I was recently fortunate to be with a group of young transgender persons who were explaining to a sympathetic audience how they thought about their position in the world.
Most often we think of transgender as persons who were born male or female and decided at some point to change over to the “other sex.” The background assumption is, of course, that all human beings--all mammals, in fact--are either male or female. Yes, there are some whose sexual identity is unclear. But all “normal” mammals are thought to have a clear sexual identity and it is either female or male.
The trans persons I listened to want to challenge that assumption. They point to the scientific discussions of what is called “intersex”--human bodies whose sexual characteristics are not unambiguously male or female. Intersex refers to a range of bodily conditions in which genitals are not clearly male or female, the result of uncommon genes, and other variations. The estimate is that one in a thousand births have such intersex characteristics.
We can think of this in two ways. We can say that 1 out of a thousand births display “abnormal” characteristics. But clearly the numbers do not justify this value judgment that only male and female sexual traits are normal, especially when we consider the wide variations of sexual characteristics, such as women with much body hair or men with breasts. Add to that the individuals who choose to leave their sexual identities indeterminate.
Why not say that there are more than two kinds of sexual identities?
“That would be weird” you say. The trans persons want to challenge that kneejerk reaction. They want you to ask yourself why it would be weird to recognize many variations on sexual difference.
And, indeed, why would that be weird?
We take it for granted that there are only two “normal” sexual configurations. When a baby is born, the doctor, nurse or midwife who catches the baby looks between the newborn’s legs and pronounces “boy” or “girl” assuming that that is all there is. The sexual identity is imposed. It is a societal imposition.
Such societal impositions are familar. I met a woman who said she came from Poland, from a city called Gdansk. She considered hersself Polish. Until 1945, the end of World War I, that city was called Danzig and it was a German city. The ancestors of the Polish woman may well have been Germans. Her national identity changes with the changes in global politics. What she thinks and feels about her identity, has nothing to do with it. Her national identity is socially imposed.
Male/female are external impositions, the trans person want to say. They remind us of the many little boys who want to play with dolls until adults wean them off that in order to make sure that they grow up to be “real” boys. They remind us of the many little girls who want to climb trees and fight and play with trucks but who are made to wear pink dresses and play with Barbies so that they can grow up to be “real” women.
A friend, a woman lawyer, who is exceptionally tall at 6’ 2” confesses that she enjoys playing male roles in her work and acting more in ways that men are expected to act than playing a ferminine role. Many adults like to cross over in this manner.
It would seem natural to acknowledge that the sex/gender roles we play are often ambiguous, often flaunt the basic assumption that only being plainly male or female is “normal.” Is it then not rather “abnormal” to maintain that fiction of the two sexes in words and action forcing children and adults to hide parts of who they are or would like to be?
The plea of trans persons for tolerance of different sexual identities and by implication different of sexual practices is hard to hear for many persons. But that is what transgender persons are asking for. They are asking that their sexuality not be denigrated as "abnormal" but that they be allowed to be who they are.