In the past year both my partner and I came out as transgender. He is transitioning, I’m not, but we’re both not so very far from each other in the gender multiverse. Somewhere in the “in-between” leaning towards maleness, but not all the way over. Even if he’s a he and I’m a they, even if I keep bits he doesn’t want, even if he gets bits I don’t want, this relationship is still effectively homo. Despite this we can feel our community slipping away from us, as people assume we’ve become a straight couple because they only believe in binaries, or as folks simply back away in shear incomprehension or disbelief.
Don’t get me wrong, we have many amazing, supportive friends. But I’m talking now about the wider community and the mainstream attitudes and practices within that community. For ten years I silenced myself over gender because the dominant lesbian narrative carefully constructs gender variance as an aspect of sexual orientation, and characterises being openly transgender as some sort of deluded cop-out.
Sometimes I too have my moments of “hey, have we just lost our minds???” but if so, why, in the face of all opposition, do I feel so grounded and so clear, like the only person in the theatre who has seen through a magic trick?
For many folks, though, this is way out of their reckoning, and deeply suspect. They have their own answers to what’s going on, the main one being that after a combined 40ish years of being lesbians and feminists, we just couldn’t hack it and want to acquire hetero and male privilege.
I never had a problem being out as a lesbian, but when I felt I needed to out myself as trans* at work, I cried every night for a week, agonising over whether I really needed to tell them or whether I should stay in the closet. They already knew my partner was transgender because I couldn’t very well hide the change of pronouns, but me too? That doesn’t fit so neatly; sounds a bit far-fetched. I know nobody’s going to be getting my pronouns right, I know few people will understand, so why should I bother sharing this intimate detail with the world?
Well, because I’m a counsellor and a writer and who I am and what I do pretty much relies on me being congruent and authentic. I can’t hide a huge part of who I am without becoming incongruent and false; the very opposite of what I need to be to do my work well.
The tears, in the end, were the agony of silence. When it was all out in the open, I felt ok, even if I knew I wasn’t always being fully understood. And now I’m out I can state with absolute certainty that saying you’re a lesbian is easier in any scenario than saying you’re transgender. Lesbians are 1 in 20, transgender folk are more like 1 in 1000 – and people just don’t get it.
What doesn’t fit someone’s experience or knowledge still attracts confident conclusions – conclusions about your mental health, about your not coping with being a lesbian or never having been a proper one, about what your sexuality really is, about your wanting to appear more “normal” or normative; your trying to gain privilege. They decide you’re trying to escape something or making drama or simply hell-bent on misery. Anything other than the simple reality that you went deeper into yourself and came nearer to the truth.
And then there are the members of your community who are involved in such deeply transphobic campaigning that your hands start to shake at the mention of their name. Others politely try to see both sides and remain neutral. They don’t really get how much the campaigning hurts or the damage it does. Suddenly you’re afraid to go to parties and gatherings and you realise the transphobes are more welcome in what you considered your own community than you are.
I’ve discovered the hard way that what I thought was an inclusive community is often just a bunch of people who want to hang out with folks as similar to them as possible, and in that respect they are really no more enlightened than a bunch of cis-het white dudes. Their cool extra weapon for marginalisation is attaching spurious privilege to you in any way they can, so they can feel righteous rather than guilty about shunning you. Or they simply say you should go hang out with other people like you.
But there aren’t too many out people like me, although I’m touched by the number of lesbian friends who have affirmed how my story resonates with their experience. There are even fewer out transmen. It’s lonely here, because for all I have good friends I really do fear I’m losing my community. Permaculture tells us growth happens on the margins, but still the margins are a precarious place to be.
I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not in order to fit the mainstream lesbian narrative. I’m strong enough to stand apart, and I am indeed privileged to have the inner resources and the circle of support to do this. But it does hurt to be in a “community” that goes to such great lengths to organise groups and events that only cater for the majority, and leaves trans* people (among others) uncertain of their welcome or certain of their exclusion.