By Sarik Mustard
Radical trannies are wreaking havok with gender noems as gender morphs from a rigid behavioral code to an optional outlet for self expression. Gender is one way of voicing our truest sense of self, and thus should be self-determined, not imposed by society at birth. Unfortunately, the current gender system has the economic, social and family structures, and legal systems in a bi-polar straitjacket, essentially dictating all huamn interactions.
However, because gender is a cultural system, not an inherent part of the human body, there are people in every culture who break gender norms. People who change their genders, make their own gender, or live outside of gender challenge the oppressive status quo by their very existence. Ultimately, gender should be a malleable, fluid, optional code for self expression, instead of a rigid set of behaviors imposed at birth.
What is gender?
Most cultures assign at birth the categories of woman and man; some cultures have additional gender categories, or third genders, like the Berdaches in many Native American cultures and Hijiras in India. The meaning of gender categories varies from culture to culture; what it means to be a woman under Taliban rule in Afghanistan is vastly different that the conception of “woman” in the United States.
Even within a culture, there is no set list of characteristics inherent to all women and men. For example, you might think having a penis is a universal experience for a man. But there are people who identify and are perceived as men who don’t have penises: transexual and transgendered men who may or may not be taking testosterone; butch dykes who don’t identify as men but are perceived as such; people socialized as woman after having their penises cut off due to faulty circumcision procedures, who still “feel like men” later in life. In other words, it is impossible to pin an exact definition on cultural gender categories.
Nonetheless, people usually know whether they feel “like a man”, “like a woman”, or like neither or both. Gender is not exact, but it does exist, as an amorphous collection of cultural clues and meanings– what it means if you like certain things and dislike others. It’s a cultural code for expressing who we are, our sense of self. Because gender is so personal, our gender identity and expression should be a matter of choice, not a rigid category assigned at birth and dependent on physiology. We each determine our gender identity, based on cultural ideas that most closely match who we are. We express this gender through clues based on our sense of aesthetics and what makes us feel sexy and hot.
Based on these cultural clues, others attribute a gender to us, which may or may not align with our personal gender identity. We have complete control over our gender identity, but exercise control over gender attribution only insofar as we control our gender expression. A male to female transexual may still be addressed as “he”, for instance, due to her comparatively large frame, an aspect of gender expression we cannot modify (although around which we can work). In our rigidly-gendered culture, folks fixate on certain aspects of gender expression and disregard other, possibly conflicting, characteristics.
As we shape our gender, we are not limited to woman and man, feminine and masculine– although because this binary system is so deeply ingrained in our language, it can be hard to think beyond the feminine and masculine. There is a growing arsenal of creative words and phrases people use to describe their gender identity: transexual, transgender, boy-girl, girl/boy, drag king, drag queen, femme, butch, genderqueer, fagdyke, trannyfag, cross-dresser, transvestite, sissy, macha, girl, boy, woman, man, transfreak, gendertrash, and others…
Because these new words label extremely personal identities, defining the words is a delicate matter. For example, the relatively new term transgender initially referred to people who changed their gender identity but chose not to modify their bodies with surgery. More recently people have used the term to refer to the entire community of people who modify their gender or express their gender outside the traditional categories.
However, some transexuals object to using transgender as an umbrella term, feeling that it erases the important fact that they changed their bodies through surgery. Other post-operative transexuals do not identify as transgendered at all, identifying as either a woman or a man. Defining transexual, which refers to people who change their sex, is also somewhat tricky, as it becomes more common for people to modify their endocrinal sex characteristics through hormone use, but not surgically modify their genitalia.
There is an unfortunate tendency for people to set up hierarchies of gender and gender modification. Clearly a gender hierarchy has existed for quite some time, with men on top, women in the middle, and people of ambiguous or third gender at the bottom. This traditional hierarchy is replicated and mutated within the trans community. Some folks, including some transexuals and some members of the medical community, feel it is more “extreme” to have surgery than to be “just a weekend cross-dresser.” On the other hand, some cross-dressers attempt to remove themselves from the trans community and its association with the queer community.
Furthermore, transpeople who pass as non-transpeople are often accorded privilege from both within and without the trans community. The idea of passing itself emphasizes the normalization of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as standards against which all other genders are compared. However, the extreme importance of passing for both safety and personal fulfillment cannot be discounted.
Gender hierarchies are ridiculous and revolting: Our culture is harsh on all gender deviants. The notion of a gender continuum, with cross-dressers and transvestites at one end, transgendered people in the middle, and transexuals at the furthest extremity, obfuscates the fact that each of these people, and many others, are transgressing gender norms in a valiant effort to be true to their sense of self.
The link between a person’s body and their gender should be self-determined. There is no specific correlation between sex characteristics and gender identity. A person with a clit and vagina can be a woman or a man, as proven by both 70′s feminists and contemporary trans people with the “biology is not destiny” argument. To quote Simone de Beauvior, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” through gender self-expression.
While changing a body is not necessary to change gender, body modification may be a personal requirement for mental health and happiness. Modifying your body to match your gendered self-image is a highly personal process. Modification options range from surgery and hormones to tattoos and piercing. The decision to obtain any body modification should be personal. Who besides ourselves fully understands our often highly-specific gender conceptions and self-images?
Unfortunately, most of the medical community does not share these ideals of personal freedom and responsibility. The medical community views surgery and hormones as treatment for a disease, “Gender Identity Disorder”, and allows this remedy only after a detailed regime of psychotherapy and “Real Life Experience” has been completed. The goal of the therapy is to judge a transperson’s ‘readiness’ and ‘eligibility’ for hormonal and surgical treatment. The Real Life Experience is an enforced time of living full-time in the ‘gender of preference’ before surgery can be recommended. Both therapy and Real Life Experience are nominally good ideas; the problem lies in the fact that the medical community is unwilling to sanction gender identities and expressions that combine or go beyond the traditional categories. Transpeople who identify as genders other than woman and man are often forced to placate their therapists with falsehoods to obtain hormones and surgery. It is highly offensive that a medical expert is required to sign off on what is essentially a matter of personal identity and self-expression.
Regrettably, the majority of health plans will not cover the exorbitant costs of surgery and hormones without a Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis. Insurance companies do not understand that a procedure necessary for mental health may be requested by an individual transperson instead of a psychiatrist. To health plans, all that is not recommended by medical personnel is considered ‘elective’ and hence outside their coverage. Transpeople are forced to pathologize their natural desires to be obtain and be reimbursed for surgery and hormones.
Of course, what is diseased is not the transperson but western culture, as it fails to recognize the possibility of more than two genders. People would not experience so much mental strife regarding gender and sexual identity if our culture were not so rigidly bi-polar. Gender and sex modification is a natural aspect of humanity and has been documented in cultures across time and space.
In western culture, people change their bodies all the time for a variety of reasons. People work out, get nose jobs, become pregnant, have abortions, get boob jobs, take supplements, get breast reductions, wear corsets, get tubes tied and get sterilized. The only reason modifying gender and sexual characteristics seems so outlandish and morally reprehensible is that contemporary western culture is obsessed with sex in an unhealthy, puritanical way.
Survivors of violence
Perhaps it is because transpeople challenge the sacred cultural norms of sex and gender that they are the targets of so much violence. Knowing that somebody is breaking gender norms can trigger intense feelings in people; some folks act out these feelings violently.
Trans-people are the subject of violence in all areas of the country, not just the traditionally conservative Midwest and south. The Bay Area has already seen its first trans murder of 2000: a young transwoman, Alina Marie Barragan was murdered in San Jose in early January after a suitor realized she was trans.
Across the US, approximately 12 trans people are murdered per year, and many more are bashed, harassed by cops, and raped in jail cells. Many trans survivors, especially survivors of police brutality, do not report crimes due to intense fear of retaliation. Police and emergency medical personnel are often extremely transphobic. In Washington, DC, Tyra Hunter died in the hospital after EMS personnel refused to treat her at the site of an accident, instead making jokes about her gender.
Three years ago in Berkeley, three men attacked and harassed Dion Manley outside during a weekday lunchour. The attackers clearly perceived Manley, a female to male transexual, as a man, but repeatedly called him dyke as they brutally beat him. Bystanders gathered around but did not interfere with the bashing. Ludicrously, the police blamed the attack on Manley. Although Manley, current president of FTM International, has testified about the attack and his mistreatment by the police before City Council, Berkeley continues to lag in implementing a hate crimes unit.
In late fall of 1999, a tuberculosis outbreak occurred in the trans community in Baltimore, MD. Maryland state health services took no steps to stop the outbreak. The epidemic spread to New York and Boston trans communities; the federal Center for Disease Control began to put pressure on the Maryland state health department. Only when TB began showing up in straight white men did the state health department become involved in halting the epidemic.
Stopping the oppression
The existence of transpeople, and the bitter cultural objection they face, indicates gender to be a cultural system of control, permeating almost every aspect of our lives. In their personal, political, and medical struggles to realize their gender identity, transpeople change our culture. Kate Bornstein, a contemporary trans author, has likened the function of transpeople to that of tricksters like Brer Rabbit, the Raven, and Coyote: By breaking cultural rules, both tricksters and transpeople spotlight the very existence of the rules. Until people suggest otherwise, the cultural categories of woman and man seem like natural aspects of our bodies.
The solution to this oppression is not, as some trans activists suggest, to get rid of gender. If nothing else, gender plays an important role in our sex lives. Gender should be recognized as an individuals’ performance, with multiple ways of acting and viewing the performance. As transpeople and activists work to change our cultural attitudes towards gender, they will affect larger social change.