Chaz Bono ruffled more than a few feathers in the trans community this week when he gave an interview to The New York Times in which he explained his decision to transition:
“There’s a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment. For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is. It’s not complicated, it’s not a neurosis. It’s a mix-up. It’s a birth defect, like a cleft palate.”
Yes, that is one way of looking at it, but certainly, not everyone who transitions—or defines themselves along the transgender spectrum—feels that way. And while Chaz is entitled to his opinion, half-assed reporting from the Times notwithstanding*, I would like to interject a few opinions of my own regarding the way in which some transfolk talk about transition and the way in which the media pick it up and report it.
1. Stop generalizing—Are there important systemic issues at work that affect people when they start transition? Sure. Can one trans person speak for everyone? Absolutely not. I will say I was privileged in a way not to be a celebrity who wanted to transition. I wasn’t in anything close to a spotlight, and it was ridiculously hard anyway, so I can’t imagine doing it as the child of Cher of all people. But this attention means even more than usual that Chaz’s experience is not representative of everyone else’s. I love chatting, for example, and I’ve been on testosterone longer than he has. Lest anyone think I’m all anti-Chaz, I would say the same thing to Matt Kailey, Rene Peha, Buck Angel, or anyone else who speaks to an audience about how hormonally driven we all are.
2. Try not to reinforce gender stereotypes when discussing how different life is after transition—Look, it if were all the same, we wouldn’t have gender, I get it. But really, do we need this?
“There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much. I’ve noticed that Jen can talk endlessly. I just kind of zone out.” —Chaz Bono
News flash: not all women are chatty. And whether a woman is into “gossiping” or not is probably not related to her hormone levels. Plus, I know many, many men, several of whom are straight, who can gossip circles around most other people. If we’re going to blow up our gender and shift it, let’s not insist that everyone else live inside narrow gender categories, okay?
3. Don’t throw all the folks in the middle under the bus—Leslie Feinberg told me once that being in the middle of the gender poles is hard. But Leslie said this to me in a specific context, that of solidarity from one with experience, and of helpfulness to another person in the community. It is entirely different to speak to a reporter, blogger, book publisher, television interviewer, et cetera, and say that being in the middle sucks and you’re happy to have reached the other side. This sentiment presumes nobody is looking for that middle ground, that folks who call themselves genderqueer lack something for not aiming directly for the opposite gender, or that there is nothing to gain or learn from the experience of living as not easily classifiable. And that is a severe miscalculation.
4. Remember the audience—Cisgender people who don’t know any trans-identified or trans-experienced people may have only this moment of you speaking to get the basics on what transgender/transsexual/genderqueer/gender nonconforming means. There’s a torrid history of television and movies and books exploiting our community: we wind up dead, we’re serial killers, our families will hate us now and forever, and so on. Your speaking engagement or conversation or indie book will, in all likelihood, represent the community, even if you’re not casting broad statements about. So make sure you only claim your remarks as from your experience. There are questioning kids out there in that audience too, and the more you insist that your transition approach is the best or only one, the less likely they are to see trans as a possibility for themselves. And then it can get hellish from there.
5. Note that there are people heading in the opposite direction as you—I have written several times here about needing to find more solidarity between trans men, trans women, and genderqueer people (not to mention everyone else). When we denigrate the people we used to be, as a sex, we necessarily denigrate the people who are transitioning cross-current from us. There is just no need to put down womanhood (and I’m not claiming Chaz did that, by the way) in order to talk about how we as FTMs journeyed to where we are today. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard someone say I should be glad to have the genitals I have because they wish they had the same kind of equipment. And it’s gone both ways—sometimes MTFs blurt this out, and sometimes it’s a trans man—and it never makes anyone feel better about themselves.
It is just plain hard to know, when one is a kid or adolescent, why one feels different. For many people, myself included, we presume the issue comes down to sexual orientation, but as transness occupies more space in culture, trans as a concept presents another narrative for people who feel “different” to work through and use as an explanation for their feelings. Yes, to transition socially, medically, or legally is to turn one’s world upside-down, but I resist the notion that transition is the act of last resort. Transition can be any of the following: a rescue, a relief, a surprise, a revelation, a mistake, a wanting, certainty. It is often a journey, and our feelings about our gender identities tend to shift as we enter and exit different phases within transition. As Kate Bornstein noted on her Twitter account earlier today, we should give Chaz a break for speaking so crudely about some of these things.
While I can forgive Chaz his language, I also have to shake my head sadly, because words, I have discovered, affect attitudes and behavior which can then be hard to unravel. Hormones can be powerful elements, but I’m still pretty sure that human will and intelligence are stronger.
*Seriously. The author likens the need trans people have to align their gender with dangling participles.