Trans as “Gender Outlaw”
These are some ideas I’ve had concerning how certain understandings and ways of being trans have come to be as well as some criticisms of them. I think these theories apply in my own case at least. I suppose I could be blowing my own experience out of proportion and projecting it but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. I’m by no means trying to assert that this covers all possible ways of being trans or genderqueer or whatever. My brain likes to think about how people’s ideas and social context create the reality they experience and this is what it generated.
Non-trans people play a big role in making what being trans signifies in this society. To a lot of trans people being trans really isn’t that big of a deal. It can be a pain in the ass in terms of accessing resources and how others treat you but a lot of trans people don’t spend all their time focusing on being trans. They’re just people trying to live their lives. To a lot of non-trans people though, trans people and the whole process of transitioning is strange and fascinating. There’s been a clash between various non-trans academics and trans people for a while. These academics like to read a lot into being trans and/or transitioning that many trans people find ludicrous or offensive. Sometimes trans people are held up as symbols of reactionary forces in society but there’s also this trend of seeing trans people as symbols of gender rebellion, how gender is an act and so forth. A lot of this focuses on or amplifies trans people’s differences from non-trans people and ignores how similar most trans people are to non-trans folks. Non-trans people can end up celebrating a form of trans-ness that is largely their own creation, based on their own biased interpretation of trans people.
So non-trans people project all this shit onto trans people and sometimes they project this gender transgressive crap. They get this idea that if they “support” trans people then they’re showing how cool they are with gender liberation, they’re proving that how “politically aware” they are. This can lead to such people being total dicks to trans people without realizing it, treating them more like walking symbols or ideas rather than people.
To illustrate, when I was in college and living in my school’s feminist house, some kids were having a discussion on bodies and making art or something like that. I wasn’t attending this meeting, instead I was up in my room working on homework. Some of these people called me downstairs and said they wanted to ask me something. When I got down there, they proceeded to ask me about how I related to my body as a trans person, as if I existed to provide them with information about being different or whatever. I was shocked by their sense of entitlement. I don’t quite remember what I said but I still regret not telling them off, telling them how disrespectful they were being.
This “gender transgression” mythos can also help create a group of people who embrace this concept of “trans as gender rebel” because it gives them support and affirmation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these people don’t really experience dysphoria or break gender rules, it could just lead people to interpret their condition along certain lines rather than others. It can lead a person to take on a trans identity rather than other available identities, which is what I feel happened in my case. I was definitely pursuing an idea of being trans that was entwined with the idea of crossing or breaking gender boundaries. That’s the idea of trans that I stumbled upon first, I found the trans people who said they weren’t much different from other men and women later on.
To a lot of people, especially non-trans people, taking hormones and getting surgery seems transgressive and unusual. To a lot of non-trans people, what they see trans people doing is really weird, is violating gender norms. This leads them to create this idea of trans-ness being all about breaking down the stability of gender, that changing the body with surgery and hormones is a radical act. They will then give their support to trans people or oppose them based on whether they support or oppose the idea of gender being broken or subverted.
There are also trans and genderstrange people who have played into or helped create this form of trans-ness. I think a lot of this has to do with recovering and giving value to what we’ve been attacked for. Whether we actually break down gender or not, in other people’s eyes we threaten what they think is normal and so they attack us for it. We get attacked for being freaks whether we want to smash the binary or live in th burbs behind a white picket fence. Some of us totally deny the freakiness but some of us go into it and embrace it. All this talk of gender subversion gives us a way to redeem these traits that society attacks us for, it can even give us a platform from which to speak.
Other people who aren’t “gender transgressive” themselves but find it fascinating or radical will listen to “gender rebels”, will support them to prove their own “radicalness”. They might even sexualize them and date them. They’ll find some way to attach themselves to “gender outlaws” so that some of the “radicalness” rubs off on them. And many “gender radicals” will go along with this, even if it means being treated more like a totem and less like a human being because they’ve endured abuse for not fitting in genderwise in the past and are hungry for any sort of affirmation. Sometimes identities become hip for a while and people will take advantage of how their experience can become cool if they talk about it the right way in order to get support and connect with people.
So the idea of the “transgender outlaw” came about in part through this dialectic between non-trans people’s interpretation of trans people as transgressive and some people internalization of that idea. It spread through academic, personal and political writings and now it has altered reality, altered people’s perceptions of themselves and others. These ideas have helped create more people who embody them or try to. In some cases, it has changed the meanings trans and genderweird people ascribe to their existence. In other cases, people have become “gender rebels” because the idea appealed to them after they learned of it. With some people it’s a mixture of both.
Some people, such as myself, spent a long time not fitting into gender conventions and getting shit for it. When I learned of “trans as outlaw” it caused me both to view myself and my gender differently but it also lead me to try to become that version of trans-ness. It both changed how I saw what was already there and lead me to try to live out that vision and speak its language. I consider myself part of a trend of young people born female who explored (trans)“masculinity” and/or genderqueerness and the new availability of hormones and surgery. We had access to both body changing technologies and ideas about gender that were largely unavailable in the past. The potential of changing the body became glamorized and hyped up in some scenes. It’s harder to romanticize leaving the body as it is.
The trans person as “gender outlaw”, genderfucking, genderqueerness have come to be the way to defy gender conventions for a lot of people. People end up contrasting the gender odd with the gender normal. What gets left out of this is a class based view of gender, of looking at gender as a way to distribute power, labor and access to/control of resources. Men and women are social classes that overlap and intersect with classes based on race and economic status. There are also subclasses of people who don’t neatly fall into one of the socially recognized classes of women and men or who fit into both in different ways. I feel like I inhabit the class of women because I grew up female and was raised to become a woman and currently live as one, that I sometimes inhabit the class of men because I am often seen as a man and treated like one out in the world and that I fall into a subclass of genderfreaks because I’ve spent a good amount of time in my life falling outside of gender conventions and that effected both how others treat me and my own psychology.
One problem with the “gender rebel” myth is that doesn’t really reflect the lives of people who violate gender norms. Most people who break gender rules deal with more shit from society. We’re not “liberated”, we don’t inhabit this space outside of gender conventions, we get more tangled up in them than other people often do. It also sets up this false line between folks who claim “gender transgressive” identities and “normal” women and men. It overlooks how most men and women break gender norms in some ways. Some people break conventions a lot, enough to pass as a gender different than the category they were born into but don’t see themselves as trans or genderqueer, just as women and men who don’t fit the stereotypes for their gender.
I don’t think it makes sense to hold up some identities as more radical than others. The idea that just existing as a weirdo can somehow disrupt the social order may be appealing to believe but doesn’t hold up. Just because someone’s gender breaks some or a lot of society’s rules doesn’t mean that it automatically changes the structure of society or alters how power flows. Appearing gender strange may disrupt other people’s perceptions but that’s pretty much it. It makes more sense to judge someone’s politics based on what they actually do, not on what they call themselves or how they look. Not fitting into gender norms doesn’t prevent anyone from being politically reactionary. And anyone, regardless of gender or any other social category they inhabit, who questions and resists this fucked up culture and tries to create a more liberated reality can be radical.
I am not radical because people sometimes can’t figure out what gender I am. I don’t destabilize gender just because sometime I’m seen as a man and sometimes I’m seen as a dyke or because I took t for a while and now have a nonstandard female body. I’m a radical because I question and try to uncover unequal power structures in this present society and do what I can to undo them. I’m a radical because I want to overthrow the present order because I find it oppressive and because I want to build a new world where everyone is free.