Gwen Smith has been a transgender advocate and journalist for more than two decades. She has written the Transmissions column for the Bay Area reporter since 2000 and currently writes for LGBTQ Nation and The New Civil Rights Movement. She is also an early transgender Internet pioneer, the founder of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and the current managing editor for genderfork.com. A biography on Gwen Smith, titled Trans/Active, was published by Wake Forest Press in 2017. Gwen Smith's Website
This essay was originally published in the Bay Area Reporter in 2006. Reproduced with permission from the author, all rights reserved.
Being transgender guarantees you will upset someone. People get upset with transgender people who choose to inhabit a third gender space rather than “pick a side.” Some get upset at transgender people who do not eschew their birth histories. Others get up in arms with those who opted out of surgical options, instead living with their original equipment. Ire is raised at those who transition, then transition again when they decide that their initial change was not the right answer for them. Heck, some get their dander up simply because this or that transgender person simply is not “trying hard enough” to be a particular gender, whatever that means. Some are irked that the Logo program RuPaul’s Drag Race shows a version of transgender life different from their own. Meanwhile, all around are those who have decided they aren’t comfortable with the lot of us, because we dared to change from one gender expression or identity to some other.
To hell with that.
You see, I have learned not only that I have to do what I have to do to be happy regardless of the struggles I may face, but also that I am the only person responsible for my own comfort or discomfort about my gender. I may wrinkle my nose about what someone else might do, but ultimately what others do cannot change who I am.
I had an unusual request from a friend of mine some time back: I was asked not to mention that I was a friend of hers. You see, I’m transgender. More than this, it’s hardly a secret that I’m transgender—I am professionally transgender, as well as the founder of Trans Day of Remembrance. Her fear was that if someone knew that I knew her, then it would automatically be assumed that she was transgender, too.
It was a difficult thing to hear that my very existence was perceived as being enough to harm a person I called a friend. I try to harm no one in my daily affairs —yet here I was, being told that all I need to do to cause someone difficulty is to call them a friend.
I asked many of my friends who are transgender, in the wake of this incident, if they too would be uncomfortable being identified publicly as friends of mine. I consider these people close friends, I said, and still if this inadvertent outing would cause them trouble, I promised I would disclaim them immediately. Oddly, no one else seemed all that perturbed. I did not address this with my non-transgender friends, but maybe I should; presumably it will be a great shock to discover that merely being acquainted with me has the potential to cast doubt on their birth gender.
One of the first lessons I was taught at some of my earliest transgender support group meetings (more years ago than I usually would wish to admit) was that being in a group of transgender people exponentially raises the risk of being read as transgender. If you want to remain hidden, I was told, avoid others like you. Large group events would always require remote locations where we could all be hidden away; the concept of meeting with your transgender siblings just anywhere was taboo. This was a world just a step away from secret handshakes and coded catch-phrases.
Much later, I learned that this divide-and-conquer strategy had been common in the older, university-based transsexuality programs of the 1970s. Associating with other transgender people could get you drummed out of the program. After all, you were supposed to be associating with those in your preferred gender, making strides down the road to Normal, not hanging about with others trying to take paths similar to yours.
While those gatekeeping systems are long gone, their survivors live on. Worse, these individuals, themselves transsexual, perpetuate the enforcement of the system they were required to navigate. If you don’t fit the gender-norming rules they were expected to observe, you are a subject of derision, worthy of little more than the ridicule of your would-be peers. They have learned to construct a hierarchical order of who is acceptable and who is not.
Let me break it down this way: some lesbians and gays feel that their issues are more important than transgender issues, because transgender people are freaks. Some transgender people—often, but not only, transsexuals—view transsexual issues as more important than the issues of, say, cross-dressers. Some among the more genderqueer portions of our community look down upon those who opt to live in a more “normatively gendered” space. There are even groups that cross-dressers feel superior to: sissies, drag kings and queens, “little girls,” and so on. Yes, I’m sure that we could follow even each of these groups and find that, eventually, everyone has someone they view as a freak.
This is a human phenomenon, and one which occurs especially, it seems,among marginalized groups. Trekkers versus trekkies versus people in Klingon costumes, or furries versus fursuiters versus, oh, plushies. I’m sure if I looked at model railroaders, I’d probably find that HO gauge fans look down at N scale, or something like that. The taxonomies are endless, often circular, and are usually graded to a fineness that would be invisible to any outsider. We just want to identify the “real” freaks, so we can feel closer to normal. In reality, not a single one of us is so magically normative as to claim the right to separate out the freaks from everyone else. We are all freaks to someone. Maybe even—if we’re honest—to ourselves.
In the end, we find ourselves with one of two choices: do we push others like us away, to best fit in? Or do we seek out our kin, for comfort and company? For that matter, if we are all someone’s “freak”, does this mean we are all each other’s “normal” too—and worthy of embrace?
These are questions I have asked myself, time and time again. I confess tohaving a phase during which I did not associate with other transgender people, for fear I would be guilty by association, or even get “tranny cooties.” Maybe I was afraid I would see things in my own being I was not ready to face, or was afraid of challenging my own assumptions. I found it to be a very limiting way to live, and have chosen to embrace those I might see as my siblings.
Yes, even those who might be having a hard time embracing me.
This isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as defamation, or that everything is acceptable. Far from it. There is always a need to watch for attacks on us as a whole. We can’t ignore right-wing demagogues who insist that the word of the doctor who proclaims a child’s sex at birth somehow holds more sway over the reality of the body than the word of the person who inhabits it. Yet just as anyone can call me whatever they want, it is up to me to decide whether I care to answer. More than this, it should be irrelevant to me what any other transgender person opts to do. Their action does not somehow change who I am. It cannot.
I know what I am. I know that I’ve chosen to identify as a transgender woman, and that I am—by and large—happy with where I am in this world. I’m far from perfect, and I could give you a list as long as my arms of the things I’d love to change. Nevertheless, I am still here, and I am still me, and no one can change that without my permission.
At the same time, even though I am happy to identify as a transgender woman, I also applaud those who are seeking to redefine the notions of gender and are carving out spaces of their own. My own comfort is such that I’m glad to see other people out there challenging the assumptions and to know that their challenges do not necessarily pose a threat to my beliefs. Who knows—maybe my beliefs could stand a good challenge once in a while, and they might end up broader than they were before.
We live in a world of incredible variations, where there are some 200,000species of moths and butterflies to be found in this planet, where one can find snowy ice caps and boiling cauldrons of lava, and where biodiversity is the very thing that keeps the whole complex system in tune. The notion of classifying things and then claiming that only this or that is a proper version of some being is a distinctly human construct, full of arrogance and hubris. When those of us who are gender outlaws of any stripe seek to set definitions on our realness, to determine who is somehow “normal” amongst us, it seems all the more crazy.
I assume it is some sort of human failing that makes us always need to shun someone who we perceive as “more different than thou.” Some simply need to feel better about themselves by despising someone further down the chain from them. Nevertheless, this does not seem to help move us further along in the world at large.
We can worry about who is this and who is that, we can argue about who doesor doesn’t belong. We can talk about how much more legitimate one or anotherof us is. In the end, we are all somebody’s freak—and basic human dignity is not a privilege of the lucky superior few, but a right of all or none.
Privacy & Confidentiality StatementLibrary Code of Conduct