The longer I live as a transgendered person the more I have come to conclude that my gender is mainly whatever other people think it is. This statement would be too controversial, I think, too disrespectful of other people’s identities, if I’d let it stay unedited. Originally, I omitted the word “my” from this sentence: “..I have come to conclude that gender is mainly whatever other people think it is.” I rephrased this after a moment, because I have to respect that many if not most people, including transsexual and transgendered people, have a strong sense gender identity and want it to be acknowledged. If others insist on telling a person they are something other than what they know themselves to be, they’ll generally have a strong negative reaction. Quite right too! Trying to put labels on people who don’t want them is rude in the extreme. Depending on the circumstances, it could be classed as intimidation, harassment, even hate crime. However, a sense of oneself as fundamentally gendered is something a person either experiences or does not experience. I don’t think I have ever experienced it myself.
Some would argue that all people have a sense of their own gender, but some cisgendered people are wholly unaware of it and insist that they just think of themselves, and indeed others, as “just people” because their own gender identity has never been problematic to them by creating a sense of body dysphoria or a conflict between the way they understand their own gender and the way it is viewed from an outside perspective. This is a viewpoint I have some sympathy with… but how to account for myself in this world view? I am often acutely aware of, and uncomfortable with, what other people may think about my gender. I have experienced body dysphoria so severe that I was put in a psychiatric ward for 2 years during my teens because of the negative effect it had on my mental health (the body dysphoria I experience includes, but is not limited to, aspects of my body that would generally be classed as a gender issue). I was diagnosed as transsexual around 10 years ago and given hormones, plus a number of operations so great that I have honestly lost count, to drastically alter my chest, genitals and secondary sexual characteristics. It would be hard to argue that I am not a trans person of some description, even if some of the more savvy folk I meet have no trouble understanding that I am not a binary-gendered person as the medical model dictates I (/everyone) should be, but better described as gender-queer or gender-fluid. However, I still can’t say I ever experienced a sense of gender which was anything other than an awareness of my own physical sex (which has of course altered over time), the responses I illicit from various people around me, and, increasingly, an insight into how I can look or act differently if I want to have people react in another way.
An ability to see oneself, and the world in general, from other viewpoints is of course a wisdom we all hone with age, and not limited to issues relating to gender. However, in my case realising the way that my body, clothes, voice, body language and other behaviour are gendered by in various circumstances, and the ways in which I am able to alter the impression I give out, has been deeply empowering. It would not be an exaggeration to say that some genders are, simply and very sadly, less safe to portray than others under certain circumstances. For example, when I worked as a street prostitute I soon learned that when I was portraying the gender “drag queen” I suffered serious and life-threatening homophobia, and was a lot less safe than when I was successfully portraying “woman”. By noting this I don’t mean to ignore the ongoing problem of prejudice and violence against prostitute women, only to say that when I was being read as a male-born person in the profession, the danger seemed more frequent and acute. It was fascinating to note how little difference my actual genitals, which of course were more relevant and public in this profession than in most, actually made to the situation. As one of 3 prostitutes told me when I showed her my vagina in an effort to prove my female credentials and avoid being beaten up by the trio for my gender-deviance: “I don’t care what you’ve had done, you’re still a man. You’re not welcome on this street. Go and work wherever the fucking rent boys go.”
As a starting point for this piece or writing, I was asked “how/when [I] knew [I was] transgender, if [I] came out, how did it affect those around [me]? How did it affect [me] when [I] knew – did [I] have any problems accepting it [my]self?” These questions are fascinating to me mostly because they are, in a subtle way, the wrong ones. To answer honestly and accurately I first need to change some of the questions. How and when did I start to seriously consider altering the way I portrayed my gender? Did I come out? How were those around me affected when I first started to modify my body in a gender-related way? When I first felt a desire to change my body or otherwise alter the way people would perceive my gender, did I have any negative feelings or worries about doing so?
Let me start by addressing the issue of coming out, since this is a relatively short answer. Answering the other questions could, and probably will, make for a full column on their own!
I never have, and never intend to, come out. About anything. I often and openly discuss transgender issues in general and those personal to me, and of course there is always a first time for disclosure of any aspect of one’s life to each new person that comes along. To me this does not constitute coming out, since this phrase implies a personal disclosure of more significance than that which occurs in the normal process of talking to people. It implies a revelation which could prove controversial. Even if the coming out explicitly or implicitly contains the message “I am proud of who I am and will not accept prejudice”, this still raises the spectre of prejudice, and thus to some extent anticipates or normalises it. For me, the step from normalising a behaviour to condoning it is too small for comfort. When I am subjected to prejudice I make a point, always, to treat it as an affront, a shocking breach of etiquette which is in no way normal and of which any civilised human being would be ashamed. I was perhaps a little ahead of my time in this approach, but my interactions with trans and queer youth and young adults in recent years I feel hopeful about the future. In a generation or two I really believe that this reaction might be the norm.