I had kind of an epiphany a couple months ago when thinking about gender definitions, myself, and something my dad said years ago. I wrote this huge manifesto after “borrowing” my step-mom’s car (without asking, of course) and taking it for a joyride. The manifesto was basically detailing the sudden freedom I felt and how I wasn’t sorry for doing something which caused that feeling. The manifesto also talked about—for some reason I can’t recall—myself coming out as bisexual. My dad told me I shouldn’t label myself. He was mainly referring to me being young, and not really knowing what I want yet, etc., and I pretty much treated his advice with a “fuck you, dad” attitude.
Those words come back to me now in a similar context. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about gender recently. Reading about people who break the gender rules. I’ve been thinking about my own gender dysphoria, and how much of it is linked to my very biased, and probably very wrong, ideas of What-It-Means-to-Be-a-Man. When I was in high school, I got a t-shirt that said “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A LESBIAN.” It confused a lot of people, and that really excited me. Later, though, that idea, ironic though it was, seemed more and more true. I felt queer but not particularly gay. And when the straight guys asked me “So that just means you like girls, right?” it didn’t quite explain, at all, what I was really feeling.
What’s the word for that? Well, almost a year ago, I found one. It was transgendered. Trans-, coming from Latin, most often means “across,” “beyond,” or “through,” but in many of the definitions for transgender and transsexual that I’ve read recently, it means more than that. They like to think of it as transgressing or transcending gender. Transgress, as defined by Webster in the Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, means “to pass over or go beyond…; to go beyond the limits imposed by (a law, command, etc.); violate; infringe; brake…;to break or violate a law, command, moral code, etc.; offend; sin.” The only antonym listed is “obey.” Transcend, Webster says, means “to rise above or go beyond the limits of; overpass; exceed…; to outdo or exceed in excellence…” (For shits and giggles, I looked for transgendered—no luck. Transsexual?—nope, not there either. The only thing I found was transvestism, defined as “the practice of wearing clothing appropriate to the opposite sex, often as a manifestation of homosexuality.” I wonder what the greater majority of the homosexual community would think about that.)
Kate Bornstein, a male-to-female transsexual played a pretty big role in my usage of this new word, transgender. She says: “I think anyone who wants to question or study gender is transgressing gender. I think anyone who has either the desire or the courage to admit their transgressions against gender is transgendered” (My Gender Workbook, 74). She also says:
“You’re Trangendered If…
- You’re not perfectly gendered according to the pyramid model, and in this culture that’s a crime against gender.
- You’re gaining an entirely different perspective on gender from the one that’s been force-fed us all for an awfully long time” (Gender Workbook, 74).
By questioning the way gender in society works, she says, we become Gender Outlaws. People who don’t fit in the rigidly defined binaries of female/male, gay/straight, black/white, 0 or 1. So, okay, now I’m transgendered, now it makes sense that “NOBODY KNOWS I’M A LESBIAN,” because maybe I am. And that’s okay. Now questions like: “Does this mean I’m one of those ‘women-trapped-in-a-man’s-body’ things? That’s always struck me as a lame excuse…Is it more than that? Should I start thinking about the $60,000 gender reassignment surgery, better known as The Operation?” pop up. More categories. More focus and emphasis on labelling oneself, causing more stress to fit into one or more of them. And while opening up the definition of transgender to mean something much more broad and all-encompassing is a good start, it is still limited by the pre-existing connotations of the word. Something new, something new…
In their book of the same name, Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel decide on “pomosexual.” They say:
“Postmodernism looks for art and meaning sourced in the mundane, in wacky or arcane juxtapositions, in low as well as high culture. In this it bears some relationship to camp, queerdom’s own ironic social theory, which developed to let us criticize (particularly heterocentrist) relations of power. Postmodern thought invites us to get used to the Zen notion of ‘multiple subjectivities’—the idea that there is no solid, objective reality, that each of us experiences our reality subjectively, affected (or influenced) by our unique circumstances…
“What happens to identities based on essentialist thinking when we begin to challenge fixed notions of gender identity, binary thinking, monosexuality? When we want names that acknowledge and help shape how various we are? When gender dysphoria becomes first a sex toy or a way of life, then an inspiration to think about the mutability of everything we have been taught to consider fixed? When we insist on identities that embrace our diversities and refuse to gloss them over?” (Pomosexuals, 21)
What they seem to be suggesting is to stop worrying about what it’s called and—like Nike—just do it. This opens up all sorts of possibilities to play with gender and labels and not be bothered with trying to live up to any aforementioned labels. Because it doesn’t matter anymore. None of these arguments over who’s a “real” man, a “real” woman, a “real” lesbian, a “real” feminist. The “real” (postmodern) answer to all of this is to go beyond definitions and make it happen, and not worry about what it’s called. Someone will find a name for it eventually, because everyone seems to have to put things in boxes for themselves, but as I see it now, one guard in the panoptic tower is this insistence on labeling things and people. We keep ourselves in check for fear of being excommunicated for being other than our assigned label(s). To combat the tower, we alleviate the labels and the need for them that resides in it.
“…The ‘pomosexual,’ who, like the queer s/he closeley resembles, may not be content to reside within a category measurable by social scientists or acknowledged by either rainbow-festooned gays or by Ward and June Cleaver.
“Pomosexuality lives in the space in which all other non-binary forms of sexual and gender identity reside—a boudary-free zone in which fences are crossed for the fun of it, or simply because some of us can’t be fenced in. It challenges either/or categorizations in favor of largely unmapped possibility and the intense charge that comes with transgression. It acknowledges the pleasure of that transgression, as well as the need to transgress limits that do not make room for all of us” (Pomosexuals, 23).
I never thought, nor do I think my dad did, about how much weight his suggestion to “not label myself” actually carried. I never thought I’d still be quoting it today, but today I think it was the best piece of advice I never listened to. And it has become my new goal to live without as many definitions as possible, to attempt to transgress the need for labels in myself and how I view my surroundings and other people. It’s at least cheaper than buying a new body for $60,000.