Mainstream America has been learning about the word transgender from celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but, in addition to having these icons in our consciousness, we could all use some clarification on what this word actually means. (In addition to this article, I encourage you to view the thorough and highly accessible video below.)
Transgender is a broad term that includes people whose gender identity or self expression does not conform to, or is not associated with, the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an authentic experience and expression of self.
Your gender expression is informed by a number of things, including your gender orientation and sexual orientation, gender stereotypes in your consciousness or subconsciousness, and social circumstances. Some of these influences on our gender expression are hard-wired--e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity--and so the cues we send are involuntary, regardless of our genitalia. Transgender advocate Denise Norris uses a great analogy to explain how these aspects of self, our orientation, cannot be changed, saying:
"You can't kill yourself by holding your breath. You'll just pass out, and then start breathing again. (Trust me, I've tried.) So, you can communicate a different orientation or identity for an indeterminate amount of time; this is how we distinguish between expression, and identity/orientation. You can monkey with your gender expression depending on the situation, just as you can monkey with your breathing when you talk. But you can't change your identity or orientation any more than your need to breathe."
Like our race, our gender orientation is what it is. Unlike race, however, our gender orientations are not necessarily explained by the physical bodies in which we are born, nor do we necessarily share our individual experiences of gender with other people in our blood lines as we do with race.
Meanings of racial and gender identities were debated ad nauseum last month, to the point of unhelpful, tangential abstraction. But to get back to the basics of what the words gender and transgender are all about, I believe it is more effective to show than to tell.
The new short film, Dylan, by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, does exactly that.
Based on an interview with a young trans man, Dylan has the exquisite feel of both a documentary and narrative film at the same time. As we walk with Dylan on an early morning to the Coney Island shore, we learn about his authentic and creative journey of self-discovery.
The charismatic and lucid performer, Becca Blackwell, imbues Dylan's words with their own sense of truth and of self. Through Blackwell's eyes, we see and connect with Dylan, a vital person, without any need to specify their gender. This act of empathic interpretation helps us to experience Dylan's resilient, generous spirit, as well as Blackwell's. We are reminded that much of who we are transcends the appearance of our exteriors, and that we often discover our senses of self by sharing our stories and hearing them lovingly and creatively told back to us.
Revered psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell described this process of discovering self through relationship writing:
"Artists, like psychoanalysts, have a great impact on what it is they are trying to understand, and there seems to be no way to factor out or analyze away that impact. There is no "me," waiting to be captured, either by an artist or an analyst or even by myself."
He continues, "What psychoanalysis does is construct truths in the service of self-coherence."
A moving moment in the film illustrates Dylan's process of finding self-coherence. He tells us about his mother comforting and validating him the night before a voluntary surgery intended to make him feel more like himself. He describes the two of them enjoying old movies together, laughing together, and preparing for the creative transformation that is to come. This shared moment with his mother symbolizes a rebirth for Dylan, in a sense. His mother has clearly held him in her mind as he continues his journey for authenticity.
There is so much more possibility and clarity for all of us when we are honest about who we are, where we've come from, and where we need to go.
Becca Blackwell's magnetic performance does not leave us wondering about the gender of our protagonist. They are simply, Dylan.
Experience them for yourself.
"DYLAN" a short film directed by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh
Outer Borough Pictures
*Film notation. From the director.
The character in this film uses the word "tranny" when describing some people in his life. We had much debate over whether to include the word in the film, as it is not in any way meant to marginalize people who may be offended by the use of this word. Ultimately we decided to keep the original script intact for two reasons...
1. AUTHENTICITY - We very much wanted this film to be a true and honest representation of Dylan's story and including this word in the film kept an authenticity to the experience, by recounting his every word. The script was developed from an interview with the real Dylan (not the actor portraying him). There is not a single word in the script that was not a part of the original interview.
2. TIME PERIOD IN THE FILM - The interview took place 10 years ago, when the word had a different context in the circles in which Dylan frequented. It was simply used to describe his friends and other members of the transgender community. In the past ten years, this word has taken on a different meaning in the transgender community and in the world in general. It is now recognized as a derogatory term, and one that transgender people have heard in the context of discrimination and hate. Dylan's use of the word was not intended in any way to be derogatory and was simply part of his natural language at the time. We do not in any way support or promote the use of that word in any context, nor do we encourage anyone to use it in any way.
Please know that we did debate this issue quite seriously as we truly do not want to offend any of our viewers. Our messaging with this film is one of self-acceptance and love, and we have nothing but love and support for the transgender community. While this is one man's story, we hope that all people will be able to relate to the honest and frank nature of Dylan's evolutionary process in finding himself. If you have additional concerns, please feel free to contact us at email@example.com.
Mitchell, S. (1995) Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books
*This post firs appeared on Mark O'Connell, LCSW's Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.