Respecting Identity and the Right to be Real

By Damon Hastings

Reading Zoe Dolan’s memoir, There Is Room for You (see sidebar), prompted Voice Male’s Damon Hastings to muse on the language we use to talk about transgenderism and sexuality more broadly.

One of the most striking, and painful, details of Zoe Dolan’s memoir, There Is Room for You, addresses the sort of language we use to talk about trans people. In one passage, about a third of the way into the book, Dolan recounts an apparent bout of internalized transphobia—how she used to see cisgender women as “real,” while trans women, including herself, were “fake.”

For years I used “real women” to refer to the overwhelmingly vast majority of women who were born in female bodies at birth. I insisted on using the phrase even though it tended to raise hackles within the trans community, since the wording implies that I was not real but “somehow” fake instead. Mine was a perspective of convenience, explaining away my failures in relationships with men this way: much as self-effacement had shriveled my soul into the oblivion of sex addiction, now, too, I did not exist, I was not real. (p.100)

This passage is only a slice of the book’s broader depiction of how trans-exclusive ideas of gender can be internalized by trans people—in this case leading to a sort of self victim-blaming that, regardless of how you define it, led Dolan to doubt her own identity. (Note: Many today understand gender identity as separate from sexual orientation. While orientation refers to our unalterable feelings of attraction, identity refers to how we make sense of those feelings and define our place in relation to others, and to society.)

Much of Dolan’s memoir describes how for a lot of her life— before growing into herself as a woman—she tried to efface herself, not only through engaging in anonymous sex with strangers, but through self-invalidation (referring to herself as “fake”). This is more than a matter of simple semantics; it is how the language we use to describe gender and sexuality in our everyday lives is coded with stigma and normative ideals. Given the social exclusion experienced by many trans people—which can lead to serious psychological distress and suicide—challenging the sort of language that invalidates others’ lives and experiences can literally be a matter of life and death.

Eventually, Dolan began to identify as a real heterosexual woman. This opens a portal to a topic a lot of cisgender people—both straight and otherwise—misunderstand: Being transgender does not necessarily make someone gay or imply that they are outside of the gender binary. Lumping all transgender people in with non-binary or genderqueer folk (those who identify with no specific gender or traditional gender), or assuming that they identify as queer, erases many transgender identities. Excluding trans people from the identities they share with cis people, and through which both understand themselves, is, then, a form of social segregation.

This topic has been at the center of a number of high-profile controversies recently, perhaps most noticeably in the case of Lila Perry, a female high school student and the target of bullying and protests over her use of her school’s female bathrooms and locker room, all because she is trans. Perry has rejected the notion that she should have to use a segregated, gender-neutral bathroom, pointing out that she is not gender-neutral and is not non-binary—she is a girl.

While many of Perry’s critics continue to wrongly argue (read believe) that separate gender-neutral bathrooms for trans folk are the solution to the bathroom debate, others continue to deride the idea that there is any such thing as “gender-neutral” in the first place. For example, when the University of Tennessee recently considered a policy proposal that would require faculty, staff, and students to respect the use of gender-neutral pronouns, the school was met with wide-scale derision, mostly from conservative commentators and politicians who insisted that there are only two “real” genders. This sort of backlash against any challenge to traditional gender norms, however, has a long and repetitive history.

When first-wave feminists began to challenge the social expectation for women to wear burdensome clothing, a conservative and anti-feminist backlash argued for stricter dress codes out of belief that the erosion of the gender binary would somehow destroy society. But two centuries after the ascendance of first-wave feminism and the corresponding transformation of feminine identity, civilization has yet to collapse—in fact, it’s evolved.

In more recent decades, academics and intellectuals working in gender studies and related fields have questioned how gender and sex are socially defined and constructed, and as a result have provided a new generation of queer folk with the ideas and vocabulary to arrive at nuanced and liberating understandings of themselves. Many of the opponents of such work often mischaracterize the idea that gender is a social construction, claiming that there are no biological differences between the sexes, when it is more accurate to say that it questions how we interpret and assign gender categories on the basis of biological features and functions (such as, for example, the ability of many women to carry children).

While nobody would deny the importance of understanding sex differences for medical purposes, binary sex categories (male or female) are at least partially a political matter. For example, being born with XX chromosomes and a uterus does not automatically mean that one is female—somebody born with these traits could just as well grow up to become an adult man.

At one point in There Is Room for You, Dolan challenges the expression “sex change operation.” Like Dolan, many in the trans and some in the medical communities have come to object to the idea that one’s sex or gender is “changed” by an operation, and now advocate for the term “gender confirmation surgery.” They say terms like “sex change” or “gender reassignment” suggest one cannot identify as another sex or gender until possessing the reproductive organs traditionally associated with that sex or gender—an idea which is not only narrow in understanding, but also erases the identities of trans people who are unwilling or unable to go through with such surgery—but who nonetheless identify with a sex or gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, before they are physically capable of having any say in the matter.

Such accounts of language being challenged, and the backlash it always foments, highlight the importance of trans peoples’ right to define their own identities. As a society, we have a moral obligation to respect other identities—no matter how much gender-neutral pronouns confuse the uninitiated or how long our acronyms grow.

damon_hastingsDamon Hastings, Voice Male editorial assistant, is a writer and editor with a longtime interest in advocating for non-normative identities. They graduated from Hampshire College, where they studied literature and critical theory, with a special interest in gender in literature.