In the past few months, multiple states in the US have fallen prey to a series of regressive, discriminatory laws which restrict the transgender community’s access to washrooms of the gender they identify with most, spawning a large-scale protest from not just the LGBT community, but also from various other mainstream sources such as Hollywood and big businesses. Predictably, the protest and outrage also spread across social media, and started one very popular trend—that of trans people taking selfies in bathrooms, to challenge the transphobic assumption that their presence in bathrooms of their preferred gender is predatory. The trend became extremely popular, and many cisgender and straight people began circulating and sharing these selfies too. Many queer activists lauded this trend at first, because what better way to show the bigots the middle finger than visibly occupying those very spaces they are shutting trans people out of? And, if the selfies had truly lived up to that principle, this trend would have been extremely political indeed. But, on closer examination, one realized that it served a very different, and very narrow function. The selfies posted were all of visibly cis-passing, conventionally attractive, and often, white trans people; as if saying that ‘see, I look too much like a cis woman to be comfortable in a men’s washroom, so let me use the ladies’ washroom’. The fact that people actually pledged their support to the cause by sharing these selfies and making them go viral, drives home further that the more a trans person resembles a cis person, the more they will be accepted—and doesn’t that reinforce gender norms all over again?.
What about the trans people who do not ascribe to either a male or female gender, or do not visibly resemble the gender they identify with (yes, they exist!)? Don’t they need to use bathrooms too, and, won’t they feel uncomfortable in bathrooms which are clearly still segregated in terms of the male/female binary?
Why do we not talk about them when we talk about trans people?
Trans identities occur within a spectrum. While male-to-female, or female-to-male transitioning people are also trans, people who are nonbinary (i.e, who do not identify with either ‘male’ or ‘female’ identities), genderfluid (i.e, who identify with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ identities), or, those who in general do not fit into or identify with traditional expressions of the binary genders are also very much trans. But often, in our mainstream culture, media reporting, and even day-to-day conversations, we tend to leave the latter out of discussions of trans identities. Even when a trans person comes out publicly—take Caitlyn Jenner for instance—the first thing that is commented upon is “what a beautiful woman” she makes; i.e, how convincingly she passes for as a cis woman.
In an insightful discussion for Buzzfeed LGBT, four transgender activists sat together and talked about the various (warped) ways in which transgender identities are perceived by society, and how certain harmful notions are perpetuated as a result. The biggest misconception they found is that being trans is seen as nothing beyond “being born in the wrong body”, which, puts unhealthy pressure on trans people to ‘perform’ their gender expression in the way they look or dress (and so on). Not all trans people suffer the same experiences. While some definitely experience very real, and very traumatic bodily dysphoria, some do not. Many trans people are comfortable with their bodies, but may not be comfortable with the gender identity assigned to them at birth. As GLAAD, in a handy list of “tips for allies of transgender people” points out—not every trans person transitions, and “there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to transition”. Trans bodies, identities, expressions are diverse—and even if someone is visibly ‘feminine’ and uses ‘she’ pronouns, but believes her gender identity to be nonbinary, or even, male, then, that person quite simply, is nonbinary or male. A trans person does not need to physically resemble and “perform” the gender identity they align themselves with to be trans; and hence, we should stop telling trans stories which are only about transitioning from one’s assigned gender to look like the gender they identify with.
I met a prominent gender-nonconforming queer activist a couple of months ago, who—after I shyly asked him his preferred pronouns—laughed it off and told me, “pronouns are a construct of language anyway, and since I don’t like conforming to constructs, I don’t like using a fixed pronoun for myself”. It was a truly insightful revelation for me, because, before this, I had always thought that trans people always had a specific pronoun they preferred.
Now, this doesn’t mean that using the right pronoun in talking about, or with, trans people is not important—because, for some, the use of the wrong pronoun is an act of misgendering; and can be very triggering and bring up traumatic experiences. However, the imposition of binary pronouns, or the assumption that pronouns will always work in a he/she binary—a mistake which even the most well-meaning of cis people often end up making—is wrong. Pronouns, too, exist in a spectrum, and there is a whole host of gender-neutral pronouns out there. So, assuming that a trans person will always stick with either a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ pronoun, with respect to their gender identity, is a faulty one. Someone who uses she/her pronouns can very well identify either as a trans woman, or a genderfluid person or literally anything else in the gender spectrum. Pronouns, like one’s gender identity, is entirely up to the volition of the person in question, and does not have to align with any set binary. Hence, while talking about the pronouns of a trans person, let’s be aware of the very vast, and very fluid nature of gender pronouns, and also simultaneously always be considerate enough to ask a trans person their preferred pronouns without assuming or imposing one on them.
Another equally important aspect here is the use of a trans person’s name. A “dead name” is the person’s name assigned at birth, which they have rejected on discovering their true gender identity; for example, Caitlyn Jenner’s dead name is ‘Bruce’. Using a dead name is extremely disrespectful to a trans person. Not only does using a dead name mean misgendering that person and disregarding the identity the person has chosen for themselves, but it also perpetuates the transphobic notion that the person is ‘just confused’, and that society knows their gender identity better. So many times, in media reports, it is entirely frustrating how dead names are used—both advertently and inadvertently. Especially for prominent trans people and trans celebrities, the first thing that will come up in a Google search is their dead name, or a picture of them before transition (just Google trans actors Laverne Cox or Jamie Clayton and see what results turn up) and that is inherently messed up. This curiosity surrounding what trans people have transitioned from, or were born as, is plain and simple ridiculous.
Very often, intentionally or not, our conversations about trans people serve in either co-opting them within cis identities (like the bathroom selfies which suggest how much ‘ they’ look like ‘us’), or othering them entirely. Often, the very concept of people not conforming to pre-existing notions of gender baffles society, and they don’t know how to respond to such nonconformity. But that’s the very problem we need to combat, and we need to normalize gender nonconformity, and make it more visible. A DMAB (designated male at birth) person wearing a dress or a saree in public should not be either cause for shock, or cause for celebration—but should be dealt with as normally as a man wearing a suit. This is exactly what we should be keeping in mind—that trans identities are diverse, that they are as legitimate as cis identities and call for neither sensationalization nor discrimination and harassment. Most importantly, the imposition of the “cis gaze”—i.e what cis people perceive trans people to be like—on the way trans stories are told, and trans bodies are seen in mainstream culture needs to undergo a sea-change. We need trans storytellers (all hail the trans Wachowski sisters, who’ve created major film franchises such as The Matrix!), but most importantly, we need to stop highlighting only the stories of cis-looking trans people. Not because their identities are any less valid, but because trans identity is not a monolith, and theirs isn’t the way one can be trans.