After my month-long hiatus, I return homesick, sleep deprived, and with slightly longer hair. And, more pertinently, ready to write the post that’s been marinating for a while: some introspection on perceptions of gender identity.
Now, I should be honest and say that I’ve struggled some myself with my own gut reactions to some of the trans* and genderqueer kids around me. While I like to think of myself as open minded and accepting, in some cases it’s been a little hard for me to wrap my brain around transitions, and I have to admit to being a bit judgemental, if only in my own head. But at least I recognize those instances, and try to better understand my own values and feelings before I question anyone else’s.
That said, I’m uncomfortable with the notion–which I’ve discussed on many occasions, mostly with other lesbians–that the category of butch is disappearing with the rise of the FTM population. Notice that I used notion rather than fact. One of the problems with this idea is that it jeopardizes both butch and trans as identities; it’s now easy to dismiss a member of either population as “really” being the other. It reminds me of the all too popular denigration of bisexual men, because obviously they’re really gay.
To be clear, I’m not uncomfortable with the (apparent) rise of the FTM population, or of trans*folk in general. I’m thrilled whenever trans* communities and individuals gain visibility, legal status, or the ability to come out to themselves and to the world. I’m personally grateful to all those who have enlightened me and bettered me with their friendship, and I think gains for trans*folk should always be fought for and celebrated by the rest of queer communities, because we cannot claim to advocate for BGLTQ rights unless we fight for all those letters. What disturbs me is the perception of that rise, which more and more seems to include very defensive posturing and even hostility. It’s sadly reminiscent of that scene in Chasing Amy, with a maudlin toast to “another one biting the dust” when a lesbian begins dating a man.
In trying to hash this issue out with a friend, I heard something unsettling: “I think the greater acceptance of trans*people is a good thing. I just don’t believe there are that many authentic trans*people.”
I was a little stunned. Can you imagine putting other identities in the place of trans*people?
Of course, we do judge the authenticity of identities like these–often identity groups to which we ourselves don’t even belong–every day. We distinguish between “normal” Muslims and violent ones, women who kiss each other at parties and dykes, “real” bisexuals and gay men in denial. But every time we make judgements like these, we imply that we are better judges of authentic identity than those who live these identities.
What’s interesting is that often it is those who most loudly champion queer solidarity who just as loudly proclaim that trans* populations damage that solidarity, and proceed to pick and choose the “authentic” trans*folk. While it’s apparently now a faux pas to ascribe any particular set of characteristics to lesbians, it’s perfectly fashionable to ascribe a set–a much more rigid set–to FTMs: butch women who are either uncomfortable with being, or unwilling to be, women, who choose male privilege over fluid definitions of what it means to be female.
I call bullshit, and I count myself among the guilty.
So I started wondering: why is it now so easy for me to wrap my mind around someone coming out as queer, but sometimes so hard for me to wrap my mind around someone coming out as trans*? Because truthfully, learning that my friends are queer has become a non-issue for me. I tend not to think of my friends in sexual terms anyway, so it’s rarely much of a shift in perception for me.
When it comes down to it, I realized, we’re bombarded by far more gender cues than sexuality cues in daily life. Think about it. There are a lot of reasons not to think about people in terms of their sexuality. Maybe they’re relatives of yours, and the ick factor cancels out any sexual thoughts. Maybe they’re your co-workers or superiors, and you never see them in a social setting. Maybe they’ve always come off as sort of asexual to you. Maybe, like me, you don’t even think about the sexuality of a whole category of people (for me it’s straight men). Or maybe you just don’t know them all that well.
Gender cues, on the other hand, are pervasive. You see people going into gendered bathrooms. A waiter addresses a table as “ladies.” The bank teller calls you sir. Clothing stores are departmentalized by gender. Women’s professional sports leagues are designated with a W. Pronouns, titles, and words like niece, uncle, sister, and father abound. It can be a lot easier to accept and understand that your cousin Sheila has a girlfriend if you’ve never really thought of her as a heterosexual than it may be to accept and understand your cousin Samuel when you’ve been saying she and her all these years.
In any event, I wish a lot of things. I wish I could roll with transitions as easily as comings out. I wish so many lesbians didn’t begrudge FTMs. I wish everyone felt comfortable to embrace their own identities without fear of reproach. But most of all, I wish we only felt qualified to judge our own choices and lives without the urge to question the authenticity of those differing from our own. Maybe that should be my resolution.
To stand in solidarity, to strive for inclusivity, and to openly support the men and women brave enough to speak their true names. If only we could all have so much courage.