Have you ever been stared at? Laughed at? Ridiculed and humiliated incessantly? Wondered if you were a man or a woman? Or both? Or neither? Have you ever not fit the mold that society wanted you to? Have you ever felt different and unaccepted for reasons beyond your control? If you answered yes to any of these questions, a significant part of the reason is our socially constructed binary gender system. If you have always fit the mold and never really questioned the essence of gender and sexual orientation, then this article is especially pertinent to you. The trials and tribulations suffered by the transgendered mostly go unnoticed and this needs to change, for the benefit of those being mistreated and misunderstood; at the expense of society as a whole. The restrictive and exclusive nature of the binary system complicates a transgendered person’s ability to self-identify and consequently complicates the relationship between gender and sexual orientation.
In order to fully comprehend the struggles of being transgendered, one must first define what it means to be transgendered and its relationship to gender and sexual orientation. According to dictionary.com, transgender is defined as “a person appearing or attempting to be a member of the opposite sex, as a transsexual or habitual cross-dresser.” This definition is not accurate as it falls within the seemingly inevitable realms of the binary view of “opposite sexes”. This is simply unacceptable. The social construction of gender has resulted in stereotypes so embedded in society that most of us don't realize it, not because we don't want to, but more due to lack of exposure and awareness. There are male restrooms and female restrooms. There are no special restrooms for transgenders but this does not seem odd to most people. According to Riki Wilchins, an activist who focused her work primarily on issues of gender, explains the culturally embedded stereotypes of Man and Woman. She claims: “ Man is the universal. Woman is defined by her opposition to Man, by what she does not have, the Penis, and the one thing she has that Man does not, reproduction and sexuality.”(p57) But what do Man and Woman have to do with gender? And in turn, how does gender affect sexuality? In the case of transgenders, this is an especially difficult issue to resolve. In order to attempt to answer these questions, specific case studies will be examined and analyzed.
Mollie Biewald was a brave and daring individual. At the tender age of 15, she wrote about growing up both confused and confident. She recalls being in seventh grade, “when three or four times a day I'm asked whether I'm a boy or a girl, and when I answer they laugh at me.” (p 121) Furthermore, her teachers (people who are supposed to be respectable, tolerant, role models), referred to her with male pronouns for weeks, even when one day she was brave enough to wear a skirt to school. At 12 years old, the binary system seriously complicated Mollie's ability to self identify. Genetically, Mollie has all the biological characteristics of a female. But does her biological structure define her gender or her sexuality? On the surface, one would probably just assume Mollie is a butch dyke or just simply a lesbian. But this is not the case. Mollie is sexually attracted to girls but she personally feels like a male. Does that make her straight? It's hard to define sexual orientation when it is so difficult to identify as either just male or female and labels prove to be inaccurate.
What people need to understand is that there are separate male and female biological organs, but these biological components alone do not encompass gender. Unlike transsexuals who choose to have surgery to alter their perceived “gender”, many transgenders do not want surgery. Perhaps this is because we are born the way we are, and cosmetically changing yourself does not truly change the person on the inside thus making it somewhat of a superficial procedure. Some transsexuals would completely disagree because surgery finalizes the transition. But what if some people don't want a transition? Why is it so important to fit a societal mold? And more importantly, when are people going to realize that we are all PEOPLE, and we should not be restricted to being defined as a label. We should not be judged by our “gender” or sexual preferences, but by our actions.
It is evident that the binary system complicates a transgendered person's ability to self-identify because a system with only two genders is a like a huge spectrum with Man on one end and Woman on the other. But what about the gray area, all that space inside the spectrum that is tossed out because society constructed it that way. This brings us to our next case study, Ethan Zimmerman, a self proclaimed bi national, multigendered transsfag attracted to boys of both sexes. Ethan was born with a female anatomy and is attracted to men. People would ask Ethan why 'she' wasn't straight since 'she' liked men. Ethan was an attractive female, even a model, so people had a really hard time understanding why she would want to have surgery (only chest surgery at the time). In his own words, Ethan would contemplate, “ What will my mother think? Was I born this way? How come I never liked being a lesbian and love sucking dick so much? Do I deserve to be here? Why are people so afraid of me? Sometimes I wish I was dead. Is it freaky in this body or what? I like being fucked in the cunt, so I must not be a real transsexual. If I had a real dick I'd be happy. If I had a real dick, I'd be a fag who is sometimes sad.” (pp191-192) Those are overwhelming thoughts to deal with on a regular basis but this case just illustrates how difficult it is to distinguish the relationship between gender and sexuality. How would the binary system react to Ethan's case. Quite frankly, it can't. No matter what label it uses, it would be inaccurate.
The final case study is Mr. Barb Greve. Born with a female anatomy, Barb always identified as a male, as early as he can remember. Although he surrounded himself with all types of women, mostly lesbian and feminist, he realized the only thing he really had in common with them was the sexual attraction towards women. He sums up gender nicely, “ I've learned that gender is not as simple as biological sex (which can be altered); nor can we simplify and limit gender's definition to social constructs. I believe gender to be a combination between biology and social roles. We all choose to express our gender in different ways. For some people, this means limiting how they are in the world; for others, it means challenging stereotypes.” (p249) Barb struggled with gender and self-identity for years, just wanting to fit a stereotype, a demon induced by the binary system. There is clearly a distinction between gender expression and gender identity. Barb unsuccessfully tried to fit the mold of either male or female. This is what is most detrimental about the binary system in society. The need to make gender one or the other sacrifices and suppresses life experiences of people like Barb. Barb concludes that being forced to choose either male or female, “would mean denying a large part of who I am. My journey is not about transitioning into one of the two acceptable genders. It is not a political statement. It is about becoming a whole person. It is about being the best person I can be: a transgendered guy named Barb.” (p249) These are exceptionally brave words.
In a society devoid of more than two 'accepted' genders, it is time we realize the futility of such an oppressive system. First there was the gay community, then the lesbian and gay community, and then the lesbian, gay, and bi community finally resulting in the lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender community (LGBT). Gay, lesbian, and bisexuality all focus on sexuality and much less so on gender identity and gender expression. The LGB are all comparatively easy terms to classify but the T is the more difficult part. In the binary system, being gay or lesbian works because it fits the mold of male and female gender. Even bisexuality somehow fits the mold because gender is not taken into account, solely the fact that a person is attracted to both sexes. It is time to refute all the gender stereotypes and accept and embrace that there is much more to gender than just male or female. Until we do, brave and confused people will continually be denigrated by a hierarchical society with such skewed norms. What is normal? Or natural? Only what society decides and dictates. Thus there is still hope. I am a straight male, but I like fashion, emotions, and passions, characteristics typically associated with the female mold. Does that make me transgendered? No. It makes me a human. The one intrinsic value we all share. We are who we are, and we should not have to put ourselves down or live in fear and confusion. Clearly gender itself is a restrictive term and it clearly not mutually exclusive to sexual orientation. We are people attracted to other people. I think it's fair to say we all want to love and to be loved. The way to break the binary system is to be open minded. The seemingly less apparent and most important part of the binary system is its affect on people who define themselves as straight males and females, who 'fit' the mold. The problem with this is fear. Once you fit the mold, why detour away from it? So what if a super athletic football player likes to cross dress? Or if a woman uses a strap on to pretend she has a penis? The dichotomy between male and female is so restricting, it polarizes distinct attributes typically associated with either male or female, which over time, has created stereotypes deeply engrained into society. If anything, the transgendered community should work as an eye opener to all those who have never really questioned gender or sexual orientation. How many straight people ask themselves why they are straight and not gay? Not many. But by being true to yourself and not fitting the mold, you are not restricting yourself to such a flawed binary system. Society constructed this system, with the right work, awareness, and exposure, society can just as easily deconstruct a hierarchical system that encourages stereotypes and suppressed the beauty of uniqueness and individuality.