There are few topics I feel nervous to write about on this blog, as you might have surmised over the years. But one of them is the question of transgender people. It’s a fascinating topic, but remains so completely fraught and riddled with p.c. neurosis that no writer wants to unleash the hounds of furious, touchy trans activism. And that’s the first thing to note here, I’d say. Any minority – especially a tiny one like gays or transgender people – has, at some point, to explain itself to the big, wide world. That’s not entirely fair but it’s unavoidable if you want a change in attitudes or an increase in understanding. And my view is that there is no need to be defensive about it. Most people are just completely ignorant, and have never met or engaged a trans person, and so their misconceptions and misunderstandings are inevitable and not self-evidently a matter of bigotry or prejudice. I think we should be understanding of this, as open as we can be, and answer the kinds of questions some might feel inappropriate or offensive. That’s the basis for dialogue, empathy and progress.
But this has not, alas, been the way in which the transgender movement has largely sought to engage the wider world (with some exceptions). Kevin Williamson notes how Laverne Cox, appearing as a trans person on the cover of Time, nonetheless refused to answer a question about whether she had had her genitals reassigned as too “invasive.” Sorry, Laverne. But if you’re out there explaining yourself, you’ve gotta explain all of it. And the elaborate and neurotic fixation on language – will writing “transgender” rather than “transgendered” reveal my inner bigot? – is now so neurotic even RuPaul has been cast aside as politically incorrect. The insistence that the question of transgender people is essentially the same as that of gay people – when they are quite clearly distinct populations with very different challenges – is also why we have the umbrella term “LGBT”. And so Kevin Williamson is not wrong, I think, to note the way in which politics has eclipsed the English language here and that language itself has become enmeshed in a rigid ideology:
The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality.
But Williamson is just as wrong in his brutal, even callous, denunciation of transgender people as acting out “delusions”. And he’s wrong not because he politically incorrect, but because he’s empirically off-base. He too is creating his own reality. For Williamson, it seems, you can only have one sex and it is dictated by your genitals. End of story. Naturally, he doesn’t address the question of what biological sex is when you are born with indeterminate genitals that are not self-evidently male or female. The intersex are a small minority – from 0.1 to 1.7 percent, depending on your definition – but in a country of 300 million, that adds up. And the experience of those people – especially those have been genitally mutilated to appear as one sex, while feeling themselves to be the other – is a vital part of understanding what gender and sex are.
Kevin may not like this – but it’s complicated.
We can see crucial differences between male and female brains, for example, and they do not always correspond to male and female genitals. Since by far the most important sexual organ is the brain, the possibilities of ambiguity are legion. And this is not a matter of pomo language games. The experience of a conflict between self-understood gender and assigned gender is real, and a source of great anguish. That human anguish is what we should seek to mitigate, it seems to me, rather than compound as Williamson does.
And as J. Brian Lowder notes, the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse. There’s a reason that Iran’s theocrats allow for sex-change operations but not gay relationships. The transgender desire not to be trans-gender but to be one gender physically and mentally is actually quite an affront to queer theorists for whom all gender and sex are social constructions. Many of these people want testosterone and estrogen and surgery to end their divided selves. And it doesn’t get more crudely biological and not-social than that.
Which means that there are also divisions within the trans world between those who might be able to pass completely as another gender, after reassignment surgery, and those whose visual ambiguity or androgyny will remain. Lowder quotes a trans artist thus:
If you don’t wish to own [tranny] or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you to disappear into the passing world or that you or your generous, supportive family are able to afford the procedures which will make it possible for you to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to. If you’re capable of doing that then GO ON AND DISAPPEAR INTO THE PASSING WORLD!
This is the perennial question of a minority’s anxiety about sell-outs – whether it be expressed in the fights over how light-skinned some African-Americans are or how “masculine” gay men are or how feminine lesbians appear. In other words, this is a very complicated and sensitive area. But if we are to make progress in understanding – and Williamson’s piece shows how far we have yet to go – we have to let go of these insecurities and defensiveness and accept that no question about the transgendered is too dumb or too bigoted to answer.
Is the transgender movement mature enough to accept this and move forward? I guess we’ll soon find out.
(Photo: Actress Laverne Cox arrives at ’10 Years After The Prime Time Closet – A History Of Gays And Lesbians On TV’ at Academy of Television Arts & Sciences on October 28, 2013 in North Hollywood, California. By Valerie Macon/Getty Images.)