Nightcrawler: They say you can imitate anyone, even their voice.
Mystique: [as Nightcrawler] Even their voice.
Nightcrawler: Then why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else.
Mystique: Because we shouldn’t have to.
- X-Men 2
I recently discovered via Wikipedia that I’m a gender refusenik, or, even better, a gender otkaznik (Otkaznik (ru: “отказник”, from “отказ” (refusal, rejection)). Brilliant! Nothing like being told what you are by an encyclopedia. I imagine many gay, lesbian and transgendered people have had the experience sometime around their early teenage years, but I didn’t really expect it at my age. “Refusenik” has generally got two accepted uses:
1. Those denied permission to emigrate abroad, particularly Soviet Jews.
2. Those who refuse to serve in occupied territories, particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
So, two shades of meaning, one implying denial of certain freedoms by external circumstances, and the other a personal unwillingness to participate in something you don’t believe in. I’d like to think my otkaznikking is very much a case of the second definition; but there may be a bit of the first thrown in too. We’ll see.
Why a gender refusenik/otkaznik? Well, it’s very much a case of “I thought I was the only one”, but the quote from the film X-Men 2 at the top of this entry sums up my feelings on being a person who, on being born and surprisingly finding herself in the odd position of having a body that doesn’t match her insides, looks around, sees transgendered culture as popularly (self?-)identified on the web, and doesn’t much like it. I should add I didn’t like X-Men 2 much either, but the person I accompanied to see it in a rural Irish cinema was thrilled, so I was happy. Just as I was beginning to doze through the mutant/alien/special effects mush (sorry!), the quote above jumped out at in such a bizarre non-literary environment and brought tears to my ears because of the resonance with my own feelings. The context (for those like me who don’t really do scifi) is that a segment of the population grow up as mutants (but are misunderstood very nice people really), and can do standard stuff like freeze people by touching them, runnng through walls, and, oh I don’t know, turn enemies into hedgehogs or something, and these mutants are persecuted as a minority. Mystique above mainly runs around in a sprayed-on blue scaly body suit in the film, which is presumably as near to nudity as the film-makers dared go for the parents’ sake while keeping their options open for a children’s certificate. She can apparently turn into other shapes at will; the above dialogue explains the rest. Why doesn’t she just morph into looking like a non-mutant and stop being persecuted? Because she shouldn’t have to.
I may have lost most of my cisgendered (that’s you) readers already, and I can feel disapproving glances from transgendered readers. But I’m really uncomfortable about lots of aspects of transgendered culture, to the extent of not liking the trans* words at all (see my Naming II entry whenever I write it) and not even wanting to have used them in reference to myself to friends , but they seemed like a shorthand I felt I had to use at the time: with hindsight, I’m not sure I would use them again in such an email.
The basic fact of being born this way, is that your brain and therefore mind, personality, soul if you’re religious, identifies itself very early on as being of a different gender to your body. If there was a word for “girl-inside-boy-outside” (and I bet there is in Finnish, or Anglo-Saxon) then I’d use that. The prefix trans- raises lots of problems, discussed elsewhere, implies a transition from one place to another, and using a suffix referring to either gender or biological sex after it just confuses more. Frankly, I’d rather be called a g-i-b-o (but please, at least, let’s pronounce it “jeebo“).
So “girl-inside-boy-outside” (and vice versa for b-i-g-o’s: recent studies show there are just as many beejos as jeebos) is how we are born. And since sex reassignment surgery existed, it’s been seen as “the answer to the problem” within western society – the goal being to change your external appearance sufficiently that you become invisible as such a person, and disappear into the mass of people with the same internal gender as you had all along anyway – in my case, a woman. Those who can’t or choose not to do so are told they in an incredibly high suicide category, they’ll never be happy, etc.
And yet, in lots of other societies, this just wasn’t and isn’t the case. No room for details here and cultural interpretations vary: but most Native American tribes recognise two-spirit/Berdache or Winkte people, Tongans Fakaleiti, Indian culture Hijra, part of the Arabic work Xanith, Maori culture takatäpui täne ki wahine. Modern western culture lost this idea somewhere along the line.
Being of one gender in your brain while another physical sex in your body is about as difficult a concept as understanding that some cars come left-hand drive and some right-hand drive, regardless of whether they’re made in the UK or France. Sure we’re made for a minority market, but we’re not badly manufactured: just specially made. The few children I’ve explained the jeebo thing to have casually shrugged, asked a few impertinent questions (brilliant!) and carried on quite happily. I’ll never forgot one response when I told a small gorgeous wide-eyed child I was a girl on the inside and a boy on the outside; an hour later when we were walking along a quay, he said “we’re outside, does that mean you’re a boy now?”. He looked a bit glum when we all giggled; I had to rephrase it and he was happy.
As we get older, we seem to get a big block on this. If someone looks like a girl, they’ll feel like one inside, right? I’m not referring to gender role here, but identity: who she feels she is. If she thinks (and has always thought) she’s a he, then for some reason, this can’t be so. She must be mistaken, have suffered some childhood upset, be unhappy about her gender role, or just be mistaking being a tomboy for having a central male gender identity. But it’s such an easy concept to understand: body doesn’t always match brain. How did we get such a blind-spot that such a thing might happen, when most other societies saw it plain as day? Imagine biting into an apple pie and finding out it’s cherry: “Oh! I didn’t realise! How nice!” would probably be a more sensible response than telling the cherries they’re really traumatised apples.
It could be that I’m a bit transphobic, just as many gay people were homophobic a few decades ago. I’m certainly not very self-liking just now. But I just feel very uncomfortable about the reams of websites by transgendered people, particularly transwomen, that endlessly display photos of themselves made up for the studio, discuss hair removal techniques, vocal training techniques, and show what to me looks like a ghetto. I’ll repeat myself frequently on this weblog, but for me it’s always been more about hearts than handbags: there’s nothing wrong with any of the above but I just sense a deep lack of balance about where the heart (identity!) is in all this. All the above methods are ways in which transwomen can appear to have always had the body considered as more congruent with their internal gender. It’s (some would say necessary) subterfuge – the ultimate goal being to “pass”, dread word, i.e. not be spotted as a transgendered person, and then in many cases to slip out of the transgendered community into “normal” society, bolstering up the view that such mixes of brain and body don’t occur in nature.
Obviously this just encourages the self-perpetuating view that being transgendered is, well, odd, rather than just unusual. The current way the state deals with people who seek reassignment surgery is to make “patients” prove their intentions, by conforming to some idealised (almost 1950s) view of their internal gender identity: “living as a woman” for a specific period of time. Lipstick, nail varnish and heels get you a huge tick on the road to surgery. Why is this necessary? Isn’t it a confusion of gender role with identity? In what sense am I not generally living as a woman now? The name almost everyone calls me by is generally recognised as being more feminine than masculine; I wear “girls’ clothes” (jeans and tops, some jewellery, like my other girl friends); my partner has seen me for years as a girlfriend. Equally insane to the idea that a transman (beejo!) should be out chopping wood and fighting bears every day.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reassignment surgery! If it makes someone feel good, that’s good, just like if you don’t appreciate the shape of your nose, getting it bashed with a hammer might help how you feel about yourself (or might not). For me it would be very convenient to step inside a little booth and come out looking as if I was born as a genetic sexual female as well as a woman inside. I’d probably be blissfully happy for a month, because the upset of being addressed as male (which really does sting) would just disappear. But this isn’t going to happen. It would be misleading of me to imply that my refusenik status is all to do with the proud non-combatant second definition above: my body’s quite ill and probably wouldn’t take the strain, and my judgement is too that the process wouldn’t achieve the ultimate aim, which is I maintain a form of camouflage: to appear to have always had a physical sex that society reckons as congruent with your internal gender. So if I’m truthful, I’m also probably a category one refusenik – no visa to travel. Sure, it would make things easier if I could, but couldn’t there at least a bit of the world have a stab at seeing me female inside without having to jump pre-feminist hoops? This of course requires you, dear reader, to make the little leap of imagination a few year ahead of when your culture does the same.
Yet a little category two refusenik voice inside me keeps asking: would it be truthful in some sense for me to alter my appearance so dramatically? I’m a girl-inside-boy-outside – a jeebo – and at the moment a gender otkaznik. So do I have to feel my whole life that I’m not going to be happy if I don’t alter how I look? “You know, look like everyone else.” A very large bit of me does think, like Mystique that I shouldn’t have to.