Hello my dear readers. I hope the week has been treating you well and that you’ve all been transcending as well as breaking binary gender norms. I hope you are living lives you can say you are proud of, or at the very least, thinking about trying to do that more and more. I know how scary the world can seem when you are different from the majority. It’s easy to see the odds as insurmountable. Gender binary norms and unspoken rules are almost as pervasive as the air we breathe.
Like air, they can be so omnipresent in our daily lives that most people don’t even notice them, let alone question them. They can affect every single interaction we have with other humans, whether we are aware of them or not. When the world tries so hard to insist that this omnipresence of gender binary norms is the way things are “supposed to be” whether due to biology, psychology, nationality, or even God, it can feel like they are inescapable.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called “The Feminine Mystique” which I highly suggest to everyone who has the capacity to read it. True, the book deals almost exclusively inside the binary worldview, but I have found it to be rather enlightening when viewed with a social activist and/or queer-theory perspective. I’m only about ¼ of the way through the book but I’m truly hooked and it has gotten me thinking about a lot of things.
Although I cannot do the book justice with this description, I’m going to try to bring anyone who hasn’t read it in on my understanding of what the feminine mystique actually is. The feminine mystique was the overpowering, omnipresent, expert approved and religiously taught social phenomena of a difference between the sexes, more specifically the inferiority of the female sex and femininity to the male sex and masculinity. The feminine mystique was the idea that women were somehow less than human and therefore incapable of ever achieving or maintaining an identity of their own simply because they were women. Their only role was to be as a mother to their children and as a wife to their husbands. Outside of the domestic realm of the home, they had no authority, no right, no place, and no capacity to deal with the modern world or the changes happening to it. They were thought so inadequate in faculties that the common mantra of “a woman could never understand this because it doesn’t involve cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, or sewing” became a common prejudice among society. The feminine mystique was so pervasive in American culture during the 1950’s that it seemed insurmountable in its stratification. Every interaction that women in America had was affected by this, at the time, unnamed phenomena. It dictated to them, especially those girls who entered maturity during the height of its reign, exactly what their life had to look like.
The mystique policed, shamed, and ostracized any woman who didn’t adhere to it. The public was so bamboozled by the media outlets, religious teachers, doctors, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists insisting on this inferiority of femininity that they didn’t even question what they were being told. It was simply the way things were supposed to be.
You can probably imagine how this image of a pervasive social phenomena that insisted on sex differences as justification for the unequal distribution of power and resources was interesting to me. How like the feminine mystique today’s gender binary norms are. They are everywhere. They affect every interaction we have with other people. They police, shame, and ostracize those who do not adhere to them. They are so omnipresent in our lives, held up by media outlets, religious teachers, doctors, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists of every kind that they seem to just be the way things are supposed to be. They feel insurmountable in their rigid stratification in western culture.
Which brings me to the first part of the title of this post, the phenomena of having to be explained. Much like a career woman in the 1950’s who rejected the feminine mystique’s seemingly omnipotent influence over her life, I, a transgender individual am subject to the same kinds of prejudices and confusion that she was. I, like her, seemingly require explanation to others.
You might be wondering what I’m trying to get at, so let me give you a bit of background. This coming weekend a very dear and beloved friend of mine (who is also a coworker) is having a get together at her house. There is going to be a rather diverse group of people attending, including a handful of our coworkers, some of her friends that I do know, some that I don’t know, and some of her family members I haven’t met (mother/step-dad). Evidently this mother is aware of my “situation” and was feeling a bit anxious, perhaps, about how things were going to go with someone “different” attending the party of “normal” people. Of course, I’m adding my own dramatic emphasis so that I can adequately illustrate the usually invisible social phenomena present in this scenario. I doubt very much that this woman was even aware of these phenomena when she proceeded as follows (and for the record, I hold no animosity towards her for simply acting the way society programmed her to act). In this state of worry, she asked my friend what they needed to tell people about me either before the party or during the party. She wanted to know how to explain me to them. My friend, amazing person that she is, was kind of confused at the question and her initial response was, “Why would we have to explain anything?”
What transpired after that initial interaction is unclear, but sometime later this same friend approached me at work and told me about this interaction with her mother. As she related the story to me I could sense a bit of ambivalence in her about whether or not this was even something worth talking about (credit to her for the spot-on instincts), but obviously something her mother had said or inferred caused her to question her instincts. She asked me, rather reluctantly, if I wanted her to explain my “situation” (again, my word for illustrative purposes) to the other guests. I, of course, found this amusing and told her that there was no need to do that. if people had questions they were welcome to ask me directly. She seemed relieved that I agreed with her initial position and we moved on. She did further clarify that her step-dad might be likely to give me a ribbing and that I just had to be prepared for that because that’s the kind of person he is (more on this later).
We finished our interaction and went about our lives, but something about it stuck with me as I’ve progressed through this week. Reading the feminine mystique has really only served to further my curiosity about and examination of the interaction. I started to wonder, why would her mother feel the need to ask if my “situation” required explanation? What about me going to this event had created an uneasiness inside of her that bubbled to the surface and resulted in this line of questions? Clearly something larger than either her or I was at play here, but what was the social phenomena hiding in the offing? What programming was she coming up against inside of herself that made this “situation” seem possibly problematic?
Obviously I can only guess at her reasons because I have yet to meet this woman and know very little about her personality or life-history. I do know that she was likely born during the height of the feminine mystique’s regime (50’s/early 60’s) and that she lived a decent portion of her life in Alaska, which according to my beloved friend, has always lagged a bit behind popular culture (likely due to their distance from the rest of the country and their general isolation up in the arctic circle). I don’t know how accurate my hypothesis will be, but this is what I’ve come up with so far:
Gender binary norms, which as we’ve discussed are so pervasive as to practically resemble the air we breathe, dictate that there are “normal” and there are “different” gender identities. Anyone who is “normal” is either a penis-wielding male, or a vagina-containing female. These normal people adhere to standard definitions of masculinity in men and femininity in women. They are different from one another, and depending on how progressive or conservative you are, those differences can be minor biological differences, or fundamental nature differences. These normal people are living life as it is supposed to be lived, either because science, psychology, or God says so.
Anyone who does not conform to this binary system of penis + masculine = male and vagina + feminine = female formulae is immediately branded as “other” or “different” from those that are “normal”. A type of mystique about these “other” and “different” people begins to congeal around them and develops a certain notoriety about them (yes, I’m adopting the term mystique, as any modern social theorist does when they discover a previous framework that fits their needs and provides a solid foundation for the building of their own new framework). These people, in their “otherness” begin to take on attributes or intrinsic qualities because of their otherness. Their “otherness” rather than being defined by them and their individual qualities, desires, and beliefs about themselves, actually begins to do the opposite. The “otherness” begins to define them instead of them defining it. Their inherent humanity, individuality, and value within human society immediately begins to disappear or change, although the transference is almost always unseen, unquestioned, or just simply ignored.
New qualities, new attributes, and new assumptions then begin to surround them and solidify as their “otherness” becomes more apparent, until eventually, they are nothing more than their “otherness”. They are both defined and imprisoned by this newly founded mystique. The transgender mystique, as I will begin to refer to it until such time as I find a better term or my thesis outgrows the label, begins to dictate and limit the kind of experience those who are under its influence are permitted to have. There are many ways that this unfolds and many limitations on the trans* person, but for the sake of relevance I’m going to limit my discussion in this post to one aspect, the need to be explained.
The transgender mystique tells us that those who are subject to its power are aberrations in the “normal” social discourse of human gender identity. The degree of this unusualness depends greatly on the person assigning the value, but it can vary from being seen as unique (in a positive way) to being seen as a perversion or immoral. Because aberrations in the social discourse of gender identity have been so historically rare, a phenomena of explanation begins to grow. Those who are programmed by the binary to believe the world is separated into a nice, neat, one or the other paradigm, feel a sense of anxiety when they encounter one of these aberrations in the gender identity discourse (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance ).
The resulting anxiety or discomfort felt by the observer of the perceived abnormality drives them to one of a few different options. In a non-exhaustive list they may either:
- Ignore the new information and go about assuming the “one or the other” paradigm is undisturbed.
- Become hostile, seeing the perceived abnormality as a threat to their closely held belief and begin to villainize it.
- Decide that the perceived abnormality is not a threat but still try to ignore it
- Decide the perceived abnormality is not a threat but requires examination or explanation to themselves/others
- Embrace the variation as a good thing (which may still result in the need for explanation)
The situation I described earlier, I believe, falls into either category D or E of the above list of non-exhaustive potential reactions to being presented with a gender identity incongruent with base, binary assumptions. I believe my friend’s mother was presented with a situation she was unfamiliar with and one that contradicted many of the predispositions she had likely held undisturbed for most of her life. Because of the nature of this disturbance to a long held assumption about reality or a matrix of “normality” built by previous experiences, she experienced cognitive dissonance. How that cognitive dissonance played out, I can only guess at, but she likely felt some degree of anxiety, fear, or worry about how the future event might play out. Because she had no frame of reference for such a situation, she likely assumed that everyone else would experience the same or similar anxieties about encountering me that she did, which lent her to the somewhat logical conclusion that it might be best to head off the awkwardness before it began.
So much of human action is a result of (usually unidentified) defense mechanisms that serve to protect the individual from harm; whether that is physical harm or harm to the ego. Her desire to explain my “situation” as a result of an unobserved phenomena (the transgender mystique) was a defense mechanism that told her there might be danger ahead. True, my aberrant gender identity in her assumed discourse of human gender norms may not have been seen as a direct threat to her, but it was likely seen as a threat to the party she was going to attend. It’s “otherness” had the potentiality to upset the “normalcy” of such an event by creating confusion, anxiety, or even anger in others. The inherent qualities of a person such as myself, as defined by the transgender mystique, dictated that the natural flow of social power hierarchies (disparities, really) had been upset. In an effort to minimize these upsetting qualities (which were projections of her own reaction onto others) of my “otherness” she felt the need to ask her daughter how they were going to explain me to the other party guests.
She likely meant no harm. On the contrary she was likely trying to not only protect herself, her daughter, and the other party guests, but was even probably trying to protect me; and so we see another similarity to the feminine mystique. The transgender mystique, like the feminine mystique before it, says that transgender individuals (like women before) are in need of protection from the harsh realities of the world. By definition, we are unequipped to handle the various threats, anxieties, and stresses inherent in contradicting gender norms because our very acts of contradicting them shows a vulnerability. The mystique teaches us that we, as transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, are inherently vulnerable. It is part of the definition that we have been imprisoned by.
It was this imprisoning definition of vulnerability that immediately drove my own mother to fear for my safety should I go through with my transition. It’s the same imprisoning definition that likely drove my friend’s mother to try to protect me. It’s the same imprisoning assumption that also likely caused my friend to forewarn me that her step-dad may say something offensive to me.
It’s this imprisoning definition of vulnerability which paints the image that the transgender movement is not as strong as it could be, that we as a collective group of diverse individuals are not prepared for the harsh realities of achieving the equality and individuality that we deserve. The feminine mystique told women that they (and society) were not prepared for the trying task of allowing women to lead an individualistic existence apart from their children, husbands, or home. The transgender mystique tries to tell us that transgender individuals (and society) are not prepared for the trying task of allowing us to lead individualistic existences apart from the gender binary, classic gender roles, and morality on sexuality.
An open and opinionated transgender/gender non-conforming person (much like a career woman in the feminine mystique) is seen as a threat to themselves. I am a threat to myself because of the nature of my otherness and the inherent qualities that it imprisons me with. I am supposed to simply try my damndest to adhere to social conventions regarding “normal” discourses on gender identity because that is the way it is supposed to be. To question those social dynamics is inherently dangerous. To contradict such an omnipresent, oppressive, stratified, and mutually agreed upon assumption that so much of our society is built upon, suddenly begins to threaten the collapse of the entire society itself because it is deemed immoral or a perversion to question the binary. Women leading individualistic, mature, human lives had similar things said about them and their “man-eating” feminism. It was said that to allow these changes would have completely undermined the foundation of western civilization and thrown the entire system into an uncontrollable anarchy.
So, what is our recourse? What do we do when the transgender mystique is so powerful, so pervasive, so seemingly insurmountable? How do we overcome something that everyone has just assumed was the way things were supposed to be for so long? How do we change a society that’s built upon an assumption so prevalent, so authoritarian, so expertly upheld and approved, without bringing the entire society down?
Maybe upon finishing the Feminine Mystique my answer will change, and of course I’ll share that when and if it does, but for now I think the greatest course of action we who are transgender or gender non-conforming (and all the variations that those two labels can contain), must fight our way out of obscurity. We must stop living as aberrations. Anomalies are only anomalies as long as they are rare, as long as they are not common place and frequently observed. The more frequently the transgender mystique is contradicted and undermined, the greater the chance of overcoming it. We must stop allowing our abnormality and “otherness” to imprison us into a framework of vulnerability. We must stop allowing others to assume that we require explanation. We must impress upon them until our dying breath that it is not us, but their base assumptions about the nature of reality that requires explanation!
Why do they think we are the odd ones? Why does contradicting the gender binary mean we are different and therefore somehow less human? Why is my non-binary gender identity assumed to be a threat by so many to the very foundation of our society? Why have the experts told us that binary equals normal? Where did they learn that from? Where does their knowledge originate from, and should we really still be giving credit to it?
Why, if our experience is seen as aberrant and therefore less important, does it hold the key to individual freedom from oppression of socialized power disparities? Where is the danger in ultimate self-expression outside of the limitations of social convention when that self-expression does no harm to others? Why, when we live in a world built every second by new innovation in technology, must we rely upon antiquated beliefs about the nature of the human spirit? Why is the newest smartphone something to be celebrated and revered as the pinnacle of human innovation, but the newest ideas about individualistic expression outside of classic gender norms is seen as potentially disastrous, confusing, and/or immoral?
If we, as a social movement, are ever to gain the same freedom of expression that housewives in the 50’s eventually received after the second wave of feminism, then we must stand up to the seemingly insurmountable social pressures of the transgender mystique. We must reject the entire premise that it is built upon. We must reject the idea that it is us who require explanation. We must reject the idea that we are in need of protection because our contradiction of gender norms is a vulnerability. We must assert that our contradiction of gender norms is our strength! We must hold as self-evident the freedom of expression and joy our escape from the transgender mystique has and will provide us with! We must assert our validity and worthiness for treatment not as “others” or “lesser” but as humans, filled with the same limitless potential and maturity of spirit as anyone else, if not more. We must stand tall, proud, and open about who we are so that the mystique may be diffused and the bars of our defined prison may be cut down.
Thank you, my friend’s mom, for your concern, but no, I do not require explanation, nor do I require approval. I am free to be who I am, regardless of assumed social conventions because I have the same rights to free-will as any other human does and I CHOOSE to live open and unafraid of the harsh realities of the world. Let those who will be disturbed be disturbed. Let those who will judge, condemn, mock, ridicule, or misunderstand do as they feel they must, for their reaction is of their own making and my reaction to them is mine. I refuse to be imprisoned by the discomforts or assumptions of others. I am free, I am beautiful, and I am transgender. Approval, not required.