Two situations have recently come to my attention. At first glance, they appear to be completely different scenarios – opposites, in fact. But upon closer inspection, we can see that they are almost identical.
Scenario 1: Several straight, traditionally masculine trans men gang up on some non-traditional gay and queer trans guys, telling them that they are not “legitimate” trans men, that they are not correctly expressing their gender, that their sexual orientation is wrong, and that they would look and act a certain way if they were “real” men. Meet the old gender police.
Scenario 2: Several non-traditional gay and queer trans guys, along with some genderqueer people, gang up on some straight, traditionally masculine trans men, telling them that they are wrong to identify as men, that they are wrong to use male pronouns, that they are not radical or queer enough, and that they are reinforcing the patriarchal binary gender system.
This isn’t West Side Story, and these scenarios didn’t happen on the street. They happened in structured settings intended for trans people – trans spaces – which, ideally, should be safe for everyone, but which often have a tendency to be safe for only a limited few.
And while these may seem like totally different situations, they are one and the same. They both reflect those who sit in judgment of others based on gender identity and expression – the old and new gender police, within our own community.
Hey, old gender police – the criteria you use to determine whether or not someone is “man” enough, whether or not someone is “legitimate,” or whether or not someone is expressing his masculinity (or her femininity, as the case may be) “correctly” are the same criteria that have been used against you in the past, and that could easily be used against you in the future when it is discovered that you are trans. Your traditional masculinity (or femininity) will not protect you against a society that seeks to do you harm.
Hey, new gender police – if anyone should understand the importance of not judging people by their appearance, it should be you. This is exactly what you’re fighting against. And guess what? Freedom of gender expression means freedom for everyone, not just for those who transgress gender norms. You can’t have it both ways. If you get to express your gender in the way that is most comfortable for you, so does everyone else – including traditionally masculine (and feminine) trans people.
Where are we coming up with these criteria? Our old gender police are simply adopting traditional mainstream gender roles, insisting that only those who subscribe to these roles are “legitimate” and “real,” and enforcing gender codes far more strictly than even traditional mainstream culture does.
Our new gender police are rejecting anything that even hints at traditional mainstream gender roles, insisting that only those who utterly reject these roles have the right to express their gender, and refusing to acknowledge the wide spectrum of gender identity and expression that constitutes the diversity of our community.
This isn’t a case of “Why can’t we all just get along?” That ship sailed a while ago. We’re far too diverse a community to agree on everything. But across all that diversity, there is one thing that we have in common – there’s some “gender stuff” going on there somewhere.
And we’re taking the one thing that we all share and using it against each other, when that’s the only glue that holds this jigsaw puzzle of a community together. That’s the commonality that we have and the thing that could give us strength and power as a group – if we can accept it and learn to use it to benefit us instead of destroy us.
Regardless of what we decide to do, I know this – I’m not going to let anyone tell me how to express my gender or pass judgment on whether or not I’m doing it “correctly.” The old gender police and the new gender police are wasting their time with me and with countless others who recognize that gender expression is as individual as we are, and that the “correct” way to do it is whatever way we each decide. But until both battalions realize this, the artificial divisions that weaken us will continue to be reinforced.
The new gender police might eventually replace the old. And when that happens, the rules will seem to be different – but they’ll really be just the same.
We can keep heading in that direction, or we can decide to accept the right of all people to simply be who they are – the one right that it would make sense for us all to agree on.
(Ask Matt will return next week)