Trans Rights Are Human Rights

Shifting the Discourse on Trans Bodies


(Author’s Note: I began this piece last year during the publicity surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. On 2/16/16, South Dakota’s legislature passed H.B. 1008, a bill that forces trans youth to use separate restrooms and locker rooms from their peers, and I felt that now was the right time to finish the post.

Before you read, I would like to ask for your help: take a minute to let South Dakota’s governor know that we are watching and we expect him to veto the bill.)

65 years is a long time to spend hiding from the world in plain sight. One could scarcely conjure up purer poetry than that of Caitlyn Jenner: global veneration as the archetype of masculinity; an ever-intensifying parade of cameras that moves closer and closer to a cipher, a man who only ever existed in our minds — a person always being watched but terrified of nothing more than being truly seen.

Corporate capitalism leverages insecurity to consume a person almost completely, and like a rabbit from a hat, a new person emerges, redeemed, in the greatest spectacle of them all, while Diane Sawyer looks on, wondering in polite astonishment how someone with the soul of a woman could have achieved athletic apogee.

Ego and self-loathing feed one another; Caitlyn’s story reads in caricature as though it was created to impel us towards this insight: public gendered achievement is a reaction to confined gender confusion; a life where every moment is revealed on reality television is a reaction to one in which the thing that feels realest to you is something that no one else can see and that you cannot bring yourself to share:

“I hate the parts of myself that I feel are insufficient, so I will eclipse them with my achievement.”

The edges of the story seem almost too sharp to be instructive, but I think if we look carefully we can learn a lot about ourselves from it.

This is territory we all know well, however surreal it may at first seem — Caitlyn is trans; I am not trans, and you are probably not either. Caitlyn was once the greatest athlete in the world; I never was, and you almost certainly never were either. Caitlyn’s life is a spectacle so public that the narrative can seem at times to have itself come alive and seized control of its own subjects in order to generate more page views and advertising dollars; my story and yours are probably more mundane (mine definitely is).

And yet, the thing that kept Caitlyn trapped for 65 years is something that each of us knows intimately: a fear that who we are or what we have done will disappoint the people we love.

This is the basic vulnerability of human experience — shame, or fear of disconnection.

Teaching Shame; Learning Not-Enoughness

Last week I returned to writing this essay nearly a year after having started it when I was deeply moved by Gavin Grimm’s remarks from the oral arguments in his case before the U.S. Court of Appeals, in which he is fighting for the right to use a bathroom and locker room consistent with his gender identity. Take a moment to read his full remarks if you have it.

Here are some of Gavin’s words, spoken at the age of sixteen:

I am fighting this fight because no kid should have to think so hard about performing a basic and private function of being alive. No kid struggling to be accepted, and struggling to accept themselves, should have to simultaneously battle for the right to use the correct bathroom.

I find these remarks incredible because they are at once a window into a child’s profound strength, courage, and resilience — and, as such, a strange beacon of hope for humanity — and as well a window into the crushing shame caused by the culture that we create, reify, and participate in.

They are an earth-shattering lesson in how forcefully we teach one another, including the most visibly vulnerable people amongst us, from the earliest stages of life, that love and belonging are contingent and can be withdrawn at any moment.

Here is a child who is openly testifying to immense pain at attempting to reconcile how he feels about a central aspect of his identity with what the world has told him about he should feel, and the question before the adults in his community and now one of the highest courts in our country is one of whether they can tell Gavin where they feel it is safe for him to pee, poop, and be naked in the process of changing clothes.

I want you to take a moment to digest that, because I think it’s pretty nuts.

What is that about?

Really, though — are you tracking me here?

Why are we threatened by where Gavin goes to pee and poop, or where he goes to change clothes for gym class?

The answer, I think, gets to our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman, or even to be a boy or a girl, to be a person, and can help us understand how we can increase trans acceptance and begin to stop the attacks on trans youth like Gavin.

Deconstructing the Discourse on Trans Bodies

Clearly, some of the adults in Gavin’s community were thrown off guard by the way they perceive him to violate their understanding of what it means to be a boy, and of how that perceived violation could upset a cultural norm of gender-segregation in bathrooms that they feel is significant to their own comfort or their children’s comfort or safety.

At first glance, this looks like it’s a disagreement about how we define male and female. The text of South Dakota’s H.B. 1008 even goes so far as to say that being male or female is determined by “chromosomes and anatomy.”

We could get mired in a debate about the biology of what makes someone male or female, but I think that would be a mistake. (But for the record, in case you were wondering or unaware, there is no chromosomal definition of male or female, there is no anatomical definition of male or female that operates independent of a human drawing an arbitrary line on the continuum of genital expression, and many people are not even obviously male or female based on our common, “convenient” understandings of those terms).

Do you think lawmakers in the South Dakota legislature really care (or know) about the complexities of chromosomal and anatomical definitions of biological sex?

I think something else is going on here.

I think these adults are using cultural norms of gender expression, bodies, and bodily functions to feel secure in their own identities, and when Gavin upsets the norms of gender and privacy to which they ascribe, they feel threatened, and they lash out against him.

Just beneath the surface of their attacks and the classic oppositional political discourse, I think an instructive paradox lurks.

If you look at Gavin’s own words, actually listen to what he’s saying, you see quite quickly that far from being exempt from our cultural norms of gender or the intimacy of the body, Gavin is saying expressly that he has internalized them, that they are extremely significant to him:

Standing at the school board meeting last year was equal parts humiliating and terrifying…because, at age 15, I had to witness adults of my community discuss in a public forum some rather intimate details of my anatomy.
…no kid should have to think so hard about performing a basic and private function of being alive.

He shares in this essential part of what it means to be human. He understands himself to be male, he understands his body to be private just like anyone else’s, and is emphasizing the significance of not being labeled as deviant or “othered” by us in a process as quotidian as going to the restroom.

So, I am struck by the bizarre way in which Gavin and the adults who attacked him are actually talking about the exact same things: the significance of gender and acts deemed by us culturally to be gendered and intimate, like being naked in the presence of others, to their feelings of comfort and well-being.

(I don’t mean to equate their words as rhetorical acts — I believe Gavin’s words are a triumphant act of courage, while those of the adults around him and the legislature in a state like South Dakota are heinous acts of rhetorical violence — but it seems to me that they come from that same place where the ideas and assumptions that we exchange culturally are internalized and become an essential part of how we understand who we are and our place in the world alongside others.)

Performing gender and being gendered are in some ways pre-human acts: we often know even before a baby leaves the womb that “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” and if not before, then this is one of our first proclamations. In this way, you could say that our understanding of what it means for each of us to be a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, is the most public aspect of our cultural identity, of what it means to be a person, a human, as we are understood by ourselves and one another.

It’s as if publicness and intimacy are two sides of the same coin — the more that we take for granted our right to know and understand a part of someone’s identity — the deeper it is a part of our cultural zeitgeist (gender being baked in even at the level of our language, of the pronouns we use to refer to one another) — the more central it is to how we understand who we are, and the more zealously we forge and protect it in ourselves.

Take a second to ponder that, because I think it’s nuts. The more heavily leveraged an aspect of our identity is culturally, the greater the lengths to which we go to protect it on an individual basis — right down to our clothes, which hide the most gendered parts of our bodies, or our bathroom stalls, where those parts of our bodies could be seen, and the norms that govern who goes into them.

When a non-trans person anchors themselves to what it means to be a man or a woman, or a straight person anchors themselves to what it means to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex, and in so doing derives a sense of identity or self-worth, they draw upon shared cultural building blocks from which all of us are fashioning our own identities.

If someone like Gavin comes along and asserts that these building blocks don’t look exactly how we thought they did, it shakes our notions of who we are, and we reject them in an effort to defend our own understanding of ourselves.

I think this can help us understand the incredibly violent, hateful words and reactions that trans people are currently being subjected to around the country and around the world as they share with us the truth about who they are: the deeper a part of assumed cultural identity or norms that someone upsets, the more off guard it makes people who have never questioned these norms feel, and the more violent their reactions.

Even watching the increasing acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner over the past year, or the emergence in media and visibility of trans people like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Aydian Dowling, I notice the way in which we make our acceptance of trans people contingent upon their reifying conventions of gendered beauty. Caitlyn Jenner was largely brutalized by tabloids and late-night comics while she was transitioning, and then when she emerged as Cait in an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot, drawing comparisons to Jessica Lange, there was a marked shift in the tone of the conversation. This shift was for the better, no doubt, but making our acceptance contingent upon the way someone looks, on their six-pack abs or their make-up artist or an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot, is an instructive lesson in the pervasiveness of gender norms in coloring our reactions to people and situations: something as superficial as how well another person conforms to our expectations about how they should look as a man or a woman could suddenly make it OK to turn a clearly deeply vulnerable person into the butt of a shitty joke, or could turn a child into a “freak” in the words of those who are supposed to care for him.

We celebrate trans people when we can use them to reaffirm our own building blocks of identity; when they don’t, we cast them out as ugly, deviant, predatory, criminal.

We Can Do Better

Where do we go from here?

What a perverse and devastating reality: in Gavin we have a child being tacitly (and others, explicitly) accused of lying so that he can sneak into the bathrooms of the opposite sex, while the adults around him pass a bill about his genitals in a supposed effort to protect the sanctity and privacy of children’s bodies in schools.

That may read like something out of Through the Looking Glass, but luckily I think it brings us nicely to the first axiom of creating a better conversation about and with trans people. It’s one that I think everyone should be able to agree upon:

Genitals are private, unless and until someone takes their pants off and asks you about them.

Let’s leave genitals to our doctors, and laws to our legislators.

The second axiom is also something that I think everyone should be able to agree upon. We are bound to each other by the societal fabric of language, culture, and social interaction; they function to make us feel variously affirmed or ashamed, and we cannot straightforwardly free ourselves from these feelings — from the pain of shame or from the need to feel loved.

I think this is what gives the lawmakers of South Dakota their righteousness. We are used to expecting affirmation from one another, and we are used to rejecting what upsets our own sense of ourselves in a classic instance of ego defense. It’s the same exact thing when David Letterman idiotically jokes about a transitioning Caitlyn Jenner for the way she looks — the same neurosis of attacking something that makes us feel off guard, something that we therefore label “ugly.”

If we are not careful, we might convince ourselves that other people’s bodies exist to make us feel comfortable or affirmed. That would be a grave but understandable mistake. What we owe each other is compassion, not the right version of a penis to affirm our ideas of maleness or a vulva/vagina to affirm our ideas of femaleness.

A person’s body and identity are not fair game as we play the strange social game of seeking affirmation from one another. No one owes you anything as they attempt to come to an understanding of who they are:

Seek affirmation from words and acts, not bodies and identities.

One final idea. The same fabric that gives affirmation also gives shame and teaches disconnection. (Brené Brown has expounded adroitly upon this idea before.) This means that we are all responsible for one another’s feelings of shame, in addition to our feelings of affirmation and belonging. Ugliness is baked into beauty: when we appreciate something as beautiful or good we draw upon the same need, the same vulnerability that is used to crush children like Gavin, or to cast off a rich and powerful celebrity like Caitlyn as ugly at the very same moment that she is struggling to become comfortable with her appearance. We are all complicit.

I am reminded of a spiritual instruction that a woman named Machig Labdrön gave a thousand years ago: “Approach what you find repulsive.”

When you come upon repulsion in yourself, you are unearthing someone else’s shame. They are the same thing.

We can’t eliminate shame, repulsion, disgust; we cannot dissolve the tyranny of that fickle social fabric. That is not the goal here. But we can all be more aware of our own feelings and how they are affecting what we say and do — it just takes a moment of introspection:

Anytime you feel disgust, allow yourself to connect it to someone else’s shame.

We are all in the same boat. Shame isn’t going anywhere, for any of us. But maybe if we’re lucky we can use it to teach ourselves to soften our own approach to those around us and, in so doing, liberate them to be honest with us about who they really are.

Plenty of people have been waiting their entire lives just for us to give them that space.

Surely we owe it to them.

Author’s Note: throughout this piece I use the term “trans” as shorthand for trans*, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people.

This essay is the first in a series called Queering the Mainstream. I run strapping, a fashion/lifestyle brand for gay men, and we seek to represent, reflect, and embody lgbtq voices and values.

If you enjoyed this piece and you are concerned about trans youth in South Dakota, please recommend this piece by hitting the green heart below, and share it with the hashtag #TransRightsAreHumanRights and tag the Governor, @SDGovDaugaard.

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