Gender 101 for Trans People

chaz bonoChaz 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.

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Categories: ponderings


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22 Comments on “Gender 101 for Trans People”

  1. May 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Great post, Ev. Thank you for illustrating once again how generalizations help no one and misinformation is so easily garnered by the media.

    • evmaroon
      May 7, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

      I’d say I was happy to oblige, but really, erm, I’d rather not see the need to! But I’m glad you got something out of this post!

  2. Jen
    May 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Everett — I’d like to hear more, if you’re willing, about how you feel about transitioning. I haven’t read the NYT article, but the quote you give from Chaz is along the lines of what I’ve heard in the past and it’s the kind of thing that has made sense to me, but I don’t want to be insensitive. Are you saying that you see yourself as being more in the middle of the gender spectrum? If so, why did you decide to transition? (By this I mean, if you’re going to be in the middle, does it matter if you’re a bit more on one side than the other? And if it does, then it seems like you may be further from the middle than you think.) Again, I’m truly not trying to be inflammatory here. I just want to understand more fully. I hope, if this is the kind of question that will hurt or offend that you will do me the favor of deleting it.

    • evmaroon
      May 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

      Well, I exhausted that conversation pretty thoroughly in my memoir, I think, so I won’t ramble on about it here, Jen. But briefly, I was pointing out that there are a lot of people in the middle of the spectrum who actually like their lives the way they are, so I was concerned that for someone to come out and say “the middle sucks,” well, that’s just one opinion. I didn’t mean to imply that I feel like I’m in the middle. Though even if I did feel that way, it wouldn’t preclude me from “transitioning,” if to transition means to take on any gender identity different than the one assigned to a person at birth. Certainly there are people out there who see themselves as somewhere in the middle and who opt to medically transition, just as there are people who see themselves as the opposite gender and opt not to take hormones or have surgery.

      • Jen
        May 7, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

        Okay, I definitely need to read your memoir. 🙂 From my — I realize, rather uninformed — perspective, transitioning in any medical way seems like such a difficult and arduous path (not to discount the difficulty factor in other forms of transitioning — but perhaps those are not quite so physically painful) that one must care deeply about the change. And that depth of care must come from somewhere. Hence, the kind of explanation that Chaz gave is what has made sense to me. I’m trying to wrap my mind around a broader idea here though, and I thank you for expanding my view.

  3. May 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    I found this post interesting because it too “generalizes” which is the prominent argument that you disagree with. The title “Gender 101 for trans people” even suggests that you are educating us poor uninformed trans folks of how it really is as oppose to Chaz Bono’s remarks.

    It is reasons like this that Transsexuals do not like to be grouped with people who are Transgender. Its not the same thing. Cross dressers, gender benders, transvestites, trans questioning, etc are consider Transgender. What Chaz defined was a Transsexual, which to me is exactly what he said it was.
    I can understand the confusion and even your distress at this interview because he really doesn’t say who he is talking about. Transgender is such a general umbrella that covers so much. Transsexual, again I think he hit it right on the head. No how far someone goes in their transitioning is up to them. If someone never gets SRS, GCS, etc I don’t feel it makes them any less Transsexual. But they still have that “mismatched” Brain\Body gender issue.
    Good post, but I found it to be a bit hypocritical and generalizing in and of itself.
    – LiVia

    • evmaroon
      May 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

      Well, my title is meant to be tongue in cheek, since there are so many “Trans 101” workshops out there. Where do you think I’m generalizing, specifically? I did try to stay away from the debate around terminology, in that I didn’t think this was the place to parse out transgender from transsexual, and certainly if Chaz understands himself as a transsexual, then that provides a context for his comments, however the Times article certainly doesn’t break any of that out for readers. And I’m not sure what I expect from the Times, for that matter, since they couldn’t even use male pronouns for him when speaking about his past. Again, I don’t argue with anyone who believes they have a brain/body mismatch; I just don’t want to see it heralded as THE narrative for everyone else in the community, especially when its used to further define people across the whole sex spectrum.

  4. May 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    Correction, in reply it was suppose to say “I can understand the confusion and even your distress because he uses the term Transgender instead of Transsexual.”

  5. May 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Indeed the Times is…..interesting to say the least on their reporting. I should have mentioned in my posted correction that the fact he used the term “Transgender”, was a good cause for concern because his definition is certainly not the entire Transgender community, but only one small facet of it.

  6. Jesse
    May 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Wow, that article is one of the worse articles I have read.

    • evmaroon
      May 7, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

      Right? Did Rupert Murdoch secretly buy the New York Times when we weren’t looking?

  7. Xander
    May 11, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    Frankly as a trans person I am about sick of being lumped in with other gender variants. Transgender isn’t the same as transsexual, gender queer or gender nonconforming. Each person is unique and can only speak from their own experiences and I think expecting anyone to speak for other segments knowledgeably isn’t really in anyone’s best interest. So how about giving people a break. I don’t recall that Chaz spoke as an authority on anything except Chaz.

    • evmaroon
      May 11, 2011 at 9:00 am #

      Nobody’s calling for anyone to be “lumped in” with anyone else, and like I said, I respect that Chaz is in a really tough position, being in the spotlight and all. Also, I’m not talking just about Chaz—this post is in response to several media moments that I’ve watched in which the person recently starting transition has made comments, as Chaz did in the NYT interview, about how “biological” we all are, as if gender is rooted in our hormones. And that goes against transsexualism on the face of it! We’re claiming we have these identities despite the hormones coursing through our veins. So how about we stop reinforcing the “gossipy” woman concept and “unemotional” man stereotype? It’s just not necessary, and it doesn’t serve our ends as a community, in my opinion.

      • jesse
        May 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

        In his documentary he states several times that he is new to the community and looks to other people for knowledge, and they also do a different job of having people call him out on his own assumptions and attitudes. I enjoyed it.

      • evmaroon
        May 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

        I heard that the documentary was a lot better than the article by the NYT. Glad to hear it was a lot more nuanced. I would have watched it, but apparently the OWN doesn’t come with my cable subscription.


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