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Riki Wilchins

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

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


Why the traditional concept of transgender is slowly fading away.

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.

I'm reminded at this moment that the dinosaurs -- who once ruled all -- had no warning that their extinction was around the corner.

This begs yet an inapt analogy: if every gay person could take a pill that would make him or her heterosexual, would they take it? That's an ancient homophobe hypothetical for gay people. But the question of blockers --- if you could take a pill that would stop you from being transgender, would you take it? That's now a possibility for every young trans kid with understanding parents.

And here's an even tougher hypothetical: Would you let your child take hormone blockers? Would she travel the road of visibility, ostracism, and harassment, along with all the positive benefits that has brought forth, like pearls from oysters, for at the luckier of us? Or would you opt for the permanent disappearing act and normalcy the blockers now offer?

Gay people never needed a pill. Most of them could disappear simply by refusing to "act gay," by toning down particular gender displays and passing as straight, as gay people have done for thousands of years to survive in deeply homophobic and dangerous societies. Public and highly visible queerness was not a necessity for homosexuals in anything like the way has always been for male-to-female transsexuals.

But there has always been that foundational and private residue of gayness that remains: attraction to the same sex, which can be suppressed or hidden but not fully disappeared.

For the blocker babies, there is no residue. Their transgender-ness is there, and then - poof! -- it's gone.

If there were an anti-gay pill, perhaps today no one would take it because to be gay is no longer to suffer in anything like the same degree or dimension as just 30 years ago.

But will transgender ever be as accepted? And even supposing it is, will we have to wait another 30 years, or 40 or 50? Even then, will that ever be as good as simply being able to be a woman without a preposition, modifier, or asterisk?

What makes this question more remarkable is that the rise of the Blocker babies comes just as transgender is finding a new and stronger voice - with national and local organizations that are highly sophisticated, media savvy, and staffed with real professionals - and genderqueerness is enjoying its own resurgence among young people.

More youth are queering their hormoneless, surgery-free identities, doing versions of non-male and non-female and all sorts of gender drag in between that both mock binary genders and threaten to turn them inside out.

So perhaps the better question is not will transsexuality go the way of the dinos, but rather, are we entering a new age of "Born This Way" public genderqueerness that very much exists alongside it?

RIKI WILCHINS is an author and activist on gender issues.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Riki Wilchins