I fully realise that I am at least in part preaching to the choir here, but I feel the need to get this off my chest, so here goes. I recently came across an article concerning the use of a trans person’s ‘old’ name. This (and more correctly the comments) prompted me to put some of my thoughts into writing.
In the wake of the Caitlyn Jenner media frenzy a few strands of ‘conventional thinking’ have come to the fore. Many people seem to be saying that ‘Caitlyn’ doesn’t exist and that ‘Bruce’ is the ‘real’ person and that the individual self identifying as Caitlyn is somehow delusional and needs to be referred to as ‘Bruce’ and that male pronouns must be used. A worrying extension to this argument is that by becoming ‘Caitlyn’ this individual may well have annihilated (as in made nothing) themselves. ‘Caitlyn’ does not and (at least in the narrow cisgender world) cannot exist. By adhering to a belief that she does exist she is annihilating the individual. It is not a very far stretch from this position to saying that the person should be annihilated. Hence the high murder rate of trans people in many parts of the world.
An additional point of interest is the news that Nepal has joined the select band of countries in the world that allow for more than two genders on their passports. In some respects this is great news for those of us with non-conforming gender identities, but it in addition to the Caitlyn Jenner frenzy it does lead me to question why are we so hung up on gender?
Now, obviously gender is important to transgender people. They spend so much of their time agonising, thinking and analysing gender it is clearly an important part of our lives. This is because there is something wrong with the gender identity vs the physical sex and the assigned gender of the individual. To help explain this, think about your pancreas. Have you ever thought about it before? Possibly not, but a person with diabetes will from time to time consider this organ. They will wonder why it doesn’t work as well as other people’s pancreas, they may curse its inability to produce insulin properly and they may even wish they could switch pancreas with someone else. Do you see what I am getting at? We as humans don’t really worry about things until they stop working. The same applies to gender. Many people go through life never thinking much about their gender, for others it is a big deal because it is somehow ‘wrong’ (at least for them). So why then does society worry so much about gender? Why do people worry so much about other people’s gender?
I very much doubt that too many people other than medical professionals are overly concerned with other people’s pancreas. Very few people wonder whether people injecting themselves with insulin are really diabetic or perhaps have some strange psychological disorder that makes them think they are diabetic when in fact they are perfectly fine. I also doubt whether people immediately think that diabetics are all some sort of sexual deviants with a needle fetish. No, diabetes is a well-known and understood malady. People with it are treated with respect and no one questions their right to exist. Transgender individuals may have a genetic reason for their being transgender (ditto diabetes), or it may be because of a reaction to certain medications (ditto diabetes) or due to congenital but non genetic factors (ditto diabetes) or for any number of reasons not yet fully understood by medical science (ditto diabetes). In fact this could be applied to almost any number of medical conditions.
Yet society at large treats transgender people differently. A surprising number of otherwise enlightened people (including medical professionals who arguably should no better), when confronted by Caitlyn Jenner express a great deal of prejudice. They refuse to use female pronouns, they use the name ‘Bruce’ and say that she must be some kind of freak with a psychological condition that causes her to want to mutilate herself.
I am frankly astounded at this level of ire directed at trans people who ultimately are not doing anything that materially affects anyone else when they choose to express a gender other than their assigned one. Why the anger? Why the prejudice?
Now consider passports and other official documents. Why do we need to record a gender on these at all? What purpose does this serve? Some may argue that it is a necessary identifier that will prove that the holder is the rightful holder of that document, or that it can assist police when looking for a suspect etc. I would argue that these are fallacious arguments trying to defend a status quo that nobody actually understands. In the first instance, now that we have networked computers that can quickly and efficiently look up information it is very easy to determine whether the person standing in front of you is the same person that legally holds the proof of identity. All sorts of biometric data (fingerprints, eye scanners, DNA profiles etc) can be used to identify an individual without referring to something like sex. Secondly, how many people are actually ever the subject of a police inquiry that also involves a search? This must be a tiny portion of the population and I suspect that at least some of the people at the sharp end of this situation will be undocumented in any case. So it would seem that this is something of a non sequitur. Finally even if this was a logical reason and if we assume that gender identity was so important to policing then surely the very first thing that a wanted criminal would do is to throw on a wig, a pair of stilettos and mince past the first police station he could? If this was so important a tool for the police it would be so easily bypassed as to make it irrelevant. No, I can see no rational or logical reason for us to have a gender marker on our official documents. It is there because bureaucrats of yore thought it was relevant and have continued to use it for no good reason.
So again why are we so obsessed with gender? Why is prejudice, fear and discrimination such a feature of our (as in all human beings) interactions around gender and gender non conformity? Clearly gender is important to the individual. It forms a part of our identity and when it is ‘wrong’ it causes distress (varying degrees of distress, but distress nonetheless). However why does society seek to regulate individual gender expression in the way that it does. It does officially (passports, drivers’ licenses etc) and unofficially (societal prejudice and shaming). And this is before we consider the pesky issue of bathroom use. This is pervasive and the societal attitude certainly contributes to the sense of fear and shame so many trans people feel. It prevents many of us from ever admitting (sometimes even to ourselves) how we feel and how unhappy it makes us. It contributes to the high suicide rates in the community and of course drives the unemployment and under employment rate amongst those of us who are living full-time (as well as others who may not be full-time but still experience discrimination).
Strangely though gender doesn’t really matter. Most western nations have gender equality laws. The world has not ended because we have acknowledged that women can pretty much do most things that a man can do and vice versa. We have proved that women can box, fight in the military, fly aeroplanes and (gasp) even successfully run large corporations. Of course there is much work still to be done and feminism is still a relevant and necessary political movement but we are constantly showing that gender is less and less relevant to the human condition than we thought. Why then does society see transgender people as such a threat. For a threat we must be otherwise the reaction to us would be far less severe. Is it because transgender people are perceived to accentuate gender differences (the stereotypical ‘tranny’ in a short skirt, heels and double EE breasts)? Or is it because the existing power relations that still support cisgender males are afraid that our trans-ness will explode the myth of male superiority and expose male privilege for what it is? Maybe people just don’t like change and refuse to take the time to understand us and who can blame them when we often don’t (fully) understand ourselves?
None of this should excuse intolerance, prejudice and discrimination.By expressing ourselves and our genders we harm no one. We have as much right to be ourselves as anyone else and I look forward to a day when people will accept us for who we are and not be prejudiced against us because of what they fear us to be.