transgendered like me


by Gabriel Rotello

The Advocate - December 10, 1996

TAKE A LOOK AT THE PICTURE ON THIS PAGE. Do I look transgendered? By the standard definition of that term, probably not. Yet I increasingly believe that I am transgendered. What’s more,I believe that if you are lesbian or gay or bisexual, you are too. And I believe that an emerging definition of all gay people as transgendered is the wave of the future.

This idea stems in large part from the growing body of research into the “cause” of sexual orientation. The jury is still out on whether that cause is biological or environmental or both or neither, but this much can be said: Researchers have found that the heterosexual majority and gay people differ in a key respect. Most heterosexuals tend to feel and act and desire and respond and present themselves to the world in a fairly “sex-typical” way: pretty much all-male or all-female. Gay people, on the other hand, exhibit a whole range of “sex-atypical” characteristics, meaning characteristics that are most commonly associated with the opposite sex, at least among the heterosexual majority. These traits obviously include our attraction to members of the same sex, but they also include our inner feelings of maleness or femaleness, our outward appearance as butch or femme, the unconscious way we speak and move, even the way we throw a ball or change a tire.

For some reason most gay people exhibit sex atypical traits most dearly when they are very young. Many gay boys, for example the vast majority in some studies, report that they identified strongly with girls when they were very small. Some even thought of themselves as more female than male. The opposite seems true for most lesbians. As we grow older these feelings tend to subside, at least for many of us, so that as adults the only major sex atypical trait that we retain is our sexual orientation. But not for everybody. Some of us grow up to be mannish women or femme men. Some become occasional cross-dressers or drag kings or queens. Some become transgenderists (people who live full-time as the opposite gender without desiring surgery) or pre- or post-operative transsexuals. Researchers now think that this is all connected, that all gay and transgendered people occupy places on a continuum between the two main genders. At one extreme are masculine gay men and feminine lesbians, whose only obvious sex-atypical trait is their sexual orientation. At the other extreme are people who are so gender-atypical in so many ways that some choose to have an operation to bring the body in line with the soul. But what distinguishes us is that we all, to some degree or another, have major traits that place us somewhere between the two primary genders. In that sense we’re all transgendered.

Not only does this idea offer a more expansive definition of what we really are, but it also better explains why we are oppressed. Homophobes don’t merely hate us because of how we make love. They hate how we make love because it violates our expected gender roles. Really, we are hated for gender transgression. When I was 10 and was taunted for throwing a ball “like a girl,” I don’t think those school-yard bullies suspected me of actually sleeping with men. They bashed me for not being boy enough. That goes for almost all of us. Whether we face prejudice for being too butch or too femme or for being cross-dressers or androgynes or for being perceived as gay or lesbian, we are all ultimately disliked for the same basic reason: transgressing our expected gender roles. Sexual transgression in the bedroom is just one aspect of that, although a very important one. So just as all gays are in a basic sense transgendered, all homophobes are first and foremost “transphobes.”

This new understanding is revolutionizing researchers’ conception of sexual orientation as just one aspect of a larger kind of difference. And I believe that if we’re smart, it could revolutionize the way we look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a movement. The modem gay world was born out of a 19th-century psychological concept, namely, that some people -- “homosexuals” -- are attracted to members of the same sex. We accepted that limited idea and built our identities and our movement around it. We thought of sexual desire as the basis of our identity a basis that leads to endless fragmentation based upon what, exactly, you desire: Lesbian. Gay. Bi. Trans. Whatever.

Now, however, late-20th-century research has produced a new concept: that the root of our difference is not merely how we make love but the larger fact that we exist between the two genders in a variety of ways, some sexual and some not. This idea has immense implications because if the ultimate cause of our oppression is gender transgression, then shouldn’t it also be the focus of our identities and our movement? Shouldn’t we stop being the les-bi-gay-trans-whatever movement, with a new syllable added every few years, and simply become the trans movement?

I think we should. And ultimately, I believe we will. Once we stop thinking of ourselves as oppressed by what we do in bed and start thinking of ourselves as oppressed because we occupy a space between genders, the sexual differences between us will fade into unimportance, and our common humanity will emerge into the light. If that’s not a higher form of liberation. I don’t know what is.