In a story in The New Yorker magazine titled “About a Boy: Transgender surgery at age sixteen,” Margaret Talbot talks about how many more females are coming out as transgender now than in the past. It reflects the amazing progress trans people have made in recent years. But it also made me aware of my own subtle bias about gender-role conformity.
My doctors tell me that compared to twenty years ago, when it seemed that twice as many males transitioned to females than females to males, today there is equilibrium in the numbers, with as many females as males identifying as transgender. Margaret Talbot says this:
In the past, females who wished to live as males rarely sought surgery, in part because they could “pass” easily enough in public; today, there is a desire for more thorough transformations.
The subject of her story is a young transman named Skylar who underwent top surgery at the age of sixteen, a much younger age than would have been possible a decade ago. Though Skylar has transitioned medically and surgically, he is not fixated on conventional masculinity and completely comfortable with a certain amount of gender ambiguity. He is quoted as saying he does not feel the need to be a “macho bro.”
Skylar is not alone. Many trans persons of his generation have a level of comfort with their gender presentation that is admirable. I admit that I don’t possess that kind of self-confidence and because of my need to avoid drawing negative attention to myself and, by extension and association, to my cisgender* friends and family, I am guilty of a certain degree of gender policing. This means that I am guilty of making judgments simply on the basis of society’s expectations for what is appropriate for males and females.
I don’t think I am alone. Many trans persons invest a lot of time, energy and finances in their attempt to retrofit their bodies to achieve congruence between brain and body. One pitfall that some fall into is that of taking these efforts to the extreme of the respective ends of the scale, and potentially end up as grotesque caricatures of the gender they identify as. This has often caused some friction in the trans community because this is where the gender policing comes into play. The standards of acceptability, after all, are part of the social construct and as such, are subject to change without notice. Ironically, in order to pass society’s test of what is appropriately male/masculine and female/feminine, we force ourselves back into boxes and judge and discriminate based on how well we express or adhere to the gender binary.
The term “genderqueer” is one that not many people understand, but is totally germane to this discussion. Wikipedia has a good primer on all the nuances of this umbrella term (check it out here). It goes on to add:
“…genderqueer has been used as an adjective to refer to any people who transgress distinctions of gender, regardless of their self-defined gender identity, i.e. those who “queer” gender, expressing it non-normatively.”
Being part of the baby-boomer generation means that I am one who grew up in a vacuum of information, when the term “transgender” and the language which today allows younger and younger persons make sense of their sexuality did not yet exist. I too am needing to educate myself. As much as I covet having a support network of well-informed allies, I realize I need to be better informed so I can be an ally to those who express their gender differently and more confidently than I have the guts to do. I also realize that I am more insecure than my younger counterparts who don’t need society’s stamp of approval to be comfortable in their own bodies.
To simply say that I admire their courage seems über patronizing and hypocritical; I’m upset at how easy it is to devalue those who bend the rules that I have felt compelled to follow. I hunger for inclusion and equity and equality, yet I allow myself to deny others from the table based on my own biases.
What is worse is the fact that even though I credit my Christian faith with having kept me from self-harm as I struggled with my gender identity, and as the source of hope to encourage others to put their trust in my God, I shift to gatekeeping way too easily. I have never expressed this publicly or have said anything to any gender non-conforming or genderqueer person, but I have harbored those thoughts at times and I apologize sincerely.
I have never felt as comfortable in my own body as I do today. I am grateful for having had the ability to access the help I needed, and that I live in a time and place that made it all possible for me. I celebrate the fact that younger persons are being able to access help and will benefit from this early intervention. But this also means that all of us need to do a better job at allowing them to find their own comfort zone, and fight like hell to protect their right to do so.
Until the age of 58, Lisa Salazar lived a life that was complicated by the fact that she was born male. She envisioned a very private life after her transition in 2008, but her life is anything but private these days. She shares her life journey in her book, Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life, gives workshops on transgender issues, and is a board member of Canyon Walker Connections.
Her advocacy is directed towards the church. “Whether you like it or not, the church continues to influence politics in both the U.S. and Canada. As long as pulpits continue to spew out misinformation regarding LGB and T issues, the longer it is going to take to see real change happen,” she says.
Follow her blog at lisainbc.blogspot.com.