Years ago, as a gay woman, I felt transgenderism was homophobic and sexist. It took a while to understand that it’s neither.
Over the past few years, transgender issues have garnered bursts of positive attention in the media: In 2011, Chaz Bono, Cher’s trans son, boogied his heart out in front of a cheering crowd on Dancing With the Stars; In early 2012, Glee portrayed its first transgender character; a year later, Netflix premiered its original series Orange is the New Black, featuring trans actress Laverne Cox. But nothing rivals Facebook’s radical comment on the limitations of our binary gender system: In February, the social network added more than 50 gender options for how users can self-identify.
And yet, despite these inklings of progress, the discourse around transgenderism remains far more complicated than these milestones suggest.
Nothing seems to challenge people — destabilize them, really— as much as the idea that someone can reject his or her assigned sex and defy the limits of biology by transitioning from one to another. Take, for instance, Piers Morgan’s blundering interview with trans author Janet Mock or Katie Couric’s insensitive questions of trans actress Laverne Cox. By blurring the neat line between male and female, trans people force us to occupy the middle ground between two polarized extremes, and demand us to re-conceive our gendered assumptions.
The lively debates that ensued after Morgan and Couric’s missteps showed what a vital cultural force trans people are. The unsteadying questions they evoke—Is that a man or a woman? How can you tell? What makes one a man or a woman? Who gets to decide? And so on—help us think with broader complexity and imagination.
But I admit, it took me a while to “get it.”