I’ve written about gender a lot over the years. I’ve gone from describing myself as having opted out of the gender question to being loudly comfortable with my gender as having been constructed by both myself and the society around me. Currently I have a partner who is transsexual, she has a boyfriend who is transsexual (can I say in the ‘opposite’ direction?) I lived in a country with very set gender roles for two years of my life and at the moment these things combine to make me feel guilty for daring to define myself as ‘Mish’ and stepping outside of male or female or the gender binary.
I’m not trans, weirdly enough thats an identity that I’ve never played with, I’m very happy that I’m cis-gender and I’m usually ok with the definition ‘woman’. I’m most ok with the term ‘mish’ but unfortunately that’s not overly communicative to people I’ve never met. Early on in my activism within the LGBT community – I still count myself as an activist, it’s just that I’ve often erred on the side of quiet, letter-writing type activism and that’s increased lately – I met a lot of older (in some cases a lot older) transsexuals and transvestites. Of these I met maybe two transmen, mostly I met transwomen and drag queens, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to know a drag king though maybe some of the butch lesbians I knew almost leant that way. A lot of the older transwomen I met were unhappy with their decision to transition, without exception this was because their old friends/family either totally or mostly did not (would not? could not?) accept their new gender identity.
It has been consistently difficult for me, having been brought up a feminist, to sympathise with the amount that the majority of the trans community talk about their transition in relation to how other people view them or how they perceive other people viewing them.
I was not brought up to wear make-up, this was part of the suggestion throughout my childhood that as a woman my appearence did not matter. Throughout history a woman’s appearence has mattered, make-up is part of that, certainly when my mother was growing up wearing make-up was about making your appearance the vital part of who you were because you as a woman were essentially an object. Pretty and you were valuable, not pretty and not so much. Not wearing make-up meant you had to be valued for other things, other things that were not going to render you an object. To this day my relationship with make-up is much the same as my relationship with other things that I find in a dress-up box. It’s fun but not necessary, certainly not the only way I have of projecting myself, days when I can be bothered are fund, days when I can’t I don’t feel particularly bad. My appearence is only a single, solitary part of me.
I regard that as a massively feminist statement to make and something which is very freeing.
But mostly the transwomen I met all did their make-up perfectly and dressed, perfectly, kind of like my Aunty Joyce dialled up several notches. How much was this as the result of the hoops they had to jump through in order to get the surgery and hormones they needed? How much was this as the result of being denied those things throughout the whole of their lives? I fully admit the desire I have for the pretty frills of EGL fashion is because my clothing of choice as a kid was jeans and a flannel shirt and my longing for long hair is because until the age of eight I wasn’t allowed anything longer than a Beatlesesque bob. But my reaction as a feminist is that you must define the gender you are for yourself and not perform what you think it should be.
Yet after two years in a society of restricted gender roles being told that the trans community had embraced the notion of more than two genders over the last few decades, certainly ten years or more after I started talking to transsexuals at LGBT protests and events, met with displeasure from me. It coincided with my re-embracing of the gender binary, my conclusions that I liked manly men and womanly women and suddenly I have to think about androgyny again and those people who’ve chosen to step out of the gender question.
Transvestites, I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for, that’s all transvestites from the full-on Lily Savage-esque Drag Queen to the integrated? subtler? Eddie Izzard sort. Transvestites generally like to play with gender, some days they’re more boys some days they’re more girls but they tread a line of in-between by being both. I know some people would call me for equating something that is a stage performance with something that is a life path. As with most things I’m coming to the conclusion that gender is analogue rather than digital and whether the performance of gender is simply that, a performance for work, or whether it is a lived existence I think it still belongs in that three dimensional graph.
Transvestism is about embracing a choice and feminism is all about having the freedom to choose which is why I think I find the transvestism section of Trans easier.
As a woman, brought up as a feminist, there’s a certain amount of guilt and awareness of myself as a very fortunate person within a minority which has in recent history been oppressed. As a result whenever I’m not doing to well with myself I can hear that mantra, drummed into me by so many adults during my childhood ‘You’re not only letting yourself down…’
My secondary school had a very distinctive uniform, it was a grammar school, we wore blazers. Now obviously since smoking cigarettes only becomes legal when you’re sixteen and the sixth formers at my school wore ‘professional attire’ rather than a uniform there should only have been a few months when it was possible that some kids in uniform may have been seen with cigarettes. This is bollocks of course, a significant minority was picking up and buying cigarettes from the age of eleven onwards. This lead to any amount of rants/speeches/dire warnings that smoking whilst in uniform was deletirious to the reputation of the school (Go go Royston Vasey Grammar).
This digression is not a digression but the idea that whilst in your uniform you should be the best representative of the organisation is one that sank deep along with the idea that women fought amd gave their lives for me to be this free. I am big on independence, I am big on being Mish representing myself and myself only but the one uniform I can’t get rid of (mainly because at root I don’t want to) is this body. People are always going to assume, based on looks alone that I am a woman and as such I feel I have to be doing the best that I possibly can, using all of the wonderful chances I have to the best of my ability. If I’m not then I’m letting down all the women who fought for me to have the chances that I do.
So, if I find transvestism ‘easier’ because it’s about embracing choice then do I believe the rest of the trans community to be about denying choice? I don’t think so. A very important basis for the sort of feminism I was brought up with is that your body doesn’t matter, you can do anything but you cannot judge people based on their bodies otherwise you are objectifying them. (I’m massively aware that this could now go down an ability route but I’m trying to talk about gender here). Now I can see a whole lot of readers at this point about to start talking about social interaction and how obviousy people do judge based on appearance and how a whole lot of the psychology of interactions is based on appearance with very probably a massive amount of citations. That’s great and all but feminism has always been about changing the status quo in terms of re-training the brain to recognise when it’s being subconciously unreasonable.
By this I mean the idea that women are very pretty and all but obviously they’re too unstable to vote, or the notion that women are small and weak and so shouldn’t go into the police force. Those sorts of examples, if we have to retrain our brains to think of what should be acceptable, are pretty much at the base to my comprehension of how feminism tries to achieve equality.
So why is trans so hard for me? Because the way transsexualism has often been framed to me has been in terms of changing your body to fit a particular social role. Often a specific gender role. Feminism is about defining for yourself what role you should play within society and not adhering to somone else’s notions of what that should be. Especially not adhering to someone who is often a priveleged straight white male.
If you go the whole hog and suggest that gender is totally socially constructed then surely transsexualism has no place within society and should presumably be classed along with other people suffering forms of body dysmorphia…
I don’t think you can go the whole hog though. Gender clearly has some basis in sex but there are so many exceptions to the rules that as with anything else I would suggest you can’t make assumptions based upon it, gender roles however, they really are social constructs and unless someone is grabbing a role and an identity you can’t push one upon them.
Wait a minute. Did I just say that people choose their own identity? Does that include their physical appearance? If it does then why can’t a transwoman have breast implants and vaginoplasty so as to express her identity?
Isn’t my problem with transsexualism only the notion that it is about conforming to other people’s expectations, if it’s about identity expression then that is something very feminist indeed. I’ll never be able to say that I’m trans because there is a notion of going from one identity which is placed upon you to another which you have chosen for yourself. I’m going to have to describe myself as cisgender because for all intents and purposes the general identity that I have is in line with my general physical appearance.
But don’t assign me a gender role which I have to be a woman to play. I don’t fit into a narrow gender binary, I never have and I never intend to, I like to play, I like to be me and I don’t see any reason why I have to restrict myself to roles which are on one side of a highly subjective line.