Op-ed: Transgender Dinosaurs and the Rise of the Genderqueers

Why the traditional concept of transgender is slowly fading away.

BY Riki Wilchins

December 06 2012 4:00 AM ET

Riki Wilchins

She was a lovely 13-year-old girl, with long blond hair, bright hazel eyes and the budding bosom and hips of the woman she would soon be. Her smile betrayed none of the self-consciousness that I had when I was young and began—as a transsexual—dressing in feminine clothing. I assumed she was a friend of the young transsexual woman I was there to meet. While I searched for our assumed mutual friend, I ignored this young woman because it was simply impossible to see her as anything but a woman.

Never having passed as female as I'd grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary, as the new transgender politics is increasingly built around exactly the kind prominent social visibility and defiant non-passing that my doctors at the Cleveland Clinic assured me would signal the failure of my gender transition surgery.

In fact, my political identity for 30 years has been built on the foundation of my being visibly transgender, from the day I donned a Transsexual Menace NYC t-shirt and flew to the Brandon Teena murder trial in Falls City, Nebraska.

Memorial vigils for slain transgender women, picketing HRC, books on gender theory and public fights with radical feminists, and being booted from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival on multiple occasions for not being a “born womyn” have made me who I am—inextricably intertwined with being publicly and very much a visible transsexual.

But what if all that were wiped away? Who would I be? What would I have become? With all the activism and writing that identity forced on me during the birth of transgender liberation, would I even be writing this today?

Unlike society’s unwritten rule, “prove you’re really a woman,” nature's rule is "female, unless proven otherwise." In that sense we are all born females in utero. It is only through the action of testosterone in the womb that about half of us develop into those "other females," or men.

Androgen blockers, which prevent all the painful and irrevocable effects of puberty that I spent several years of my life trying to reverse – chest hair, beard, Adam’s apple, etc. – had made this blond 13-year-old into an entirely non-transgender transsexual. One whose gender, and social identity, will be always and completely female to every adult she knows or meets. With the right surgeon, she might not ever tell her husband or wife. She didn’t cross gender lines or even rub up against them. She fulfilled them fully and completely in a way I could never know.

In my adolescence, it was unthinkable to even mention being transgender to my parents or doctors, let alone seek treatment. And treatment, if it were forthcoming at all, would have inevitably meant a psychiatrist (not to mention probably having my father try to beat me into manhood – a project which, come to think of it, he pretty much started anyway).

With adolescents increasingly taking androgen blockers with the support of a generation of more protective, nurturing parents, public transsexuality is fading out. And I don't mean only that in a generation or two we may become invisible in the public space. I mean rather that in 10 years, the entire experience we understand today as constituting transgender—along with the political advocacy, support groups, literature, theory and books that have come to define it since transgender burst from its closet in the early 1990s to become part of the LGB-and-now-T movement—all that may be vanishing right in front of us. In 50 years it might be as if we never existed. Our memories, our accomplishments, our political movement, will all seem to only be historic. Feeling transgender will not so much become more acceptable, as gayness is now doing, but logically impossible.

In other words, I may be a gender dinosaur.

Which is exactly how this young girl makes me feel as she smiles and walks past me in a sky blue summer dress I was born too old to wear. She walks out to the sunlit sidewalk where a young man turns to look at her and smiles.

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