For those of us who are a bit new to the idea and language around what it is to be trans, it can be a bit confusing or intimidating. Some of us are just baffled, some of us are trying to engage but worried about getting it wrong and being offensive. Some of us are loud and offensive about being baffled.
Some cultures cope just fine with the idea that some people have a strong sense of gender that is different to their body. On the whole, Western culture has not. We divide our world by gender starting at or before birth, and people who find their bodies place them on the wrong side of that divide are highly vulnerable to ridicule, disgust, and violence. This divide also causes strife for gay people, partly because the idea behind it is that all boys and all girls have more in common with their own gender than with each other, and that safety and discretion are obtained by separating them for private acts such as toileting, changing clothes, sports, and medical care. When we think that our young girls are made safe from feeling exposed by segregation from boys, having a gay girl (or a girl who is thought to be gay) in the class can trigger a powerful sense of threat, and with that fear often comes rejection or even violence. The same goes for when a young trans girl (ie a girl with a male body) uses the girl’s facilities – or the boy’s facilities. These minority gender and sexual identities are often highly vulnerable and don’t have a safe place in a world divided by gender and assuming that everyone is straight.
So what is trans? A quick guide to the language – someone who is trans has a sense of gender identity that is different to their body. Those of us who have a gender identity that is the same as our body are not called ‘normal’, but rather cis-gendered. This is because it is normal for some people in every community to be trans. Some people with a female body have a strong sense of being male. This is different to feeling like you are female but masculine (or male but feminine) – I have tomboy girls in my system and their sense of themselves is completely different to the guy parts. Being trans doesn’t mean you’re gay. There’s a difference between gender identity and gender expression, and also with our connection to the traits we’ve bound up in our ideas about what is feminine and masculine. They are all connected, certainly, but also distinct. Some trans people are gay, or bi, some are straight. (I touch on this is my post What bisexuality is and 9 things it isn’t) Some trans people take hormones or have surgeries to help themselves look and feel more like their real gender. Some trans people don’t have the money or social support to come out. The rates of suicide and violence against trans people are far higher than average.
In some ways and areas the trans community has been able to get legal supports more quickly than the gay community, in areas of recognition such as legal documents and relationships. In other areas the trans community is still far more vulnerable and at risk, particularly when it comes to social acceptance. Part of the struggle for this is that many gay people are willing to openly identify as gay, and want their lives and love and families to be visible. Many trans people do not identify as trans, they identify as male or female, and what they desire is to be accepted and to ‘pass’ for being their real gender. For many people, being trans is a source of shame, and being identified as trans is humiliating. This means that there are not many trans people willing to become activists to help to raise awareness and further the cause of social justice. So the community is very vulnerable. This is changing more and more, as is the traditional either/or binary of identifying as male/female. Some people identify as both, or as neither, or feel different on different days. There’s nothing wrong with any of this!
Trans issues and needs are highly relevant in my own work with people who have parts, because it’s quite common for different parts to have a different gender identity. This can be tough for people, sometimes trans supports aren’t multiple friendly and want people to choose to be either male or female all the time. Sometimes multiple supports aren’t trans friendly and treat being multiple as if that means it’s never healthy to access trans supports or to want to identify as trans. The reality of course, is more complex. Sometimes multiple systems want to transition because their primary part or parts who run the day to day life are trans. Sometimes one part is trans and wants to know about temporary devices and supports (such as prosthetics, makeup, or breast binding) to be able to be out as their gender and go to a movie or out to dinner. Many multiples who are gender diverse have great difficulty with things like using public, gender specific toilets, or engaging with gendered communities and activities such as sports. Sometimes supporting a trans part can be as simple as buying a pair of guys or girls shoes for them to wear, or having a partner willing to use the correct gender pronoun when they’re out. Sometimes trans parts in a girl body will find it easier that they can wear male clothing in the western culture and this is pretty normal for girls today, sometimes being seen as a tomboy rather than a guy just makes them feel painfully invisible. Sometimes trans parts in a guy body find that the rest of their system feels so threatened by being seen as female that it’s very hard to get any gestures of being female accepted.
I have male parts in my own system and we’re still struggling to figure out how to engage this positively. One of mine is a black humoured cross dresser who wears more makeup than most of the girls in my system and finds it deeply amusing that he can go to work in drag without anyone being the wiser. Another is a gentle and shy gay guy who is so lonely and quiet that I know almost nothing about him. I come from a background where women were run down and the feminine was treated with disgust and disdain. Being female was equated with being weak. The only women who were treated with respect were highly masculine. I remember the courage it took to tell people that I wanted children, that I felt highly maternal. It took a lot of processing to embrace being female, to find strength and beauty in it. It took possibly even more to reconcile myself to some aspects of the feminine, and to my attraction to women. So it’s been highly threatening to process that some parts of us feel male. And even more confusing to us, that they are not necessarily particularly masculine guys at that. We’re working on it, gently. In our culture, gender can bring out a deep sense of threat and fear even in those of us who consider ourselves to be very accepting.
So, let’s work to make more room in our lives for diversity in gender. Let’s embrace the trans people in our communities, in our own systems, in our schools and workplaces. Let’s stop trying to force people to ‘choose a side’ when their real, authentic state at the moment is confused, ambivalent, both, or neither. Some trans people find that after years of only identifying as their real gender, through all the hell of outing themselves and transitioning, they are finally safe to acknowledge that they like some activities, or qualities, or have some skills or interests that are traditionally seen as being of the other gender, and that’s okay. So do most cis-gendered people. 🙂 Let’s be honest about fear and threat and work to make everyone feel safer, and be safer. Let’s make it possible for trans people who want more than anything to pass, to not have their trans identity subsume all the rest of who they are, and to not have to live in fear of being outed. Let’s support the trans activists and people who live openly and answer questions and humanise, and remind us of the painful, awful statistics that show we have such a long way to go for social acceptance of trans people.
If you’d like to read some more about trans issues or find some support, here are a few links I’ve come across recently that I liked. If you’d like to add any other links or thoughts, particularly if you’re trans and feel I’ve misrepresented you in some way, please comment or email me. 🙂 As I’ve said, this isn’t my ‘home turf’, I’m somewhat new to the topic and might step on toes or repeat myths without being aware of it. Wherever you stand, I hope this article has given you some food for thought.
Readers’ Top 10 Transgender Stories of 2013 | Courtney O’Donnell.
All About Trans | Encouraging better understanding of trans people in the UK.
From bullied child to transgender woman: my coming of age | Paris Lees | Society | The Guardian.
35 Trans Women I Had #Herocrushes On In 2013 | Autostraddle.