A reflection by Lindsey
Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a sobering day for me. I have experienced increased hostility in various (thankfully, former) workplaces after people started suspecting that I’m somewhere on the LGBT spectrum due to my self-expression. I’ve witnessed friends being harassed for their gender identities and expressions. I’ve listened to a significant number of them tell stories of being harassed, and I’ve watched more than one video documenting physical violence of transgender people. Transgender Day of Remembrance reminds me that many transgender people have not lived to tell the tale.
I chose to write a reflection for the Transgender Day of Remembrance because I wanted to reflect more deeply on issues of gender expression and gender identity. One way I’ve found helpful to think about gender identity is that it’s a profoundly mysterious part of a person that bubbles to the surface in forms of gender expression. From my experience, we as a society have different conventions for how we collapse various forms of gender expression into two binary options of male and female. Gender is treated as a basic part of polite discourse. I’ve been thinking a lot about how transgender and genderqueer people often face violence unless they clearly fit into either male or female categories, or pass. In LGBTQ circles, passing frequently refers to one’s ability to be perceived as a gender-normative straight person. Passing concerns how other people perceive you. One’s ability to pass can be critically important if one longs for strangers to use the proper personal gender pronoun immediately. For many transgender people, being able to pass acceptably in the vast majority of social situations can be seen as essential to survival.
In a reflection I wrote several months ago on affirming kids in a gendered world, I claimed:
Kids have natural ways of expressing themselves. Freedom to explore different hobbies and personal sense of style can go a long way in helping kids become comfortable in their own skin. Will the world come screeching to a halt if a 4-year-old wants a buzz cut, a 10-year-old wants to learn how to solder electronics, a 7-year-old wants long flowing locks, a 6-year-old wears a suit and tie, a 3-year-old brings a doll everywhere, a 12-year-old begs to take babysitting classes, or an 8-year-old wears a dress?
However, even as I wrote this reflection, I was painfully aware that society has ways of disciplining kids who push the envelope of gender too far through nothing more than their existence. I can’t think of any usual social situations where a 4-year-old girl with a buzz cut would be accepted as a “real” girl or an 8-year-old boy wearing a fabulous floral dress would be accepted as a “real” boy. I’ve seen far too many parents bitterly embarrassed by, for example, their little girl’s appearance after the child had “discovered” scissors or her older brother had put a big wad of gum in her hair. I’ve also seen far too many examples of young boys’ being shamed and ostracized because they were seen in dresses. To be sure, some children might have parents willing to model bold resiliency skills; however this kind of parent is incredibly rare. Many parents would rather their gender-variant child learn to “fit in.”
With that pressure to fit in, transgender and genderqueer children can face some awful trade-offs between simply being themselves and avoiding undue negative attention. Some transgender and genderqueer children learn to pass even though a small part of them dies a little bit when they make an active choice to turn away from the gender expression that comes to them naturally and turn towards more socially acceptable gender scripts. Concerns about being accepted socially can lead some people to feel like they have no other option but to edit, and perhaps to try and censor, how their gender identity bubbles to the surface. When some transgender and genderqueer children think about how they would like to share themselves with the world, the ever-important social need to pass can cause them to reject their first, second, third, and perhaps even tenth most natural forms of self-expression.
I think we all have an inherent sense of what works for us on an individual level when it comes to self-expression. If I say, “Button-down shirt and khakis” many people experience a reaction of things like: “That’s definitely me.” or “That’s the antithesis of who I am.” or “I really can’t be bothered to have an opinion.” That sense of me or not me matters. But when it comes to various gender scripts in society, that sense of me or not me gets amplified one thousand fold. When society consistently genders a person wrongly, that person can feel completely invisible and insignificant.
Consider a person who tells a male cheerleader that “he’s picked a great way to meet a lot of, *wink* ladies.” What is the cheerleader to do when presented with such an obviously gendered script? Does the cheerleader chuckle nervously and awkwardly while ignoring the comment? Does this person look the questioner in the eye in order to give a knowing nod and a smirk? Or perhaps redirect the conversation towards developing broad skills of athleticism and teamwork? Does the cheerleader strongly defend his participation on the squad because four of his female friends begged him to join the team in order to qualify for co-ed competitions? Or open up and share about a passion for encouraging others to be enthusiastic supports of a team even when that team performs poorly? Likely, the original comment has nothing to do with the cheerleader’s motivation for joining the squad and has much more to do with asking a male cheerleader to assert his masculinity.
Asking a male-appearing person to assert his masculinity relies on various social scripts to determine whether one is safely the “right” gender. These tests have a range of socially acceptable answers. Being able to pass these tests successfully requires matching the message from one’s physical body to the words that come from one’s mouth with a socially acceptable answer. For transgender and genderqueer individuals, trying to fit into acceptable social scripts can lead to deep dissonance. Every test opens up a chasm between the answers they would love to be able to give and the answer that they feel compelled to give in order to fit in with social expectations. It can feel impossible to give any answer with any degree of integrity.
On each Transgender Day of Remembrance, I can’t help but remember those who fell into the chasm. Many tests of a man’s masculinity or a woman’s femininity pull upon a vast collection of gender stereotypes. It’s all too common for interrogators to rely on sexism and misogyny, asking questions with distinct tones and postures to pressure a person into answering rightly… or else. Transgender Day of Remembrance is an attempt to highlight how demanding another person assert his or her gender clearly and properly can quickly escalate to violence. What is more, fear of transphobic violence often compels the urgency with which some transgender and genderqueer people seek ways to pass. Some people may even be crushed spiritually by trying to pass. Constantly conforming to other people’s gendered expectations can leave transgender and genderqueer people feeling adrift and out of touch with themselves. It’s far too easy to fall into despair if one feels like one has betrayed oneself.
And so, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I remember that we still have a long way to go if we want to create spaces for kids to be themselves in an incredibly gendered world.
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