The Pressure to Be He or She
"Are you a boy or are you a girl? It takes all kinds to make the world go round." —from "Rules and Regulations" by Donovan
There was a large, oval braided rug that occupied most of the floor in my grandmother's living room. The muted browns and blues of the strips of cloth, faded from years of wear, twisted in and out of the weave, crisscrossing each other like ribbons of highway, always leading back to where they started from. (I know because I passed many childhood hours tracing those threads round and round, in and out, back to their source.) It was made, she said, in the old country.
"Germany!" I said confidently when she told me that. "We're German!"
She shook her head. "We are just like the rug," she explained. "Your great grandfather lived in Alsace Lorraine and spoke French. And his mother was Dutch. Our heritage is interwoven, just like the rug." She gestured, waving her hands around one another.
I didn't really understand her, though. And since my mother had told me we were German, I thought my grandmother was contradicting her. Someone must be lying, I thought. When I asked for more explanation, she simply smiled and told me I was a ‘Mongrel.'
I thought of that rug again, recently, while attending a meeting of a large group of people, most of whom identified as transgendered. I looked around the room and thought to myself: ‘we're mongrels.' Not male or female, really. But each of us, to varying degrees, is a mixture of the two. And when I stop to look around, I see that this is how it also is in the world at large.
The Pressure to Choose
A while back, one of the members of our transgender group announced that her surgery date had been scheduled. We all applauded and wished her well, and as we did, one of the other members, a post-op TS leaned over and said to me: "You're next."
Even within our own, there is pressure to choose, to be one or the other. Cross-dressers are regarded as lesser members because we're seen as afraid or unwilling to make the leap, to cross over. You really want to be the ‘other', I've been told, you just don't have the courage to own up to it.
We talk about gender as if it's absolute. If you have a penis, you're a male; if you have a vagina, you're a female. Can it be that simple? The set of characteristics that make a so-called male or female are many and I have yet to meet anyone who is exclusively in possession of one set. Even the most macho man will have some characteristics usually associated with femininity, just as the most feminine woman will have some characteristics associated with being male.
Furthermore, it is really those characteristics that we use to identify someone as masculine or feminine, not their genitalia. We don't see that. What we see are things like a beard, broad shoulders, a high forehead and large hands, and we hear a deep voice and conclude the person is a man. Or we see a smooth face, sloped shoulders, arched eyebrows, and thin hands, and we hear a melodious voice and conclude the person is a woman. Subconsciously, we sort through the elements we've learned to associate with one or the other gender and draw our conclusions.
This necessity to classify gender is a practice learned from day one; it's viewed as elemental, a survival need. We buy into it early, even those of us who know, sub-consciously, that it's not valid. The reality is that we are, all of us, gender mongrels. But as we grow up, the pressure to maintain the binary gender identity system forces us to shut down the characteristics of the gender not associated with the one declared for us at birth. And we all know what this does to those of us with an unacceptable proportion of the ‘other.'
For many of us, the conflict is exacerbated by the fact that we feel we must choose, that we must be one or the other. For to live anywhere in the middle ground is to choose a more complicated life. So much of the world is based on the binary gender system, that an awkward, if not difficult, situation exists for those of us in the transgender community who don't completely identify as ‘the one' or ‘the other.'
The New Transsexual Hero/ine
I work for a Fortune 100 global corporation where another of our club members also works. When she decided to make ‘the transition' she contacted Human Resources and they were extremely cooperative. At the designated time, they called a meeting of her co-workers, announced her intention, and explained to them that beginning on June first, he would be she. The transition went smoothly and just a few months ago she had her surgery. She's now regarded as a female member of the staff.
But what happens if I go to HR and tell them I'm clearly neither, that some days I'm George and some days I'm Bobbi, and most days I'm a bit of each. Can I wear a dress to work tomorrow and a tie and jacket the day after that? Can I go home at lunch and ditch the pantyhose and heels for a pair of Levi's and hiking boots? No way. Corporate America has budged only slightly. They still subscribe to the male/female binary system. You must be one or the other; you can change from one to the other, but the dual classification system remains intact.
What concerns me is that some of them may feel they had to choose. Many regard the crossdresser as really transsexual, but not ‘there' yet. The transsexual, on the other hand, has become the hero (heroine?) of the transgender movement. To declare oneself TS is the acceptable thing to do. As I heard someone say, nodding toward one of the girls, "Oh, her? She's just a crossdresser."
Don't get me wrong. I have no quarrel with my transsexual brothers and sisters who feel they must align their physicality with their psychology. And I support and encourage the changes necessary to make that transition easier. But there is an undercurrent. For those who have made the transition, another person making that choice adds greater validity to their own decision. It confirms the binary system. And it confirms the correctness of their choice.
Plenty of Questions; Very Few Answers
Unfortunately, there isn't a way to determine the extent to which post-op TS's are dissatisfied. Thousands have made the transition, but we have no follow-up studies assessing the extent to which they are or are not happy with their decision. The names and accompanying data are there, at the clinics and hospitals where the surgery was done, but the medical profession is not about to support follow-up studies of the post-op TS. What if a significant number believe they made the wrong decision? What if they are unhappy, dissatisfied, or discontented with their new lives? That would mean that the medical profession made a tragic mistake.
And perhaps even more discouraging is that there's no source of data for the crossdressing population. We don't even know the numbers. (the estimates range from 1% to 40% of the male population.) The only source we have is from the psychological/psychiatric community and even then it's a skewed data set, consisting of only the ‘reported' cases. (My own suspicion is that there are far more crossdressers in the closet who never seek psychological help.)
So what we're left with is the traditional binary system that represses variance in gender expression and forces the majority of the TG population into the classic either/or conflict. Which will it be— the lady or the tiger?