Squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Basketball is a game, but not all games are basketball. Boston Terriers are dogs but not all dogs are Boston Terriers.1 Transsexuals are transgender, but not all transgender people are transsexual.
Transgender is the umbrella term, encompassing the entire spectrum of gender variance. (crossdresser, transvestite, genderqueer, fetishist, transsexual, butch, drag queen, to name a few). Transsexual refers to a subset of transgender people. Transsexuals are those trans-people who “desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex”2, who feel discomfort or distress about their biologic sex, and who (often) take measures, or wish to take measures, to alter their bodies to conform to their gender identity. Those of you reading from the beginning will remember the concept of gender dysphoria; transsexuals are loaded with it.
Transsexuals, specifically male to female (MTF) transsexuals, dominate the popular cultural perception of what it means to be transgender. It is worth pausing to reflect on this for a moment. First, some transgender people suffer little or no dysphoria, are completely at peace with their bodies and have no desire whatsoever to modify them. Second, roughly half of transgender people were assigned female gender at birth (FAAB). Nevertheless, the public eye is fully trained on Laverne Cox, Bruce Jenner, Janet Mock, Chelsea Manning, Andreja Pejic and Nicole Maines. Not that the (mostly positive) attention is bad–the fact that more transgender people are being celebrated rather than ridiculed is in itself cause for celebration. Today I will present two reasons why I think the public spotlight is so narrowly focused. If you have time, spend a moment and come up with your own theories before reading on.
Reason #1: Genital fixation
Genitals mesmerize us.3 No other body part exerts similar or simultaneous power to arouse, amuse and define and disgust. Sure, we’d like to think that our brains matter most, believing in the freedom of thought and the nobility of reason, but such things are no match for the simple, built-in binary of the human crotch. It is your junk, not your brain, which essentially maps out the details of your life–whom you can befriend, how much money you can make, what sort of emotions you are allowed to express, what you wear, what jobs you should consider or whether or not you are seen as fit to lead.
Transsexuals regularly hear that they are fixated on the genitals of the opposite sex from a society that is fixated on theirs. Total strangers feel no qualms at all against asking about our plumbing and/or sex life. Poor, frightened kids who thoroughly see themselves as female and already feel betrayed by their bodies are compelled to be submitted to risk of further personal injury and humiliation in the boys room because, well…penises.
Penises are trump in the (small) deck of genital cards. Transsexuals supposedly want to “cut their dicks off”, even though that is not what actually happens in gender reassignment surgery. Woman with ovaries removed? Woman. Man with testicles removed? Eunuch. Not so long ago, the internet teemed with suggestions that Osama Bin Ladin and various Taliban extremists should be made into women by having their genitals excised, as if that’s all it would take.4 Society has a simply enormous case of collective castration anxiety which shapes its approach to trans people.
I don’t know how typical my experience is, but I generally observe that others are far more fascinated with my genitals than I am. Rumors and bets about if and when I would have The Surgery proliferated around town long before I gave the question any thought at all. If I ever write a sequel to my “Bathroom Song,” it will contain this little true-life morsel:
This time in the Ladies room, I’m standing there in line
When she asked about my genitals as if to pass the time
I struggled for an answer, I stammered out some words
And I wondered, “Was I selfish for not asking about hers?”
Reason #2: Gender inequality
Ask the average man, “Would you ever want to be a woman?” and you are likely to hear either a) vigorous, indignant denial, or b) some incredibly inane comment about being able to play with one’s own boobs. Ask a woman if she would ever want to be a man, and you will likely hear either a) matter of fact denial, or b) a relatively sophisticated non-sexual gain/loss analysis. Male privilege enables some women to question whether it might be easier, more fun, or advantageous to be men. The same male privilege leads men to see being female as a downgrade, or even, as we saw above, a potential punishment. I should hasten to remind that transsexuality isn’t so much about who we want to be as who we think we are, and yet the thought experiment above is useful.
If a woman (female assigned at birth–FAAB) transitions to manhood (FTM), society seems to get that on at least some level. Further, FTM transsexuals tend to escape notice due to the high efficacy of hormonal therapy in their case. Of course FTM transsexuals face horrendous discrimination, but the flavor of their oppression tends more toward shunning, ignoring or denial of opportunity. Theirs is the curse of invisibility. We don’t see them peppering the checkout line supermarket news rags, and thankfully we don’t see them murdered at the same rate as MTF transsexuals, particularly transwomen of color.
Try another thought experiment. Match a word or words from column A with a word from column B. Do some words seem to fit better than others?
|Female to male (FTM)||perverse|
|Male to female (MTF)||sad|
I welcome your honest feedback on this. My suspicion is that the words mentally associated with FTM’s and MTF’s will overlap to some extent, but still vary significantly.
Getting back to castration anxiety5, we can begin to understand violence against transwomen. Some men feel threatened by the mere presence of MTF transsexuals. And God forbid that they discover that they are attracted to one! Such arousal often precedes MTF homicides, both random and relational.
In the next posts, I plan to address the treatments for and the medicalization of transsexuality. Stay tuned and feel free to subscribe. All you’ll get is an email when a new post publishes.
My son pointed out that I have more posts in this series than the link bar on the right can hold, making it difficult to go back to earlier posts in the series. I am looking for a way to correct this without messing up existing subscriptions. Any of you wordpress-savvy folk tuning in please feel free to point me in the right direction, and perhaps this paragraph will get to go away.