Trans/Genderqueer Theory by Aaron Kimberly

Before I ever heard the words “gender” and “queer” put together as a single word I remember gender politics going something like this...

Aaron Kimberly

Before I ever heard the words “gender” and “queer” put together as a single word I remember gender politics going something like this:

We wrongly take all of the adjectives, divide them up and assign one set to men and the other to women. “All women are nurturing, but men can’t be.” “All men should be bold and confident, but women shouldn’t be”. Feminism, at that time, was asking that we take the burden off of trying to so rigidly define what is masculine for men and feminine for women and make room for differences in temperament. It encouraged us to be more authentic and fully human. It didn’t mean that a man who is naturally bold shouldn’t be. It just means that a man who’s naturally not bold, doesn’t have to be. And if he’s more on the softer side, he gets to be. At that time, we weren’t yet questioning whether man and woman exist – just how those things can be expressed.

As a person who transitioned from female to male – who was born with some male anatomy and some female anatomy – I get that not all people fit in perfect boxes but, unlike some other organisms, humans aren’t commonly intersex nor have the ability to spontaneously change sex. Humans, for the most part, are male or female. From an organism perspective, the only real purpose for biological sex at all is so that our species can reproduce. Among all living things, male/female reproduction is only one of many ways various organisms replicate themselves. We don’t bud, fragment or produce spores.

Since we are (sometimes) more sophisticated than say, an amoeba, we made sex (the activity) become a host of other things: recreation, identity, a commodity, power, a way of bonding, a way to cope with hard feelings, or at worst, even a weapon.  I wonder, are we still assigning way too much baggage to what sex is? I’m not saying that we should only have sex if we’re trying to make babies. I am dissecting the logic of our current queer paradigm and assessing its longevity and helpfulness.

People do feel gender. I wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had I not felt male. And while I don’t personally feel both male and female, I can imagine that experience, given how aware I am that our felt gender is separate from physical gender, which we can’t know unless they don’t match. I’m empathetic for those who do feel like both, or neither, and don’t in any way want to invalidate their experience. I’m not calling into question whether or not those experiences are real. If someone feels it, then it’s real for them. I do though have concerns with some of the ways we as a community and culture are currently conceptualizing and packaging our experiences, as ideology and political stance, in particular, our narrow focus on what we now call the “binary” as something wrong and threatening.

Queer theory, related to but distinct from lived experience, is thought about, strategized and largely academic. People are paid to think and I’m glad they are. Those people thought about the theories which came before and turned it into our current queer politics. It will change again as we think it through some more. A lasting paradigm – “Truth” if you will – represents and serves all people well. The old feminist idea, for example, had the potential to free all people from tight boxes and made room to express our innate personalities. I think it helped us as a society. Complex and well articulated ideas from the think tanks trickle into our culture, shape how we see our realities and then feed back into the think tank. In that process, ideas feed back into themselves and create distortions as well as accurate descriptions of lived experience. I shape culture and then, because I see my ideas in my culture, I validate myself for having identified something true. Chicken and an egg. We all get it a bit wrong, so we keep at it, hopefully slowly improving our world.

The current politics of gender-fluidity spun off of feminist theory.  We’ve now turned our attention to, not the just the gendered adjectives, roles and personality traits, but to gender itself. That, if there is no innate “masculine” to be attached to maleness, or “femininity” to femaleness, then maybe male and female don’t exist as real things either, because I can experience a whole range of masculine and feminine things. An interesting idea but doesn’t it also buy into the very logic that the feminist theories tried to break down? Believing that “there’s no female because there is no innate feminine” still assumes that femaleness and feminine are inherently attached. The baby goes out with the bath water.

Why is it that one trans person/genderqueer person can talk about that experience as truly as they can and another trans person is exasperated by how badly that describes their own experience? Maybe there are very different things going on but we’re calling them the same thing and that causes a lot of conflict for us.  Maybe that isn’t just a difference in ideology and description but an actually different thing entirely and we’re arguing needlessly.

One experience (Let’s call this one the Intersex/Transexual Scenario) might be something like this: that there is a wired in biological brain of male or female that has an awareness of itself and that may or may not match the body. In that sense, transexualism may be a form of intersexuality in that some physical parts of the body are male and others female. The brain is a sex organ. Since the brain is harder to change than the rest of the body, hormonal and/or surgical treatment to correct this “birth defect” is a logical solution. In this case (which best describes my own experience) the anxiety felt is in that tension between male and female precisely because male and female is a binary. There’d be no cognitive dissonance if that wasn’t the case.  We now have pretty clear science that this is a real thing. It unfortunately took botched intersex surgeries and ruined lives to prove the brain sex theory.

Another experience (Let’s call this one the Genderqueer/Transgender Scenario) might look something more like this:  we have certain feelings of masculinity or femininity, and maybe we aren’t sure how to differentiate “I feel male” from “I feel masculine” or “I reject what I’ve been taught are the roles and characteristics of my gender.” How much of that experience is social versus biological? Those things are all so intertwined that it would be foolish to think that we can very quickly and with total certainty know where the line is between those things. Our emerging awareness of the tangling of those things, may be, what we now call “genderqueer”, which could be a transitional state. I don’t mean a transitional state for the individual, though that could also be true. I mean a transition from the first telling of the feminist idea of dividing temperaments from sex, to the actual, total realization of it.   We may be the first generation of people who started to really live some of the fruits of the feminist labour, allowing ourselves to live into a broader range of characteristics and roles but haven’t entirely detached the gendering of those characteristics yet. We’re in the midst.  That would be a kind of social phenomenon that’s creating a great deal of cognitive anxiety for people today. It’s very real, but a different kind of real than the other experience. But again, that tension is because male/female are factual physical states, but we’re attaching things to those states which aren’t factual. In this case, saying that a male/female binary doesn’t exist doesn’t really address the problem because we’re always going to be confronting the fact that body parts are always male/female, even if someone has a combination of each. To try to resolve the anxiety by dumping words to describe real physical things is a smoke and mirrors act. The problem is what we’re still assigning socially to those body parts. In genderqueer theory we throw out all words that we have to describe the basic physical in a way that we all understand. For one person it’s a “clitoris”, for another person it’s a “microdick” as we scramble to feel ok socially by renaming the physical. It becomes like the Tower of Babel. We all start speaking different languages and the tower can no longer be built. That creates a new kind of anxiety, in an attempt to sooth another.

Let’s do an experiment. Can you imagine a trans guy’s (maybe your own) …microdick…I’ll use that word. But imagine the image only. Try to not give it any name. It’s just flesh. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel a lot of anxiety when I do that. In fact, I can quite enjoy my microdick. Then, I name it “female”. That’s when I feel uneasy. Now, what if we pick a new word….say, a wob (you don’t have to like the word). Let’s say we all know exactly what a wob is and what it looks like as flesh. How’s your anxiety level? Are you ok with having a wob?  Is it the same anxiety as when we call it female? The only difference is that to the “wob” we don’t assign any social baggage, and “female” we do. The word isn’t the problem. Trying to change the words seems nonsensical to people because, clearly, there are wobs and wubs. We can see them! If the word isn’t really the problem, are we finding the best solution by changing the words?

For me, as someone who experiences something more like the Intersex/Transsexual Scenario, I feel very male (not masculine, but male). I put a lot on the line here – a lot of hurt, money, time and sweat – to be male. If you take away my words, I’m left with no way of describing the fact that I have a wob but my brain says wub. Genderqueer politics speak to the second experience, but not the first. But we’re telling the world that it’s all the same thing, and that’s problematic. In fact, I’d go as far to say that in this climate of genderqueer politics and many of the services and resources available to genderqueer/trans people today, the transsexual experience is being shunned, marginalized and silenced in the name of gender diversity because it fits too neatly into male/female. We’re told that we’re just closet cases; out of touch; sellouts to heteronormativity, especially if our sexual orientation just happens to be straight…and that’s kinda messed up when those are the only services available to us.

I can easily see that reshuffling adjectives and assigning them to people based on their temperaments, not their sex, liberates all people, if truly applied.  I think that still speaks into our genderqueer dilemma.   But for the intersex/transexual dilemma,  beyond the necessities of basic safety and dignity, after we get our bathrooms sorted out and protections in place, we still have ourselves to contend with and some hard truths to face. My wob still doesn’t feel right. The anxiety is still there. Does our disdain for the binary help that?

We are trying to normalize our experience in order to secure some safety right? Is that what we need to do to be safe? I am not the norm. I’m a man born with some wrong parts. Something happened in utero that strayed from how fetuses normally develop into male or female.   Physically speaking, that kinda sucks for me but socially it should be OK. In a world where there is biological male and biological female sometimes things stray from the blueprint. Not normal doesn’t mean bad, and we don’t have to dismantle the facts of male/female to be OK. We don’t have to dismantle male/female to advocate for our safety and well being either. We don’t have to dismantle it to be authentically ourselves. I think of it this way:

Some people are born without a leg, but people are meant to have two legs. There shouldn’t be any shame for the person who wasn’t born with both. We should make sure that person is never seen as less human and is provided appropriate accommodation to live to their full capacity as a fellow human. We don’t have to dismantle the idea of two leggedness as the norm to properly care for and respect the person who isn’t. Saying that the norm is two legs doesn’t deny the reality that some people have one. No one says, “Oh give me a break. No one has only one leg! You’re just being difficult!” And because everyone (I hope) would understand that logic, that could be very helpful in trans education as well. It gives us a foundation of common belief. People already understand male/female and starting our argument with an assertion that male/female as the norm doesn’t exist, we begin our whole conversation from a confusing point of disagreement.  We need only convince people that a departure from what normally occurs is perfectly OK.

Are we so ashamed of ourselves as trans/intersex/queer that we can’t say, “Hey, something happened when I was baking – a something that science is only just starting to understand – and I turned out different from normal, and that’s OK so treat me with respect.” Are we so ashamed of our difference that we have to blow up the normal so that we don’t have to feel abnormal?  If that’s the case, what do we really believe about abnormal? We can’t advocate for the outliers with a logic that is fundamentally shaming at its core.

There are short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term there are practical matters to address. I do believe in making washrooms gender neutral and in sex reassignment surgery among other things. To me, that’s like a prosthetic limb and a wheelchair ramp. We do need to educate and advocate. But, to say that the sex binary isn’t real, just because we are an exception to the rule, isn’t a sustainable, realistic or effective idea that is going to liberate you or anyone else.

We have to have a bigger story. One so big that all human experience fits the narrative – even those we call “good” or “bad’. The worst of us has to still be written into that story. Otherwise, our story is wrong and someone else will want to rip out our pages and replace it with a story that includes them.

Our real need is our desire for belonging, connection, identity, acceptance and healing. Those are matters of our hearts, not genitals. The problem is our universally human tendency to sort and separate. We all identify Outsiders. For some, the outsider is us. For others, the suburban soccer mom is the outsider. We all do it. Queers are just as guilty as “normal” people. Pouring our energy into how to fix that heart problem would be more helpful than our heady acrobatics to explain why the binary isn’t real. If our hearts aren’t well oriented, the politics will always miss the mark.

In our part of the bigger story, we need to accept some of our situation as our own and our own problem to bear. For me, being a man with some female parts means that there will always be a tension for me. From an organism/reproduction point of view, I’m still female. That’s a hard thing for me accept and own sometimes. It feels as though it shouldn’t be that way and I may surgically alter it some day, but that very tension is my reality. I’ve gone through a lot of hurts and hurt others, by not fully accepting that what’s most authentic and true for me is this tension between male and female because the male female binary is what’s normal. Sucks and is unfair? Sure. I imagine other people experience hard things too. It seems that a lot of the energy we put into changing “the system” (though some of that is very necessary. Don’t misunderstand me) is really because we’re having trouble coping with how this feels.  Why aren’t we talking more about our hearts? Why aren’t mindfulness practices to soothe our anxiety just as hot in our culture as debates about the gender binary? A lot of good can come out of learning to face those feelings and accept that some parts of it suck and may always suck and that’s ok.  Fighting against my reality has never been helpful for me. Wanting true things to not be true or focusing on how my life might have been better if I wasn’t this way or on placing blame for how this feels onto something else just added to my unhappiness. I’m a lot happier accepting what realities are mine to bear – not making them someone else’s problem – and focusing on what I have to offer the world as a whole person with my particular set of abilities. My gender is an experience. One part of my story. It’s not “Me”. It’s not the most important part of me.

If we all got on the same page with this – there are norms in this world. There are anomalies to normal in this world.  Anomalies aren’t shameful so why deny that they’re anomalies?  These ideas serve everyone. Not just us trans/intersex/queer people, but all people –  people born with cleft lips, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, illnesses…We help those people while we help ourselves. It brings us into the arena of common humanity – which should be the ultimate goal of any political paradigm.

Who’s your outsider? How could you try to love and accept them more today? It’s hard. According to ancient books it’s been hard for, like, forever. But if it’s too hard for us we can’t say that it should be easy for someone else, according to our own agenda. The hard work, it seems, is the work that really speaks to the root of the problem. So, sure, let’s get those bathrooms relabeled, but if we don’t also become heart surgeons I’m pretty darn sure we’re still going to be crying in those bathrooms. That’s not where our story should end.