It has been a long time since I have written anything. Actually, let me correct myself; I have been writing a lot here and there, but I have not published anything in a long time. Was it the busyness of a full time job, the malaise of my living situation, an absence of a muse? I do not know. However, I knew that if I were to survive as a queer theologian or thrive in what gives me life, I would need to start writing again.
And so, out of the blue—in my new apartment—checking in on Facebook—in the midst of unloading boxes—I saw an article that my friend posted. The first words immediately drew my attention: “I am Ryland-.” I remember learning the story of Ryland in a training I attended on the LGBTQ community and health. Ryland is a transgender boy, who at the early age of five began to recognize that his experience as a boy did not line up with his bodied situation as a female. At first, Ryland’s parents thought it was a phase; that Ryland was a tomboy. However, the psychological stress and dysphoria Ryland experienced began to take its toll. After many meetings with doctors, psychologists, and other professionals, Ryland’s parents decided it was best for Ryland to begin the transition from a girl to a boy immediately.
Ryland’s story, for the time being, ends there. But then the next words of this blogger’s title further drew my inquiry: “-the story of a male-identifying little girl who didn’t transition.” This was not Ryland’s story; so, whose was this? This was the story of Lindsay, a woman who always “seemed to prefer ‘boy’ things.” She always preferred blue to pink, green to purple, short hair to long, and when playing Cowboys and Indians, she would rather play the Indian than the Belle in Distress.
Lindsay “desperately wanted to be a boy.” She was fortunate to grow up in a loving, open-minded, accepting family:
“They just let me be me. They let me be a girl who wore jeans more often than skirts. They let me play with slingshots rather than princess wands. They didn’t conclude that I was gay, or transgender. They didn’t put me in a box that would shape my future, at the expense of my own free will.”
Lindsay continues to reflect on her gender play, and even her sexuality. During a sleepover, she experimented with a girl friend. Lindsay reflects:
“Looking back, I believe she had been molested and was acting out what had been done to her. This doesn’t make me transgender. It doesn’t make me a lesbian. It made me a child growing up in a broken world.”
Nowadays, she is successfully a woman who still loves football as much as she loves “putting on an apron and creating elaborate meals for friends and family.” In the end, she feels bad for Ryland, and how her parents “may be robbing her by choosing a gender for her at such a young age.”
While I appreciate her autobiographical exploration of gender, I think Lindsay oversimplifies not only Ryland’s story, but the story of transgender persons themselves. While not knowing the extent of Lindsay’s experience (even though she specified that she ‘desperately’ wanted to be a boy), her narrative does not exhibit the sort of gender dysphoria typically experienced by transgender persons. And yet, Lindsay identifies herself with Ryland’s story. She is apt to reflect on the ways her gender expression does not conform to the norms of a specific culture’s understanding of how “girls” behave. However, the missed mark is the lack of any recognition or even reflection on the very real and existential disconnection between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender as determined by culture; this being a quintessential piece to the narrative identity of transgender persons.
Lindsay’s identification with Ryland’s story primarily serves as an apologetic towards transgender persons, but can come off as a polemic against them. The apologetic is sympathetic, wherein Lindsay correlates her experience as a ‘tomboy’ with the gender dysphoria of Ryland, effectively creating some sort of camaraderie. And yet, there is still a denial of the experience of transgender persons as authentic and right (or at least ‘ok’).
But the apologetic comes through in a most interesting way: a free will argument. By claiming that Ryland did not possess free will in the decision to transition to a boy, Ryland becomes the victim of not only culture’s gender demands, but a victim of his parents’ arrest of his free will. But the will of the parents and the will of culture are formally the same: they are determinative forces upon the free will of an individual, child or adult.
I don’t typically see this sort of apologetic—Lindsay’s identification with Ryland’s transgenderism—in gender discussions as much as I see it in sexuality discussions. In those discussions, the apologetic follows as such. A heterosexual person will admit to thinking a person of their same sex and gender (very important we have both) is sexually attractive. As a means of identification with gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons, the heterosexual person demonstrates relatability to the continuum of sexuality because they happen to find someone of their same sex and gender attractive.
I think recognizing the continuum of sexuality is important for the Heteronorm (referring to the superpersonal forces of heteronormativity), in spite of the potential for the Heteronorm to use it as a means of an in-breaking of their majority status within the minority and effectively subsuming it. However, a crucial mistake the Heteronorm makes in this apologetic move is by assuming that what moves one along the continuum is as fluid as the continuum itself. Just because a straight female finds another woman to be sexually attractive does not effectively make her bisexual (though it’s a critical part). The experience and testimony of being bisexual is more than passing phases or brief enchantments; it is correlative to the transgender person’s experience in that there is a deep experience of “I can do no other and my experience as a sexed being who does not line up with my culture’s expectation of my being.”
So, Lindsay is doing something similar, but operating out of the Cisnorm (refering to the superpersonal forces of cisgenderism). Lindsay has come to recognize her own cisgender identity; the sex she was assigned with at birth corresponds to the gender identity culturally associated with it. And yet, because she had some male gender identifications, she assumes she can relate with the transgender person, one whose sex that was assigned at birth does not correspond to the gender identity culturally associated with it.
All this to say the following. Lindsay identifies with a piece of the gender puzzle with Ryland’s case, but she is mistaken to assume that her experience of gender correlates with the gender dysphoria of Ryland. Thus, while I appreciate her story, Lindsay is not Ryland.
And neither am I, nor are any of us. So why am I writing about this? What could I possibly have to say about this?
Well, I could start by saying that while I’m fairly cisgender, the gender of male that I identify with does not fully correspond to certain cultural expectations of the male gender. I never thought of myself as a manly man, much to my frustration. I identify with more culturally feminine things. I could also say that when I was three I was fascinated by my mother’s dresses, and when I was five I dressed up as Maleficent for Halloween. I could also say that while I am primarily attracted to men, and while I find women attractive, it is also more feminine qualities of men that I find attractive. I could also say that during my coming out process, it was a very difficult deciding if I was going to come out as gay, bisexual, or whatever.
Hold up; am I not doing the same thing as Lindsay and others? Am I trying to prove myself as a dialog partner with transgender and bisexual persons? Why and what and whom am I trying to prove myself?!
I think of my transgender acquaintances and my unconditional intrigue towards and of them. When I close this window, a picture of Candy Darling, a transgender woman and Warhol Wunderkind, on her death bed, will show up on my desktop. It is one of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen, and it constantly evokes a response from me every time I see it. At the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago, I saw a transgender couple (male-to-female and female-to-male) sitting alone in th midst of the chaos of the conference, and I was moved by their beauty. As well, I think of the praises and accolades given to Felicity Huffman and Jared Leto for bravely portraying transgender women in film, and even as more transgender persons make their way into media, it certainly seems that trans is the new black.
All of this leads me to ponder on our relationship to the other, whomever it may be. What is it about transgender people that has cisgender people so fascinated? What is is about gay people that has straight people so fussed up? What are the dynamics of our understanding of the other?
In positive and praiseworthy circumstances, the move to understand the other is a move towards relationality, towards participation in the object as the subject that it is. Through empathy—understanding someone as themselves—we cannot help but understand one another through ourselves. We come to know people through our own filters, our own glasses, our own eyes. It is a developmental stage to understand persons vis-a-vis ourselves, a stage that is revisited over and over again. To not understand you apart from my own understanding can be as inauthentic as to not understand you as yourself in the first place.
However, there is a darker side to the understanding of the other: understanding as an act of usurpation. The act of knowing can be an act of domination. Under this guise, one shapes the object of their observation. The observer has not participated in empathic knowing, but rather stood back and looked, attempting to craft the object in the image of one’s own understanding. The existentialists have described this as the “Look,” the recognition of the subjectness or—in most cases—the objectness of the other. In Feminist critique, the Look is the subjugation of women by men, where women are subjected to a permanent object status. Women, according to feminists, must then reclaim their position as subject, to assert themselves as a subjective subject (See Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex).
Has Lindsay given the Look at Ryland, consigning his transgender status as a permanent object? Have I, in making Ryland a symbol in my own image, made him an object for analysis, critique, and intrigue? Is the transgender the “Second Gender?” In our attempt to relate to the other, will we seek for the other to become us, or will we allow the other to be the catalyst for our unbecoming in the pursuit of relationality?