A love affair broke out between a transsexual woman—male to female—and a transgender man—female to male.
I have lived as a woman for years, and he had recently transitioned from female to male. I define as transsexual—someone who feels an essential need to modify her body—and he is transgender—not necessarily wanting sex reassignment. I always desired men, and he always women. While sex and gender identity do not define one's sexuality, we moved across cultural categories of gay and lesbian, man and woman. Neither of us was looking for a transgender lover, but we found each other and became a different kind of heterosexual couple.
Although relationships can be complicated, love is often quite simple. In many ways, our relationship is no more or less convoluted than any other: Do you desire me as much as I desire you? Has this relationship changed me, or not? And in other ways the coupling feels novel.
Transgenderism and transsexualism are expressions of life-loving invention. Simply, transgender people, like all people, are part of life's exuberance, the planet's investment in change and potential. Even a casual reading of Charles Darwin reminds that organisms flourish because of their ability to transform or adjust, not because of their capacities for strength or intelligence. And a more careful reading of Darwin invites us to see how nonreproductive members of a species are not detriments but advantages. So, might it be true that variation in sex, sexuality and gender is indeed "natural"?
What makes this male-to-female and female-to-male couple fresh is that bodies shift across seemingly inherent cultural codes. Rather than suggesting the apocalypse of society (although I confess that on some Monday mornings I long for nothing else), this couple expresses elasticity in identities that most Americans assume are true and enduring. Bodies are potentials rather than absolutes. The interest in Chaz Bono, Thomas Beattie ("the pregnant man"), America's Next Top Model candidate and transwoman Isis King and author Jennifer Finney Boylan demonstrates this as a cultural truth. If you need more proof, watch the Oprah Winfrey Network for a few hours.
Transpeople define themselves in numerous ways. There is probably no single term that adequately conveys this diversity. Self-identifying language in the transcommunity is rapidly changing. What worked a couple of years ago—for example, "tranny"—is suddenly wrong or misrepresenting. "Tranny" is now viewed as offensive, a slur. These changing definitions are not arbitrary, but indicate a people finding their voice in a larger context.
It's common to read about why people transition genders—it seems some researcher is always searching for some biological code or psychological event that triggered it—but the question is often irrelevant. How do any of us know how we became gendered? Or why we desire a particular gender or sex? Perhaps too much misguided time and money is spent on defining a genetic code or a traumatic experience that will account for all the ways transgender people become transgendered.
The real question is why we pose these questions. Are they meant to secure better health care or to foster social justice for a politically disenfranchised population? Or are their purposes less altruistic? Behaviorist psychologist John Money studied why transsexuals feel an innate need to change their sex and concluded that such feelings are indicators of mental illness. Consequently, the American Psychiatric Association listed "Gender Identity Disorder" in the 1994 revision of the diagnostic manual, which has since impacted the lives of transsexual and transgender people.
Usually transgender people are written about. Their stories are interpreted by sometimes sympathetic writers, but more often than not by insensitive journalists, interviewers, academics or health care providers. This isn't to dismiss our political allies; they are crucial for solidarity projects and cultural change. But even allies should give voice back to a community that has for too long been named, defined and pathologized.
Even the inclusion of "T" in LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) pays only lip service, and lesbian and gay organizations ignore issues that are unique to transpeople. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) introduced in Congress would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. In 2007, The Human Rights Campaign Fund, one of the largest lobbyists for the lesbian and gay community, refused to extend ENDA's protections to include gender identity: transgender and transsexual.
A lot of education is needed even in local news reporting. Sam Peterson, a local artist and activist who organized ChestFest at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, described an encounter with a local person who "looked like a man." The interviewer told Sam that he didn't look like a man to him. The irony of course is that all men try to look like men, but without the assumption that they are not actually men.
In general, news stories constantly refer to transpeople using the wrong pronouns—"A man dressed in women's clothing was found murdered," read a Baltimore news article, or "She tricked this other woman into thinking she was a man," a British publication reported. But it is not just disrespectful misrecognition that is the problem, but the way transpeople are either criminalized or represented as deserving victims of violence.
Far from resembling the character Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs or Norman Bates in Psycho, transgender women as a group risk being assaulted and killed at a much higher rate because of who they are. The Transgender Law Center conservatively estimates that one in every 900 homicides in the U.S. is an anti-transgender hate-based crime.
As for claims of deceit, there is nothing about having sex with someone that requires disclosure about one's trans status. Don't we all risk some self-discovery when we are intimate with another person? Is the anxiety of non-transgender people that they will be tricked actually a fear that sleeping with a transgender person could affect their own identity?
By living their lives, transpeople invite everyone to question his or her assumptions. The invitation is a reminder to us all that change is what we are. We don't sustain ourselves because we are intact or perfect, but because we embody the reach and possibility of our experiences. Our sense of self is created out of ingenuity and necessity. We should not only want to live and love according to variation, but we must.
Eva Hayward is a new columnist for the Independent Weekly. Her columns will be published the first Wednesdays of the month.