The scene could start any number of ways: Maybe I’m filling out a tax form at a new job or registering for classes, or – to use a classic – maybe I’m out for dinner with my friends and I need to use the washroom. In all of these everyday moments, someone is asking me to explain my gender, and I’m asking myself the same question: What are they expecting to hear? What will cause the least friction?
As a trans* man, I don’t correctly guess how someone is gendering me, they might ask to see ID – if I say “female” they might not ask any more questions, but I’m going to have another piece of paper with the wrong gender on it. If I say “male,” my ID won’t match and I could be here all day.
In the case of the bathroom, I’m already engaged in a process I know all too well: I scan my body, what I’m wearing and how people have reacted to me today, judging mercilessly how well I’m passing. If I choose the men’s room, there’s less chance of security being called – but if they are called, I don’t have ID to back up my decision. If I choose the women’s, there’s a very strong chance I’ll make someone feel threatened and security will show up – but I can show them my ID and the only harm will be embarrassment.
Having access to appropriate ID is something trans* people have long fought for. Finally, in British Columbia, Canada, trans* people can access a legal gender change without undergoing surgery, and a good number of people are doing just that. It doesn’t solve the problem of safety – violence rarely waits for ID confirmation – but it does help with tax forms and registering for classes.
I got the form for my legal gender change from my doctor. There was no reason not to mail it immediately. Yet it sat on my dresser for months, being slowly covered and lost amongst prescriptions and blood test results. Why was I hesitating? Did this mean I wasn’t the man I thought I was?
A part of the given trans* narrative is that I’m supposed to be tormented about my body and my gender all the time. But I’m not. When I’m alone or with close friends, I feel congruent and at home in my body, as I did even before I started medically transitioning. I knew my gender didn’t match my body, but the only time that felt like a problem rather than an evolution was when I was in public. I slowly became aware that, while I do identify as a man, I’m not the kind of man they’re talking about in those little boxes, and that there’s clearly something more going on here.
The idea that I and my trans-gendering could be something other than a disease or slip of nature is one I owe largely to Leslie Feinberg, a prominent trans* activist who died only a few weeks ago. Her book Transgender Warriors, without hyperbole, saved my life. It’s a history of trans* people, from every corner of the globe, from prehistory to today. It’s a testament to our existence, and it reminds us of a time when trans* people were revered as spiritual teachers and housed the spirit of resistance to the first waves of capitalism.
It also reminds us that there was a time when trans-gendering wasn’t a journey from one pole to another, but something much more dynamic and complex: it was gender in 3 dimensions. Many trans* people were considered to have the spirit of both a woman and a man, and deeper wisdom for it.
It took a long time for that buried history to re-emerge. And for myself, it took nearly a year on testosterone and a certain security in my masculinity to excavate the part of my history that’s feminine. The reason my gender is only a problem in public is that, while I’m starting to move through the world with male privilege, I still carry my socialization of womanhood under a patriarchy and feel more at home in women’s spaces. Women are understandably wary of my presence, and men try to relate to me as if I’ve always shared their privilege. The incongruency doesn’t live in my body, but in this vacuum of space.
It became clearer that simply changing my “F” to an “M” was not going to solve the real problem. It might make forms easier, but I refuse to lose my gender in 3 dimensions to legal and social systems that were never designed to protect me.
So I never filled out that form. Shortly after I threw it away, my Facebook feed told me that I was not alone in wanting something better: Barbara Findlay, a Vancouver lawyer known for social justice, was asking to interview trans* people about a human rights case. Would I like to meet her?
I emailed Barbara immediately and was thrilled when she told me about her case: She’s lobbying to have gender markers removed from birth certificates altogether. The idea came from Harriet Cunningham, an 11-year-old trans* girl with whom Barbara is working with. The first step was to request a birth certificate from the government without gender markers on it – the handful of us involved weren’t surprised when our request was denied. The next step is a meeting to see if we can reach an agreement with the government, and failing that, a human rights tribunal will be on the horizon.
The case won’t have gender markers removed from ID, and assigned gender will still be recorded at birth, but it’s a start. From then on, the government will have to ask us about our gender whenever we have ID made, and will be forced to take us at our word. It’s also a step in the right direction to have gender markers removed from ID altogether – not an insurmountable task, knowing that race, religion and your father’s occupation – essentially, your class – have all already been removed.
And for people like me, it’ll provide practical relief as well as creating space for evolution and a dynamic gender experience. I’m tired of choosing between my past and my future when both are with me in every moment, and I’m tired of having conflict between them forced on me when none exists within me.
The notion of recording my gender, in one letter, fixed on a card I carry with me, attempts to shrink away an entire history and way of life. Trans* isn’t just something I am, but something I do – and if I’m lucky, it’ll never quite make sense.