BY KELLY COGSWELL | When I try to think about gender, I have to go lie down with smelling salts, my head swirling with all the complications that we pull on like clothes over our biological sex. Even if you stick to binary territory, gender expression is constantly shifting. A big-haired, white trash girl like my sister has bigger balls than this Bengali upper-class straight guy poet I used to know. I’d dismissed a French-Asian waiter in Paris as generically masculine until his friends turned up and he became a total swish.
There’s a lot we can say about gender expression, genetics, and the intersection of biology and society, but who really cares about the nuances when the consequences are hatred, bigotry, and one more young dead queer?
Last week, at 17, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a truck to end years of suffering. She came out as trans at 14, relieved to discover there was a word for somebody like her who had never felt like a boy. Her mother’s response was to drag her to Christian conversion therapists, and tell her she’d “never be a real girl” and was going to hell. At 16, when she decided to try the intermediate approach by coming out as gay, her parents removed her from school, took away her phone, and any access to social media. When they gave it back, not long ago, she was too isolated and depressed to survive.
It’s easy to blame her parents — they deserve it, offering up hate instead of love. Hellfire instead of any kind of help. Also to blame are the Christian conversion therapists who seem to specialize in driving queer kids of all kinds over the edge. But the problem goes a lot further, to the widespread policing of gender, which often intersects with sexual orientation. Gay effeminate men are never real men except maybe when it comes to their paychecks. Dyke lives rarely appear in Women’s History except maybe as scapegoats for the failure of the feminist movement’s second wave.
In fact, trans women like Janet Mock have more credibility as women than I do. When her book, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” was reviewed in Jezebel, the reviewer began by announcing that it was “unfortunately not about how to achieve her fantastic hair. Oh, because those curls are glorious.”
The readers got the message: she’s one of us. One even commented that when it came to viewing trans people as humans like everybody else, “It helps that she ‘passes’ — it’s hard to see her as anything BUT a woman. While it’s unfair for trans people to be held to a societal standard that is for many unattainable, it definitely helps blur the gender boundaries. A lot of people still have this ridiculous view of trans women as hulking dudes stumbling around awkwardly in heels like dudes playing dress up.”
Janet Mock doesn’t just read as a woman, but a certain kind of woman. And even when she and other trans activists like Laverne Cox have tried to shift the narrative away from transition and surgery, biology and beauty, nobody’s hearing the message. In fact, they probably wouldn’t get a platform at all if they looked more like early trans activists Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera. Or even any aging housewife watching her own original tits sag.
This is important, because Leelah’s suicide note reveals that it wasn’t just the transphobia of her parents and church that drove her to suicide, but the belief that she had to transition early or she’d be an “ugly woman,” which would literally be a fate worse than death.
“The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition,” she wrote. “I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life... I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself.”
It’s unbearable all the anguish and fear in her letter. It indicts the whole LGBT community and our failure to grapple with our diversity and accept it. The more we advance, the more we put forward only our most pedicured feet, our most photo-shopped faces. Above all it underlines our long estrangement from feminism, which at its best yanks the clothes off both the emperor and the empress — and leaves them both shivering equally in the cold.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.