NOWSA - Gender Plenary
Tuesday 20 July 1999
Thank You for inviting me to speak today.
I'm happy to speak because a lot of the discussion I hear about the transgendered is based on stereotypes of who we are - rather than the reality. We are - not - an homogeneous group; we are a diverse group and I'll try to give you an idea of the range of transgendered.
And I'll look at two important issues along the way; do transgendered enjoy male privilege and do they re-enforce sex-role stereotypes.
The meanings of the words transgender and transsexual are not yet fixed in mainstream language. Although the word transsexual does have a medical definition.
I prefer to use the term - transgender - this word emphasises the gender rather than sex of the individual. And the prefix - trans - can be used to mean to cross and to transcend.
I'd like to start by quoting Janice Raymond. She wrote the - The Transsexual Empire - in 1979.
on p17 she states -
"Behind the quest for the body - and sex role - and identity of the opposite sex - is the quest for deeper self-hood ... the quest for transcendence"
- she then goes on to say that all transgendered miserably fail at this attempt at transcendence.
But but idea focussed me - I certainly want to transcend the limitations of gender.
As soon as we start to gain language skills we are told over and over again we are boys or girls and we are told how we are expected to behave.
Many children are dissatisfied with the gender-roles assigned to them but most try to conform at this age; I wonder how many women in this room have a photo of them in a pink frilly dress or a tutu as a child.
But very few children ever actually question the binary gender classification. Boys who are dissatisfied with their assigned gender role usually believe themselves sick rather than question gender; and some of these decide they need to pretend to be normal males - they deny their spirit and adopt masculine gendered behaviour to prove they are normal.
Some of these continue to fight their spirits right into adulthood and adopt competitive, aggressive, angry lifestyles; they become shearers, engineers, soldiers, mountaineers and yachtsman.
The transgendered, who have gone through such a macho denial stage, did so because of self hatred. But because they conformed at a superficial level - they were rewarded by society - and enjoyed some of the benefits of male privilege - and a loss of self.
BUT\\ ... by far the greatest proportion of transgendered do not enjoy male privilege; they are unable or unwilling to fight their spirits so obsessively; they are seen as feminine or different boys and are denied entry into male power structures; they are vilified, ostracised and bashed. This starts in primary school and continues throughout high school and employment.
In fact the pressures are so great that very large numbers of transgendered never finish high school. This period from late high school through to the early 20s is also the most common age for transgender suicide.
This group of male to female transgendered do not enjoy male privilege.
And added to that - there is also an increasing tendency to change gender at a much younger age. And so these transgendered are living most of their lives in the new gender.
Do male to female transgendered reinforce or help break down stereotypes of gender?
There is a huge pressure on transgendered to pass; to look like one of the two culturally approved genders. Male to female transgendered who look like women suffer a lot less vilification and discrimination in every group they mix with. Passing means you can go to the corner shop without being harassed; it gives you the space to get on with the rest of your life.
I have too many friends who are too scared to go out of the house; they find it far too stressful.
Most transgendered eventually pass very well - but very few of these publically admit their transgender status; they are scared of rejection.
In most states of Australia we are not protected - under - even the most basic - equal opportunity legislation.
Many transgendered, like many born females go through a stage where they believe the cultural beauty myth; "I'll be happy if I could be a beautiful woman." They invest a huge amount of time, energy and money in make-up, clothing, hair and even cosmetic surgery. And many do hold onto this hope for far too many years.
These beauty myth pressures are getting far worse in the 90s. I was recently amazed when I saw that one of Australia's women's magazines was offering - $20,000 of cosmetic surgery - as prize in a competition they were running.
Yes, we do live in a highly gendered society and many women - including some transgendered women - do re-enforce feminine stereotypes. But I wonder if ostracism or consciousness-raising is the more effective way of changing this behaviour.
And on a personal note:
For 15 years I lived - as a very androgynous male; this made logical sense to me; I knew in my heart of hearts from a very young age that I wanted to be female; as a child I saw gender as an arbitrary imposition; I had six brothers and didn't realise girls didn't have penises; I was about 10 before I realised that gender wasn't arbitrary; it was culturally determined by your external genitalia; I was still pissed off; but I started to resign myself; but I didn't ever try to be one of the boys even when I was sent to a boys school; I just ignored reality and dreamed every day to be a girl.
After a suicidal late teens early twenties; I pulled myself together and tried to break down gender; I'd be a sissy boy; I'd transcend gender; I lived a very androgynous life - and I did for over 15 years; my unremarkable features and size did not mark me as male or female.
But it took a long time for me to realise that this life style was taking a huge toll from my personal energy and emotional growth. I needed 80% of my daily energy just dealing with "gender". In this androgynous state I was totally self-obsessed - and emotionally constipated - and politically inarticulate.
When I started to live as a woman I gained so much energy; it was like I had my life returned to me; I was no longer self-obsessed I started to become environmentally and politically aware.
And ironically - I was able to be - far more effective in gender politics; I choose to be out; now I agree - not all Australians know I'm transgendered but I have told about 3 million through the media, performance and my writing - and I've just added another 300 or so today.
By being out - I prove that a person with XY chromosomes can look feminine - and that is counter to the cultural deterministic stereotype - that only people who have XX chromosomes - can be feminine.
I am far more effective fighting gender stereotyping now than anytime during my 15 years when I was seen as an androgynous male.
I guess I'm now seen as an androgynous - tomboy? - femme? - woman? - xy person? - or to put it more simply - I have a Julie Peters gender.
the transgendered are trying to transcend the restrictions of gender in their lives.
Fear of rejection stops most transgendered coming out; that means that groups banning transgendered ban the one's who don't pass and those who are out.
By passing the transgendered give themselves space - free from constant harassment and vilification.
The transgendered are attracted to feminism because they experience discrimination as women; and can offer an unusual perspective on the practical operation of gender. And feminism is about trying step beyond the limitations of gender and they support this at a deep level.
There are some transgendered who fulfill all the feminine stereotypes that radical feminists say they do; but they are - an ever decreasing minority.
Transgendered like all of us need to be judged as individuals rather than by stereotypes. And if a transgendered person is acting inappropriately - their behaviour needs to be addressed rather than judging all of us.
© Copyright Julie Peters 1999