Who Made Me Gender-Role Police?The story is titled “About a Boy: Transgender surgery at age sixteen” by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker Magazine (March 18, 2013). It talks about how many more females are coming out as transgender now than in the past. But as I reflected on the amazing progress trans people have made in recent years, it made me aware of my own subtle bias about gender-role conformity.
Indeed, my doctors tell me that compared to twenty years ago, when it seemed that twice as many males transitioned to females than females to males, today there is equilibrium in the numbers, with as many females as males identifying as transgender. Margaret Talbot says this:
In the past, females who wished to live as males rarely sought surgery, in part because they could “pass” easily enough in public; today, there is a desire for more thorough transformations.The subject of her story is a young transman named Skylar who underwent top surgery at the age of sixteen, a much younger age than would have been possible a decade ago. Though Skylar has transitioned medically and surgically, he is not fixated on conventional masculinity and completely comfortable with a certain amount of gender ambiguity. He is quoted as saying he does not feel the need to be a “macho bro.”
Skylar is not alone. Many trans persons of his generation have a level of comfort with their gender presentation that is admirable. I admit that I don’t possess that kind of self-confidence and because of my need to avoid drawing negative attention to myself and, by extension and association, to my cisgender* friends and family, I am guilty of a certain degree of gender policing. This means that I am guilty of making judgements simply on the basis of society’s expectations for what is appropriate for males and females.
I don’t think I am alone, many trans persons invest a lot of time, energy and finances in their attempt to retrofit their bodies to achieve congruence between brain and body. One pitfall some fall into is taking these efforts to the extreme of the respective ends of the scale, and potentially end up as grotesque caricatures of the gender they identify as. More disconcerting than this, however, is how for the majority of the trans population these options are out of their reach and they must cope with their gender dysphoria one way or another.
This has often caused friction in the trans community because this is where the gender policing comes into play. The standards of acceptability, after all, are part of the social construct and as such, come with a huge emotional, social, and financial price tag. It strikes me as ironic how in order to pass society’s test of what is appropriately male/masculine and female/feminine, we seem to force ourselves back into boxes and judge and discriminate based on how well we express or adhere to the gender binary.
The term “genderqueer” is one that not many people understand, but is totally germane to this discussion. Wikipedia has a good primer on all the nuances of this umbrella term (check it out here). It goes on to add:
“…genderqueer has been used as an adjective to refer to any people who transgress distinctions of gender, regardless of their self-defined gender identity, i.e. those who "queer" gender, expressing it non-normatively.”Being part of the baby-boomer generation means that I am one who grew up in a vacuum of information, when the term “transgender” did not yet exist and the language, which today allows younger and younger persons make sense of their sexuality.
Nevertheless, I too am needing to educate myself constantly as our knowledge base and experience keeps growing. In the same way I covet having a support network of well informed allies, I realize I need to be better informed so I can be an ally to those who express their gender differently and more confidently than I have the guts to do. I also realize that I am more insecure than my younger counterparts who don’t need society’s stamp of approval to be comfortable in their own bodies. Perhaps there is even a touch of jealousy on my part.
To simply say that I admire their courage seems uber patronizing and hypocritical; I’m upset at how easy it is to devalue those who bend the rules that I have felt compelled to follow. I hunger for inclusion and equity and equality, yet I allow myself to deny others from the table based on my own biases.
What’s worse is the fact that even though I credit my Christian faith with having kept me from self-harm as I struggled with my gender identity and gave me hope, I shift to gatekeeping way too easily. I have never expressed this publicly or have said anything to any gender-non conforming or gender-queer person, but I have harbored those thoughts at times and I sincerely apologize.
I say all of this while at the same time claiming I have never felt as comfortable in my own body as I do today. I am grateful for having had the ability to access the help I needed and that I live in a time and place that made it all possible for me. But I am also acutely aware of the role privilege has played in all of this.
I celebrate the fact that younger persons are being able to access help and will benefit from this early intervention. But this also means that all of us need to do a better job at allowing them to find their own comfort zone and fight like hell to protect their right to do so.