By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
Many people are puzzled and confused by what seems to an explosion of people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or something else that is not ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Even to LGB folk, the changes seem to have occurred almost overnight. So let’s start our exploration of trans issues by explaining what happened.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the common wisdom was that sexual orientation and gender identity were totally separate things, unrelated to each other. The gender binary – the idea that there are two distinct sexes, male and female, biologically determined- was unquestioned. ‘Transsexuals’ were nature’s mistakes, a female brain trapped in a male body, and female to male transsexuals were thought to be rare. ‘MtF’ transsexuals- natal males with a female identity- yearned to be perceived as women and to fit into mainstream heterosexual society by ‘going stealth’ – keeping their history as males hidden. They rejected -and were rejected by -the newly emerging gay community. At the same time, the gay male community embraced the male macho ideal, and drag queens and ‘sissy’ men were marginalized even in the gay ghetto. Lesbians were more accepting of ‘dykes’ or ‘butches,’ but suspicious of anyone who was ‘too’ male. ‘Transsexualism’ and same sex sexual orientation seemed world apart.
But that began to change in the 1990’s. Over the last twenty years, more and more ‘butch’ lesbians gradually started to identify as female to male transsexuals. Even today, most ‘FtM’s’ go through a period of identifying as gay women before settling on a transgender identity. Many of these FtM’s choose to live within the lesbian community post-transition, and eventually most gay women have accepted their presence. Cross-dressers – natal males, attracted to women, who live part time as women – began to go to another level. Increasingly, some move to a full-time female identification and ‘transition’ – ie., take feminizing hormones, undergo gender reassignment surgery, and live entirely as women. Post-transition, many retain their attraction to women and enter into same-sex relationships. Increasingly they are accepted by and integrated into the lesbian world. Even gay men are changing their attitudes: some transmen are discovering post-transition that they are attracted to other men, and they are claiming a place in the gay male community.
The addition of the ‘T’ to the LGB has produced an interesting change in the LGBTQ community, something some social scientists call ‘intersectionality.’ Within this world, there is a widespread questioning of the gender binary, and a recognition that sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be neatly separated. This new outlook is especially prevalent among younger ‘queers,’ many of whom refuse to self-label, or who choose idiosyncratic labels. Beemyn and Rankin, whose book ‘The Lives of Transgender People’ appeared in 2011, found that their subjects choose no fewer than 103 separate, distinct ways to describe themselves. The concept of ‘gender blending’ or ‘gender fluidity’ is more widespread: I may feel ‘mostly’ female, but some days I’m more ‘butch,’ and my gender expression and behavior is different at different times. Or – I may throw out the concept of gender entirely, as the person in the picture heading this blog entry has done.
Changes have been taking place in the mainstream culture as well. Transgender people, aided by the Internet in the 1990’s, formed coalitions and lobbied for recognition, acceptance, and legal change. The transactivist movement has had a good deal of success, changing laws on local, state, and Federal levels. Trans people have become increasingly visible – think ‘Chaz Bono’- and this visibility encourages young people to ‘come out.’ At the same time, the children of the Baby Boomers, raised on feminism and ‘Free To Be You and Me,’ have supported a wider range of gender expression in their own children. Parents who twenty years ago might have taken a little boy who played with dolls to a shrink now just simply buy him the Barbie he desires. And the kids who might have suppressed their gender nonconforming identities until middle age have begun to express them by adolescence.
Are there more transgender people now than thirty years ago? Perhaps – or perhaps they are just ‘coming out’ younger and feeling freer to live their inner experiences. The next time I blog about this, I’ll address the issue of gender fluid, gender non-conforming, and transgender kids.