Content Notice: This post discusses transphobia, misgendering, embyphobia, binaryism, and discrimination against gender non-conforming people.
This essay is based, as many are, off “What It Means to Be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System,” by Betsy Lucal, a professor at Indiana University South Bend. Lucal’s essay focuses on her experiences as a gender-nonconforming woman and how these experiences fit into a broader sociological view of gender.
I was sitting in the Salt Lake City airport on the phone with my mother. She was in her car as a passenger while my brother drove them to an appointment and the phone was on speakerphone, so I was on the phone with my brother as well. I had just gotten off the plane from Oakland and had a layover for a a few hours before my flight to Atlanta for a conference.
Tired, jetlagged, hungry, and disoriented, I sat down in a chair a little ways from my gate and started to complain. “I have to really, really badly use the bathroom but it’s Salt Lake City and I can’t find a single-stall bathroom anywhere on the concourse,” I said. (I would, on a layover in SLC two days later, find a single-stall bathroom but it was on a different concourse in a different part of the airport.)
“Don’t worry,” my brother said, “Salt Lake City went to Clinton. You’re probably safe.”
I tried to smile. Yes, SLC might be a more liberal environment than some parts of Utah but airports are microcosms that don’t always reflect the political climate of the cities they’re situated in. However the more permanent residents of Salt Lake City feel about trans people isn’t always shared by the people who pass through the SLC airport every day.
“There’s a lot of scholarship,” I said, probably trying to outdo my brother in the ‘ridiculous semi-related statements about bathrooms’ category, “about the role of gender in airport bathrooms.”
My mother and brother did not seem impressed.
“I’m serious! It’s not even trans people! There are lots of essays of how when you have lots of tired, edgy, annoyed people in an airport bathroom, they tend to be a lot less tolerant of any difference. ”
Scholarly or no, there is coverage of the issues trans and gender non-conforming people face in airport bathrooms. And regardless of who writes about it and what way they write about the subject, airport bathrooms are a gender battleground beyond what is usually experienced.
In “What It Means to Be Gendered Me,” Betsy Lucal discusses what it is like to live as a masculine/butch cisgender woman in a world that embraces a “two and only two” binary system of gender and gender presentation. When I originally read Lucal’s essay, I related to her experiences as a person whose presentation does not match their gender identity and is punished by society for it.
As I told a support group I am part of last week, I am years away from being able to present as actually masculine. I believe that because of the time that has passed since Lucal originally published “What It Means to Be Gendered Me” and because of the place I live in, I exist in a world that does not subscribe to the “two and only two” gender binary. Rather, I live in a world where there are three gender groups: man, woman, and not categorizable.
“Not categorizable” is not the same as “non-binary.” Non-binary people have a gender identity specifically outside of the binary (or no gender identity); “not categorizable” people may be any gender. Binary trans people who do not pass (willingly or not willingly) as either their true or assigned gender are “not categorizable.” Non-binary people who are not gendered as non-binary but are also not gendered as either binary gender are “not categorizable.” “Not categorizable” is often synonymous with, though not to be conflated with “transgender and/or gender non-conforming people.”
I often fall into the “not categorizable” group. People do not see me as male or female: partially because I choose to not conform to binary gender norms all the time and partially because I am in a stage of transition where I am physically androgynous. When people see me in or around restrooms I often confuse them because I cannot be easily sorted into one of the two binary categories.
My college has a multi-stall gender neutral restroom in the dining hall building although, due to building code, there is only one and it replaced the women’s restroom. (Building code dictates that multi-person restrooms with urinals cannot be gender-neutral.) There was a kerfuffle last year when a trans man brought this up last year, stating that the replacement of a women’s restroom with a gender-neutral restroom gives the impression that all trans and gender non-conforming people are actually women.
I agree with him, for the record, especially because I have seen all of five cis men using that bathroom. Cis men opt to use the men’s restroom; they do not deign to use the gender-neutral restroom. The rest of us – those of us who are not brave enough to use the men’s room – use the gender-neutral bathroom.
As scary as restrooms on campus can be, these are still restrooms on a leftist college campus in a state with specific protections for transgender people. There are plenty of other ways where I am more at risk for being a visibly “non categorizable” person.
I do not pass as either a man or a woman at the airport, where the penalty for not being categorizable can include being detained, arrested, or assaulted as countless examples of trans and gender non-conforming show. In the past, I have been harassed, questioned, and had TSA agents give me dirty looks. Before I legally changed my name and gender marker, I femme’d it up to go through security, which caused me immense dysphoria, but still suffered for being visibly trans. Now, I can go through security without having to appear feminine to match a feminine name on my ID but I still am penalized for not appearing “male.”
My home state, California, will soon start allowing people to identify as non-binary on their state-issued ID, but I will not take advantage of that option. I do not want my name on what amounts to a state-held list of trans people. Furthermore, in the current political climate, the federal government will not recognize ID labelled ‘non-binary’ and I do not want to suffer more trying to access places that require ID to be checked by federal employees (airports, federal buildings). (I realize that the new ID law is a huge step forward for many non-binary, intersex, third gender, and gender non-conforming people in California and I do not begrudge anyone for taking advantage of it.)
When I speak about my experiences on the outskirts of gender and being stuck between worlds, people often do not believe me or tell me that my experiences “can’t be that bad.” I realize that my experiences are not representative of all trans people: some have it better and some have it worse. Being transgender intersects with all facets of identity and so people who experience discrimination and oppression based on other parts of their identities will face a harder life as a trans person.
So much of being transgender is a waiting game. I wait in line to go through airport security and wonder if I will get pulled aside and be groped by an agent under the guise of a “pat-down”; and if I do, if that agent will be male or female. I wait in line for the bathroom at a crowded event and hope that nobody will yell at me or assault me for being in the “wrong line.”
I live my life as a trans person who is constantly analyzed and over-analyzed by cis people. From age 15 to age 18 I was forced to go to endless hours of therapy in order to make myself “come to terms with my identity” so I could “transition without having to go on hormones.” My parents were convinced I could figure myself out and get over my need for hormones if I just to talked to someone enough, despite the fact that multiple therapists, psychiatrists, and virtually every practitioner at the gender clinic told them otherwise.
And, in a country where parents can override their teenage children’s wishes without contest, I suffered for three years. I maintain that I gained absolutely nothing from three years of not being able to transition. I lived in fear of violence because I had no hope of passing during that time.
Even now, as an adult, my gender presentation and decisions are heavily policed by others. I had to get two different doctors to submit letters of support to insurance when I had chest surgery. It’s at least three doctors plus more documentation if I want to have any sort of lower surgery.
Thankfully, California has excellent policies around name and gender marker changes but it still cost me $435 just for the court order, but probably around $300 for other charges related to changing documents. The gatekeeping, policing, and pricing-out of transition services forces trans people to live even more on the edge of our binary/binary plus one system.
Trans people are sidelined in so many ways. We are disenfranchised, banned from bathrooms, kicked out of our homes and jobs, verbally and physically harassed, and, too often, murdered. Trans lives too often end in suicide1 or homicide. When we are covered in popular, social, and scholarly media, we are often portrayed as either freaks or sob stories for people to take pity on. In either case, our lives and most intimate secrets are put on display for the world to comb over.
If I want my body and life’s history to be studied like that, I’ll write a biography and donate my body to science once I die. I have no interest in letting cis people study me like a lab rat when I’m still alive. I do not want my voice silenced and my body forced into an all-too-familiar narrative of sorrow and strife.
Yes, there has been sorrow and strife in my life, and there has been far too much of it. But when cis-written trans narratives center around nothing but sorrow with the occasional happy moment that usually ties back to some sort of medical transition moment, I reject that narrative.
I do not get to opt-out of gender, even if I am a non-binary, agender person who refuses to participate in gendered activities when I have the choice. I am surrounded, and frequently must participate in without choice, in a heavily gendered world that does not make space for people like me. Because I am not easily classified as male or female (and, in most cases, I do not try to make myself easily classifiable), I am at constant risk of being hurt under the “two-and-only-two” system Lucal talks about and under the “male, female, and not categorizable” system I have discussed.
My trans status and gender presentation have implications beyond just being gendered on sight. My age – I am 19 – is often called into question because I do not look like an adult man. I am very short at 5′ 3″ (160 cm), I have a higher than normal voice, my face does not have the amount of stubble associated with a young white adult man. When I went to a sex shop, I was asked to show ID, whereas my cis women peers, who were also 19, were not. When I went through security at the airport recently, an agent asked me how old I was, clearly not thinking I was over 18. I am stuck in a binary in these situations: be seen as an adult woman or an underage teenage boy because age-restricted situations almost always rely on a strict “two-and-only-two” gender system as well.
In some situations, gender and gender roles are more apparent than others. For example, some clothing stores have gender-neutral changing rooms to try clothes on, while others have gendered changing rooms. Yet even stores with gender-neutral changing rooms (such as Target) have an employee outside the changing rooms to make sure customers don’t take too many items in at once and to make sure all items taken into a room are removed. Facing that employee as a trans person whose clothing items might not match their current presentation is, frankly, terrifying. I have had friends pretend to be trying on or buying clothes for me and I have pretended to be trying on or buying clothes for other trans friends because our gender presentation better matches the clothes the other person is buying. This is not foolproof – I have pretended to buy clothes for friends who wear a vastly different size than I do – but it works on the assumption that a salesperson will not notice things like sizing as much as they might the “gender” of clothing.
Explaining my gender to adults, including adults who share my demographic background2, can be difficult but it is easier than explaining it to children. Young children (less than 12) may not have the frame of reference to understand gender and gender presentation beyond a simple binary and often it is frustrating to teach them.
I am thinking, in particular, of the children I tutor on a weekly basis. There are about 6 of them, all under the age of 12, and they all have told me at least once that “boys don’t wear earrings.” I present as male, although I am not strictly male or female, and I usually wear two sets of earrings because I have two piercings in each ear. When I hear this from the children, I try to calmly explain that anyone can wear earrings. I do not bring up gender because trying to explain the concept of being transgender or nonbinary to young children is not a road I want to go down.
I am fairly certain that I am one of the first androgynous, gender non-conforming, “not categorizable” people these children have come into contact with on a regular basis. Nearly, if not all, of them come from non-English speaking homes; most are from immigrant and families. They are all Muslim – I tutor at a local mosque. These children have grown up in a culture, whether they have lived in the US all their lives or in another country as well, where gender and presentation are delineated along strict lines. The other tutors in the program may not fit that binary perfectly – the men may not have beards or wear kufis, the women may not wear hijab – but most of the other tutors are easily distinguishable as male or female. I am not.
The case of the children I tutor is an extreme one embroiled in cultural differences but I have come into contact with white American culturally Christian children as well who cannot identify me on sight. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask and I don’t always know how to respond. When I would visit my mother’s school on break while I was still in high school, she would often head off these questions by introducing me as “her daughter.” In a way, that helped to show the students she taught that girls could be masculine, girls could have short hair and wear baggy clothes – but I am not a girl.
I live in a world where people who deviate from societal norms, willingly or not, are called on to explain ourselves in an apologetic manner, even when there is nothing to apologize for. If we cannot do that, we are told to present ourselves without deviation and to make sure nobody can see who we really are.
I refuse to closet myself once again. I refuse to stop being me so others can be comfortable. I stopped wearing earrings to the mosque for my own sake, because the children bothered me too much, but I did not stop because I cared about making others uncomfortable. I want the children (and adults) I come into contact with to question what they think about gender. I want to be proof that gender does not have to be binary, that presentation does not have to follow gender in a linear fashion, and that transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people can live happy and fulfilling lives.
And, frankly, I want to make people in positions of power uncomfortable. The TSA should not get to dictate exactly how trans people present at the airport in order to get on a plane unmolested. I want to make it hard for the heads of powerful agencies to write simple rules governing human behavior because humans are not simple. My body should not be an apology for my identity and my identity should not be an apology for my body. I work for the day when I can – every trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming person can – exist as a person with a complex inner identity and outer presentation without fear of retribution for who I am.
I am a complex person in a complex world and I shouldn’t have to paper over parts of my identity to be accepted.