Last week, J. Sumerau discussed the development and ongoing recruitment for the Transgender Religion Survey. In this post, J. discusses zir own gender experience, and the importance of amplifying the voices and experiences of gender variant people.
It has been over two decades since I first heard the terms crossdresser and transsexual. I still feel a smile creep across my face anytime I hear or see these words today even though I rarely use them anymore because once upon a time they gave voice to something I did not yet know how to talk about or make sense of about myself.
As part of an ongoing effort to amplify and document gender variant experiences and voices in scholarly and public discourse, I will use this post to briefly discuss some ways I experience my own gender variation. In so doing, however, it is important to note that my experience is only one of a vast multitude of diverse ways gender variant people experience themselves, sex, gender, and other aspects of this world (for more examples readers may want to start by checking out a new book called Trans/Portraits or other posts wherein people discuss gender variant experiences and options online). In other words, the voices and experiences of gender variant people are as broad and diverse as any other broadly labeled population I have come across to date, and my own experience is only one possibility within this much broader population. I thus offer my own experience as a compliment to ongoing efforts to more broadly disseminate the variety of gender experience throughout our contemporary social world.
Recognizing the diversity and variation within and between gender variant populations is especially important in my case because my own experience fluctuates regularly between various ways people experience gender. For example, there are people who experience more permanent forms of biological and / or social transition as imperative, necessary, and essential to their health, happiness, and well being. As medical research continues to demonstrate, these people need and deserve access, support, and resources for transition, and should be encouraged and affirmed in their transition endeavors at all levels of society. Across the spectrum of gender possibilities, there are people who experience more permanent forms of biological and / or social transition as unnecessary or optional for their health, happiness, and well being in this world. In such cases, the ability to safely transform their appearance, demeanor, or other facets from day to day or within any other time frame, in given circumstances, or in varied ways across the life course represents the gender experience in need of encouragement and affirmation. There are also many variations and nuances people experience between and beyond these two options. Whether one exists on either end of the spectrum I utilize above or somewhere in between or beyond this spectrum in terms of gender, (to me) the core of these experiences lies in the pursuit of autonomy for all people regardless of how they identify with, experience, and make sense of sex and gender in their own lives.
This vast spectrum of gender possibilities is something I confront every day because I tend to fluctuate back and forth between the two options I elaborated above. On some days, I am certain that I will fully transition biologically and socially at some point, and I will spend time looking over the options, researching doctors and procedures, and drawing inspiration from emerging narratives shared by people who transitioned at various points of the life course. At such times, I am certain that I need to transition to be fully satisfied in myself and my life, and I am incredibly grateful that I am lucky enough to have a life partner and close friends I can talk to about how I am feeling, transition plans, and how we will collectively navigate transition processes. On other days, however, I am equally certain that I will never fully transition biologically or socially, and I feel very happy about my ongoing back and forth between masculine and feminine appearances, dressing or otherwise appearing as various gender when I go out at varied times, and my efforts to blend varied elements of myself on any given day. At such times, I am certain that I should not biologically or socially transition in full because fluidity is the road to my own satisfaction, and I am equally grateful that I am lucky enough to have a life partner and close friends I can talk to about and show my fluidity without any pressure to “be only one thing” at any given time.
While the two aforementioned types of days allow me to recognize and appreciate the experiences of people who experience gender in each of these ways, there is unfortunately a third type of day. On this third type of day, I feel torn apart and lost within competing desires to be fluid and to fully transition at the same time. On such days, someone will call me mam or sir depending on my appearance and how they interpret that appearance, and I will want to scream, cry, or disappear because such moments remind me that I do not exist for many people in our world at present. On most such days, I hide in my home to the extent that I can or only go out at night when there are less people around to misgender and / or cisgender me by trying to fit me into their own assumptions and expectations. When I have to go out on such days, I find myself shaking inside and frightened every moment I encounter another person. At such times, I am certain that I need to transition and I am certain that I should not transition at the same time, and I realize all too clearly that I am only free and safe when I am alone or with my life partner and close friends who do not expect me to be a certain type of thing all the time or at any time, but rather help me to manage this type of day anyway they can.
These three types of days repeat throughout my life, and have for a long time now. In the midst of the first type, I see myself in others who seek to and / or accomplish transition in a world that has set numerous unnecessary barriers in their path, and attempts to erase, negatively mark or define, and punish our existence in this world. In the midst of the second type, I see myself in others in search of the freedom and safety to vary who they are in a world that seeks to box everyone into one static option, and often only offers fear, shame, and other forms of punishment for those who refuse to conform. In the midst of the third type, I just try to remember the few experiences I have had in explicitly gender neutral spaces where static, fluid and everywhere in between are welcomed and affirmed, and imagine what our world might be like if such spaces were much more common while I try to feel better about the ongoing battle inside me. In all such cases, however, I am confronted by just how much gender matters to one’s experiences in every facet of our current social world.
This observation especially hits home every time I notice just how differently I am treated when I appear feminine to someone and / or appear to not quite fit “feminine or masculine only” to someone else. In my case, the latter is a much more common experience whereas the former typically happens in darker environments and / or when people approach me from behind while interpreting my long hair, clothing, and / or body language as indicative of a feminine self. The difference in treatment when one is interpreted as masculine and when one is interpreted as feminine is dramatic and obvious. Further, the ways one is treated when they are identified as “possibly assigned male” while wearing or acting in a fashion typically assigned feminine are often terrifying and dangerous. Especially as someone who often can be interpreted as assigned male (intentionally or not), I see the disparities long outlined and opposed by gender scholars and activists everywhere I go because I regularly experience privilege and marginalization in varied aspects of my interactions with others depending upon the ways others interpret and assign meaning to my body, my appearance, and my selfhood.
In fact, how I decide to dress or walk or talk on a given day, how people interpret these endeavors, and what type of day from those listed above I am having in a given moment all collectively shape what the world looks like to me from day to day, situation to situation, and person to person. As I noted above, I am actually quite lucky in that I have a supportive network of people who embrace and affirm me in the midst of any of these experiences, and I further have symbolic and instrumental resources due to other aspects of my appearance and current circumstances that also provide strategies for mitigating such experiences. For me, a large part of the push to amplify the voices of gender variant people (as well as people in other marginalized social positions whether they are also gender variant or not) lies in doing what small part I can in the ongoing pursuit of such support and affirmation for the many people who do not have access to such networks or other important resources at present. As we have learned in relation to many marginalized communities over time, broader recognition of the existence and experiences of diverse groups often helps facilitate better understanding and acceptance of such populations over time. As someone who remembers learning that neither sciences nor religions appeared to either know I existed or have anything positive to say about my existence not so long ago, I think an important step in moving forward involves documenting and amplifying gender variant existence, and the multitude of ways people identify with, experience, and make sense of sex and gender throughout our world.
In my own case, the above offers a snapshot of my experience. I typically identify as a transgender and / or non-binary genderqueer depending on what type of day I am having at the time. In some ways, the use of both terms to capture the variation in my experience is comforting to me. In fact, I adopt a similar strategy when seeking to explain to others my sexuality (i.e., bisexual and pansexual Queer as a recognition of being on the bi spectrum in ways commonly described as pansexual and Queer) and my religion / spirituality (i.e., agnostic and / or skeptical non-believer as a recognition of my acknowledgement that I don’t know or care if there is a higher power or not in ways commonly described as being skeptical of unverified secular and religious claims). In the same way I exist and experience the world between common assumptions about gay/lesbian and hetero/straight sexualities and between common assumptions about religion and nonreligion, my existence and experience of gender lies somewhere between trans and cis gender with an appreciation for and recognition of people who exist and experience this world in relation to other locations within the broad spectrum of gender possibilities.
As a result, I want to close this post with two invitations for other gender variant people regardless of their sex, sexual, religious, or other social locations. First, as an editor of this blog and on behalf of my co-editors, I want to invite any gender variant person in search of an outlet for sharing their voice and experience to submit – anonymously or named – their stories to Write Where It Hurts. We welcome your experiences and perspectives, and will be happy to provide a space for sharing them for those who wish to do so. Second, as noted in last week’s post, I want to invite any gender variant person who is interested to participate in the Transgender Religion Survey. Recruitment continues on the survey itself, and we welcome your voices and experiences with and / or about religion and nonreligion.
For questions or to submit a post to Write Where It Hurts, readers may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, official survey documentation, and / or to participate in the Transgender Religion Survey, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=enby