One of the unexpected side-effects of transition is suddenly finding yourself as a transgressive figure, meaning one who transgresses social norms.
Definition of TRANSGRESSintransitive verb1: to violate a command or law : sin2: to go beyond a boundary or limittransitive verb1: to go beyond limits set or prescribed by : violate <transgress divine law>2
: to pass beyond or go over (a limit or boundary)
On it’s face that doesn’t seem so unexpected. I mean, of course you’re transgressing society’s norms of unchanging gender identity by changing your sex. And therefore the negative response we get from all sorts of people is easy to understand. Transgression is a challenging, boundary pushing thing.
But the unusual part is that certain segments of society see transgression as a good thing. In significant segments of art, scholarship, and political activism transgression is lauded as a positive ideal for its own sake: to challenge people; to shock; to shake up the status quo. According to this mindset transgression is the noble work of those seeking radical social change. On this basis a number of radical transgressives embrace transsexuals as fellow travelers.
But social radicals and transsexuals often make for a strange coalition. Because of all the transsexual people I know – and I’ve met quite a few – there’s not a lot that’s transgressive about them. It’s a group of people who, if anything, admire the normal and ordinary more than others because they feel they’ve been deprived of it for much of their lives.
But does this mean the transgressive label isn’t fair to apply to transsexuals? On the contrary. How many groups can claim to be reviled by the Catholic Church, radical feminists, and the creators of South Park all at once? Transsexuals are definitely transgressive. The difference is that it’s not by choice.
We become transgressive in the eyes of others the moment we acknowledge our transsexualism. From that point on we’re typically lumped into the odd company of performance artists, campus radicals, and a hodge podge of others who are all intent on challenging and remaking society’s norms. To be sure we all challenge social limits and boundaries, but we’re not doing it in similar ways.
I think this highlights a distinction that is long overdue.
Some people are transgressive by intent. They consciously seek radical change to social norms. More importantly their transgressions are acts of will. If they stop acting, the transgression ends. Most people act in transgressive ways to challenge specific norms that seem wrong to them. Straight allies marching in a gay pride parade are intentionally transgressive in this sense. But these are temporary acts – not matters of identity. Someone motivated to be a permanently transgressive person must constantly look for the next barrier to break; the next norm to defy (certain artists are well known examples of this).
Other people are transgressive by identity. Social norms don’t account for their existence, and so acknowledgment of that existence constitutes its own threat to those norms. The transgression in this case is caused by norms that conflict with empirical reality, and no intent on anyone’s part is involved. The motive for action here it to extend the norms to accommodate the rights of excluded groups. For example, by simply being who they are gay and lesbian people are seen as transgressive to social norms, and so they seek to have their identities recognized as legitimate.
Sometimes both types of transgressives share mutual goals, as when those of transgressive intent act on behalf of those with transgressive identities. To use a historical example, abolitionists in the ante-bellum United States were certainly transgressive in their publications and political activities. But so was Frederick Douglass, simply by the fact of who he was (an educated, self-liberated, former slave). They worked together to fight slavery. But it was a fight abolitionists were free to walk away from, while Douglass’ skin color and life history bound him to the issue whether he liked it or not.
These same issues of mutual interest emerge – and are frequently muddled – when it comes to changing social norms around gender.
Transsexuals generally want a fair and clear path for making a (one-way) transition, and then to be recognized as the opposite sex of their birth. Among transsexuals there is very little interest in living in a fuzzy middle ground of deconstructed gender. They want to change their bodies to match their minds and then to be able to live appropriately afterward. In short they want social norms to change in order to acknowledge the empirical fact of their existence.
Transgressive allies of trans people seem to agree with this to a point, but very often they go further, seeking far deeper challenges to social norms. They push for expanding laws and protections in ways that challenge concepts of sexual distinction altogether. They propose fundamentally new ways of defining gender. They seek to erase some of the lines transsexuals intend to cross, hardly realizing that this puts them at odds with some of the people they intend to help.
Frankly this leaves everyone confused. If those in society at large can’t understand what the heck the “transgender” movement is about, their confusion can be traced back to this blurring of the types of transgression being attempted.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Both types of transgression will be opposed strongly, and by many of the same people. Transgression, by definition, is a challenge to powerful social forces regardless of its source. For this reason transgressives of all types can benefit from finding common ground and working together. But that work will be challenged if they don’t recognize that what is a personal matter of basic human rights to one, is the chosen cause of another. Both may be emotionally invested, but for only some is it a matter of personal life and liberty.