Identity

People like me? by Lisa Lees

Each of the billions of people on this planet is unique; each fundamentally alone on their journey through life, unable ever to know exactly what anyone else believes or feels.

Perhaps this is why so many people seem to be obsessed with forming groups and defining what it means to be 'normal.' Of course one cannot have normal without abnormal; a group looses its meaning if everyone can belong.

Anyone who is unusual in any way (which from some point of view everyone is) shares the experience of hearing others talk about "people like that." Why do we make such silly assumptions about other people?

We can naught but assume

There is something about me that determines what foods I like. I cannot communicate this 'something,' I can only list the foods I like. When I encounter a person who likes similar foods, I assume we have something in common.

This is a naive assumption because eventually we will discover a food we do not both like or dislike, but it's a starting point with which to bridge the infinite distance that separates any two human beings; a straw to grasp that helps us believe we can understand one another in spite of the impossibility of truly knowing one another.

Our relationships depend on these assumptions of shared understanding. Anything that upsets an assumption upsets a relationship. If one day a person who you thought of as kind and gentle suddenly kicks a puppy out of their way, your assumptions about and your relationship with that person will change.

Living in a culture (community, society, social web) gives one access to a shared set of assumptions that are attached to labels (roles, jobs, titles) such as man, woman, child, father, mother, teacher, priest, and so on. We eventually realize that what we're initially taught about such labels is simplistic and more prescriptive than absolute, but still the assumptions attached to labels are an important part of most relationships.

Of course people take on different roles in different situations; a teacher is expected to behave differently in their home than at work. But when a person violates the basic assumptions of a major label, such as a teacher abusing a child, it's as if they have removed a mask to reveal a completely different person than who they were assumed to be.

It's a harsh lesson to learn that everyone wears masks, everyone hides some things about themselves, and that there is no way to ever know whether your assumptions about a person correspond to that person's true self. This is why being caught telling a lie is so devastating to most relationships. We feel we must be able to trust what a person says about themself, for we have no other way to know many things about a person.

Kick that puppy

What do you do when your friend kicks that puppy? You can cross them off your list of friends, which may have its own ripple effects. You can ask them why they kicked the puppy, which may lead to you adjusting all sorts of assumptions.* Whatever you do, the world has probably become a bit less certain and more complex than you thought it was.

Telling someone that you are transexual seems to be even more upsetting than engaging in puppy-kicking. Gender and sexuality are huge assumptions in most relationships. Reactions I've encountered first or second hand include:

"What did you do with the person I knew?"

When I transitioned, one person said it felt to them like I had killed the person they knew. Other people said it seemed like I was a totally different person. This baffled me because I didn't really feel any different, only happier. But then I grew up knowing who I am, so I didn't feel that I had changed my gender, just tweaked my presentation a bit.

I think the reaction many people have to someone who changes sex/gender is partially based on the conditioned belief that those things cannot change, and is also a defense mechanism used to shift blame for one's feelings to the trans person and to justify terminating any relationship with the person.

The next step is to accuse the trans person of having lied about who they really are/were, further shifting the blame and positioning oneself as the innocent victim. Which brings us back around to, "Why would I have anything to do with someone like that?

"Why can't you just keep this private?"

In other words, "please keep wearing the mask with which I am comfortable so I don't have to deal with this." Well, gender isn't a private thing in our culture, so that's not an option. Being transexual and deciding to transition is not at all like deciding to cross-dress in public; if anything it's deciding to stop cross-dressing in public.

But I think it's valid to ask how one could keep this inside for decades and then seemingly all of a sudden decide to do something about it. The answer is that I didn't suddenly decide to do something about it. All my life I had collected what information I could, and performed various experiments. Both people with whom I had long-term relationships knew about my feelings.

As a nerd/geek I did not live a particularly gendered life. I'm a tomboy, and always have been. What finally drove me to transition was having children, which suddenly forced me into a highly-gendered role and a barrage of pronouns with which I knew I could not cope.

Perhaps mid and late-life transitions were largely a late twentieth century thing; because of the information age and the LBGT rights movements many people who had been hiding their feelings decided to finally act on them. Time will tell.

"How can I tell . . . about this?"

Speaking of assumptions again, I think this is the crux of the matter. Even if initially supportive, this is the aspect that most often causes trouble for anyone with whom a trans person has a close relationship: family, friends and co-workers. Not only do they have to deal with you and your relationship to them, but they have to explain this change to everyone else in their lives, who may not be supportive or inclined to put any effort into understanding what is going on.

It's like throwing a rock that starts an avalanche. The list just keeps expanding—teachers, clergy, doctors, the people in human resources, all your online friends—to the point where people close to the person who is transitioning begin to feel like they've been forced into the role of allies and educators. This can easily give rise to feelings of resentment and lead people to decide that cutting ties with you is the only sane way to save their own lives, especially when other people encourage or even demand that they do so.

My advice is to take things as slowly as is bearable, and attempt to think through all the possible consequences of transition. And sadly, when someone says that they will support you, don't depend on it. Bottom line, if you're not willing to risk loosing pretty much everything—partner, family, friends, faith community, job, personal safety—then don't do it.

"What does this make me?"

For anyone in an intimate relationship with a transitioning person, it gets worse. If the relationship was begun without knowledge of the trans person's feelings, it's easy to feel that one was lied to and the relationship begun under false pretenses. Then there's the problem of a heterosexual relationship seemingly becoming homosexual, or vice versa, and the heavy social consequences that follow.

It's not surprising that very, very few relationships survive the transition of one partner. In spite of the "two of us against the world" and "until death do us part" talk, it's a rare relationship that can survive long without the support of extended family, friends, coworkers and community.

My personal ideal is for individuals to fall in love with other individuals for who and what they are, irrespective of whatever labels are attached to them. But that doesn't seem to be an idea that many people can even begin to wrap their heads around, much less actively support.

"Please go away."

Transsexual people make a lot of folks feel uneasy or embarrassed. In the USA, some of that is the general taboo about bodies and sexuality, but I think it also comes from the fact that a lot of people are a bit uneasy about their own gender and sexuality and uncertain about whether they are doing it right themselves.

In my experience, men tend to react more adversely to a transitioning person than do women, probably because the male gender role is more rigidly defined and male homophobia is more prevalent. There certainly are exceptions, and people involved in some subcultures that are less rigid about gender (arts, anime, role-play gaming, computer geeks, theater) are often more accepting.

Religion-fostered homophobia seems to be at the root of much of the fear of and lack of acceptance of transexual people. However, though 'T' is often lumped with 'GLB' to form GLBT, I have found that subculture to be no more likely to be accepting of transexual people than the general population. (With the probable exception of bisexual people, who are even more marginalized and misunderstood than trans people.) In my experience, people who strongly identify as gay or lesbian also tend to strongly believe in rigid binary biological sex, perhaps in part from what might be termed transphobia.

"What's between your legs?"

As I say so eloquently in this full comic page, my underwear, not that it's any business of yours.

"Dibs on the tranny!"

Transexual people are fetishized by some folks, and there's an amazing amount of porn based on fantasies involving trans people. I don't understand most of this, but it's out there and it probably does not help the situation of someone transitioning when an Internet search for information can so easily turn up some truly alarming and disgusting sites.

There's also a good deal of what I call academic fetishizing going on. Everyone loves to do 'studies' of trans folks or invite a local tranny to talk to their class. And of course being transexual has been made into a medical problem that must be managed and treated according to socially approved standards.

Then there's the token tranny or poster tranny that some organizations keep on hand to show how cool and inclusive they are. Even when this is done with good intent, it's not very pleasant. (Yes, I'm speaking from first-hand experience.)

Labels

Many trans* people consider the term 'tranny' to be offensive for the reasons I just covered. Personally, I don't care. I know that most people consider me to be a freak. The term I don't like having pushed on me is transgender. I've always known what my gender is, thank you. Transexual  isn't quite right, but trans-secondary-sexual-characteristics is a bit awkward.

I've an idea! How about we just drop all the labels? Is there truly a non-derogatory, non-discriminatory, non-abusive, non-harassing reason for which you need to label me?


* Sorry, but I simply cannot let this go without referring to a comic! In the first two pages of volume one of The World of Narue  by Tomohiro Marukawa, Narue beats a puppy to death using a baseball bat, which is rather at odds with her cute school-girl appearance. She then reveals that the puppy was actually a poisonous, altered space organism and she was saving Kazuto from a horrible death.