The Increasingly Great Divide
In some respects this weeks column might be considered complimentary to the last one. It’s hard not to have one’s thoughts on young trans people lately with so many mostly encouraging stories and the ongoing increase in the visibility of Jazz Jennings who’s growing into a very appealing “possibility model” (to use Laverne Cox’s term). But as the profile of the trans-youth continues to become more prominent, we’re faced with a distinct disconnect between the more traditional transsexual narrative and the experience of these young people.
I’m sure that everyone is familiar with the stereotypical narrative of trans experience. The person born with a penis (typically male to female in the cloche but of course there’s a similar narrative for the female to male trans person) who feels like they should have been born a girl for years before they realize they are not the only one in the world who feels that way. Living in a culture that considers any man who’d want to be a female freakish and perverted, and repressing their feelings deeply while trying outwardly to prove their manliness to themselves and others. Despite their troubled heart they get married, have kids, build careers and still the pressure grows, particularly as they watch the world around them grow, ever so slowly, more understanding of people like you. At length, if you have managed to live even this long the pressure increases to the point of choosing between transition and self destruction. On top of all this, trans women tend to suffer the effects, physical and sociologically, of having lived as a male for decades.
While this is certainly not everyone’s experience, it is generically familiar to the great majority of trans people who are older than 40 or so. Such people feel not only the emotional distress of a repressed gender identity, but also the intense sense of foreboding about what will happen to them and their loved ones if they decide to begin a transition. They are caught in a”Kobyoshi Maru”scenario. The pursuit of your own happiness and contentment may destroy that of the ones you care most about (because they are mostly of the same traditionalist generation as you are) and to try and protect their happiness is to give up your own.
It is not uncommon for us to share our experience with skeptics in those terms as the accepted narrative of the trans woman experience in our culture. But for the younger transitioners, it’s not really their story.
Particularly those who realize and accept their trans nature while still underage, they begin to integrate into the social roles and interactions of their identified gender early, some are fortunate enough to have medication which saves them from the physical effects of the hormones their body generates. They and their slightly older peers in their 20’s have the opportunity to avoid complicating their transition by establishing careers and families as males only to find themselves in that unwinnable position.
Increasingly, too, their non-trans peers are accepting and understanding and pave the way for a smoother transition. As that generation ages and comes into social and ultimately political prominence they will be in a position to remedy many of the ills late transitioners have had to face. Immediately following generations will be almost completely unable to relate to the classic narrative I described above. Which is a wonderful thing.
But it does mean that it presents another way in which our ever evolving narrative must continue to adjust to the reality of the society around us. If one’s going to effectively communicate with skeptics, it’s important to not get caught out using outdated rhetoric. I could probably do a whole column on terminology (I may already have at some point!) but even proper terminology needs proper context.
Photo by Scott Ellis