Week two of transgender studies went by in such a blur that I can hardly believe we are going into week three. This week one of my classes consisted of a panel of people who identified as trans. They were there to talk about their experiences with gender and answer any questions people might have.
A lot of the stories (and the questions that were asked) revolved around these ideas of privilege and performance. For instance, one woman talked about the shift from people seeing her as a man and then later as a woman. She said that she went from being “smart” to “smart for a woman.” There were also remarks about not being able to walk down the street and feel invisible. Someone is always looking at you or trying to talk to you.
When you shift from one gender to the next, you see how the other gender is treated. We can also come to understand how locked in place gender is in our society. If we don’t know what gender someone is, it makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know which rules to go by when we’re interacting with them. We see that our behavior is often modified depending on if we’re talking to a boy or a girl.
Why is this necessary? Why can’t we treat everyone with the same level of attention and respect when we interact with them? What does gender negotiate for us?
There are a lot of answers to that question depending on what field you’re coming from. Whether you’re a women studies major, a biologist, a psychologist, or just some dude.
The panel was asked how cis people could be allies, a word that is sometimes problematic. Some general thoughts were: don’t reassert the binary in your own life. Take an interest in peoples life and experiences and not their body/gender.
To me, it felt like the answer to that question was really: listen. If theres an opportunity to let someone who has experience talk, let that person talk. Being an ally can become a problem when you’re fighting someone else’s fight and using your words to try to fight for something they might not even want.
(For instance: Many gay allies fight for marriage equality, but many people who are gay see the institution of marriage as problematic, and reinforcing of the gender binary.)
A big lesson I’m getting from this class is that nothing exists as black and white, these people feel this way, this is the right way to do something. It’s not a line from one end to the other, it’s a globe. And people are floating around in the globe like little flecks of glitter. There is no up or down or right or wrong, it’s all unique experience. What one person sees as good and right might not be the same for the next person.
At that point we’re forced to do something sort of absurd. Listen to people talk about how they feel and accept that it might completely conflict with everything else we’ve heard.
Transgender studies is changing every single day, at a rate far faster than what I have studied of womens rights, or gay rights. This is a group of people who are demanding to be seen at a time when we have otherwise been preoccupied with a new binary – gay or straight.
More next time!