Regular readers will know that my relationship with the label, ‘transgender’, has become progressively more uneasy in recent months. Labels are often uncomfortable to folks; we hear enough cisgender people moan about having a label for what they are. Nobody likes a box, including most transgender people according to the gender specialist I saw last week.
In the early days of my exploration, transgender was a word that really helped people understand what I was doing. It helped me experiment with new things and share experience with others. I needed that label; it gave me a ticket into a community at a time when I needed that kind of support.
“I’m out as transgender because it challenges people who don’t believe we’re real,” I said about a year ago in a gender awareness training session. I was asked to be on a panel for my former charity and chip in with some input on the day. Transgender, for me, quickly became less about me as a person and more about the larger sociopolitical sphere. It became a vehicle for communication rather than an expression of self; a means to an end. For a while, it was comfortable to be politically active in that way.
“OH, MOST OF MY PATIENTS DON’T LIKE THE TERM ‘TRANSGENDER’; MOST OF THEM JUST USE THE NAME FOR WHATEVER GENDER THEY ARE, BE IT BINARY FEMALE OR MALE OR NON BINARY OR WHATEVER.”
Fast forward a year, and I mention to the gender specialist that I don’t use explicit language to discuss my status, and his response was rather dismissive. “Oh, most of my patients don’t like the term ‘transgender’; most of them just use the name for whatever gender they are, be it binary female or male or non binary or whatever.” We swiftly moved on to other things, but the casual way he laid it out raises questions.
This remark is by no means backed up by any empirical data, but as a qualitative statement it confirms more or less what we knew all along: most of the transgender community is invisible. Most of the people we see as transgender are transitioning in the popular sense: moving through medical, social, and official systems with more to sort out. What this statement implies is that actually, many of the transitioning community aren’t visible either. Or at least, they aren’t joining in as we’re accustomed to seeing in the media — even in our own visible communities.
“There is a group of people I see that quite happily call themselves ‘transgender’ and use that as a way to organise and meet up or engage with each other, but they’re not the average patient that comes here,” my doctor went on to say when I expressed my surprise. On a personal level, it said to me that there are a lot of folks out there like me that I will never knowingly meet: I’m not happy to use the word when I describe myself. I’ve partially withdrawn from groups in my private life. I don’t find validation in those spaces.
Of course, professionally I can’t get around it. If I don’t use the word, a lot of the stuff I write doesn’t make any sense. It has a meaning that is bigger than myself: people will apply a label whether I like it or not. Labels don’t care how much you like them as an individual, they’re a matter of societal consensus.
That’s more or less why cisgender folks who get mad about their label don’t get much of my sympathy. Don’t like being called cisgender? Well, I don’t like being considered transgender but here we are. I can tap dance around it in my personal life and those close to me can know that I’m not comfortable being placed in that box. If they're respectful, they’ll not use it when talking about me. But society at large? I’m out of luck there just like everyone else.
"THE SECOND COMMENT FROM MY GENDER DOCTOR, THAT PEOPLE USE THE WORD ‘TRANSGENDER’ AS A RALLYING CRY, SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT THE LABEL HAS COME TO MEAN: IT’S A POLITICAL TERM."
The second comment from my gender doctor, that people use the word ‘transgender’ as a rallying cry, says something about what the label has come to mean: it’s a political term. It speaks of a social movement, and one that doesn’t account for the whole group of humans that fall under the general definition of the term. If it’s a sociopolitical term rather than a personal descriptor, then it accounts for a lot of the mixed feelings people seem to have over the word.
This is typical of activism in that activists are the minority of whatever interest group they represent. Most folks aren’t activists. Most folks care about what’s happening but it’s not enough to activate them. Others, like me, choose to contribute in a way that is not strictly political. Social movements need not be an engagement with the specific ideology that comes with the transgender label.
And like most activist groups, the unactivated majority benefits greatly from much of what the active minority does. That’s healthy. We can’t all be angry all the time, and that people can afford to be unactivated is a sign of the success of activism.
Another quality consistent with activism is the disdain for the unactivated. The Occupy movement is particularly guilty of this. Participants have been known to characterise the unactivated as ‘zombies’ on social media. A member of a local transgender group here characterised me as a class traitor for finding validation with cisgender women. I was told that the only people who would see me as a woman were other transgender people and that I was blinding myself. An irony: in order to really deal with inequity, we need to downplay labels as far as is practical. I accept that transgender folk have a lot of inequity to deal with, but shutting out cisgender people as the enemy is exacerbating the problem. It’s extremism, and we know how that ends.
We’ve always known that the majority of transgender people are invisible, and the recent surge in unrest over our human rights accounts for the term ‘transgender’ leaning to a more political meaning than it perhaps did. I would believe that transgender people have a disproportionately high population of activists, but maybe this isn’t so. Maybe most of us just want to get on with our lives, discard the label that brings all the conflict, and be forgotten. It’s something I seek in my personal life, and it’s comforting to hear from my doctor that I’m actually part of an invisible majority that I will never knowingly meet.