Tag Archives: Lesbians and Gender

Being trans* in the lesbian community

Since coming out as genderqueer, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me that they, too have gender issues, issues that are entirely separate from their sexuality. Lesbian friends, not all of them remotely butch, have admitted they never felt like a woman. Straight but “gay-looking” friends have opened my closed mind to the fact that it was a gender issue, not a sexuality issue, I was picking up in them.

Fellow dykes, when you walk down the street and see a straight woman who “doesn’t know she’s a dyke” what you’re seeing may be their gender, not their sexuality. Time to open our minds – gender and sexuality are two entirely different things; that’s why femmes exist.

So why does the lesbian community lock gender issues so firmly in the closet?

For me, the message came through at my first ever lesbian event; I made good friends with a trans* woman and then we found out she wasn’t welcome; the event had a “women born women only” policy. I soon learned that many women’s spaces are trans* excluding. Even when they’re nominally inclusive, the amount of hostility to trans* women from a vocal minority in the community makes them feel completely unwelcome.

My friend wasn’t an activist. She was quiet and shy, like most of my trans* friends. She didn’t know about the policy, because it wasn’t advertised. She was a woman who liked women; she thought the event was for her. When she found out, she didn’t kick up a fuss, she just left, devastated and bewildered. Most of the people there didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t fight it either. Everyone just carried on enjoying themselves in a trans* free space, like white South Africans who didn’t really agree with apartheid but were still more comfortable sunning themselves on white-only beaches and not having to deal with people who are different.

There’s this whole bullshit, garbled theory to justify trans* exclusion, based on “if we say it’s not real, we’re right and all these people with all this complex, unique experience – well, they’re wrong.” Oh, and science is wrong too. And if we never talk to those people or allow them into our events or conversations, then we never have to examine whether our ideas really hold water (hint: they don’t).

If you want to get really technical, the “trans-critical” theories are a bizarre mash-up of a) the post-modern ideas of Judith Butler (who is trans* accepting, intersectional and inclusive, as it happens) and b) some essentialist ideas about sex and biology being destiny. So far, so not very radical. A simplistic and essentialist model of binary, biological sex trumping all other considerations becomes the clumsy crayon with which we’re expected to draw our identities, (and police other people’s).

But I understand their fear, because I feel it too. Opening your mind to trans* issues shakes the foundations of everything we believe about sex and gender; however radical we may think we are, really wrapping our head around the multiverse of trans* identities is one giant leap beyond anything non-intersectional feminism has to say. But as Judith Butler puts it:

“the feminist framework that takes the structural domination of women as the starting point from which all other analyses of gender must proceed imperils its own viability by refusing to countenance the various ways that gender emerges as a political issue, bearing a specific set of social and physical risks.   . . .That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliance with those other movements since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins anti-homophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p.9

In simpler words, (because Butler’s words are never simple) ignoring gender variance as a real thing and ignoring the inherent risks and oppressions connected to any kind of gender variance, is likely to undermine feminism (and reinforce patriarchy). So Trans* exclusion is brilliantly doing patriarchy’s work for it, assisting in the oppression and marginalisation of gender non-conforming individuals.

For me, I quickly learned to keep my own gender issues under wraps, but I’m fed up now of cutting off bits of myself in order to conform to one group or another. I hereby resign from the binary and the either/or in all its manifestations. And I still belong here.

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Life’s a drag

Some folks talk about how trans* issues can lessen when you hit puberty, as if that proves they’re only transient and should not be taken seriously. When I hit my teens, that time when our social selves are at their most powerful and it’s all about fitting in, I did indeed lurch uncomfortably across the gender divide. For a brief time I went all-out with skirts and make-up, even though it felt completely incongruous, even though as a child my gender identity was mostly male. As I’ve said before, it was male socialisation I soaked up as a kid, where female socialisation seemed to slide right off me like I was made of teflon. But then I became a teen and something switched; I became self-conscious in an entirely different way. I tried so damn hard to be a girl, experimenting with skirts and make-up and jewellery. I even enjoyed the girly dress-up in a way, but there was always a conscious act of performance involved . . . dresses and make-up were like drag to me.

It was confusing; because I couldn’t be the boy I’d always been. Hormonal and social changes rendered my true nature all but invisible. Years passed of radical swings between crew cuts and motorbikes and long hippy skirts that tripped me up. My friendships and relationships were with men, and at first I enjoyed being “one of the guys” but the older I got, the more I found myself being pushed into traditional female roles. Not only was I being shoved into a box no woman should be shoved in, I was also finding myself misgendered – the label on the box was “woman” and that was not how I identified.

I started to question my gender in my late twenties with a counsellor who really didn’t get what I was about. Many cisgender people simply don’t allow for the option of being trans* as an explanation for gender questioning – they look at sexuality, mental health, gender roles, feminism, anything but believing in something outside their own experience. My counsellor was no exception – she honed my feminist beliefs and my permission to be non-conformist, for which I’m grateful, but she missed my core identity.

My soul expanded when I met my first trans* woman – let’s call her Karen. The “Karen effect” is why we need trans* people out and proud and fully present in every corner of our world. I met Karen at depth, and I knew her to be a woman. Not in the way she looked or the things she liked or any trite old stereotype; something deeper and instinctive told me she was so much more of a woman than I was.  I can’t tell you what a woman is or what being a woman really means; I have no crude description of femininity or woman-ness for you, but our instinctive selves, our child selves know this stuff that our “civilised” brains obliterate with their tyrannical rigidity.

When I met Karen I realised that if there was a line, and I don’t believe that it’s anything so simple as a line, between man and woman, Karen was nearer to the woman side of it than me; despite her five o’clock shadow, despite her square jaw, or the ill-fit of her vaguely feminine clothes.

Karen blew my mind wide open and suddenly I was learning that we are given a label at birth based on spurious criteria; that many children are born with indeterminate genitalia; that chromosomes don’t always match appearances, and that our brains don’t always neatly match our bodies. I began to wonder if perhaps someone made a mistake in assigning my gender as female; perhaps I was a boy on the inside and that would explain me.

She set a spark in me and then extinguished herself. Persecuted out of existence, Karen disguised herself as Nigel once again, even though pretending to be Nigel had nearly killed her. But as Jeannette Winterson’s mother would say, “Why be happy when you can be normal?” I hope she’s found some way to survive, but I know she cannot thrive living that lie. When I think of Karen’s story, I feel fury at the transphobic fiction that people like her are seeking some sort of gender conformity. Her road was the hardest road there is and the world was not ready for her to take it, even though taking that road and telling her truth would have enriched the world’s story beyond imagining.

My story shrank down then to a more manageable size – coming out as a lesbian (I was already out as bi) was a more socially acceptable half-truth for me. My clever new tag-line was “I am a woman, just a different kind of woman”.  I entered a rich and gender diverse community and it felt a lot like home. And yet we don’t speak enough about gender in the lesbian community – we barely even talk about butch/femme any more, we just say that gender is socially constructed and we are the way we are because of our sexuality. Well, I’m not buying it any more. Gender is a whole heap more complicated than that. We seriously need to open our minds. I’m just beginning to open mine.

Coming out of yet another closet – from lesbian to genderqueer

It’s time I came out of the closet, again. Just like I’ve been told many a time while arguing with trans excluding radfems online . . . I’m not really a woman.

Let me explain . . . I don’t know what my chromosomal arrangements are, I imagine few people do for sure. I do know mother nature gave me breasts and periods, so presumably ovaries and a uterus although nobody’s ever gone in and taken a look. I don’t have a dick. I don’t look like a dude. But right from the start I was socialised more male than female, and I believe this is about how I looked at and experienced the world . . . my brain (or heart, or soul) led me down roads intended for males to walk.

An early photo has me standing in a flat cap and braces and I look like a cute little 4-year-old boy. My sister liked dolls and make-up; I liked climbing trees and getting mucky – but what does that really mean? Liking ungirly things shouldn’t make anyone, including me, question my woman-ness. But it’s deeper than that – something pretty fixed in me made me look to males rather than females for my social cues. Something more than just the prevalence of male role models and the invisibility of female icons; beyond social construction, beyond feminist ideas, beyond sexuality; something I’m going to daringly call an innate gender identity.

How we “do” gender is made up by society as it goes along, as evidenced by the fact pink was a boy’s colour not so very long ago. But something inside us makes us follow the lead of whichever gender our identity points us toward. We’re social animals, designed to “download” whatever environment we’re born into, and it’s becoming increasingly clear we naturally tune in to gendered information. The possibilities for how we tune in – how our unique selves meet the gendered world – are endless, but can be broadly (if a little inaccurately) chopped up into male, female, both or neither, and these instincts may not always match our bodies.  It’s unique for each of us, and no simple binary explanations quite cut it. Some scientists may say it’s hormones in utero shaping our brains, but I don’t need a science experiment to tell me who I am. I know who I am, and that should be enough.

I’ve wanted to wear trousers, play with cars and climb trees since I could walk. It has nothing to do with me being a feminist. It has nothing to do with me wanting to subvert the stereotypical gender roles in society. It has nothing to do with my sexuality, which is about who I am attracted to, not who I am. Yes, I’m attracted to women, but contrary to what some anti-trans folks might say, that does not settle the issue of gender identity, although for a long time I tried to believe it did, and having come out of one closet I built myself another. How can anyone possibly say that as a kid I liked to play with tools and shoot bows and arrows because I’m a lesbian? It doesn’t make any sense. I was drawn to boys’ things and boy’s social rules because part of me thought I was a boy, it really is that simple.

But hang on, we feminists know gender is socially constructed, right? All that stuff about “boy’s toys” and “girl’s toys” is sexist rubbish that needs challenging. The arguments are pretty persuasive, and I agree with them. Check out books like Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and suddenly it becomes clear that all qualities and behaviours we think of as innately male or female are easily implanted in human children’s uniquely “plastic”, adaptable and socially-orientated brains.

But if social construction is so powerful, why did it miss me completely? How did I escape such a dominant force? It wasn’t my feminist leanings, at the age of three, that made me throw my sister’s dolls across the room in disgust. Some people say my being a lesbian explains it – but how, exactly, does that work? Isn’t that just a convenient blurring of gender and sexuality? What made me reach for trousers or throw away the make-up my auntie kept insisting on buying me? What made me resist the powerful conditioning that was happening to all the girls around me? Could I perhaps have an ineffable quality that is drawn to boy’s things and boy’s social rules?

Ok, but once again, we know gender is socially constructed, right? Well what if we lived in a society where it was socially constructed that boys always wear bananas on their heads? I truly believe by the age of three I would have had the intense desire to wear bananas on my head. Something inside of me reached into the social world and looked for my cues from males instead of females. It wouldn’t have mattered what the boys were doing, I wanted to do it too. It has nothing to do with what I actually did – I wasn’t born with an innate desire to shout, show off my strength and torture my sister’s barbies, it was simply that boys did that kind of stuff and I was programmed to copy them. If boys wore blue lipstick and played hopscotch I would have wanted to wear blue lipstick and play hopscotch. As it was, I found myself wanting to open doors for women and win at arm wrestling. I absorbed a million social messages that weren’t intended for me and an awful lot of the messages I was “supposed” to receive simply bounced off me, to the exasperation of my female relatives.

If we had lived in a century where, as in nature, boys dressed for display and women for camouflage, maybe I would have been sequinned and feathered and rainbow from head to toe. I had boyish tendencies, and whatever society chose boyish to mean, I think that is what I would have wanted to be. And I just want to make an important distinction – I don’t think I ever said I was a boy, the messages for me were not quite that strongly implanted. But if I had, I sincerely hope (although I doubt) that my parents would have respected this, because children are perfectly capable of knowing themselves. If I can feel this way, I have no problem believing others feel it more strongly, and can only thrive living as their true gender.

But people are not left to figure out their own realities; society moves in and interprets their reality for them. Layers of complex socialisation become part of our gender stories and we can never separate nature and nurture, nor is there any value in trying. As a child, I was given the label “tomboy”, as if this resolved everything neatly. It didn’t, but for a while I was satisfied with that label. Later, I hit on “lesbian” and it more or less fit, but inherent in that word is the assumption that I’m a woman, and that my difference has nothing to do with gender. But I’m not a woman. I’m not entirely a man, either, as it happens; I don’t have any plan to transition, although I fully support those who do. But I’m tired, so tired of my gender being missed, I’m tired of passing for cisgender, even though it has many privileges. There’s probably nothing I can do about it but open my mouth and say how I feel, although coming out to a community that is so scared and confused about trans* issues is more than a little frightening.

Labels never quite manage to live up to the human need to express and describe, but if you want a label for me, for the moment I’ll settle for genderqueer.