Keystone Reflections

| Apr 1, 2013
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By Susannah Robinson

In reflecting on the sessions I attended at Keystone V — the 2013 Keystone Conference — several things struck resonant chords with me. Additionally, I think that threads of insights from multiple sessions can be woven together to create an interesting “tapestry” of thought concerning the transgender community.

One of the sessions that I found particularly illuminating was the discussion of the “gender binary” that is so prevalent in our culture — that is, the male/masculine — female/feminine dichotomy that we so often encounter wherein one feels one must adopt and comport with the appearances and behaviors customarily associated with one gender or the other. While I don’t mean to oversimplify human courtship and mating behaviors, which, like all human behaviors, can be very complex, it seems clear to me, that as transgendered or “gender-fluid” individuals who often do not follow the normative gender presentations associated with our birth-sex, we often create a good deal of confusion in the rest of the population when they encounter us. More on that a bit later.

One of the things that came to me, is that in our courtship and mating behaviors as well as in our other day-to-day interactions, the gender binary we see in our culture and society is driven at least in part by the biological level predator/prey relationship we can observe between males and females in much of mammalian mating behavior, including that of Homo sapiens. Human males, through some combination of biology, genetics, and acculturation, play a role in courtship, etc., analogous to that of predator, whereas females play the role analogous to that of prey [or in other words, boys chase girls. . . ], but interestingly, traditional human female behavior also expands to include the attraction of males, including by female displays of vulnerability. Examples of this are the baring of the throat area that is so common with ”feminine” clothing, and the wearing or tight skirts and of high heels, which are hobbles, again increasing the vulnerability of the wearer. Males, conversely, when attired in “business” or “dress” clothes, symbolically protect their throats by buttoning up their shirts and by wearing ties, and traditional male clothing, of course, allowing for freedom of movement, which can be viewed as being suitable to the “predator” role. It’s much easier to run or to stand and fight in a man’s business suit than it is in 4” heels and a knee-length pencil skirt.

Human females, of course, engage in many additional behaviors that are designed to increase their attractiveness to males, including showing/partially baring/flaunting some of their secondary sexual characteristics, such as legs and breasts, and enhancing their curvaceousness — especially of their “derrieres” and breasts. Females, in particular, also display signs of overall vitality [and thus, presumably signs of their ability to bear offspring] like clear skin and long, healthy-looking hair. Similarly, human males engage in displays of strength and of financial well-being, in an attempt to appeal to potential mates.

I mention the above, because it struck me that those of us, particularly those of us who are M to F, emulate those modalities, especially if we are attempting to “pass.” This makes a great deal of sense, for if we are to “pass,” then these are the forms of behavior, dress, etc., that “the rest of the world” –- the “non-gender-variant” people who think of themselves as being at one end of the gender binary or the other, and who thus think of themselves as exclusively “male/masculine” or as exclusively “female/feminine” –- expect to see .

When we are not assignable to one end of the gender spectrum or the other — when we don’t conform to the rules of the gender binary by our sending of mixed gender signals, we often create confusion. We can do this in several ways. One of the most obvious ways, since it applies to one of the most difficult modalities to change [especially for M to F trans-folk], is that of voice. As males and females have differing pitch ranges and tonalities in their voices, and additionally employ different phrasings, having someone who is otherwise presenting as female suddenly say something or laugh in a basso profundo is unexpected and thus confusing to the listeners. Likewise, someone who appears female but has a “4 o’clock shadow” and hairy arms and legs is confusing to viewers, as would be an F to M individual who in addition to a beard and mustache, still had well-developed breasts and a curvaceous derriere and hips.

Once a listener or a viewer is confused as to the gender of the person, many of the rules we live by suddenly no longer apply, and that listener or viewer is suddenly in social terra incognita. For example, which pronouns should that person use in addressing or describing the confusing individual? In the TG world, of course, one uses the pronouns appropriate to the gender the other person is presenting in — but the rest of the world probably doesn’t know that, and probably isn’t comfortable with the notion, either. Additionally, in situations where an individual doesn’t convincingly belong to one end of the gender binary or the other, who holds a door open for whom, and who goes through it first? These rules were well established by early elementary school for me [gentlemen open doors for ladies and allow them to go first, etc.], but gender confusion causes them to break down. As another example those of us in the TG world are only too familiar with, which bathroom ought the transgendered or gender-fluid person to use? Here, we have all too often seen not just confusion, but outright hostility and even assault, where a gender-fluid individual attempting to use a bathroom suited to her gender presentation is viewed as a trespasser and is attacked!

In more intimate settings, such as within families, gender variance creates confusion as to what roles the members of the family are to play, and can create much confusion for the non-gender-variant spouse. [“If I find my husband attractive or if my husband makes love to me while he’s dressed as a woman, does that make me a Lesbian?” “If my husband transitions, does that make me a Lesbian?” seem all-to-common questions that deeply trouble spouses of M to F trans-folk.] While people In some families are able to handle these sorts of confusing presentations in a calm, rational fashion, and successfully adapt to them, others cannot, and may resort to humiliating or shunning the gender variant person, or even to assaulting that person. [Humiliation and shunning seem to be very common responses to gender variance by family members, as seen in the number of homeless TG youth and in the suicide and attempted suicide statistics for the TG community as a whole.] Equally unfortunately for many married trans-folk who “come out” to their spouses, those spouses who find themselves unable to cope with the changes the trans-spouse is bringing to the relationship may choose to dissolve the marriage, removing the stability and support the transgendered or gender-fluid person often so desperately needs.

We trans-folk also create confusion and consternation by disrupting the predator/prey relationship postulated above. While I have no hard empirical evidence to back up the following assertion, I suspect that “binary” males have a very difficult time accepting that any other birth-sex male could ever want to adopt the other role and become prey, and that “binary” females both have a hard time accepting that a “predator” would want to become “prey” and also, at some level, fear that, as a former predator now-ostensibly-turned-sister, the gender-variant person may be “faking it” in order to trick the genetic women into revealing their secrets, or into allowing themselves to move into a dangerous situation vis-a-vis the gender variant person. [i.e. fear that the gender variant person may take advantage of the newly-allowed closer proximity to assault the genetic woman.] I think this line of postulation might make for an interesting study. Additionally, the “binary” males and females may each feel that the transgender or gender fluid individual of their same birth-sex is a “traitor.” This seems to be particularly true for lesbian F to M transitionees, who seem to often experience rejection by their former lesbian sisters once they have started hormonal therapy.

A quite different area that I also found compelling was the concept that transgenderism is a normal human variant — like left-handedness. Alexis Lake mentioned that analogy, and told the story of an elementary school classmate of hers, who was left handed and who had his left arm taped to his side by his teacher to force him to learn to write with his right hand! In addition to the direct application of this story to TG folk — others try to force us into the traditional male/masculine/ or female/feminine “gender binary” mold, just as the little boy’s teacher tried to force him into the right-handedness mold — this got me to thinking that the “handedness” concept could be extended in an interesting way, if we included ambidextrousness. I think we can find a meaningful analogy if we view transgenderism as analogous to handedness, but include ambidextrousness in our conceptualization of handedness. Ambidextrousness is a normal human variation, and can be viewed as part of the spectrum between right-handedness and left-handedness, just as those of us who are transgendered or gender-fluid can describe ourselves as being at some point on the gender continuum between the “masculine” and “feminine” extremes. While the analogy of the child who knows he is left-handed being forced to behave as a right-handed person is clearly applicable to many of us, it seems to me that the further analogy of ambidextrousness might also be a useful one in explaining ourselves to the non-transgendered public. Just as some people are ambidextrous and are comfortable using either their left or their right hand at various times, some of us use both male and female behaviors and modalities at varying times in the way we present to the world. And just as ambidextrousness is a normal human variant, so are transgenderism and gender fluidity — and just as today the left-handedness of the little boy no longer is seen as a deviance that needs to be corrected, so perhaps, neither does transgenderism or gender fluidity need to be seen as something that needs to be changed, as opposed to something that is part of who that individual is and thus worthy of being accepted and nurtured.

The message I’m currently drawing from these lines of thought is that those of us who don’t “pass” in all social situations need to be aware that we are likely to create confusion in the non-gender-variant population that encounters us, and probably need to develop strategies to deal with that confusion. At least in situations where the confusion hasn’t led to open hostility on the part of the non-gender-variant person or persons, the handedness/ambidextrousness analogy might be useful in helping bring understanding and acceptance – that just as left handedness and ambidextrousness are parts of a spectrum of “handedness” and are normal human variations, so transgenderism and other gender fluidity are also normal human variabilities that fall somewhere on the spectrum of gender.

As I said, a Keystone V was a very thought-provoking 5 days! Many thanks to all who made it possible!

Reflections courtesy of Susannah Robinson.

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