Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Forwarding New Hope or Running

After a Mirage?

Christina's World’, the painting above( source: Wikipedia), a mid 20th century master piece of U.S. painter Andrew Wyeth, depicts the theme of my this essay and I think, readers could find a compatibility of this painting with my view on this rare discussed topic.

People often mix up ‘gender’ with ‘sex.’ That is why we put the term LGBT together. Lesbians, Gays or Bisexuals have a fixed sexual orientations while transgenders are a different community related to ‘gender identity.’ Gays or bisexuals never think to change their ‘gender’ any day but transgendered people feel their gender expression and identity do not conform to society's expectations.

They identify and present themselves in many different ways. In doing so, transgendered people push the boundaries of both sex and gender. The dilemma is most of the people don’t know the proper difference between sex and gender and that misconception in people’s mind makes the transgendered feel alien from the mainstream. The common attitudes of people towards transgendered push them to lead a life of hatred, disgust, transphobia, and discrimination.

We have to make it clear that gender is a social creation, not a natural function of sex. Sex is related to our biological sexual make up (such as our chromosomal arrangements) and uses certain biological markers (like our genitals and other reproductive sex organs). Society pronounced us with the help of those markers, a newborn is a girl or a boy. What is really discovered about each of us at that point is not our gender, per se, but simply our sex.

‘Gender’ is a common social expectation which puts borderlines for each sex and expects that men, for instance, should be more active and dominant than women, and are seen to be rational, objective individuals. Men are more often associated with the public sphere of life, and are expected to be dependable income earners. Men are expected to love and marry a woman and to become fathers. Society has fixed a different set of expectations for ‘ men’ about how to act, what to do, and who to love. On the other hand, ‘women’ are generally expected in mainstream society to be more passive, submissive and dependent than men. There are certain expectations of society from them about how to act, what to do, who to love, and so on. Women are often seen to be subjective, emotional beings; are usually associated with the private sphere of life; and tend to be the caregivers. Women are expected to love and marry a man and become mothers. Often from our childhood, we are taught how to be a ‘good girls’ or how to be a ‘good boys,’ which satisfies the expectations of our respective societies in which we live. From the beginning of the life of a child, society assumed that gender characteristics as natural with the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls’ suggests that particular behaviours referred to are to be expected from male children and particular behaviours referred to are to be expected from girls. Another meaning of these preoccupied norms is whether behavours will be tolerated in a boy but would likely not be tolerated in girls and vice versa.

But in a changing society, these descriptions have also been becoming worthless. More and more women are recognized as active, participating members of the public sphere while men are increasingly assuming care-giving roles. It does not mean that there is no rigid division between the two categories. In behaviourial characteristics, these gender differences are still prevailing. What I find myself thinking nowadays is that it is usually assumed there are no more differences between ‘women’ and ‘men.’ The two gender categories are, in other words, also interdependent: the idea of ‘feminine’ behaviour says as much about how men are not supposed to act as it does about how women are supposed to act.

Transgenders in Literature

The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 controversial novel by the English author Radclyffe Hall. The protagonist Stephen Gordon finds herself in a wrong body and tries to cross dress. Later, she falls in the love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I. For decades, it was the best-known lesbian novel in English and a British court even judged it obscene because it defended “unnatural practices between women.”

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, also published in 1928, is also a much-acclaimed novel which tells the story of a man named Orlando, born in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who falls asleep for a lengthy period of time, resisting all efforts to rouse him. Upon awakening, he finds that he has metamorphosed into a woman—the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. Neither Radclyffe Hall nor Virginia Woolf used the word ‘transgender’ in their novels.

The term ‘transgender’ was first used in 1960 by Prince Virginia (original name: Arnold Lowman), an American transgender activist, who published a magazine Transvestia and started the Society for the Second Self for male heterosexual cross-dressers, where transsexuals and homosexuals were not admitted. Later, Judith Butler made clearer the differences between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ but did not use the term ‘transgender’ in her research. Before Virginia Prince and Judith Butler, the term was not publicly accepted. Even the great pianist Billy Tipton (1914-1989) who passed his whole life as a ‘man’ socially, got married and adopted three sons, was discovered to have been female-bodied after his death. By 1990, the term received wide acceptance and legal support. But, though the meaning of gender variance may vary from culture-to-culture or time-to-time, transgender persons have been documented in myths and in the history of different cultures in both East and West.

Misconceptions About the Transgender Community

Who is a transgender person? There are different sub-groups among transgenders prevailing among this main group. There are intersexual, androgens, transvestites, drag kings and queens, cross-dressers, gender-benders, women who pass as men, and men who pass as women, “masculine-looking” women, “feminine-looking” men, bearded women, and women bodybuilders (that is, women who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body). To put all of them in a single group is the first fallacy I think, as all of them are different and totally opposite to each other. In fact, this gender problem is also the personal creation of each and every one of us.

Among them, intersexuals are totally different from other transgenders as they have a separate biological make-up at birth, which is not exclusively male or female. They exist on the biological continuum between the poles of male and female and they struggle against our rigid two-sex system for the right to physical ambiguity and the acknowledgement that there are more than two sexes. Intersexed babies have a right to grow up and make their own decisions about the body they will live in for the rest of their lives. Other transgenders have totally different problems but still, we put both transsexuals and other transgenders into a single group.

Misleading Ideas

Transgenders often used to think that they have the right soul in the wrong body. Now there are some pop-culture clich├ęs to express these feelings like “man trapped in a woman's body” or “woman trapped in a man's body.” A transgender is created when he/she chooses the means of gender expression from a pre-determined set of ‘rules’ provided by society. Transgendered people identify in ways that do not correspond to some or all of the acceptable behaviours encouraged in them since birth. In this way, gender can be seen as the product of the complex interaction between the individual and society. But a lot of confusion still remains while we are talking about them as it is an umbrella-termed group and still the actual position and problems have been kept hidden from the public.

The problems of transsexuals and cross-dressers are not the same. There is also no awareness in the mind of the general public who are habituated with a binary gender system. The social acceptance to them is very negative and recently, some activists are trying to make it generalized so that the group should not feel so alien from the mainstream of society. But among them, there are also so many contradictions and confusions which have lead the movement into a mess. The obscene websites make vulgar and porno pictures of some transgenders and try to attract the young people and sometimes create ‘transgender euphoria’ (i.e., the ‘subject’ feels there's something really great about being perceived as the opposite sex) in them. This is the first and foremost obstacle to detect actual ‘gender dysphoria’ (i.e., the ‘subject’ feels there's something really bad about being perceived as one’s biological sex) cases.

There are also some activists who are making emotional mistakes to increase the numerical statistics of their community. Some private TV channels are also pursuing talk shows or chat shows in their programming. Recently for my study on this topic, I have surfed for different blogs on transgenders and I found a very critical blog ( owned by Ghazal Bhaliwal, a transgender activist, film writer and lyricist, who avidly supports surgical transition for the people who think they are trapped in a wrong body.

To deal with the issues of transgenders, our main goal will be to provide a beautiful happy life to those people who could remain in the mainstream. First of all, we have to focus on the need for suitable parameters in which to classify the sub-culture groups of transgenders and would have to eliminate intersexuals or transsexuals (i.e., the ‘subject’ finds and feels something deformed in one’s biological sex) and homosexuals ( gays and lesbians ) from the transgender group. In the case of other transgenders, we should have to keep in mind that the problem is not genetic but a problem related with gender identity. It is strange that we often suggest sex transformation for people who suffer from a gender crisis. Sex transition is not always a solution for these people.

In my homeland Orissa, opera is a popular folk art form and till now, this folk theatre form is prevailing with a boost from commercial support. Up until the 1970s, male performers had been playing female roles by growing their hair long, wearing only ‘lungi’ and ‘banyan’ to make themselves comfortable as woman, and they make their voice and speech style more feminine to better capture the roles they play. But I have seen that these artists also have their own families. They have been married and have offspring. I have also seen many of the intellectuals in India who have hidden feminine characteristics in their personality as well and who are playing leading roles in the mainstream.

The Price of Transition

Transition is also a critical and expensive process. Prince Virginia, the creator of this term transgender, was also against any type of surgical transition. Transition surgery makes the person a patient for his/her whole lfe. He/she has to take hormone therapy for a long time which also can have adverse reactions over the body and mind. He/she has to have electrolyte therapy, which is also very painful, and costly. The transition process also needs the help of a psychologist. This type of emotional urge to change gender may also have negative results, resulting in the patient experiencing ‘transgender euphoria’ instead of ‘gender dysphoria.’

Accessibility of finances plays a key role for those wishing to change genders. Most of those who have adopted transition are from elite classes or higher income groups and most live in ‘Metro’ cities (in India, big cities are popularly known by this name). What will be the fate, then, for a middle-class transgender who lives in smaller cities like Patna, Lucknow, Kochi or Bhopal?

As a result of the gender change, transgender people in most cities and states can be denied housing or employment, lose custody of their children, or have difficulty achieving legal recognition of their marriages, solely because they are transgender. Many transgender people are the targets of hate crimes. The widespread nature of discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression can cause transgender people to feel unsafe or ashamed, even when they are not directly victimized.

Transgender people experience the same kinds of mental health problems that non-transgender people do. However, the stigma, discrimination, and internal conflict that many transgender people experience may place them at increased risk for certain mental health problems. Discrimination, lack of social support, and inadequate access to care can exacerbate mental health problems in transgender people while support from peers, family, and helping professionals may counteract these problems.

Here I want to quote some advice of transgender scientist Madeline Wyndzen from her article “Questions to Help Thinking about Your Gender Identity.”

Wyndzen, though she has had surgery for her transition, makes it clear that surgical transition is not at all a solution for transgender problems. She writes, “Everybody who transitions is not happy with their decision! I even know several post-op transsexuals who, though they say they're happier, that's not so easy to tell. I have met several post-op transsexuals who are filled with anger and hate and have never move passed it. I have met several transsexuals who live in a ‘transgender’ sub-culture rather than being a part of the larger world. I've seen people who once had families and careers that give up everything and ‘fortunately’ have a huge divorce settlement. I've seen people who quit their jobs (with some rationalization about why they couldn't possibly transition while there) and move into a small apartment. Others are fired. I've seen people use their life savings to stay hidden in the ‘transgender’ sub-culture for years but be able to transition because they would spend their life savings. I've asked a transsexual who had plenty of money but hid why she didn't get a job so she could explore what it's like to live as a woman. Why not get a job as a waitress to interact with other people who aren't transsexuals? I was worried about her because she became reclusive and she didn't act anything like what most women act like. But being a waitress was ‘beneath her’ and getting a job in her field was ‘obviously’ not possible because no women could have her resume. I've seen people who say I just ‘had’ to transition. They're ‘happier’ now but all they ever talk about is their past. They never seem to have hopes and dreams for their future. They dwell in anger towards religious institutions, or ex-spouses, or family members, or somebody else who's to blame. I've even had to stop talking to some transsexuals because it was just too much for me to hear their same angry stories over and over again. They couldn't stop and they couldn't change their stories because their stories were all about the past. Though how could they change? They had no life except their past as their biological sex.”

She again writes, “I'm not the only one who notices this. When I mentioned it to my therapist, she said she saw the same thing. She said there are transsexuals who ‘rather than coming out of the closet, merely come out into a bigger closet.’ I don't mean to suggest that this is inherently bad. You might really love a life as part of a ‘transgender’ subculture. But that's very different from a life as a man or woman. Please be clear about what you're trying to achieve when you transition. Some people really are transgenderists. Overall, I feel they're pretty cool even though I don't personally identify with them. Transgenderists really are happy and self-confident with their choice to challenge a binary gender system. But there are also other people who live outside of their real culture because they're too scared or angry or lack the confidence to join the world. Throwing out powerful rhetoric of ‘thwarting the binary gender system’ means nothing if it comes from somebody who hates the world, loses his or her confidence to face life, and doesn't like himself or herself as a person. Sometimes ‘transgenderism’ is just big fancy words for hiding a big mistake.”


I am not against transgendered individuals. People often show their sympathy for trees, animals and other inferior species but are often rude in their behaviour towards transgenders while the transgender community, on the other hand, generally do not make any harm to anybody. I can understand the positions of intersexuals or transsexuals who are born with differed biological bodies. There should be rational steps to make all feel comfortable and to mix up everyone into the mainstream.

In the comments area of Ghazal’s blog, I found an anonymous reader asked her, “You say that you were born in a wrong body...well, bending nature according to wishes of mind is not so good, Ghazal. Our mind concocts a hell of a lot of wishes, but you can't fulfill all of them... it's impossible. Let’s say after five years from now, you may wish to become a man.. then .. what will you do?” I think that question has potentiality and we should reconsider it.

Finally, I want to quote again Madeline Wyndzen’s few last lines from her essay as my conclusion:

She writes, “It's doesn't really matter if you are or aren't a transsexual. You are you! And people can redefine transsexual, so it means just about anything! There are even many psychologists who define a transsexual solely as somebody who transitions. That's it. And it's possible for people to get caught up in debates about if they ‘really are a transsexual.’”

But the real question and the only question you need to answer is this: What path for your life will let you be happy?