NB: Warning! Plural pronoun used as genderless here. Deal with it.
There are probably a few thinking people still left who haven’t heard of the notion of non-binary gender, and they can be forgiven if they had perhaps come across it and skittered on to something else, dismissing it as some kind of lunacy of the left. When I first encountered the idea myself, I was suspicious – justifiably, I think. The idea of non-binary sexual polarity has been with us at least since Kinsey, who pictured a scale running from 0 to 6, with those two numbers describing exclusively heterosexual and homosexual behaviour, with 3 being perfectly bisexual, an equal amount of both. Quite how someone who is a perfect 3 manages their lives is something of a puzzle, and I would guess that most who imagine themselves to be bisexual, unless they are completely promiscuous, must spend long periods as 0 or 6, and only average out as 3 in the long run. But then, I’m guessing, the whole notion of perfect fidelity runs counter to concepts as sexually exotic as those who aren’t at one end of the spectrum or the other. I hope nobody is going to call me a homophobe if I point out the fact that most people are at 0, and then a minority (1 in 10?) have settled at 6. The vast majority of those who find themselves elsewhere on the scale, I am guessing, are on a journey, probably on their way from 0 to 6, for that is the one that society’s expectations force upon them, (though there must be tales of people who have thought that they were gay and then realised that they actually weren’t – and for these purposes, I don’t count those at single sex boarding school who emerge to discover the other one). I hazard that people settling at 3 are going to be very rare, because of the general expectation of exclusivity that the popular notion of fidelity currently requires. You either find a girlfriend who doesn’t mind you having just as much sex with boys, or you spend all your time yearning for whichever sex you currently aren’t getting.
But that isn’t what I set out to discuss. If bisexuality is hard enough to live, it is at least easy to understand. Even a perfect Kinsey 0 can understand, unless he is a particular kind of troglodyte, what it would be like to be equally attracted to both sexes (which includes I suppose, being attracted to neither, the so-called asexual). But what can it possibly mean equally to be both sexes?
The archetype of the transgender with which people are most familiar, (and have been at least since the drag traditions of the nineteenth century and probably long before) is the ‘woman trapped in a man’s body’, the man who feels that he should have been born a woman. There is a vast corpus of pornography associated with the ‘she-male’ the ‘chick with a dick’ and more exotic erotica, such as the Japanese hentai fantasy of the ‘futanari’, the elf with the genitals of both genders. But though the futanari has a vulva it is almost universally endowed with the appearance of a woman, only the (usually hugely erect) penis speaks of its transgender nature. Indeed, very many artists of futunaria publish images both of the female, and the trans version, making it clear that the only difference is the penis.
Much less frequently encountered in any of these traditions is the ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’. In earlier decades this imbalance would doubtless have been explained away by categorising (as was so recently frequently done) transgender/transvestism/transsexualism as a sexual perversion, and like all such perversions, it could be said, a consequence of excessive sexual imagination, and the male libido. Sure, there were the ‘masher’ traditions of nineteenth century music hall, described so wonderfully in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, and the stereotype of the woman in the suit and bowler hat, who peels off her pencil moustache and shakes out her tresses from under it, and the model Aydian Dowling recently demonstrated how ‘she’ could pass as the cover model for Men’s Health magazine.
Both of these extremes are comparatively easy to understand. However badly it may be done, whether it be a man passing himself off as a woman, or a woman passing herself off as a man, the intention is clear. Or is it? I suppose I should expect to be challenged on the phrase ‘passing off’. Is transvestism always a deceit? Clearly the trans person does not believe it to be so. To them, the adoption of the clothes and attributes of the gender into which they were not born is, on the contrary, a coming home, an arrival at the target gender. So is it fair instead to say that if it isn’t a deceit, it is at least a delusion? That they are dressing as the gender to which, despite their conviction to the contrary, they do not belong? Do we have to say – and I’m sure there must be many cisgender men who do commit this atrocity at least inside their heads – ‘you might want to be a girl, you really might, but you have to face up to the fact that you aren’t. And no one is ever going to be fooled, whatever surgery you have or hormones you take.’ My view is that we don’t, but it isn’t so very far from what Germaine Greer was accused of having said when the students of Cardiff university protested at her invitation to speak on a different subject. She allegedly said that you can’t become a woman simply by having surgery. However apparently controversial, this last observation strikes me as simply unarguably true. She went on to say that the reason was that we didn’t know what a woman was, which at first blush seems to undermine her point. If ‘woman’ cannot be specified, how can we know for sure when someone fails to meet it?
Upon further reflection though, not being able to specify what ‘man’ or ‘woman’ actually means might ultimately not matter, so long as we don’t need to distinguish. David Aaronovitch speculates upon a long term future where indeed it may not. All that agonising about whether gender is enforced by giving girls dolls and boys guns to play with will be swept away by simply not actually specifying or caring whether a particular child is male or female. Why make them wear different clothes? Why give them separate toilets and changing facilities? Those of them with breasts can wear bras if they seem necessary. Those of them who seem to bleed from between the legs once a month can be excused swimming as necessary. Apart from that, what role does gender serve? What, you say the girls must be kept from the boys in case the latter become riven with lust? Isn’t that a bit cisgender and heterosexist of you? What about the boys riven with lust, in their currently segregated changing rooms, for other boys? What about the girls who identify as male, alienated by having to change surrounded by the naked bodies of members of what seems the opposite sex?
But here is an apparent paradox. In most cases (I accept that there are more exotic exceptions, but they are rarities) transgender concerns transition from one gender to another – a binary switch. The trans female ‘identifies’ as female despite their male genitalia. This is why the current phrasing is ‘gender confirmation’. ‘Nature has given me the wrong gender. I’m going to be put into the right one.’ But if there are no longer specifications for the two genders, how will it be apparent what is wrong or right? To expect a woman to be demure and submissive while men are aggressive and muscular is already the politics of the 1950s. If that binary has been broken then so can others. If men are as free to wear skirts and lipstick as women, and actually exercise that freedom without mockery or derision, what man will feel trapped in the wrong body? If women work as brickies and compete as weightlifters, the mere absence of penis won’t imperil their sense of masculinity – for there will be no defining characteristics of masculinity or femininity. Is that the ultimate goal of transgender politics, and is it in that way a natural consequence of feminism?
Or is it in fact the case that the trans person feels the gender binary only too acutely and yearns for the traditional trappings of the gender from which s/he is excluded by their genitals or Y chromosome – that the trans woman yearns for lipstick and long hair, delicate underclothes and demure deportment, and far from wanting the gender boundaries blurred, treasures the dividing line more than anyone, and only wishes to be on the other side of it?