Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Trans Rites of Passage
I've been thinking about this topic quite a lot lately. For many cultures this is a defining point - a transition from one status to another. Many times it's a transition from childhood to adulthood and full inclusion into a social group. One of the first men to write about this (Arnold van Gennep) proposed that there were three phases: separation (pre-liminal), transition (liminal or threshold), and reincorporation (postliminal). I remember how fascinated my anthropology professor was when we got to this part of Cultural Anthropology...eyes all a-bulge. Flailing his arms talking about rituals and ceremonies marking this transition from a previous world into a new world. Immediately I think about similar traditions here in the U.S. such as bar and bat mitzvahs, rumspringa, vision quests, quiceaneras and sweet sixteens. It's such a special (and sometimes especially annoying) time. It's so awkward and painful and sometimes the "honorees" don't want to make a big deal of it. Some families even go into debt because of these events.
And then I think about what the equivalent of this would be in the queer or LGBT community. Our "coming out" is rarely similar to the debutante balls of the same name. The rite of passage is usually something we come to terms with within our self- and then start to tell others. Maybe it's joining a group on campus or in the community that is specifically LGBT. Maybe it's telling family members or close friends. When we come out that closet we are separating ourselves from the straight/heterosexual world we may have once thought was the only world that existed and transitioning through self-education or support from loved ones or our created family and then, re-incorporating ourselves back into society with this new-found sense of self.
Now lets think about the trans and gender non-conforming equivalent. Sometimes it's similar to above and other times it involves physiological changes. Sometimes we modify our bodies in order to feel whole; now matching our bodies to how we've seen ourselves. Other times it's not about physically transitioning and it may be changing our names on a birth certificate or other types of identification or telling our co-workers and family members to call us by the proper pronoun. Sometimes it may be about forming alliances with others like ourselves and organizing for our community or none of the above.
This society at times places so much weight on gendered coming of age events. But where is the bar mitzvah for the trans boy? Where is the quinceanera for the trans girl? And for those of us who came out much later...where is our "coming of gender" (not age) event? Hmm hope it's not the parties we have to throw to fundraise for our transitions.
I wish that more of us supported each other in coming out. I know that a lot of us don't have much money or are unemployed because of our gender, so this makes this much harder. I wish there was a trans fairy who would leave us a card under our pillow once we've decided to come out. Or maybe an organization or group that would write to us personally congratulating and welcoming us. It's such a tough, tough decision.
Perhaps if we had more support there'd be less transgender folks committing suicide. We can't all move to NYC or the Bay...a lot of people in rural areas are feeling really alone. Some are rewarded with beatings or being kicked out of the house when they have their realization about being gender non-conforming. A far cry from parties and debutante balls.
Being torn from our families, ostracized in schools, and then disappearing to re-acclimate into this heteronormative society (and sometimes even hostile LGB and queer communities) is a very common experience.
As trans and gender non-conforming people of color, our networks are much smaller and we have much less support from families and our own communities and the LGBT community at large. We face more violence and more disparities in education, housing, and in health care. Sometimes our families ask us why the heck we didn't decide to stay in the closet. Why did we "choose" to be trans when we were already at such a disadvantage because of our color? And that is our rite of passage experience. More close to those of tribes in other continents than to fellow Americans. Some of us stumble through the wilderness in search of ourselves with no guide...no mentors...no support. Some of us scar up our bodies to deal with pain and remind ourselves. And then some of us have the privilege not to go through any of this.I don't know many trans folks that haven't experienced some form of discrimination and I probably know even fewer who had a party thrown in honor of discovering themselves.
I am so glad that there are more trans and trans people of color conferences and organizations that are allowing more of us to come together for education and support. Maybe in the future these conferences and events will be a rite of passage...like attending the gay pride parade with less glitter and more clothes.