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Thursday, 05 July 2007

Recently I was asked by some friends to house-sit their flat and look after their cats while they were away. Obviously I received the key to their flat. It is the “normal” thing to do - giving the key of your house to the person looking after it. That key also gave me the privilege to knowledge of their private lives. So, actually it also translates into trust.

Giving someone the key to your house takes a lot of trust. You are trusting that the person will not snoop in your private belongings and trusting that what the person will obviously find out about you through their very presence in your home will remain confidential. And someone with the key to your house will find out things about you. For example, the fact that you like Colgate and your partner likes Aquafresh.

It made me think a bit. One can easily draw a parallel between that house key, which led me into their lives, their whole being, and our gender, which can be seen as the key to our lives.

Just as they gave me the key to their house, entrusting me with everything it holds, we are as humans are in the position to give people the key to our lives: GENDER.

I choose to see gender as a key. So many times people don’t know how to address androgynous looking people, transpeople and transpeople in early transition stages. It is as if they don’t know where to look for their gender key – they don’t know how and where to open the door.

It would be easier for them if a transperson just gave them the key of their lives on a silver tray, which they would need in order to open the door of understanding to the transperson’s life. It is only when an outsider has your gender key that they can know how to open the door to your life; how to understand you; how to communicate with you.

Having that gender key in hand, it would be “easy” to know how to treat you, what to expect of you and what your reactions to daily life experiences would be.

It would be quite understandable to find a female colleague in the corridor at work, crying because she has just heard that her employment will be terminated in two months. We don’t expect a male colleague in the same situation standing in the corridor or sitting at his desk crying. We might expect him to find sitting at the local pub, having a few beers or walking around the house, bad tempered and grumpy. We do not expect the men in the village to fetch water, which is what their women do. We expect men to be in control of difficult situations at home, making hard decisions, with their women to support them. When a female manager at work is angry with an employee and calls him/her to her office, she is often seen as being moody, trying to prove a point or suffering with pms. A male manager who is angry and calls an employee in is seen as a good leader and “on top of the situation”.

By being able to have the gender key of your life in their hand, “they” know how to treat you, what to expect from you and even how to control you.

Often I think the difficulty in understanding transgendered people and or even in their willingness to know more about transgenderism, might lie in the fact that they don’t know how to open a transgendered person’s door. They are unable to find that key.

Because of this missing key, the transgendered person becomes invisible. All of a sudden people don’t know how to address the transperson, and might even discuss them as if they were not present.

The next question then is: “Do transpeople – whilst in the process of transitioning – realize what power they hold over people’s perceptions regarding their own gender key?”

What do I mean when I ask this question? Okay, I agree that people whose gender presentation is congruent to that of their gender at birth, or their biological sex, to be more precise, have the luxury of not being mistaken for the “wrong” gender. That being said, androgynous people, transpeople and people who, by appearance, “look” different than would be expected, actually also hold the power of their gender key.

Once an androgynous or transperson is content with their appearance, they hold a lot of power over themselves and the people with whom they come in contact.

On the other hand, the individual whose gender presentation matches that of their Gender identity has not experienced the power of their gender key. People will automatically, by looking or approaching them, label and box them. The decision has been made without any “negotiation”. It is just automatically assumed that the person is either male or female. Boxed, labeled and addressed – just like a letter by mail. The pronouncing and addressing the “obvious” person just happens.

Usually the assumption can be made that that is what transpeople are really looking for: to be automatically addressed by the gender in which they feel most comfortable. Once they have transitioned, they will reach that point.

But they might be only one of the very few groups of people who would one day be able to say they have experienced both positions – having to negotiate how to be addressed, as well as being labeled automatically, whereas the majority of people will not ever know how it feels to have to negotiate their gender on a day-to-day basis their gender and the life experiences which it brings about.

This brings me to two more thoughts to ponder on. The first might be perceived as being insensitive, but it is an honest question with which I have grappled for a long time - “how far must a cis-gender person go to be taken seriously by people around them?” Even if I am happy with my gender at birth, I don’t just want to be just boxed and labeled as such.

I reject the notion of people seeing me as female and therefore I “will react” as per social norms. Why should I be labeled as female and therefore find attached to me find a list of typical expected actions, reactions and behavior? Regardless of this female being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, certain behavior patterns are expected of her, just by being female.

I object to that!

Another thought which can lead to difficult discussion also came to the fore: when speaking of a minority group, who will know on the one hand how it feels to negotiate their gender appearance on a day-to-day basis, and on the other hand will later experience the feeling of being addressed automatically in the gender they see themselves.

Can the assumption be made that transpeople are supposed to be among the people who are the most sensitive to gender prejudice? Who really understands the consequences and impact thereof? I would like to see that transpeople, due to their own experiences have a huge amount of empathy towards those who have lived through experiences of gender and gender prejudice – which includes prejudice towards each other.

Will transpeople be able to understand my need of “not wanting to be labeled automatically for the female I am?” Will I be taken seriously by transpeople when I reject to social norms?

From all these ramblings of points of view I am convinced that we can look at gender as the key to our lives. But do we realize that? And do we acknowledge the power we hold over our lives with this gender key?

Liesl Bjorn Theron


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