Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Some Notes on the Classic Trans Narrative

(I started writing this about six months ago and never got around to publishing it.)

I am not familiar with all of the "classic" trans narratives, and even less familiar with more recent memoirs. But even so I have noticed a change. For the purposes of this essay, I'll be using the autobiographies of Christine Jorgensen and Jan Morris as examples of the classic narrative. These stories feature:
  • A happy childhood. Everything was wonderful, except for the fact that they were trans.
  • No interference in this happy childhood. We know that many gender-nonconforming children were, and still are, subjected to teasing and punishment, even sometimes to aversion therapy, when they try to express their gender identity. But the classic narrative doesn't mention anything like this. I'm willing to bet that more recent memoirs do talk about it. (And in fact, it's a fairly standard motif in gay/lesbian/bisexual memoirs.)
  • No other trans people. Jorgensen's story especially is the tale of a woman and her doctors. Morris' story is a bit more wide-ranging, but neither of them ever acknowledge meeting any other trans people (although Morris does mention that there were other patients at the hospital where her surgery was performed.)
Things have changed. I don't believe it's a coincidence that, along with greater trans solidarity and trans visibility, we also have less reliance on the medical establishment. Many trans people now question the standards of care and the right of a doctor to decide whether or not someone is really trans. We have each other now, for validation, support, and advice. (I don't mean to dismiss the concerns of trans people who do feel that medical intervention made their lives bearable. It's just such a precarious existence, in my opinion, relying on a cis doctor's word. LGB people seem to rely on each other.)

I assume that these memoirs were written for a cis audience. Actually, Jorgensen does mention that she gets lots of letters from trans people, begging to know where they can get help. Her response is an odd mixture of sympathy and "bear in mind that you might not actually be trans." And of course, she has to distinguish between the transsexual and the homosexual.

An unfortunate fact of living in the 1950s was that the medical establishment's goal was to produce happy, healthy, well-adjusted, heterosexual members of society. What this meant for trans people was that you had to be either heterosexual or asexual before transition, and hopefully heterosexual after transition. The appropriate treatment for homosexuals was not to coddle them by allowing them to change their sex. Rather, it was mental hospitals and shock treatments. Jorgensen claimed in her autobiography that she had never had any sexual experiences with men pre-transition, but this may not have been the case. If she did, however, she had to lie about it. Otherwise she would have been denied medical assistance in her transition.

Compare this with Jan Morris, who freely admitted in her memoir to sexual activity with men pre-transition. But she got an illegal sex-change operation. She was denied access to the legal operation, not because of "homosexuality," but because she didn't want to get divorced from her wife. (They eventually had to get divorced for legal reasons, but as soon as same-sex civil unions became legal in Britain they renewed their legal commitment to each other.)

Even today, the socially-imposed conflict between homosexuality and transsexuality persists in the medical world. In order to prove that you're really the gender you say you are, you have to conform to heteronormativity. You claim to be a girl, but you're attracted to girls? That can't be right. Only men are attracted to women. People have had to lie about this in order to get their permission slips, even today.

It seems obvious to me that this contributes to the existing conflict between the LGB and the T. Incidentally, you can see another example of this in the well-known film about drag queens, Paris is Burning. The women in that film refer to themselves as girls, or gay, or a third sex, but they never call themselves trans. (A cis friend of mine who saw the film thought it was because the word "transsexual" hadn't been invented yet. But no.) Maybe someday there will be a rapprochement.

Well, that is a favorite rant of mine. Someday I should get around to reading more recent trans narratives. And I am glad to be living in a time when I can meet other openly trans people. There's nothing like it.

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