Sunday, May 1, 2011

Getting Real: Being Trans vs Having Trans Experiences

Lately I've been re-evaluating my concepts of "trans identity." 

I just read a post on the excellent blog Critique Of Popular Reason, about the use of trans and cis as adjectives rather than prefixes, which has sort of guilted me into cleaning up my use of the terms and being more meaningful in what I intend to convey when I use them. 

I admit I've been haphazard in writing  trans woman, transwoman, cis man, cis-man  and so on. I've always realized in the back of my mind that each way of writing trans or cis represents a slightly different understanding of the terms, but I didn't think it a big deal.  Well, I do now, so the inconsistency stops today.

Here is what I've come to realize:  As much as I talk about myself being a trans woman,  I don't honestly think of my being trans as an "identity"... so much as a description of my personal history. 

I do not experience being trans in the same way I experience being black, for instance.   For me, being black is very much an identity experience based on shared cultural experiences, shared language, and shared history having been born and raised in the United States among other black people.  I am black not just because I am readable as black, not just because I was "assigned" to be black by larger society based upon my readability as black, and not just because that is how I am expected to identify my race on government documents and other demographic tracking forms.   I am also black because my mama is black, because my family is black, because I am descended from the African Diaspora, and largely, perhaps ultimately, because I was "raised" black and because I am recognizable to other black people as black. 

I do not feel quite the same way about being trans.  For me, at least for right now, I am trans only because I was born into a society based on a truly shitty premise:  that one's reproductive organs predict and define the way in which you will experience yourself, that your genitals predict and define who and what you are, who and what you must grow up to be.  I am trans because I was born into society that refuses to acknowledge the obvious fact that for many many people there is no direct correlation between their reproductive organs and the gendered bodies and the identities in which they find their most valid form of self expression.

To put  it more simply... Society does not allow for being born with a penis and NOT feeling like that has anything to do with anything... other than having been born with a penis.  That existing with a penis between your legs does not MAKE you feel like, think like, act like or identify as male...  even when that same society makes every effort to force you to do exactly that,with its armada of rewards and punishments.  (Of course the same is true of being born with a vagina and not feeling that necessarily connected to one's being a woman). 

Following this point of view, If I am to accept being trans as my identity then I must accept an identity which is based upon society imposing upon me its definition of me, externally, an identity with seemingly no other defining criteria than this particular experience of imposition.   For me, an identity has to be based on much more than being in the same crappy boat as a lot of other people.  I could define being black that way if I wanted... but I do not experience being black that way.  For me, being black is a much fuller and more complex experience than a mere description of my racial phenotype and cultural history.   I feel the same way about being a woman, as well.  There is actually much more to my being a woman than other people's perception of me and treatment of me as a woman. Or even a black woman.  

But for being trans.. at this stage of my self-awareness journey anyways,  it feels like something that is entirely about other people's perception of me as trans, a mere description of my life trajectory  having been assigned to be one gender but I vetoed and invalidated that assignment in favor of my own contrary self-knowledge and need.

I'm sure there is a much fuller experience of trans than what I list above.  Certainly there is a unifying theme of the (apparently) uncommon drive to fly in the face of society's explicit demands for conformity in favor of one's own self-knowing.  Time and again, I have experienced firsthand  that instant bond of recognition and empathy between persons which is born of people living the same oppression.  Especially, when it comes to being trans.  I have definitely experienced community among my fellow trans people...  so why do I feel so keenly that while being trans identifies my life experiences, it is not my identity?

Is it due to internalized transphobia of some sort?   I know as I read this thru and come back to add this paragraph, what I'm saying sounds an awful lot like similar protestations I've heard:   "Being gay doesn't define meeee, I'm just someone who happens to experience homosexual attractions..."  etc.   No that is not what I mean at all, I hope.

What I think I mean is that ... so MUCH of my life, even to this day,  actually revolves around accomodating the social consequences of my being trans.... but is mere oppression enough reason to take it on as an identity?

Personally, I feel I experience MUCH more blatant oppression around my trans status than I do with race. As far as life challenges go, being trans has been many times more difficult than being black and I probably think about it way more than I do race or any other zone of marginalization I live within.   But is that due to my having a more multi-dimensional understanding of  my blackness (identity, culture)  than I do my transness (burden, stigma)?  Or is it because I am loathe to acknowledge areas of privilege in my other identities (do I not experience being black as terribly oppressive  simply because I am relatively privileged as far as my blackness goes, e.g. being light skinned, being middle-class, being from the U.S. etc...?)  and wish only to attach the grand title of "identity" to areas  in my life I feel I can be more "proud" of?

 Is it a lack of self-awareness or lack of  appreciation for the complexity and positive reward of trans experience?

I'm not sure.. but these are questions that consume me on the daily.  I am determined to sort this all out.

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