Contributed by Ela Bambust.
That conjures up some imagery, I think. For some it’s probably the “ha ha man in a dress” jokes that have been a staple of television and cinema in the past hundred years. For others it’s dramatic movies lit with natural light about people who get themselves admitted into the hospital. We all have some idea. “A man who wants to be a woman” (or vice versa) is a common summary, and it is both close to the truth as still an ocean away from it. Those who have some experience with the Tomato in the LGBTQIA2+-sandwich are more likely to drift towards definitions like “People who feel like they’re in the wrong body,” which is closer, but not quite it yet.
That’s because most people, I think, do not actually know what being trans means. Let me take you on a little journey. We’re going to do a thought experiment, and there will be no wigs or false beards involved, because it’s not actually about the body. Well, not just. Just like the identity of a lumberjack is not encapsulated in their axe or their flannel, or news presenter in their microphone or their blazer, gender identity is not wrapped entirely around the body.
Imagine. You wake up. You’re… you. You know who you are, man or woman, and you tend not to think about that all that much. Quick shower, get dressed, breakfast, scratch your dog/cat/iguana behind the ears/dorsal spines, and then you get ready to start the day. It’s a good day, all in all. Sun’s out. You’re thinking you might barbecue tonight. But, you’ve got clothes shopping to do. An older lady walks past you in the street, and you give her a little smile, because you were raised with manners.
Women among us, we’re used to – no, we expect a kind of reaction here. A smile back. Maybe a little wave if they’re feeling jovial. But not today. Today, she looks at you with a kind of distant confusion. Her eyebrows knit together, her mouth becomes a thin, pale lane, and she looks ahead. She walks away, maybe even picks up her pace a bit.
Let’s continue with the women. You arrive at your favorite store (you deserve it) and go to your part of the store. There’s some shirts and dresses you’ve had an eye on and they’ve been marked down significantly. But people are looking at you. Moms giving their daughters a little push in the back to usher them away from you. A bit later, a store worker asks you if she can help you with a pained smile. Your questions are answered quickly and most of those answers guide you to the other side of the store.
The men among us, you obviously don’t have it easy either. Another day, another car driving by with guys whistling and catcalling. Family, housemates, assuming you’re too weak to open a jar or lift a box. Your mom told you when you were young not to go out past a certain hour (despite your younger brother being allowed!) and she showed you how to put your keys between your knuckles if a stranger ever harasses you. Your mom rolls her eyes when you tell her you have a girlfriend. That’ll pass, you can see her thinking it. You’ll find a cute guy and then this whole phase will be over.
Or maybe you’re gay. You’re a woman, you love women. You’re a man, you love men. That’s pretty simple. But then you find a partner and it doesn’t feel… right.
You’re a man, interested in men, but all the men you like treat you like delicate, fragile flower instead of as an equal.
You’re a woman, interested in women, but other gay women see you as some kind of predator (not to mention heterosexual women).
And then you walk past a mirror, and you see it. You see in your reflection how the world sees you. You know you’re a man but the mirror doesn’t seem to get that. You know you’re a woman — the clothes you wear, the people you love, that doesn’t define you, after all — but you also know not to wear make-up around Dad.
People think being Transgender means some sort of inherent existential pain, but that’s a philosophy I don’t subscribe to. Being Trans is incredibly simple. At our birth, a doctor (or a nurse) looked between our legs and said “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” and they were wrong. End of story.
Not to say that this doesn’t include a great deal of discomfort, of course. Many people experience this discrepancy as an Error, one that digs into one’s very soul. “Like a splinter in your mind,” like Morpheus said in the Matrix. We call that Gender Dysphoria. The body is wrong, like we’re locked inside of a kind of Iron Man suit we can’t get out of. “My body is a vehicle that I keep permanently at arm’s length Or your name sounds like nails on a blackboard. With even others it’s perception. “I don’t want to be seen as male or female,” or “I’m your daughter.” It’s different for everyone and the pain, the dysphoria, is not universal.
The only thing that is universal is that the doctor was wrong. If we keep focusing on the body, we can’t move forward. There’s no communication. No dialogue. And we’ll keep seeing people the wrong way.
“That’s Ela, he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and he uses she/her pronouns.”
Thanks, but no thanks
Well, we adjust our perception. Not a “man who wants to be a woman” or a “man in a woman’s body,” that’s kind of passé. No, let’s go a step beyond, because damn it, we’re all grown ups.
Woman and Man, those are categories we attach expectations to, and we put people in those categories based on their appearance. That has been “working” for a long time, if we define “working” as “ignoring and pretending a measurable part of the population doesn’t exist.”
Instead, let’s stop defining Man and Woman as “Beard” and “Tits,” but instead seeing people the way you see your own identity. You see no need to define or justify your own existence as a man or a woman, damn it! You know who you are, man or woman, whether you shave your armpit hair or not, whether you epilate your upper lip. You know who you are! All you have to do is trust others also know (or are figuring out) who they are, regardless of facial hair, shoulder-width, height, hair length or vocal range.
We all learn people’s names when we meet them. When we talk about people, we use that name without trouble (well, usually). The only extra step that needs to be taken is fairly simple: If you have to give people a gender label, give them the label based on their own preferences, based on who they are, instead of their presentation and body. Let people define themselves.
And that doesn’t have to be difficult.
“Oh, Jackie was cool, I love what she did with her hair.”
“Jackie’s nonbinary, they use “they and them” instead.”
“Ah, okay. Anyway, Jackie’s cool, I love what they did with their hair.”
That’s not so hard, I think. Gender is a complex animal, and I could wax lyrically about it for entire novels, but when push comes to shove it’s a matter of believing people when they tell you who they are. Trans People have existed roughly as long as the written word (feel free to google the Sumerian Gala Priestesses in your free time) and we are modern people.
My body defines me the same way yours defines you: As much as I want it to. The difference between you and me is that it’s “political” when I go see my endocrinologist.