“No one meant to make him feel bad… no one meant to be cruel” Rudolph’s Shiny New Year

Over the weekend I had to go to the doctor. I saw my gender therapist earlier last week and she had recommended that I get a prescription for anti-depressants. I’ve always been reluctant to take them because I feel like I’d rather just feel whatever sadness I feel and then get on with things. Lately though, I’ve been feeling a lot worse and the sadness turned into a bad bit of depression, complete with cutting. Most of that is related to my parents and the way they’ve treated me since I came out to them not quite two years ago.

I don’t think we realize how much power some people have over us. I’ve been admonished to not let other people affect me so much, but it seems like the people who would say that are missing a very big point: these are my parents. They’re not a random passerby on the street who clocks me for a trans woman and starts calling me sir. They’re my parents who famously said, “You’re not a real woman… everyone will just think you’re a sinner… they’ll never accept you.” That’s a hard thing to hear from anyone, it’s a horrible thing to hear from people that you hope will support you even if they have a hard time understanding your choices.

So, the doctor’s office. I was in the waiting room for about 30 or 45 minutes, long enough to see most of a Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer TV special that I’d never seen before. Google-fu indicates that it’s a show called Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and that it was made in 1976, twelve years after the original Christmas special.

The story centers around Rudolph’s search for the missing (actually run-away) Baby New Year. The Baby New Year has enormously large ears, and everyone who saw him laughed at him. He was so hurt that he decided to run away, and now that he’s missing, it’s impossible for the calendar to turn over on December 31st, and the New Year will never come unless the missing Baby New Year is found.

There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of this show before, and there’s a reason that you’ve probably never seen it, either. It’s bad. Well meaning, and with a positive message of inclusivity, yes, but it’s still bad.

But the point of this entry isn’t to make fun of a TV special that was made over 30 years ago. I want to connect that show, my own experiences with my parents, and the recent internet musings of two writers, Ira Rosenstein and Ronald Gold. Both authors have recently written pieces that are considered by the trans community to be very insensitive and while I wasn’t planning on writing anything about these two articles, the Rudolph special I saw at the doctor’s office helped me tie those things to my own experiences, and now I actually have something to say.

The quote at the top of this post says it all: No one really means to be cruel… no one sets out to make others feel bad. I think my parents fall into that category, and I think both Gold and Rosenstein do, as well. I’m not excusing the behavior of any of those people, nor do I think we can simply say that they didn’t mean it. I think cruelty is something that always needs addressing in public discourse, and while it seems like there’s a new thing to be upset about each week, it’s still important to see what we can learn about those mistakes, to learn what we can about the people we have hurt, and to learn how to avoid hurting at least some people in the future. We have to be careful, of course, to avoid a “culture of offendedness” as Fred Clark has put it so eloquently in the past, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t express righteous indignation over tangible mistreatment.

I think the commonality between both writers and my parents is that they’re speaking about transgender people without ever having thought about what it’s really like to be trans. Rosenstein has given the issue only some cursory thought, as he says of Sara Buechner’s transition:

David apparently went through the complete process– the hormonal treatments, and then the amputation. Followed by whatever crude physical reconstruction modern medicine is capable of.
I think it’s clear most men would choose death instead.

I think two things are pretty obvious about Rosenstein’s analysis of what it’s like to be trans at this point: he gave the thought exercise only a sub-minimal effort and did almost no research. That’s just sloppy. He didn’t think about how hard it must be to not fit in, especially among members of your own sex. I’m sure gay people experience this to a degree as well, but I can’t speak from experience as a gay man. I can say something about feeling like your gender doesn’t match and not feeling at home around boys, and I think that gay men ought to, at the very least, have an idea of what that must be like, especially as one enters puberty and finds that their sexual object choice is not the same as that of their peers.

Continuing with the unsympathetic voice, Rosenstein doesn’t consider how disorienting it must be to feel like you’re in the wrong body. He assumes that most men would choose death instead, but he’s really saying that he would choose death. Here I think, he’s projecting onto a group of people that he expects would agree with him. Maybe they would; in fact, I’m sure they would. That’s where Rosenstein shines forth on his ignorance: most men might choose death instead. The fact that trans women choose surgery willingly, will go to great lengths to get it, should indicate that we are not “most men”. We are women, and we do not want a penis any more than the “real men” want a vagina. Surgery is not our curse, it is our blessing and our salvation.

Modern medicine is capable of quite a bit more than crude physical reconstruction. In fact, the good GRS surgeons do work that is indistinguishable from the genitalia of cisgender females. Your OB/GYN should be able to tell the difference during an exam but your lover would never know, and neither would Rosenstein. Instead, he focuses on her outward appearance, dissecting her photo:

He looks good as a woman, nice dress, longer hair, lipsticked I believe, seated at a piano. I see I couldn’t bring myself to write “She looks good.”

.

That is what Julia Serano calls ungendering. “He” looks good, even though she’s a woman, giving undue privilege to her birth sex and disregarding her own identity. Because she required surgery to get where she is, Rosenstein decides that Buechner is not really a “real” woman (as evident by the constant misgendering). Rosenstein reduces Buechner to a man with long hair who wears dresses and lipstick, the subtext claiming that she’s just copying other women but is not a woman herself. To “other” her further, Rosenstein then writes the following:

There’s some feeling that this is wrong. But part of me is drawn in fascination and wonder. As if Tiresias, the mythic Greek prophet who lived, by the will of the gods, as a man and then as a woman and then as a man again, has come to life.”

Frankly, I’m tired of people trying to attach mystical signficance to what I’m going through, and I’m sure Buechner and most other trans women are. Transition is hard, expensive, and unsubsidized by insurance. The lack of acceptance by family, friends and society leads many of us into a well of depression. The Trevor Project says that LGBT youth who have been rejected by their families are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. That’s not mystical. It’s sad. So many of our brothers and sisters end their lives in misery with no solace. But Rosenstein isn’t interested in that part of our stories. Instead he’s interested in asking the following:

“Ms. Buechner and her partner of a decade, a Japanese woman…wed before 125″ in Canada, where gay marriage is legal, in 2005.
But wait a minute. That means they were together in 1995, years before his change.
Presumably then he has made love to her both as a man and a woman, and she too has an experience almost unique in human history, holding him in her arms and loving him and making love to him, continuing to hold him and love, even as he changed before her eyes, into a woman like her.
What is it like?

Cissexism is all about privileging cis bdies over trans bodies. To an extent, Rosenstein’s questions reflect his curiosity but they also reflect insensitivity to the desires of others for privacy. Transition can be a very public thing for a lot of us—we don’t transition overnight and we don’t do it in a vacuum. We are usually surrounded by people who knew us previously, and a lot of explanation is required. I’ve had to explain the details of my transition in excruciating detail to people within my church partly because of the fact that I transitioned in full view of the congregation. But there is a difference between trying to get people to understand and the invasive question Rosenstein asks at the end of his article. That final question is really none of Rosenstein’s (or the reader’s) business, and that is what makes it cissexist.

You wouldn’t ask questions like that of nearly anyone else, unless you were in the habit of discussing intimate details with your close friends. But Rosenstein and Buechner aren’t friends. In fact, as far as the reader can tell in Rosenstein’s article, they’re not even acquainted, at least not anymore. As such, the intimate questioning is entirely inappropriate. We teach children that kind of basic courtesy in Kindergarten. What makes Rosenstein think the rules don’t apply to him, or that Buechner has somehow relinquished her entitlement to the protection and anonymity of that social convention?

Sexual activity for transgender people is physically and emotionally complicated. For pre-op trans women on HRT, erectile dysfunction is not an unexpected side effect. As many trans people can testify, a lot goes on in our brains, so while hormones do affect sexual performance, they do not preclude the possibility of romantic activity. At the same time, feelings of dysphoria can make a person in the middle of a romantic encounter feel incredibly uncomfortable, unconfident and embarrassed. Wishing that you had a vagina instead of a penis, that your lover were feeling you up instead of jacking you off, is a very hard thing to parse—it’s nice to feel wanted at all, but it’s horrible to deal with genitalia that you don’t feel comfortable with, especially for something as intimately powerful as sex. It’s confusing, and I’ll admit that I’ve cried in the middle of sex on more than occasion.

The way that Rosenstein inserts his impartial, unbiased viewer into Buechner’s primal scene is unduly invasive. It is that invasiveness that is cruel, and while I’m sure Rosenstein doesn’t mean it, it’s cruel nevertheless. If Rosenstein is that curious, then perhaps he should, in a more sensitive way, try conducting research or interviews, rather than speculating about someone else’s life. The cissexism is bolstered by Rosenstein’s ignorance, and he doesn’t seem to care about either. He’s happy to be completely in the dark about what it is to be trans, and that doesn’t make me more sympathetic to his cause when he claims that he didn’t mean to be cruel.

Ronald Gold’s article is also rife with cissexism, particularly of the trans-facsimilation type. Gold’s article is less insensitive compared to Rosenstein, at least on the scale of heteronormativity, but the devaluing of trans bodies and people continues unabated. Gold writes:

I recall reading something by Jan Morris in which it seemed that he thought he needed a sex change because he wanted men to hold doors open for him and kiss him goodbye at train stations. For starters, I’d have told him that I’ve had these nice things happen to me and I’ve still got my pecker.

It would seem that Gold totally misses his own point from earlier in the same paragraph:

[Gold would] remind them [transgender people] that whatever they’re feeling, or feel like doing, it’s perfectly possible with the bodies they’ve got. If a man wants to wear a dress or have long hair; if a woman wants short hair and a three-piece suit; if people want romance and sex with their own gender; who says they can’t violate these perfectly arbitrary taboos? A short historical and cross-cultural survey should establish that men and women have worn and done all sorts of stuff.

What he fails to understand is that being transgender isn’t a feeling. It’s a trait like your eye color or hair color, not whether you’re nice to strangers or obsessed with work. Your gender identity is something that isn’t mutable for most people, even for trans people. Most trans women have never felt like boys, real or otherwise, and most trans men haven’t felt like girls.

And this is the thing that so many cis people don’t get about being trans: when you reject that person’s gender identity, you are rejecting something extraordinarily fundamental about that person. Some of our most basic understandings of our persons are based in our understanding of our own gender. That a person’s body may not match their internal gender may be an unusual occurrence, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the transgender person. Acting as though a trans woman is merely a defective man for wanting “the amputation” doesn’t just marginalize the trans woman, it marginalizes all women who don’t want a penis.* Seemingly, that is something the cisgender authors of these two articles just don’t understand—that a person could have a vagina and be perfectly happy. Gold notes in the quote above that he has had doors held open for him and been kissed at the train station but that he still has his penis. I would posit that for Morris, with whom Gold was trying to contrast himself, the latter is not exactly a bragging point.

I hesitate to speak for all women, but would say that few of us would be terribly happy to wake up tomorrow with a penis where our vulvas used to be. Socially speaking, we are defined as women based on the way we act, the genitalia we have, the secondary sex characteristics we display. Gold may argue that there is no such thing as a male or female personality, but society completely disagrees with him. Rather than using his position as a gay male author to undermine the heteronormative, cissexist world of gender conformance, he actually helps to prop up an essentialist doctrine where a person’s destiny is governed by biology, that men are men and women are women.

Gold goes on to contradict himself– he tries to make it appear as though he doesn’t understand the fuss over gender and genitalia, that a person should be happy as they are. He says there’s no such thing as gender, no real boys and no real girls. We’re all just people. But both Gold and Rosenstein are pretty beholden to their penises in a way that makes me think those little tabs of flesh poking off their abdomens matter quite a bit to them. Gold and Rosenstein are trying to have their cake and eat it, too: trans genders don’t matter, but their cis gender does.

Only cis genders matter to Gold and Rosenstein because that’s all they know, but trans genders can inform the actions of trans people to an equal degree. I figured that out more than two years ago when I realized that wearing a dress and growing my hair out wasn’t enough to deal with my gender dysphoria. I knew that before I ever started seeing my gender therapist. Gold wants to blame the therapists for these silly ideas and false diagnoses, but I came up with my own silly ideas all by myself. Before I started on the WPATH standards of care, I was dressing like a woman on a regular basis, carrying a purse, and taking supplements from the local vitamin store to make my breasts grow.** I wasn’t passing, and while I was laying waste to gender stereotypes every time I walked out the door, that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to subvert anything, I didn’t want to get stared at everytime I left the house, I didn’t want to get clocked. All I wanted was for my body to match how I identified myself.

In other words, I couldn’t do what I wanted with the body I had. Gold makes it apparent that he doesn’t understand why his concept of pluripotency with a differentiated body isn’t possible, just as Rosenstein failed in the same area. Neither author can understand why a person might not want a penis and that makes a very clear case for why they were both the wrong writers for these articles.

I think both authors could have written very interesting pieces by deconstructing gender roles and examining what really makes a trans person feel like they’re in the wrong body. Gold could have argued that cis and trans labels are completely unnecessary. The title of his article was set up perfectly for it. Rosenstein’s musings simply should never have seen the light of day. Buechner’s previous write up in the NY Times is everything Rosenstein’s wasn’t– insightful, sensitive, based on interviews with Buechner herself. Unfortunately, I think the lack of forethought and imagination made non-starters for both Rosenstein and Gold. Both writers have been vilified in the online trans community, their work decried as being heedlessly cruel, mindlessly cissexist, and irreverently irrelevant.

But they didn’t mean it. And neither did my parents. Nor did the characters on the Rudolph TV special, but they couldn’t help it. I think that’s a bullshit excuse. Of course you can help it, it’s called doing research, reading a book or two, and maybe conducting an interview.*** It’s called being civil and polite. It’s called listening to a person talk about their experiences, rather than projecting your own feelings and experiences onto their body. It’s about easing up on calling your daughter a sinner when she’s trying to explain how important her name change is, or why she wants to come out to family. In the interest of not being a gaping asshole unto others, sometimes it is okay to suppress your thoughts and speech– we are not obligated to give voice to every ounce of cruelty and malice that pops into our heads. The failure on the part of Rosenstein, Gold, and my parents is that they failed to judge the consequences of their words, they failed to understand how people would react to the verbal attack. That the attack was unintentional makes it no less an offensive act.

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* I’m talking about something like Freud’s concept of “penis envy” and how it belittles all women: all women want a penis because that’s were the power comes from. For example, sexual intercourse is referred to as “penetrative”, rather than “consumptive”. A woman’s vagina doesn’t “consume” or “cover” her partner’s penis or digit(s) or tongue. Rather, the sexual object “penetrates” the woman. She is always the recipient, the vanquished, or the conquered and never has control over her own sexual agency.

** A note to any trans women that might be reading this: dress however you want, accessorize however you want. All teenage girls have to go through this phase of trying new things, spending an hour (or more) on their hair in the morning, and wearing blue eye shadow with red lipstick. Many of these things (including the blue eye shadow) are mistakes and will fall by the wayside. Do not though, try that black cohosh extract at the vitamin store. It’s a total waste of money, and for all the (lack of) results, you’re better off buying a heavily padded bra. Better yet, go to the therapist and start working on getting approval for HRT. Estrogen will actually do what the vitamin supplements claim to accomplish.

*** I’d recommend either Whipping Girl by Julia Serano or one of Jennifer Boylan’s books, She’s Not There or I’m Looking Through You. All three are truly excellent works.

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