Recently my brother was chatting with someone and mentioned his sister and that she's transgender. The first question this person asked upon hearing this information was, "Has she had the full surgery yet?" By "the full surgery" this person meant bottom surgery. They basically were asking my brother to talk about his sister's genitalia. Not surprisingly, my brother wasn't really comfortable talking about his sister's genitals, nor would I be comfortable talking about my brother's. Ew!
But I suspect no one would ask me to talk about my brother's sex organs. If they did, God forbid, it likely wouldn't be the first question they asked me about him. This is because my brother doesn't identify as transgender. Yet it has been my experience that many people have no problem asking transgender people and the people in our lives about what's going on between our legs as soon as they hear we are trans.
I have been asking myself for years how we as a society can have conversations with and about trans people that don't go right to objectifying questions and comments about our bodies, surgery and specifically our genitalia. I am fine discussing the specifics of my medical transition with close friends and family. But it's not the first thing I want to talk about when meeting a stranger. I have often said the information about what's going on between my legs is only really relevant to someone I might be dating, or to a health care professional who is providing me with medical treatment. Outside these circumstances, if we want to know what's going on in a trans person's underwear, I feel it's really important that we interrogate why we want to know.
I would like to think I am pretty evolved when it comes to thinking about gender in a sophisticated and nuanced way. But just as black folks can internalize the values and belief systems of a racist society and turn those values onto ourselves and each other, so, too, can trans folks internalize the beliefs and value systems of a transphobic and gender-binary-oppressive social structure. For example, I have found myself in situations wondering about the bottom surgical status of trans folks I don't know. It doesn't happen often, but the last time it did, I was talking to a friend about a trans woman she knew. I noticed I had the impulse to ask her about her friend's surgical status, but instead of asking, I decided to sit with the feelings underneath that impulse. I am not saying we shouldn't be curious and ask questions; rather, I am suggesting that maybe sometimes we should turn that curiosity onto ourselves and ask ourselves probing questions about our own motivations.
As I sat with the feelings underneath the impulse I had to ask what was going on between the legs of someone I didn't know, didn't want to date or share vital health care information with about a potentially shared experience, I noticed a tremendous amount of anxiety came up for me. I asked myself, "Why am I feeling anxious?" Then I realized that when I meet someone whom I don't know or perceive to be trans, I tend to make certain unconscious assumptions about their bodies. For example, when I meet someone whom I perceive to be a nontransgender man, I tend to assume he has a penis. We've basically been taught as a society to make those kinds of assumptions. But I simply can't make those same assumptions when I meet someone or hear of someone whom I know is transgender. Now, if I were experiencing a certain kind of anxiety -- I, Ms. "Gender-Evolved" when it comes to being able to not make certain assumptions about gendered bodies -- I wondered if other people, too, might be experiencing a similar anxiety around these issues, whether they are transgender or not.
What if our entire culture, our entire society is experiencing a collective gender anxiety? What if? What if the only way society calms that anxiety is by trying to restore the mythical "order" of the gender binary by objectifying and stigmatizing transgender and gender-nonconforming people? What if society is trying to sooth that anxiety by making sure transgender folks don't have employment or protections against employment discrimination? What if our society is acting out its collective gender anxiety through the pervasive violence so many trans people, particularly trans people of color, find ourselves the victims of? What if?
What if all this were true? What would be the collective gender anti-anxiety medication we could all take so that transgender and gender-nonconforming people wouldn't constantly find ourselves objectified, stigmatized, dehumanized, disenfranchised or dead? The first step I think would be admitting that we have a problem. Medical transition is essential for the health and well-being of transsexual people. For me it was a matter of life or death. But reducing trans folks to our bodies, what surgeries we have or haven't had, talking trans in ways that merely act out our own gender anxiety doesn't get to the heart of why we are anxious about gender in the first place. If each of us can sit with our own gender anxiety, meditate on it, ask ourselves questions about it, stay curious about it, we might just gain valuable and liberating insights about it for ourselves and for the world around us.