When we think of trans people, the talk is loudest around the culture wars. Many people continue to yell at each other on social media and argue over who gets to call themselves women, who gets to use the women’s restrooms and who gets cancelled. It’s all a little unhelpful to move the conversation forward.
it comes at a time when trans lives have never been more visible; Male-to-female people like former athlete Caitlyn Jenner, actress Laverne Cox, activist Chelsea Manning and author Juno Dawson are prominent, the first three each appearing on the covers of, vanity fair, timeand Fashion. Actor Elliot Page has recently joined the female-to-male transgender community.
Framing this visibility is the accepted and unchallenged understanding of a trans person as someone who was born in the “wrong” body. They then seek the transition to the “right” body, via hormones and maybe even a sex change so that he becomes her or she becomes him. (Non-binary people like poet Kae Tempest – formerly Kate – drop He/She pronouns to become a more fluent “she”; however, non-binary is more of a generic term and as such is distinct from trans).
But what if, for all the cultural noise, our very definition of trans needs revision?
Miquel Misse, a Catalan sociologist and activist, is a trans man. In his new book The myth of the wrong body, he argues that trans people do not need to medically alter their bodies to conform to the rigid gender norms of wider society; that this “wrong” body image is a pernicious myth: “What if our body is fine? Would the solution still be to change the body?”
He acknowledges that this is not a popular idea within the trans community, but prefers to look at broader structures rather than always assuming that trans identity is a private individual matter, with all resulting responsibility on the individual trans person falls to fit into the broader surrounding notions of “male” or “female”.
“We can have a society where the transition has become much more visible, but that doesn’t change gender norms,” he tells me over Zoom from Barcelona. “Because we look at all of this in an individualistic way, we put all the responsibility on trans people to change things – our bodies, our ideas. The trans revolution is the right not to change our bodies, but for others to look at our bodies differently.”
Misse switched to hormones when she was 13. He assumed he would have surgery when he was 18 because he had seen older trans boys in his community doing it. But when the time came, he realized he didn’t think it was necessary. Now 35 — he looks like 20 (he jokes that trans guys have “the elixir of youth”) — he still hasn’t.
“I thought I could never live without the surgery, but in the end I realized I could,” he says, quickly adding, “I’m not against surgery. But transpolitics must deal with a structural critique of the origins of our feelings and experiences with our bodies.”
He says his only reference in his early teens was the 1999 film boys don’t cry. It was the only cultural representation he has ever seen of himself. “I probably could have been a different person in a different world with different credentials,” he says. “But I didn’t have them.”
He could have been, he says, more of a masculine woman than a trans man if there had been more culturally visible examples. “I’m not an essentialist at all,” he says. “It depends on the generation, the historical moment and the social context. I have my doubts when people say this is a gender revolution, gender liberation. I do not think so. We’re just humans trying to survive in a world that knows only two choices. Transgender experiences tell us something about how people try to deal with the normativity of gender in our society.”
In the meantime, the rest of society continues to focus on trans people in terms of surgery, from a have-they-or-have-not-they perspective. Actor and trans advocate Laverne Cox says this isn’t helpful, telling US TV presenter Katie Couric: “Dealing with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we can’t deal with the really lived experiences.
“The reality of trans people’s lives is that we are so often the target of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; If you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on the transition, we can’t really talk about those things.”
Shon Fey in her book The Transgender Problem: A Case for Justice, refers to what she describes as “the surgical show-and-tell demanded by cisgender people.” “The failure to move beyond glaring reports about the specific hormonal and surgical treatments some trans people are seeking is part of the problem,” she writes. “The awkward phrase ‘born in the wrong body’ has become the preferred soundbite in popular media.”
Her chapter, Right and Wrong Bodies, describes patterns of ignorance and prejudice trans people experience in encounters with the medical establishment, from the 20’s stubborn patriarchy to the often distorted power dynamics between them and their physicians. “When the medical shift was first developed as a technology, its primary purpose was not to help trans patients, but to control and manage gender variance in society while keeping the binary gender distribution intact,” Fey writes. “The appearance of two mutually exclusive categories, male and female, would remain.”
That’s exactly what Misse means. It makes the individual trans body an issue, rather than wider society’s perceptions. He considers this deeply unfair. “If we put all our energy into facilitating transitions, are we expanding the freedom of gender expression? I’m not sure,” he says. “The system moves very quickly without changing the structure. What about the visibility of the experience of female boys and male girls?”
Instead, he wants us to examine broader notions of masculinity, femininity, male and female: “Feeling uncomfortable with gender is not a rare experience reserved for trans people. It’s a common but seldom mentioned uneasiness, but there’s little room to discuss it.” His “utopian ideal would be a perpetual state of transition.” In other words, freedom and flexibility for everyone to grow, change, explore.
One of the most controversial issues is trans identity among children. Misse, who works with families and parents, offers straightforward advice – let her. “Boys can dance too,” he says. “There has to be a possibility of a male girl or a female boy that doesn’t end in a gender swap. “If [a little boy] want to live as a girl for two or three years to find out who they are, that’s fine. Families need tools and need to know how to set boundaries when a child is exploring their identity.”
So instead of formally changing everything when your little girl decides it’s a boy or your little boy decides it’s a girl (like e.g.
“Let’s give them space,” he says. “We work a lot with uncertainty here. We can’t say for sure if your child will be a boy or a girl, there’s no diagnosis for that – so we’re telling the families slow down, do nothing, just leave them alone. Don’t make that the focus of the family conversation—it’s not a good idea. Just be there for them, be a safe place for them.”
We could also apply this inclusive framework to the wider society to be that safe place for everyone who is exploring, insecure and timid. Instead of yelling at each other about vaginas on Twitter, maybe we could read more and listen to more people experiencing life outside of traditional male/female boxes. After all, such people have existed since the beginning of mankind. “I think the transgender experience tells us something about the structures of gender norms that we need to address and change,” says Misse.
So there is room for everyone.
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/life-as-a-trans-man-were-just-people-trying-to-survive-in-a-world-that-only-understands-two-options-41894171.html Life as a trans man: “We’re just humans trying to survive in a world that only knows two choices”