our communications for so many years. Assumption and opposites are built into our language. If someone says “I am not a man,” you are probably going to make the assumption that they are a woman. Or that they are making a clever Magritte reference. Perhaps the beginning is to make distinctions and terms widespread, so that everyone understands the difference between, for instance, being trans and dressing in drag. And then to introduce new and troubling concepts, such as genderqueer and intersex. And perhaps then once we all live in the land of milk and honey where we all love each other and no one fights and we eat raw food and give each other back rubs and play with kittens every day, perhaps then we can try and build a language that includes all of tormented humanity, instead of just the boys and the girls.
Perhaps it’s enough to leave it at this–more of us struggle with our gender identity than you think. And our Stonewall is coming.