Transgender 101: Transsexualism

Transsexualism is the ism at the point of treatment for a condition referred to as “gender dysphoria” which crudely means, “an extreme discomfort with birth sex”. This can affect male, female or other bodied people. Transsexuals as a result come in MTF (male to female) which means the individual’s sex preference is female or to be a woman. FTM (female to male) means the individual’s sex preference is male or to be a man. Female or male then also have feminine or masculine gender attributes or even both depending on the individual in question.

Apart from a course of hormone replacement therapy involving oestrogen for women and testosterone for men most transsexuals undergo gender replacement surgery while some for personal reasons opt out preferring to adopt the “non op” (i.e. not interested in the operation in part or fully) position. There are also pre ops who are preparing or being prepared for the operation and post ops which means we have had the operation and just want to get on with our lives.

A major part of transitioning is to undergo a real life test (RLT) which involved dressing or adopting the lifestyles of our preferred sex which meant dresses, skirts and blouses, skirt suits for women with tops and for men the expectation was for shirts, suits, t-shirts, jeans and trousers.

As time has gone by, some transsexuals have adopted varying lifestyles often with regards the adoption of sexual orientations from heterosexuality to bisexuality as people do in the mainstream of sexuality. As a translesbian (a stance of activism), I gradually adopted albeit a more neutral form of dressing which is still evolving. I have known transsexual women that were ultra feminine to those that are butch. While the standard femme is happy just to pass, the ultra or top femme has to be perfect in every aspect of her being.

Younger transsexuals are more pronounced in their dress sense and performance thereof. For them, it is not just enough to go with what a doctor or a psychiatrist commands them to do which is understandable bearing in mind that even such medical practitioners as those mentioned above are themselves not entirely prejudice free. Some of the said younger transsexuals dress androgynously as a sort of self-defence, others because it fits their sexual orientation and some simply because they fit more comfortable in their chosen gender expression.

In my experience, medical practitioners’ and their indifference to certain Ts patients chosen lifestyle has been stereotypical. Some patient hone in on their goal but that is not to say certain medical practitioners have not strayed away from the guidelines deliberately at times insisting on the dress at the expense of the patient. I am aware of this and adopted neutrality myself as a form of walking talking activism but a long time after being discharged. In other words, visibility became my personal platform.

Gradually my dress sense has become a sort of reflection of my gender identity with sexuality at some level and for this I am grateful to women like Leslie Feinberg, Victor Juliet Mukasa, Judith Halberstam and other women like them who have courageously taken to neutral or masculine lifestyles as opposed to a rigid feminine stereotype.

As for transsexual men, on the whole, their dress reflects a plethora of identities too. Recently I came across a magazine called OUT which featured Tilda Swinton on its cover.1 Tilda Swinton like Anne Lennox have transcended mere stereotypes of how women ought to dress for more neutral or masculine clothing which has sometimes made them desirable to glossy male media outlets as they are to butch women too. Returning to the point, hearing transmen referring to themselves as transfags, transdykes and all that was challenging. I continued looking at OUT and saw a dress sense that did transmen proud. However, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if a transman questioned traditional dress expectation? Transfags surely must experiment to suit their lifestyles? How or what sought of reactions await them?

As a translesbian that does not insist on strict butch femme divisions I see a diversity that is empowering for transpeople of various outlooks and rejoice in this. But I am also aware of the scarcely explored issue of alarming gender-phobia/transphobia that terrorises transsexual people daily as represented in the media to amuse its audience. It is this regard that I as an African translesbian ask to whom do I turn to when attacked in the streets.

A couple of days ago, just before the Christmas break, a meeting took place at a Women’s Collective where a worker was asked how they dealt with gender. Her response was, “we only deal with traditional gender on this project!” Hearing a woman didn’t fill me with an over saturation of confidence that I would get any support from the collective. Rather, I was reminded of a collection of short films called, “If These Walls Could Talk. The shorts depicted a flat somewhere in the 1950s and the various lesbian inhabitants of the house over three decades and their daily lives. One of the clips moved me so much that it deserves to be shared here.

A group of four flat-sharing lesbians go out together for a drink in a gay bar. Although as they enter they see an mix of butch and femme lesbians enjoying themselves and cackle at them assuming the butch women looked ridiculous in their chosen masculine lifestyles. One of the groups of four called Jenny is attracted to this young, bike riding, shirt, tie and trouser wearing, hair sleeked back lesbian. Jenny’s three friends unable to deal with what they saw derisively as “man” style on women left offended assuming that meant any such woman was or is a traitor. Jenny stayed and danced with her smart catch. However later in the same film, Jenny’s flatmates hatched a plan to force her new friend to “dress like a normal girl”. The soft Butch tried but did like the experience. She left angry at Jenny for allowing it to happen. Jenny followed her to return her shirt which she had been given to keep her warm. They end up in each other’s arms. 2

Leslie Feinberg argues, “When women behave in this manner they are not protecting safe spaces as they claim to be doing, instead they are being gender and transphobic rather than fighting a joint enemy” and I paraphrase.3 Transsexuality isn’t the enemy internalised homophobia, gender-phobia and transphobia are.

When a worker at the Women’s Collective I attend invoked “traditional gender,” revealed how narrow her thinking was. The aphorism, “constructed tradition is only a construct” went off repeatedly in my head like a latter day mantra or something of the sort) she was being gender-phobic. When the said worker in response to the question, “what is your name again?” said, “my name is Kathy, not Matty!” she was being transphobic.

Again, when she looked at her exposed waist and then at me in a questioning way she was indulging in internalised homophobia and doing all three with impunity which was a shame bearing in mind that she is a long standing activist against the oppression of women. In active as she did, she was as oppressive as those she questions in her activism. Everyone that heard her without questioning her behaviour was just as culpable. I’m taking this opportunity to ask. To whom does one turn in circumstances like this if not the women’s collective?

Mia Nikasimo © December 2008