At the beginning of 2015 -- the "Year We Obsessed Over Identity," as The New York Times observed -- I disrobed during a video interview for the What's Underneath project by Style Like U. The first question was: When did you first know?
As in, When did you first know you were a woman?
Would you believe me if I told you that I don't know if I've ever known, since I don't really know what a woman is, other than a concept that exists outside me -- still, I know that I have felt like one, a woman I mean, yet the only way I first knew was from males? Will you suspend prejudgment long enough to entertain the possibility that gender can be so relative?
To understand where I am coming from, consider how "When did you first know?" unfolds into pieces: the question presupposes that knowing anything about the self is possible, and that the words for apprehending and describing such knowledge can express the phenomenon at work beneath the surface.
Take, for instance, the preliminary assumption that we may ever know anything about ourselves -- especially when it comes to a realm that involves intimacy with others. In my case, looking back on the past, I see a history of romantic relationships, mostly with men, but also, here and there, with women, that have ended. Have we not been conditioned, at least to some degree, to measure success in life with the benchmark of committed love? If I have failed to attract and sustain an intimate relationship to the present, can I say that I know myself, or, for that matter, any aspect of the world?
The self exists in relation to others. For me, like the question "When did you first know?" -- or perhaps any ontological inquiry, for that matter -- understanding the relativity of being starts with examining how assumptions affect preconceptions in the guise of truth.
Think about what it means to be a member of a social group that comprises a minority of a minority.
Does identification with others necessarily involve negotiating the terms of identity? As I will talk about later, there are any number of definitions for the word "transgender" depending on where you look -- personally, I feel some may apply to me; others seem way too broad, or confusing and nonsensical, if not mercurial.
When I asked my phone for a definition of transgender at the time of writing these words, this one popped up: "denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender." In other words -- transgender people fall into a sort of third, or alternate, gender?
Although that conception may have fit while I was transitioning -- for instance, after I began "living as female" (whatever that means) but before surgery -- the notion seems inappropriate now that my anatomy is female.
Plus, there is a social dimension: I use female restroom and locker room facilities, others address me with "Ms." out there in the world, I date men who identify as straight, I check the "female" box on forms and so on.
I transitioned in the early 2000s, before social and institutional media turned a spotlight on personal identity in general, and being transgender in particular. Whatever the reason for so much noise these days about gender identity -- Was it gay marriage becoming a fait acommpli and leaving the LGBT movement in need of a new cause célèbre to rally around? The evolution of civil rights to include those of us who had been marginalized in the fight for equality? Or perhaps just plain old hunger for something that seemed new? -- "transgender" has been repeated to the point where meaning is lost.
At some point of expansion, the center implodes. So, what if -- just as gravity operates in general relativity -- the force that appears to be pulling us toward other people is simply a property of being human?
It may be apostasy to wonder whether, as "transgender" continues moving toward an ever distant horizon, anyone can identify with the multifariousness of the word. It may also seem retrogressive -- indeed, reactionary -- to define the self, and specifically femininity, in relation to men, as I will do in later portions of this essay.
But the reality is that, even as society changes, its ingredients remain the same. And even if the world appears to yield something new under the sun, the principle of relativity holds as constant as being human ever was.
To be continued...
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This blog post is from my essay Transgender No More.