How can a man live as a woman, or a woman live as a man? When gender stereotypes are enforced like moral laws, with disgust, contempt, derision, anger, resentment and violence fencing round how a man or woman can be, how can we express our true selves? Some strong or fortunate individuals might live like that- Elagabalus the Roman Emperor proclaiming herself Empress, or WC Blackwell the police sergeant of Calcutta, rounding up suspects while wearing women’s clothes- but most of us might pretend to be straight. Humans fit in to society, like bees or termites fulfilling a role. In the shadows, discreetly, some who cannot do otherwise express ourselves.
The psy professions- psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy- find us, and because we do not conform we are called mentally ill. Scientists classify the extent and causes of our deviance, to construct an understanding so we might be predicted and controlled, and devise treatments to return us to normality. In the 19th century, women were seen as mentally ill if either too feminine or not feminine enough.
Eugenics, the idea that the white race was superior and could be improved through selective breeding or degenerate if inferior people produced children, influenced the ideas of how humans should be. The male “invert” Lili Elbe could become an exemplar of vigorous European womanhood through genital operations, and the implantation of uterus and ovaries which killed her.
Gender variance was legitimised, made almost normal, by bodily transformation. We cannot know whether people would desire genital operations but for that fugitive hope of acceptance. Some doctors worked with trans people’s desire for operations, some were revolted by the idea of mutilating healthy bodies. Psy professionals found trans women could not be assimilated to an ideal of normal masculinity.
Transnormativity evolved: a concept of a “real transsexual” who might be suffered to exist on the edge of society, tolerated though not valued. This was constructed by psy and medical professionals. From press reports and other trans people, we learned the narratives the professionals required, and said what was expected of us. In order to keep control, the medical Standards of Care required knowledge “independent of the patient’s verbal claim” that the characteristics of defined acceptable transsexuality applied. From 1981, the Standards of Care required the psychiatrist diagnosing to be a specialist in gender therapy.
At the same time, intersex people had operations as babies to normalise genitalia and provide a role, either boy or girl. “It’s easier to make a hole than a pole” joked my mother’s midwifery tutor. You can’t “dress it in a kilt and call it Frances”. Gay men suffered aversion therapy and hormone treatment to suppress “homosexual” desire or attempt to create heterosexual desire.
Heterosexual people, conforming to gender stereotypes, were idealised and others had to conform to that as much as possible. Trans people sought the treatment, the psychiatric assessment, years of real life test, and surgery, to avoid the social violence enforcing conformity. It was important to pass as the other sex.
Affirmative treatment, accepting our desires, will not set us free while the wider society and trans groups preserve transnormative ideas. We remain presented with limited choices- treatment and acceptance is for the “real transsexual” who wants surgery. If there is a wider acceptance of gender variance, rather than specific treatment paths, people will find better what is right for them. Gender variance is beautiful. Complexity is beautiful. Unfortunately conformists find others’ non-conformity threatening, and seek to prevent it.
I got much of this from the paper Transnormativity in the psy disciplines, at least one of whose authors is trans. Of course then I spun it and riffed off it following my own concerns.