I came out as a transgender woman today to my second-level boss. He’s generally supportive, which is good. He’s on the same page with me on questions of strategy and logistics, and has indicated that he’ll happily sign off on whatever needs to be signed in order for me to transition at work next month.
Then, inevitably, he asked The Question. The Question is almost always asked in the context of coming out as trans or discussing being trans. At least he made an effort to surround The Question in work-approriate phrasing: “So, are you going to be taking a lot of leave soon? For… um… the surgery?” I don’t mind being asked about leave; I very much mind being asked about my future plans for my penis by a person that has no reason to care.
The reason I’m calling it The Question (Capital T, capital Q) is because this one question is what defines being trans in mainstream narratives. When someone identifies themselves as being transgender, somehow all propriety is thrown out the window and it becomes reasonable to ask a subordinate what they plan to do with their genitals. The Question doesn’t just come from the ether, independently descending into the mind of the overwhelming majority of people who interact with trans people. It’s culturally-seeded; because so much of transition is framed in terms of an “operation” or “the surgery” in mainstream culture, it’s seen as something that’s worth asking. Until someone has had some sort of surgery, they aren’t “really” a man or woman, because when it comes to society’s view of trans people, it’s all about the genitalia, to a scary degree of obsession.
Where does the seeding come from? We have a perfectly timely example of that today: Piers Morgan aggressively putting his feet in his mouth after his interview with trans activist Janet Mock. Piers kept referring to Mock by her birth-assigned name, and indicated that she “used to be a man.” The show’s banner boldly proclaimed that Mock “was a boy until age 18.” Why 18, you ask? Well, that’s when she had surgery, and therefore “became a woman.” The same thing happened to Laverne Cox when interviewed by Katie Couric several weeks ago, so it’s not as if there wasn’t a recent discussion of how this is a problem.
This kind of discussion is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be trans. Janet Mock was never “a boy.” Laverne Cox was never “a boy.” I was never “a boy.” As trans women, we all were designated male at birth, were told that we were boys, and never told that the reason we felt different was because sometimes the sex assigned at birth is wrong. There’s a deeply rooted assumption in our society that someone is cisgender (that is to say, not transgender; their gender identity is consistent with their designated sex) unless they’ve proven otherwise. How does someone prove otherwise, what question can we ask someone to prove that they’re really not the sex that was chosen for them at birth? Well, there’s always The Question.
I can’t be mad at my boss. He doesn’t know any better. When I politely pointed out that asking that kind of question is rude (though gave him kudos for doing it within the context of a work-appropriate question), he understood and we moved on (which makes him a paragon of reasonable response to criticism when compared to Piers Morgan). The problem is that he *should* know better. There are plenty of trans people who are more than happy to educate the public on gender identity and what it means to be trans. However, once those people get access to a mainstream audience, the mainstream narrative they’re trying to fight grabs ahold and won’t let go.
Until mainstream media, both fictional and non-fictional, gets better at covering trans people as entire people, rather than taking a laser focus on genitals and The Question, it’s going to keep coming up. It’s the only narrative people have been given as how to react to someone being trans, because it’s the only narrative they’ve been given.
http://unpitchable.tumblr.com/post/60909278485/i-have-a-penis-for-now-but-my-sex-is-not-male – unpitchable – Samantha Leigh Allen, “I have a penis (for now) but my sex is not male.”
http://www.entirelyamelia.com/2014/02/04/ally-piers-morgan-ass-never-man/ – totallyamelia “How not to be an ally. Or how Piers Morgan is an ass. Or, no, I never was a man.”
http://www.bustle.com/articles/7727-im-a-transgender-woman-and-this-is-what-its-like – Parker Molloy, “I’m a Transgender Woman, and This is What It’s Like”
http://www.salon.com/2014/01/07/laverne_cox_artfully_shuts_down_katie_courics_invasive_questions_about_transgender_people/ – Katie McDonough, “Laverne Cox flawlessly shuts down Katie Couric’s invasive questions about transgender people: ‘The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people,’ the actress explained to Couric.”
http://papierhache.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/on-genitals/ – papierhache – Kat Haché, “On Genitals.”
http://storify.com/keris42/natalie-reed-speaks-truth-on-stories – nataliereed84 – Natalie Reed, in a series of tweets on the power of narratives to shape culture.