Shame: It Doesn’t Come from Nowhere

I went to a Christmas celebration the other day where a woman was in attendance who was serving as a gender police volunteer. I should mention that I showed up in male mode and that I was out to less than half the people there, so I was basically presenting as a cis male. That said, I do have long hair and two pierced ears and an awfully pretty jawline–but I also have a bit of a fierce personality, and apparently this volunteer police officer was just going for the easy targets. Ironically, she spent her time teasing cis males when there was a bi-gender person just a few feet away.

police

She was at it literally when I walked in the door. My nephew, a recent college graduate who to the best of my knowledge is cisgender and straight, with short hair, a beard, and a suitably masculine job but also a soft voice and a quiet demeanor, was looking at somebody’s Christmas town setup: you know, the miniature buildings and little Victorian-looking people and skating rinks and things that people with more patience and table space than I have put up. He may have been actually doing moving something in it around, but as far as I noticed, he was just looking. The gender police volunteer, meanwhile, was teasing him: “Are you playing with dolls now?” she said. “Do you like to play with dolls?” This went on for several minutes.

Later she took it up with a relative about my age, who was there with his wife and daughter. Another relative had given him a scarf for Christmas, and it was the kind that starts as an enormous square, not the universally-male-approved kind that’s more of a long strip of fabric. This was in a male-approved dark blue color with a plaid pattern, yet the volunteer, as my relative was still opening the package and was just realizing it was a scarf, asked him if he liked his new dress.

Several times on any normal day I find myself thinking “Ugh, maybe I shouldn’t be bi-gender–it’s so difficult.” And yes, it’s time-consuming and inconvenient, but first, obviously, it isn’t something I get to choose, and second, what’s really difficult about it isn’t how I present myself (although that’s also difficult), but instead having to gear up mentally for what I imagine other people are thinking.

I know that’s buying trouble. Why worry about what other people might be thinking when you can just deal with how they actually act? But the mental chatter that those of us who cross gender lines have to deal with is an epic recording of thousands of voices of gender police volunteers like the one at that party from throughout our lives, not to mention television, movies, books, games, coworkers, clothing stores, laws, songs, commercials … I’d love to switch it off, permanently and completely, but it’s burned into my brain from non-stop reinforcement. Even if I were able to start from a clean slate, I’d get fresh daily doses of it from every direction.

recording

Here’s the kicker about the volunteer at Christmas: she’s not only a lesbian, but she was wearing a vest and tie that were clearly designed for men. She gender policed while partly cross-dressed.

But then, I feel certain she has been repeatedly harassed by the gender police herself, just for the other version of the crime: being “too masculine,” being romantically drawn to women, not staying in her assigned place and being a sex object for cis het men, and so on. This is a person who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, the most conformist period in American history, as far as I can tell.

Unfortunately, I think she may deal with her own internalized voices in a less than ideal way, being kicked by someone and turning around to kick someone else in return to shore up her sense of worth. (Helpful hint: passing on the pain doesn’t really work.)

I feel sure she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I suspect that in her mind she’s being fun and entertaining and simultaneously engaging in a joke with people she has shown every evidence of genuinely liking. I can judge her for not being more self-reflective or more aware of the harm she’s doing, but there’s probably not a lot of point in that. I mean, I’m not writing this post because I think a lot of gender police will read it and change their ways. I’m writing it for all of us who have been persecuted by the gender police–cis and trans and bi-gender, straight and queer and undeclared. I can’t tell you it doesn’t matter, and I can’t shut those recordings up or make the volunteers stand down, but I can at least tell you that you’re not alone, that you’re beautiful for who you actually are and not for who someone thinks you should be, and that the gender police are profoundly and permanently wrong. When you hear them, don’t forget that what you’re hearing are fear and ignorance: they’re not truth, they’re not helpful, and their handcuffs only work on you if you let them.

What makes a space feel masculine or feminine?

I’ll be moving into a new home soon, the first I’ve ever had that will be solely mine. Since the last time I moved, years ago, I’ve come to understand my gender much better, and to be less worried about passing as fully male all the time. True, I’m not about to go out in boy form wearing pink sweaters, but I thinking, tentatively, that I want to try to actually decorate my new home, and when I do that I want it to reflect both my genders, to feel like a real home to both my male and female selves rather than just like more camouflage.

In the course of figuring that out, I read a really useful article from Apartment Therapy: His and Hers: Analyzing “Masculine” and “Feminine” Decor. It does a great job of making plain a lot of the features that makes a space feel more masculine or feminine, with photos.

What would a balance of these two elements look like? I guess over the next few months, I’ll find out.

Time Magazine: Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’

I’m late finding it, but an article in the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality” (also available online at http://time.com/magazine/us/4703292/march-27th-2017-vol-189-no-11-u-s/ ) offers research and individual accounts on the changing understanding of gender and sexuality. They don’t mention bi-gender people (but then, hardly anyone does), though they do make note of one person who identifies as gender fluid and describes a bi-gender-like experience of life. They also pretty much ignore non-binary people older than their mid-twenties. Still, it’s a well-written and informative article that answers some questions about how widespread non-binary genders and sexual preferences are, how younger people tend to regard them, and how they’re changing in our culture: well worth a read.

 

What Does Detransitioning Tell Us About Being Transgender?

Transitioning to a different gender or genders is hard. If you’ve done it, you probably feel the same way I do when you hear someone claiming that being transgender is a choice.

Who would ever choose to go through all this?

That’s why it feels kind of threatening to hear about people detransitioning–that is, becoming transgender and then becoming not transgender. Doesn’t that imply that they chose to be transgender, and then chose again? Or that being transgender is fake?

Spoiler alert for the rest of this post: no, it doesn’t mean either of those things. But it does point out a big problem for any of us who identify as transgender, or at least something important we need to figure out: how do we tell the difference between a different gender identity and something else?

There’s a terrific article on detransitioning on The Stranger: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t“, and in it we can see at least three possible situations in which people detransition or go through “desistance” (when a person–usually a young person–hasn’t transitioned yet and decides to go back to their birth sex instance).

Situation one is where a person receives so much negativity about their gender that they start feeling repulsed by it. That’s what happened to “Jackie,” who was born female and was always fairly butch, but was scorned for being that way and battered with mysogny. By contrast with that experience, being male felt like a relief … but Jackie eventually realized that even though being male felt better in some ways, it was really that she needed to accept herself as a woman. That was her particular circumstance.

“Ryan” had a similar experience from the other direction, being bullied and belittled as a young boy and finding refuge in the idea of being female. He transitioned to female, but this never addressed the internal problems, and eventually he detransitioned as well as he could back to male.

Both Jackie and Ryan seem to have mistaken bad feelings that had come to live inside them with dysphoria about their gender. This brings us to that big problem or thing we need to figure out if we’re transgender: are the feelings we’re following based on an experience of internally being another gender or genders, or are they about something else? In some cases, especially if those feelings are strongly negative and harsh toward ourselves, maybe they don’t have to do with gender identity at all. In other cases, based on the experience of the huge majority of people who transition and feel much more themselves, they really do.

On to situation two: instead of being fooled about your own gender identity based on bad feelings, you could be fooled by good feelings or by identifying with peers. There’s a very high percentage figure that has been offered that supposedly reflects how many kids who identify as another gender when young later come to identify with their birth sex. That figure may or may not be accurate, but what seems clear is that a lot of trans kids become cis* adults. In some cases, based on how transgenderism in kids can seem to spread, becoming trans might often come from feeling a closeness to or admiration for someone in your peer group. I mean, if some kid you know comes out as trans and becomes really famous in school, seems to be much happier, and is accepted by almost everyone (or even if they just stand out as unique and you feel like there’s nothing unique about you), the idea of doing that same thing and standing out yourself can be really appealing. If you become really drawn to it and end up fooling yourself, who can tell you that you aren’t actually transgender? Nobody, that’s who, though there are good therapists who can help you figure yourself out.

That’s the big problem with gender identity. We can’t know exactly how any other person feels, and the way different people feel can be hugely different, so how can we know what it feels like to be male, or to be female, or to be both, or neither? We have to trust our own best instincts and question ourselves carefully: there’s no other way. That’s why a good therapist is so important to this process (and a bad therapist, or even a well-meaning but confused therapist, can cause so many problems). A good therapist can help a person know themself better.

I mentioned three situations, but the third may or may not be real. Maybe some people’s genders actually change during the courses of their lives. Maybe, even completely ignoring the physical side of things, it’s possible to be one gender for a time and then become another. This may be ironic coming from someone who you could meet as a woman one day and as a man the next, but I’m skeptical, or at least cautious, that fundamental gender identity can change. Being bi-gender means that you shift from one gender identity or the other, or hold a balance between the two, but in a larger sense your gender has the same composition over time. If you’re bi-gender, both your genders are always with you: it’s just that you may not embody or experience both of them at once all the time.

At the same time, I probably shouldn’t be too skeptical. It’s easier to imagine that every trans person has always been trans, even if that person doesn’t start feeling trans until well into adulthood, as some trans people do, but this isn’t really known, and if it’s even possible to come to a conclusion about it, we won’t come to anything definite soon.

This idea of changing gender identity over time pertains to bi-gender people in an unusual way, because it sometimes happens that a person identifies as bi-gender as a waystation to being “traditional” trans–but I’ll take that up in another post.

*In case you’re not familiar with the term, “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which means “identifying with your sex assigned at birth.” It’s more or less the opposite of “trans”.