Transgender Life and LGBT Politics: An InterviewDevon Douglas-Bowers I LGBTQ Rights I Interview I July 24th, 2015
The following is a transcript of an email interview I had with two transgender individuals, Geoff and Caitlyn, about their lives and LGBT politics.
When did you realize that you were transgender? How did you deal with those feelings?
Geoff : I was raised in a religious household, where gender roles were fairly strict. In my church, wearing pants was controversial for women, and skirts above the knee would result in chastisement. It's in many ways fortunate that my tastes, preferences, and hobbies fit fairly neatly within the realm of feminine, so it was rare someone would criticize my gender expression or choice in clothing. My behavior was considered atypical from what one might expect from a young girl, but it was just as likely to be attributed to a difference in socioeconomics between my family and my peers, or just a personal oddity.
Compared to church doctrine, my family was fairly progressive, but being raised in the church, attending parochial school through the church, and participating in extracurricular activities sponsored by the church resulted in a very limited understanding of sex, gender, and the expression of the two. Despite all this, my mother raised me and my sister to be critical of hierarchies and gender expectations, and tried her hardest to promote feminist thinking within a highly patriarchal community.
At fourteen, my family could no longer afford to maintain my enrollment in the parochial school offered by my church. My first year of public school was at 14, as a freshman in highschool. It took a year for me to understand that my innate weirdness wasn't just a quirk, but there were actual words to describe people like me. I wasn't aware of having met any queer people before, instead having been taught by my church that being gay is something sinful people do in prison. Meeting queer people I realized that everything I was told about gender and sexuality was completely wrong, and I was quick to dive into the community. It took some time to grasp a completely new way to interpret gender and queerness, and though I recognized and identified with the queer community fairly soon on, learning the most correct label took a while.
At the time of my coming out, there were no prominent trans men; in a suburban, red county environment, even transgender women were mostly brought to my awareness via Jerry Springeresque caricatures. I was sixteen when I took to genderqueer as a sufficient enough label, quickly coming out to my mother and sister about it. Another two years of research and dissatisfaction, and I became aware of transgender men, something that was absolutely groundbreaking to me. There were people out there who weren't lesbians, but could relate to my discomfort with the way people perceive me. The relief of realizing I wasn't just a complete weirdo, that other people have experienced similar thoughts and feelings, is indescribable.
Caitlyn : I knew around 5 or 6 I was different. My father was a manly man flying the F-4 Phantom II and while I appreciated all that, I was intrigued by my mother and her life. Make up, fashion, girl stuff in general. However I didn't know what that meant and dad made it clear such behavior was "wrong." So I hid them. When I was a young teen I kinda figured it out through library reading and watching the news. That compulsion to get dolled up was a natural desire to be myself. I was a girl at heart, but I still was in an environment where such things were wrong. I didn't want to be, as dad put it, some kind of "it" freak, I wanted to be normal and accepted.
When were you truly able to be at peace with your actual identity?
Geoff : I don't know if there was ever a moment where I've felt at peace with my identity, because my identity has never caused me any upset. For me, it was a matter of learning to make peace with myself, accepting that not only will I never be able to meet the expectations my family and community have for me, but realizing that I've no interest in even trying to meet them.
My actual gender has never been a problem, and my gender identity is less a part of me as it is a means to express who I am to those around me. It wasn't until I was able to start the process of a medical transition that I was really able to feel at peace. Before then, being in public and around people felt like constantly being crammed into the wrongshaped people box, for lack of a better way to phrase it. A phrase we hear bandied around a lot to describe being trans is being, "a man trapped in a woman's body," or vice versa. For me, that's not been the case. Rather, I've not felt trapped by my body so much as the expectation for my body to fit into the wrong mold. It was only after I was able to change my appearance in a way that made me happy, with the added bonus of stopping people from trying to force me into a space I didn't want to be, that I was able to feel centered and at peace with my person, identity be damned.
Caitlyn : In the last year or so. I'm 39, I've been bottling this up, trying everything I could to be normal. I played football, defensive line. I joined the military, I got married, had kids. All of this served only to create more internal strife, you have to be yourself. I realized I was going to be old, die old and full of regrets based on fear and letting others dictate who I am. I realized I wasted years fighting myself to please people who were less interested in what was right for me, and more interested in what they thought was right for me. That's the big fight I think for all trans. I'm blessed, I met and married a most wonderful woman who has helped me both try to be fight being trans, to ultimately helping me as I transition. She, more than anything has helped me reach peace.
Did your political views change at all due to your gender identity?
Geoff : My political views have stayed fairly consistent over the years. Growing up poor and a first generation convert in a religion that favorites multigenerational members, being marginalized wasn't a new thing. Being tall and painfully shy didn't help much, either. My politics are influenced by my interest in dismantling systems of inequality, always have been, and my identity as a queer transgender person has only served to reinforce my aforementioned politics. The one thing I thing it has changed is my identity as a feminist. I first dipped my toes into feminist literature with Betty Friedan, Germain Greer, and Gloria Steinem. It wasn't long until I fell into radical feminism, something that is unsurprising, considering I'd just left a rigid patriarchal religious system. As my understanding of gender advanced, it wasn't long before encountering the subcommunity within radical feminism, the trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
With a shaky self-dentity, learning people who I had previously identified with had taken such a strong stance against me was a huge blow. What could have been disastrous instead prompted an important learning moment in my political development; I learned about womanism and the shared experience of trans people, black and brown women, working class women and our respective intersections; mainstream feminism has and continues to fail at adequately addressing the needs of our communities. Understanding there are groups, ideologies, and communities claiming to represent the needs of people in my community and the communities I try and share solidarity with, who instead serve to further disenfranchise us, was integral to my political development.
Caitlyn : Not really. I'm at heart a Reagan style conservative who love this country, personal responsibility, small government and a strong military. Being a transwoman doesn't change that, it in fact inspires me to show those that see the world how I do that folks like me are allies, not freaks to hate. It's a struggle but one I'm in the long haul for.
When you came out, how did your family receive you?
Geoff : Overall, my family has been pretty middling. When I became aware that transitioning is a possibility, I came out as genderqueer to my mother. I wasn't sure how far I was interested in going with my transition, but because she was mostly accepting, over the years of transition we've been able to have meaningful dialogue that's slowly led her towards a place of understanding. There has definitely been a few rocky patches, but with support from my sister and really close friends, it has been manageable. At this point, she is in full support of me and my gender, something that is very validating for me. My sister has been the absolute rock in my life. She was fully supportive from the getgo, and has helped out in every way necessary. From attending therapy, to caring for me after a gender confirmation surgery, she's been spectacular. She's gone so far as to help out the community as a whole, being involved in her college's Queer-Straight Alliance. Beyond that, it's pretty hit and miss. Compared to most trans people, my family has been spectacular, but when the bar has been set so low it's not that difficult to surpass it.
A more typical experience for trans people would be aligned with my father's attitude when I came out. He doesn't use my correct name or gender, and has compared transitioning to getting a regrettable tattoo when drunk. Both my parents come from large families, so there's always a few aunts and uncles who have my back, a few who don't, but mostly people who don't care enough to confront me directly about it. It definitely seems the younger family members are much more accepting, with most all of my cousins being in full support of my gender.
Caitlyn : Those who know, because I am slowly coming out as I go from male to female full time, have been supportive. The younger they are the easier it is. My father's generation, 60+ are well, less than receptive to such freak behavior as they put it.
Do you think that the LGBT community is truly inclusive? For example, we still see that transwomen, especially transwomen of color are the main victims of anti-LGBT violence.
Geoff : I'm neither a transwoman, nor a person of color, so I can't at all speak for their experiences. What I can speak to is my experience as a queer transgender white man, which does come with many challenges within the LGBT community. I prefer 'queer' to LGBT, because the acronym fails to sufficiently address the presence of intersex, queer, asexual, gradient identities, and many other non-eurocentric iterations of gender and sexuality.
As a whole, cisgender people have a very difficult time understanding the idea that the gender of trans people is equally valid to cisgender identities. Trans people face challenges on all sides from the cis community, and there is no exception sexuality minorities. Our supposed supporters often fetishize trans people, and feel entitled to our bodies; it's not uncommon to hear about a cis person, often male, guessing whether a person is trans or not, and instead of asking they will opt for a grope. They might not say anything, might out the trans person, or might have a trans fetish and continue with sexually inappropriate advances. Cis women who date other women will often outright reject trans women, claiming they're not actually women, are rapists, or male colonizers of women's spaces. These same cis women will then turn and fetishize trans men, which serves to drive a rift between trans men and women, while invalidating the gender of trans men. We also face a lot of pressure from the corporate side of the queer community; these are the people who want pride parades sponsored by Bank of America, advocating for 'family friendly events.' "Family friendly" is generally regarded as codeword for, "no trans people, no radical queers." Think HRC, claiming to advocate for trans people while simultaneously creating a hostile work environment for anyone who isn't a cisgender white gay male.
The general impression I've gotten of the queer community is that it's more the white cis affluent LG community, and everyone else. There are a lot of people working to improve the community, and many groups who successfully create spaces open to all gender and sexuality minorities, but the unfortunate reality is that the most prominent groups and organizations are the least diverse and inclusive.
Caitlyn : I think the LGBT community is like any other. There are groups within the group. I think the problem for transwomen of color is that being LGBT is less accepted, thus the reaction of violence finding out that girl you were with was born male tends towards a more violent reaction
Would you say that trans faces such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock are able to make large effects in society or that the average trans person still has much to deal with?
Geoff : It makes me cringe, seeing Caitlyn Jenner put in the same category as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. While I respect Jenner's narrative and identity, and her right to tell her story, it is like comparing Snookie with Marion Wright Edelman and Erykah Badu. You can, but should you? Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have done spectacular things for the trans community, and have been spectacular representatives and advocates, on top of the rest of their impressive body of work. What Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have successfully done is created positive visibility for trans people, young and old, while working to create platforms where trans people are offered the opportunity to express ourselves. Laverne Cox said it best, "You can't have a movement with one person, so it's really about so many amazing trans folks all over the country who are letting their voices be heard, and saying this is who we are, and this is how we should be treated."
Just being in the media isn't important, because almost every marginalized group is present in popular culture. Instead, what we're seeing is trans people getting the opportunity to tell our own stories, to create our own characters, and to represent ourselves. This is incredibly important when you compare it to the past of trans people being used almost exclusively for comedic shock factors, or tragic stories written by cisgender people, played by cisgender people.
That being said, I do not believe trans visibility has a large effect on cisgender society. There's a really great quote attributed to Donny Miller, "In the age of information, ignorance is a choice." No amount of visibility will stop transphobia. All the information is out there, but people are choosing to ignore it in favor of perpetuating harmful beliefs and encouraging behavior that ultimately ends in the systemic destruction of trans lives. It's only through the work of our community that trans lives are being improved, and the visibility of trans faces serves the best purpose of inspiring more people to come out, more people to continue their lives, and more people who are able to fight against the myriad of forces attempting to remove us.
Caitlyn : I think Laverne Cox showed so many that being trans meant "yes, she's a woman and a beautiful woman at that. Caitlyn Jenner helped the world see that it's not just effeminate types, but even the most manly of men can be trans as well. It helps, in that the conversation is out there, that we are no longer punchlines in bad movies. We are real people, we are not freaks, show us a little compassion and we can all get along.
Do you worry that, after same-sex marriage is legalized, many gay people and supporters will just pack up their bags and go home?
Geoff : Same-sex marriage has been legalized in my state. Around the time the community was pushing for it to pass the ballot, there was a massive mobilization, one that I do not expect to witness for trans people. The prioritization of marriage over any other struggle faced by the queer community as a whole is really indicative of the divisive politics within the community. People have the right to family, parenting, and partnership, and if these demands are met by opening up marriage to more individuals then I'm fine with it. What shouldn't happen is prioritizing these things over conditions that are matters of life and death. Consider this, instead of addressing the needs of those afflicted with HIV, the gay community instead rallied around marriage. It would be absolutely atrocious; instead, the community worked to address the needs of those with the most urgent, life threatening need. It's the same with the trans community. By and far, we have the highest suicide rates, unemployment rates, hate crimes, homelessness, discrimination, and poverty. Focus the statistics on trans women, and the disparity increases. Focus further on trans women of color, and you're left looking at truly horrifying statistics. And yet, only now are trans rights even being considered? No, I don't worry that after same sex marriage is legalized cis people will pack their bags and leave, because they were never here in the first place.
Caitlyn : We've still got quite a ways to go before that happens. Even if gay marriage is across all 50 states there are still battles to be won, sadly. To be honest I'd love for society to reach a point where we do not need supporters, or activist or marches. Where we respect each other, not as groups, or being part of this or that group, but as Americans. We've gotten too far from that with these internecine battles between groups of Americans, we need to get over that. Who cares if you're gay or straight? Religious or not? Do you follow the laws, pay your taxes and treat your fellow Americans with respect? That's all I care about.
What are some of the challenges and victories you have had coming out as transgender so late in your life?
Caitlyn : Challenges? Overcoming decades of being a male. I know that sounds odd. But living as a man for so long means behaviors, mannerisms are ingrained. Breaking those and learning to let go of him. That's the biggest personal challenge.
As for victories? Peace of mind. Actually doing it, moving from living a lie to being true to myself and my loved ones.