Thursday August 25, 2011
How many transgender people did you pass today? Chances are you have absolutely no idea and the thought probably never even crossed your mind. You can be forgiven for this, as for the most part, mainstream references to transgender are limited to Channel 4 documentaries or sporting enquiries into competitors' 'suspect' hormone levels. This is of course, unless you are a Coronation Street fan, in which case the magnificent character of Hayley Cropper (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh) will have at least raised your consciousness about transwomen.
Before I met my partner, a transman, my knowledge of transgender issues was, I am ashamed to say, somewhat limited to the character of Max in The L Word and tearful viewings of Boys Don't Cry and The Crying Game. Even though I came out more years ago than I care to remember and earned my lesbian stripes long before Clause 28 was even thought about, I never really knew much about the T in LGBT. I am many things, not least of all a mother, but my life experience had just not brought me into contact with anyone transgender. Or at least that's what I presumed.
Being trans can be a very isolating place; not only is it a subject about which the general public has next-to-no knowledge, but the LGB community itself can sometimes be a little forgetful, dare I say even hostile to the addition of the T. But this is why we must never forget the T.
Being able to walk through a crowd, apply for a job or simply go into a public toilet without fear, intimidation or questioning is something most of us take for granted, so it is hardly surprising that for the vast majority of transwomen and transmen,passing (being able to live your day to day life without having your gender questioned) is something that can bring unutterable joy and relief. However, sometimes, along with this blending into society comes a less talked about consequence, invisibility to the LGB community.
In the last decade, being L, G & B has significantly moved into the mainstream and is no longer seen as 'out of the norm' as it once was, but being T is still something that is 'out there', something not really in the general public consciousness at all, something, well, just a little bit exotic and curious for a lot of people. As such, being transgender can be a difficult and vulnerable identity to be able to be out and proud about.
The desire and need to pass, to live in the world as the gender you know you are, feel you are and unquestioningly are, has as many journeys and stories as there are transfolk, and for the vast majority of trans, being seen by others as their chosen gender without doubt or question is just the beginning of their journey. The daily and lifelong decisions about whether or not to tell people and which people to tell and when and why, is littered with just as many potential situations for being rejected or misunderstood as being L, G or B ever was.
Only cities like San Francisco are populated by enough trans-identified people to have any real independent Trans Pride/March activities; certainly where we live, 'trans' is not a word that appears anywhere other than on the van at the edge of the village belonging to a guy who works for Trans Europe Express. We amuse ourselves about the subversive context of the sign, imagining some European surgeon performing top/bottom surgery in the back of the van at lightning speed, but I digress...
So how can transmen and transwomen whose only wish is to move through the world as male, or female, 'stand up and be counted'? How can they be at the vanguard of consciousness raising, put their heads above the parapet, stand up for others in similar situations and come out as once being 'the other' gender? The answer is with great difficulty. So which community should be advocating for transfolk? Maybe you think LGB is not the right place, maybe you think these two groups of people have nothing in common, but you may be wrong.
So, why LGBT? Surely if L,G and B is about who you are attracted to, your sexuality, and T is about gender, then on the face of it, do these two groups have that much in common? Quite a lot as it happens. Being T also directly impacts upon your sexuality by default. If you were born male and transition to female, but remain only ever attracted to women, then your perceived sexuality will go from straight to lesbian without you even moving a muscle. Similarly if you identified as lesbian before transition and remain only attracted to women, then you will be perceived as being straight after transition. Along with this perceived change of sexuality can also come the withdrawal of support of communities and networks. None of which is helped by the need to blend in and pass though the world unquestioned.
If you say that you are L, G, or B not only is it a statement about who you are attracted to, your sexuality, but it is also a very now statement. People may sometimes talk about their sexuality in the past tense, "Oh I used to think I was straight"... but it is not generally the lead-in statement. When we talk about our sexuality we define ourselves by now. When you tell someone else your sexuality, it does not bring with it a truckload of curiosities about "Oh, can I see a photo of you before you were a lesbian?" or "So what was your name before you were a lesbian, you know, your real name?" Coming out as transgender can result in a whole host of inquisitions not related to who you are now, but almost entirely abou twho you were before, what you looked like, what you were called, why you did it, and of course not forgetting the old chestnut, "Are you sure it's not just a phase, you know, wouldn't you have been better just being a butch dyke/flamboyant gay?" And that's before we even mention lack of education that leads to confusion between transgender and transvestite in some people's minds...
There is only one way for any marginalised group or minority to become more accepted and understood and that is by visibility and education. But when being visible is in itself not always possible, then it really falls to the rest of the community for whom visibility is not an issue to stand up for others. LGB is the right place for the T, and I believe absolutely that people who have the ability and wherewithal to speak up for others who may not be able to speak up for themselves, should do so with a sense of duty and pride.
The LGBT community is stronger in number, visibility and power than it has ever been throughout history. Many transwomen and transmen will never be public about their transition and may not be able to flag wave or have an online media presence. They may however be sitting next to you on the bus/train tonight, may be the friendly parent at the school gate you chat to, may be the teacher you admire, the guy at the bank, the postwoman, may even be your child in a few years' time. Yes, we need role models and good ones, but for many transfolk, just as it is for many many lesbians, gays and bisexuals, putting themselves out there is just not possible.
All the more reason for us to never forget the T.