Dear Cis People,
While I recognize that my life experience is utterly alien to you, please provide me the courtesy of not treating me like some rare specimen to be stared at and remarked upon in slack-jawed amazement or violently attacked or killed just for existing. It’s rude, dehumanizing and just plain wrong.
The human condition is an expansive vista that we all gaze upon in wonder and revulsion depending upon the baggage we were handed by our families and leaders. So set your bags down and let’s have a chat.
If I make you uncomfortable by my mere presence and being, that’s your problem, not mine. You’re likely having a mixture of emotions that can be hard to process, and I know that when I’m on less than solid ground in my ability to categorize or knowing how to behave, I can become a bit squirrelly.
That’s usually a sign that I try to pay attention to, which reminds me to be on my best behavior manners-wise. I’d appreciate it if you reacted the same way.
The confusion I generate for you is likely coming from two distinct places and is amplified or suppressed depending upon your culture of origin, religion and politics. The two places that I speak of are social sex roles and the morphology of sexual signaling. Your expectations and reactions to these color how you perceive me.
With regards to social sex roles, your culture has programmed you with both broad and specific expectations of how women and men should behave and that they are distinct, different and that transgressing these roles is always about social power exchange or fraud.
Power exchange is of course charged because most view it as a zero-sum game. If I somehow gain power, you lose it, or vice-versa. Gender transition does cause a power exchange, and while it is net neutral, it is not zero-sum. The exchange is male privilege for female privilege or vice-versa.
Privilege is culturally determined, not absolute, and we avoid the zero-sum power exchange when we realize that a happy, productive member of society is better than an unhappy, unproductive one. I see most cis arguments against trans social power exchange boil down to, “I just don’t like or agree with it,” usually backed by cis cultural expectations instead of actual trans behaviors.
Frankly, your arguments are terrible, and history is not on your side. Again and again, we have seen marginalized and oppressed groups rise up to stand beside their marginalizers and oppressors, and after varying levels of conflict, take their rightful place in society as equals. Some of these battles are still ongoing in order to prevent backsliding from previously won gains or to secure new rights of equality.
Unless you’re a hermit, you likely encounter all sorts of people you disagree with or don’t like, but you provide them a modicum of courtesy in order to conduct your daily business. Please extend that courtesy to me as well, as I often go out of my way to extend it to you, because I want to complete my business and move on.
On to fraud. Fraud intersects with sexual signalling, which I’ll address later on. For now, let’s look at reactions to social role fraud.
Media archetypes about gender social role switching are a poverty of stories that almost exclusively have fraud as an undercurrent. It’s been only recently that richer stories have been able to be told, but those stories are drops in an ocean of cultural messaging that men and women “play” each other’s roles for personal advantage, usually at the expense of someone else.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before:
Our protagonist is in a rough spot, and in order to earn some money/get a job/spy on a love interest, crossdresses as the opposite gender to achieve their aims. They achieve their goal and reveal themselves to the world, angering those who believed them to be someone they weren’t. If it’s a drama, there’s often a misplaced love interest and it ends in violence or shame. If it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues as friends, family and lovers discover the true nature of the “new” person, which is set aside at the end of the movie, and there’s always one or more people who are left angry at being duped to help drive the comic foil deeper into the funny bone.
The trans narrative is so far from this rutted stereotype to be laughable, but the only people laughing are cis, because us trans folk are usually crying tears of frustration. Why? Because you’ve been taught that thinking people who swap social sex roles are doing it for personal advantage and your default assumption is that they shouldn’t be trusted.
Again, blurry cis cultural biases are projected onto the trans screen of life and when we yell, “Focus! Focus!” cis people think we’re trying to pull a fast one on you. Nothing could be further from the truth. We just want to live our lives as we see fit and not be branded liars or cheats when we’re the ones that often feel shortchanged by society.
The irony is that we don’t trust you because you often perpetuate fraud upon us. These frauds are small and large, ranging from the outrageous markups on the supplies we need to equip our lives to denying us promised medical care in life-threatening situations.
The next time you reflexively think we’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes to pick your pocket or take your job, would you please remember that narrative is a Hollywood-created fraud?
While the social role stuff is mostly about the head, the sexual signaling morphology is more about the heart, and stirs the most passion.
The human species is generally sexually dimorphic, and this dimorphism is further categorized by primary and secondary sexual characteristics. Primary sexual characteristics are those that are necessary for reproduction. Secondary sexual characteristics are theorized to exist to generally attract a mate with differing primary sexual characteristics.
Like sex roles, there are also cultural expressions for biological sexual characteristics, usually to either accentuate or draw attention from them.
Things generally go sideways when one person’s expectations based on conscious or unconscious processing of cultural and biological sexual signalling turn out to be incorrect. Typical reactions are anger, shock and fear.
This makes some biological sense if you think about it. Mate selection can be a challenging process that can be emotionally and physically resource-intensive. If you invested time and resources to find a potential mate that had sexual signalling you were attracted to only to discover that mate wasn’t a suitable mate for you after all for whatever reason, you’d likely be pretty angry at yourself for not realizing it sooner. You might feel tricked (fraud alert!) or that your ability to select a mate was somehow lacking.
Trans people, in general, are uncomfortable with the gender they grew up with and how it expresses itself via cultural expression and primary and secondary sexual characteristics. We generally seek to change our cultural gender expression and often our secondary sexual characteristics as well. (Some [many?] would also happily change their primary sexual characteristics if that was possible.)
Often, but not always, this has the effect of changing our sexual signaling morphology. And you’re going to have to trust us on this one, but our experience around this can run the gamut from an embraced, welcome change to a confusing nightmare we can’t escape from.
Teasing apart the complex adaptive system of social changes that a gender transition creates is impossible. Just as every physical body is different, every trans person’s cultural milieu is unique, which means that while there are approximate bounds on transition arcs, predicting their course is a bit like predicting earthquakes – you know roughly where some might occur and at what magnitude, but there’s always that unmapped fault line…
Without a doubt, our biggest unmapped faults generally tend to revolve around intimate relations. When those faults slip, they range from minor tremors that provide a shot of thrilling roller-coaster adrenaline to life-altering upheavals that cause loss of limb and life.
Even more like earthquakes, the triggers build slowly until thresholds are reached. We remove or have hair grow, change our wardrobes, adorn ourselves with accouterments and sometimes take hormones and have surgeries in an attempt to shape our external presentation so that it more closely matches our internal self-perception.
Along the way we have to learn, generally in a few short months, the bulk of what are the sexual signals of our new gender and how to respond to welcome and unwelcome, and intended and unintended attention.
When you layer in the cultural sexual objectification that trans bodies often receive, things rapidly get ugly for both of us.
Why? Because the expectations you project onto us are out of whack. We do not transition to become sexual playthings for you, or to tweak your assumptions about who or what you are attracted to, or overthrow the social structure, (though given the spectrum of human behaviors, it wouldn’t surprise me to find some that some transition for those reasons, but I personally believe they’ll likely end up being pretty unhappy in the long-term.)
We transition for us, not for you. We transition to become ourselves.
That your sexual arousal signals get crossed by us is about you, not about us. You should really pause and look inward if that arousal converts to anger or fear if you we decide to tell you our past history or if our secondary sexual characteristics don’t line up like in the textbooks to match your expectations. (Hint: the textbooks are wrong and often ignore or actively erase the variations in the human condition and tend to present a rigid, binary model of sexual dimorphism.)
We are human too, and crave physical and emotional intimacy. Because of you and your often violent or crude reactions, many trans people are often terrified of revealing their past history when trying to form an intimate relationship. Sadly, this protection mechanism becomes contorted into a general social narrative that most trans people are out to “fool” or “trap” an unsuspecting cis into intimate relations with trans.
Pause for a moment and consider the pathology and likely actual frequency of that narrative and compare it to behaviors you may have employed to bed someone. I’ll wait.
How’d you do? Ever wear clothing to make yourself look more attractive? Ever tell a tall tale to make yourself sound better? How about any of the other myriad strategies humans employ to accentuate our positives and de-emphasize our negatives in the eyes of a potential mate?
See? We all do it, trans or cis. It’s hardwired. It’s a biological imperative for most people that our higher brain functions express as cultural ritual and body adornment. We’re just like you that way.
Where we’re not like you is that we’re not likely to beat or kill you if our sexual expectations of you don’t match with reality.
You’ve really got to stop that, because we’d really like to shift the Transgender Day of Remembrance, where we pause and reflect on those we’ve lost in the past year, from a reading of the death roles to a celebration of what those deaths earned us in the safety and security of our bodies.
To close an overlong missive, dear cis folk, I ask you approach us as equals and to share the burden of building more trust between us. Trans people have always been a part of society and we always will be. We both have work to do in bringing these issues further into the open, de-fanged of the culturally biased venom injected by both cis and trans people.
We have much to teach each other and the opportunity to learn how not to destroy people’s lives on both sides of the cis/trans fence.
Will you accept this challenge?