How am I different from you?
This is a question Robin, my transitioning partner, is asked over and over by lesbian friends who identify as women, but have some experiences that echo his own. It is also a question we ask of each other, as our lesbian and transgender experiences have sometimes merged, and sometimes diverged. The points of similarity make a mockery of any binary, either/or notions. He may be happier as a “he” whilst I balance precariously as a genderqueer “they”, but our experiences align way more than they diverge.
A lot of lesbians have some elements of gender dysphoria – “I thought I was a boy when I was a child”, “I feel sick at the idea of wearing a dress”, “I hate my breasts and if I had to have them removed I would be glad” . . . but often the conclusion to any of these statements is, “but I still consider myself to be a woman”.
Recently, we were faced with the challenge of exploring why Robin is “more of a man” than a butch identifying lesbian friend. The conclusion we came to is that Robin, who has never been particularly “butch” himself is not “more of a man”, or at least he is not more masculine than this particular friend; if you were to imagine an over-simplified, linear scale from masculine to feminine, Robin would be somewhere near the middle, a little to the masculine of centre, and this friend would happily admit to being all the way over on the male side. In fact, it was clear that the extent of this friend’s masculinity is such that she does not need to alter herself whatsoever to be read as male in the ways that count for her, no matter what pronouns she uses. Her lived reality is congruent and makes sense, and she does not experience that painful dissonance between how she feels and how she is experienced.
This friend has experienced what many would call gender dysphoria, and has found a way to manage it that works for her. Fortunately, this friend is still open-minded enough to admit that how she experiences herself is related to her gender and not her sexuality. She also says that had her body, face and voice been less androgynous, she might well have needed to transition.
The implication of this is not that Robin’s claim on the terms “man” or male” is tenuous, but that there are many, many people with an equally valid claim that will not need to transition. For some, the risks, stigma and isolation associated with transition might outweigh the benefits. For some, living as a lesbian is as much a matter of gender as it is of sexuality, and identifying as a lesbian is more comfortable and (sadly) more socially acceptable than identifying as transgender. Equally depressingly, some lesbians would even say that it is more morally acceptable to be a lesbian than to be transgender.
But what if it is ok to be either a lesbian or a trans man, or even to identify as lesbian and trans, and that the two things are connected, inter-related – not in a clunky “lesbians are confused trans men/ trans men are confused lesbians” way, but in a complex way, in that many lesbians are gender variant and gender dysphoric and for some this is so strong transitioning may be the most helpful thing to them in leading a fulfilled and happy life. Maybe some gender dysphoric lesbians have even found other ways of transitioning, keeping hold of their pronouns and their community, their medical needs perhaps not being quite as profound. And of course, there are also lesbians who take hormones and have surgery in secret, afraid of their community’s or society’s rejection.
What a different world it would be if we saw being transgender as a continuum rather than an either/or. Have we created another binary within a binary, where cis/trans has become as much of a dichotomy as man/woman? The reality is so much greyer than this, the borders we have created between man and woman, cis and trans, gay and straight are artificial, socially constructed barriers that many of us straddle in complicated ways. I sincerely believe the transgender community is a lot bigger than we realise, or at least that its boundaries are impossible to locate.
If transgender is what you are, rather than a process you go through, there are possibly many, many more transgender people in the world than will ever transition or identify as such. Medical transition may be a necessary and appropriate response to gender variance and dysphoria for some but not for others – but do we really need to argue about who is more valid, or could we not accept that people ultimately do what is right for them, and in doing what is right for them, their happiness will inflict less wounds on the people around them. In which case the act of transitioning or choosing not to transition does not mark us apart in any fundamental way, and we are all, perhaps, still members of the same community, with more in common than we have separating us.