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There’s increasing acceptance of binary transgender people in the media. That might not be much consolation to closeted trans people in conservative small towns, but it’s an encouraging sign for trans people as a group. However, there's a real charge to face in the idea that binary trans acceptance could be subtly reinforcing gender binaries.
If we're accepting binary trans identities are we reinforcing the gender binary by doing so? Where does that leave butches, fembois, hard femmes, cross dressers and genderqueer and genderfluid folks?
One group who stand to suffer from this are non-gender conforming gay men and lesbians. It’s quite possible to have a highly feminine gender presentation — powered by fairy dust, complete with glitter and sparkles — and identify as a man. But for young people who are learning and dealing with their gender and sexuality, how many feminine gay men will be told they are transgender, or believe they are, because of their gender expression? It’s the same for lesbians who might identify as female quite strongly but also be very masculine in gender expression. We hear less about female-to-male trans people than male-to-female, but how many teen butches will now face the erasure of their identities not from conservatives who don’t think lesbianism exists but from over-enthusiastic trans activists?
Another group at risk from a simplistic embrace of binary trans identities is nonbinary trans people. Nonbinary trans identities, including genderqueer, genderfluid and agender people, come under dismissive and vituperative fire from binary trans people. The same make-up-your-mind, your-identity-doesn’t-really-exist tactics that trans people suffer from cis lesbian, bisexuals and gays — and that LGB people suffer from straight society — is applied to a new minority within a minority.
I don’t in any way mean to suggest that this is somehow the fault of all trans men or women. It’s not your fault unless you’re actively doing it. What I’m talking about is the discourse in the media and the parallel discourse in medicine, things that form the picture of the world you’ll be offered if you’re not able to make one of your own.
Suppose a little girl (so her parents believe) show up to a psychologist’s office with her parents, worried about their daughter, Jacqueline. Jacqueline prefers to be called Jack. She wears big brown work boots with the laces undone, cargo pants, baggy T-shirts with skulls on and a gas station shirt (yeah, I grew up in the 90s. I don’t know what the kids wear. If you do, feel free to perform your own mental substitutions). Her hair is cut short. Her facial expressions skew masculine: heavy on anger and disgust, demonstrative when it comes to her own opinion, but not so much when it comes to responding to someone else’s. Here’s my question: What’s Jack?