The ban on transgender individuals serving in the United States military was reinstated on August 25th, by the current President. This was not a surprise given the rhetoric during the campaign and the promises made to the winning electoral base. Given the plethora of ‘fake news’ accusations being hurled by ‘both sides’, I wanted to contrast the decision to sign the ban, with a trio of recent articles in magazines.
Before I link to the information, I wanted to state for the record that, although I do not identify as LGBTQ or any of the currently more than 50 ‘labels’ for gender’; I do understand what it’s like to exist with different genders and orientations inside. As a multiple personality who is male by birth, has an incredibly vibrant and compassionate woman as the strongest other, and who himself is several personalities removed from the original boy: I know from first-hand knowledge that gender is not genitals, but centered in the mind.
The January 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine, featured a transgender girl on the cover. The article title, How Science Is Helping Us Understand Gender, leads into an exploration of how the mind and hormones determine gender. I doubt very much if the issue changed many minds, but it certainly solidified my support for transgender rights.
National Geographic, by Robin Marantz Henig: Many of us learned in high school biology that sex chromosomes determine a baby’s sex, full stop: XX means it’s a girl; XY means it’s a boy. But on occasion, XX and XY don’t tell the whole story.
Today we know that the various elements of what we consider “male” and “female” don’t always line up neatly, with all the XXs—complete with ovaries, vagina, estrogen, female gender identity, and feminine behavior—on one side and all the XYs—testes, penis, testosterone, male gender identity, and masculine behavior—on the other. It’s possible to be XX and mostly male in terms of anatomy, physiology, and psychology, just as it’s possible to be XY and mostly female.
Each embryo starts out with a pair of primitive organs, the proto-gonads, that develop into male or female gonads at about six to eight weeks. Sex differentiation is usually set in motion by a gene on the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, that makes the proto-gonads turn into testes. The testes then secrete testosterone and other male hormones (collectively called androgens), and the fetus develops a prostate, scrotum, and penis. Without the SRY gene, the proto-gonads become ovaries that secrete estrogen, and the fetus develops female anatomy (uterus, vagina, and clitoris).
But the SRY gene’s function isn’t always straightforward. The gene might be missing or dysfunctional, leading to an XY embryo that fails to develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a girl. Or it might show up on the X chromosome, leading to an XX embryo that does develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a boy.
Genetic variations can occur that are unrelated to the SRY gene, such as complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), in which an XY embryo’s cells respond minimally, if at all, to the signals of male hormones. Even though the proto-gonads become testes and the fetus produces androgens, male genitals don’t develop. The baby looks female, with a clitoris and vagina, and in most cases will grow up feeling herself to be a girl.
Which is this baby, then? Is she the girl she believes herself to be? Or, because of her XY chromosomes—not to mention the testes in her abdomen—is she “really” male?
Continuing the gender wars, Vogue magazine weighs into the fight with two articles in the August 2017 edition. This first tackles the fashion industry with the quote “You see boys wearing makeup, girls buying menswear—they are not afraid to be who they are. This category or that category—who cares? They want to define themselves.” The essay itself leads off linking Virginia Woolf with Tumbler.
Vogue Magazine by Maya Singer: Midway through Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, a startling transformation takes place: Our hero, Duke Orlando, awakens from a seven-day slumber to find that he has switched genders. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes, “but in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”
He becomes they. The pronouns shift, but the person remains the same. Woolf’s words, written in 1928, could easily be mistaken for a manifesto posted yesterday on Tumblr, the preferred platform for the growing cohort of “fluid” young people who, like Orlando, breezily crisscross the XX/XY divide. Fashion, of course, has taken note of the movement, which is sufficiently evolved to boast its own pinups, including Jaden Smith, recently the star of a Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign, and androgynous Chinese pop star (and Riccardo Tisci muse) Chris Lee. But where, exactly, is someone neither entirely he nor she meant to shop? And how, exactly, is such a person to be defined?
This new blasé attitude toward gender codes marks a radical break.
“I have a friend who identifies as ‘all boy, all girl, all male, all female,’” says Gypsy Sport designer Rio Uribe, who is known for his party-like fashion shows cast with pals from all along the gender spectrum. “It’s like—what is that? But it doesn’t matter what it is.” Eluding the labels, constructing an identity apart—for Uribe, that’s “a clapback to a society that wants to define you.”
For a demographic so keenly attuned to being looked at, style serves as a convenient means of liberation. And so it’s always been, as Marc Jacobs points out.
“These kids—I’m not sure they’re any different from the people I saw at Danceteria or Mudd Club in the eighties,” Jacobs says. “The difference is that back then, the expression—extreme looks, cross-dressing, what have you—was hidden away in a speakeasy or a club. Today, thanks to the Internet, that culture is widely exposed.”
The second article builds upon the National Geographic story, by interviewing parents and their transgender children. How the Parents of Trans Teens Are Fighting for Their Kids’ Lives, shows how love and acceptance can be a powerful force for change when faced with an often hostile school system, medical and insurance industries in denial, and the suicide provoking pressures of a judgemental society bent on ridiculing those with differences.
Vogue Magazine by Rebecca Johnson: Almost a decade ago, Judy Caplan Peters’s four-year-old made an announcement that would shake their family’s values to its core. “Mommy,” the little one said, hand on chest as if to recite the pledge of allegiance, “I’m a boy.”
A simple enough statement except that, up until that moment, her child had been raised a girl. Sander*, as he’s known now, had been born with a girl’s anatomy, went by a girl’s name, and dressed in girls’ clothes.
His mother did not try to argue him out of it. She’d seen the signs, beginning with the phone calls from school advising that her child refused to sit with the girls when the students were divided by gender. Or saying that Sander had a headache, a stomachache, or just wasn’t feeling well and wanted to come home. She knew Sander was not happy on some fundamental level, which, for her, meant she did not have a choice in the matter. “You either love your child for who they are,” she says, “or you don’t. It’s that simple.”
Simple but not easy. “I had to go through a grieving process,” Caplan Peters admits, “because I was losing my daughter, but then you realize that your child is not dead or sick or lost, which, God forbid, some parents have to deal with. Your child is healthy. There is nothing wrong with them. This is how they were born.”
Previous generations of transgender people look at the children taking hormone-blocking drugs in awe. When the writer Andrew Solomon attended a gender conference to gather research for his groundbreaking book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, he met trans people who openly wept when they encountered young people who would never have to go through what they had: puberty as the wrong sex. “It’s fantastic,” says novelist and trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan about hormone treatment. “I was OK with my androgynous body as a child, but when puberty hit and the girls started going one way and I had to go with the brutes, I thought, Oh, no, this is going to be bad.” Thirty years later she transitioned to female, becoming one of the movement’s earliest and most articulate voices.
We in the BDSM community attract unwelcome attention and scorn for our chosen lifestyle, even though D/s and spanking is more mainstream than ever before. But being more visible doesn’t translate to being accepted. I grew up in a liberal/progressive big city, but even there, hetero marriage with a white picket fence was the ideal. I don’t ever recall a conversation or dialogue about sex outside the norm of male enters female and reproduces, and fluid gender was about as remote as watching live events on a mobile phone.
To give you a reference point, when I was a senior in high school, Bruce Jenner came for an assembly that was held at the track field. There was no way anybody in the audience of thousands, could have ever envisioned a day when he, would transition to she, and be known as Caitlyn. I was four years old when biracial marriage was declared legal in the United States, and six years old when the Stonewall riots happened in Greenwich Village.
I watched Star Wars seventeen times in the theater when I was thirteen, and ESPN launched just before I turned sixteen. When CNN started broadcasting the following year, I watched the first 24-hours without a break; enthralled that the world was now only a satellite linkup away. I don’t remember what year I got my first email account and scrolled through the World Wide Web via a dial-up modem, but back then, LGBTQ and BDSM information was very hard to find.
Every generation lays claim to the title of ‘Most Changes’, but for Baby Boomers such as myself, the sheer speed of social change playing out in live streaming color, belies the fact that—as Virginia Woolf wrote—fluid gender has always been a part of human existence. The acceptance of others who are different than us, is up to each individual. Who would have guessed that starting a blog eleven years ago would have led to discovering my true identity? But here I am, a straight Dom male, with a bi switch female always hovering around peering over my shoulder. I accept who we are.
So does she.
This is wonderful. It’s such an important topic, given the state of political pressures right now, and the ever-present push towards pigeon-holing people into binary positions. It’s fantastic to see such strong responses in the media.
I’m often looked at strangely for being accepting of any form of gender fluidity. And I have always told my children that I love them for who they feel they are, and who they are happy to be. I’ve also made some amazing friends who display non-binary traits, and with whom I can talk about anything in a non-judgemental environment. Yes, I identify as a het female, and I happen to like pink, but they are MY choices. I also love brown, blue and black, am an avid football fan (for UK readers!), have spent hours and hours on a cricket field, and will quite happily come home and draw cute little pictures. I don’t wear trousers or jeans, not because I’m a girl, but because I can’t stand them. I like making choices that are right for me, the person, and I would always support the same in anyone else.
And, for the record, I love and accept ALL of you. Never, ever doubt that.
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When I read these articles, I realized I was a lot closer to them than ‘normal’. Identity is one thing, but embracing and accepting the differences is something that many people can’t seem to do.
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I love this post LS and admire the steps that you have taken in being open about who you are – I am sure that it is not an easy thing to do.
I recently went to a talk at school delivered by a 15 year old pupil on the scientific evidence for being transgender. I had not been aware of this before and am hopeful that society continue to be more open to accepting gender and sexuality as being just a part of a person and not something which needs to fit a desired norm.
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Thanks, missy. The rise of ‘fake news’ and the dumbing down of science has led to people believing what they read instead of taking the time to learn.
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Well written, Byron. Thanks for sharing
Thank you for reading, JM. Sounds like a UK department store. 😉