“No serious person contends that transgender and cisgender women move through the world in identical ways from the moment they are born, simply that the term “woman” can include the different obstacles and socialization we each must face. We could keep conducting a fruitless and painful argument about whether those differences mean transgender women ought to be denied citizenship in women’s country once they come out. Or we could take a close look at what both cisgender women — those whose sense of their gender identity corresponds to their physical body — and transgender women have to gain from embracing each other, and all the different ways it’s possible to be a woman.”
A figure in a translucent kimono coyly holds a fan. Another arranges an iris in a vase. Are they men or women?
As a mind-bending exhibition that opened Friday at the Japan Society illustrates, they are what scholars call a third gender — adolescent males seen as the height of beauty in early modern Japan who were sexually available to both men and women. Known as wakashu, they are one of several examples in the show that reveal how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s.
The show, “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” arrives at a time of ferment about gender roles in the United States and abroad. Bathroom rights for transgender people have become a cultural flash point. The notion of “gender fluidity” — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is roiling traditional definitions.
If we were to believe the dominant narratives around gender transition, we could only conclude that it’s a magical, affirming, and life-giving process. With these stories—and the glorious “before and after” photos that accompany them—we’re told that the uncomplicated truth of transition is that when the transformation is complete, we emerge on the other side whole and shimmering.
I am not whole, nor am I shimmering.
I often wonder: Can it be true that I can’t inhabit this body anymore—with its curves and parts that alienate me—but am still bonded to it? Top surgery is on the horizon for me. While I can’t fathom living the rest of my life with this chest, a part of me is grieving this loss. These curves were always guests (never residents), but their absence still means something to me.
Funnily enough, my students couldn’t care less about the words I use to describe myself, and I am fine with that. Christine used the language she knew to ascertain my gender identity; tomboy has always been a socially acceptable term for a boyish little girl. (As long as she grows out of it by high school.)
I offer up this story about Christine not to show how wonderful a teacher I was in that moment. In fact, I probably tried too hard. As for the theater director, there were many other times in my childhood when adults questioned my gender presentation. They made me feel abnormal, small, and invisible, which is another way of saying they did not see me—not as I saw myself, anyhow. I get mis-gendered every day, and I still feel abnormal, small, and invisible from time to time.
I offer up these stories to show how deeply painful one teacher’s words were. Preconceived notions of gender are like a thick fog that has always been there; we will only notice how much we weren’t seeing when it finally lifts. Those who defy gender roles may stick out like a sore thumb. As teachers, we may never know when we are making a student feel abnormal, small, or invisible.
“This physiological truth is unrelated to whether someone is straight, gay or transgender. Many individuals are born with sex chromosome, endocrine or hormonal irregularities, and their birth certificates are inaccurate because in the United States birth records are not designed to allow doctors to designate an ambiguous sex. Countless people likely have no idea that they fall into this group. The more we learn about our DNA, the more that biological sex — from the moment of conception — looks like an intricate continuum and less like two tidy boxes. This understanding makes it virtually impossible for judges to consistently apply a law that permits or prohibits conduct based on whether someone is a man or a woman.”
“When I first came out as transgender, I was surprised to find that many people in my life wanted to support me. I received a lot of encouraging words, often from the folks I least expected.
It meant the world to me to be surrounded by people who just wanted me to be myself and be happy! In a society that can often be so hostile towards transgender people, having loved ones in our corner can make all the difference.
But I quickly realized that there’s a distinction between stating your support and actually respecting my identity. A lot of people talked the talk – but that didn’t always translate when it came to actions.”
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