Today I started trying to write an introduction to this website, who I am and so on, and stumbled on the first sentence:
“The author of this website is a 30-something* person….”
* this statement released under the Artistic Licence
I didn’t want to use the word “transgendered” in the first sentence – it’s not like that’s all I am. Nor is my whole identity “ill”, or “partially deaf” or “anxiety-disordered” – I have anxiety disorder, it isn’t me. I chewed my lip and cut and pasted a few times, and it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t construct a sentence which didn’t refer to my gender in the first phrase, without it sounding unnaturally like I was spinning it out.
I’d wager that even those who profess to treat members of either gender more or less the same still tend to feel uncomfortable with “person”, expecting to see “woman”, “man” or similar very early in such an introduction, as if gender bores so deeply into us that we need to know it before we can even start to talk. We don’t require the same kind of read-out with regard to ethnicity, religion, and so on: you could happily get to know someone for years before realising their parents were Polish, for instance, and it wouldn’t (I don’t think) change your perception of them. Sexuality comes a little closer – you’d maybe expect to find out someone’s orientation within a month or two of knowing them, and in many cases in the first few seconds. Gender seems to be in some sense absolutely primary.
I’ve experienced this on IRC, by saying in previously unvisited channels (chatrooms) that I’d like to remain gender-neutral if that’s ok, partly to see what would happen and partly because I just wanted some rest from my internal gender wars. Excluding the “asl???” under-culture, even seemingly intelligent people seem to get at first amused, then faintly irritated, and in the finally stages (after say an hour or so, or two visits) either rude, as if you’re “fooling” them somehow (although they aren’t sure in which direction you’re fooling them or get fuzzy over in which way it’s dishonest to not declare your gender), or completely blank you (and make sure they tell you it’s because of your “game-playing” with gender before they do). I just can’t imagine the same reaction if, say, I declined to say if I was Caucasian, Afro-Caribbean or whatnot. The most well-natured tend to spend their time “guessing” at your gender, almost in what seems to be something like a flirtation to them, repeatedly and often in private, to the exclusion of all other types of interaction. They just can’t let go. They often assume you’re female, tell you you are(!) and that it’s ok, they will look after you if you feel intimidated or had a bad experience on IRC before. Gallant knights!
Although (ok), I was irritated as heck at the time by effectively being excluded from normal existence and becoming a cross between sideshow attraction and social leper, this isn’t really a criticism of their behaviour – well, apart from the patronising ones. I seem to naturally want to know others’ genders in the same way. On reflection it always seemed to me that these incidents just demonstrated something about the map of the human heart, how close to the centre-point each bit of our identity lies, and, probably in proportion, how much the hurt is if you’re misplaced, purposefully or through your own fear of identification (in my case) with something you think is shaming. The volume of pain due to the mismatch is of course dependent on circumstances too: ethnicity matters a lot to people where atrocity, race-hate or war have been involved; but it’s hard to imagine someone being (truly) emotionally hurt in more settled societies by their being assumed to be from a neighbouring city.
Moving closer to the centre of this identity map inside a human heart, being gay and not telling is a cause of great anguish to some, and immense relief once it’s just said and done; for others it’s of little consequence (I’m bi, but I often have to check myself before saying it without a preamble to some, because it seems so unremarkable to me now).
But right near the bull’s eye, gender seems to lie. Attempted suicide rates for transsexuals are placed somewhere between 20% (Psychosocial characteristics of applicants evaluated for surgical gender reassignment. Arch Sex Behav 13: 269-276) and 80% (UK Parliament submission to the Joint Committee On Human Rights. Let’s ignore (can we?) those few left hobbling who would claim this is a tell-tale sign of mental disease, because they’re the same ones who talked about the mental disease “homosexuality” a few decades ago and proposed treatment, who say that Gulf War Victims are under some mass collective hypnosis of fictional illness, and who treated MS as a psychological problem between the wars. Being transgendered very often really hurts, unless you’re one of the lucky, brave ones who just say it out loud when you’re seven, like Ludovic in Ma Vie En Rose, who I guess stand a better chance. I can’t really explain to those who live permeated in the ether of a world naturally reacting in the correct way to their internal identity, just how many little hurts, hits and unintentional knocks a transgendered person has to smile through ever hour (knocks that aren’t really anyone’s fault) – well, not at least in this entry. Unlike Ludovic I didn’t tell anyone for decades, and there are still some that I’m only telling now with this weblog: all this for fear of what everyone would think of me. I’m still afraid of that, but I need to be one of the surviving ones (thus, this), particularly as I stand little chance of doing much about it because I’m ill, and not 18. But I suspect when the angels stand around in heaven flossing their teeth with their harp strings and puzzling over maps of the human heart, there’s a big big “G” at the centre: something the angels don’t understand, and might envy if they did.