Ordinarily, I have a “don’t read the comments” policy. People are, generally speaking, impressively hateful and cruel online because the relative anonymity means that there are few repercussions—I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of this.
But with the controversy around Chaz Bono being cast in Dancing with the Stars, I’m finding myself unable to help looking at the comments—much like one can’t look away from a horrific car crash. And, even if I had not been reading the comments, when there’s this much controversy the same sort of extreme viewpoints tend to end up in the articles themselves as “telling both sides of the story.”
Predictably, it’s awful up one side and down the other. People are going around refusing to respect Bono’s self-definition and using his birth name “Chastity” and the pronoun “her” and insisting that “His/Her chromosomes haven’t changes [sic] since birth and never will” (which, as my Fausto-Sterling-savvy Gender in the Media students can now tell you, doesn’t actually mean as much as people think). And, of course, they’re hysterically screeching about the Bible. The thread at the ABC blog has all of these strategies in play.
And in relation to those people I take Bono’s side. I think it’s ludicrous to argue that casting him somehow makes DWTS not safe for children because it’ll make them turn out trans or gay or serial killers or whatever it is they’re arguing. I absolutely think they’re wrong to treat being trans as some sort of mental illness—comparing it to being an elective amputee, really?
I have to fight my knee-jerk response to think that these are bad people—or, as Chaz’s mother Cher put it, “stupid bigots”—and instead think of them as just lacking knowledge. But I still feel superior to them and their bible-thumping, same-sex-sexuality-hating ways. (That’s not me collapsing gender identity and sexual object choice; they’re the ones saying “it is CLEARLY stated in the Bible,,, [sic] men are not to lay down with other men, same for women.”)
But beyond that moment of support, things get tricky. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that being inclined toward certain behavior or having certain feelings means your body needs to look a certain way. I think that ultimately this rigid correlation between body and behavior is something we have to resist rather than try to shape our bodies to fit into.
But of course, that behavior = body sentiment is exactly what we all hear all the time, though usually as body = behavior. “You’re a girl (body) so you should act like it (behavior).” The idea that your body is your destiny is so completely ingrained in us that we can’t think anything else. My students argued this about athletics even after reading and hearing that bodies are socially constructed.
So the arguments that Bono is going to destroy gender, or whatever, are totally off base. Transitioning, when done as a complete “I really am this other category on the inside and I need to fully move into that category” process, is actually very much about obeying and supporting gender rules. Changing the shape of one’s body requires a pretty serious commitment to playing along.
This isn’t to paint transfolk as dupes, by any means. The ways in which bodies get shaped in these processes are the product of medical institutions deciding what counted as transitioning. This matters because being able to count as transitioned is what makes you able to be able to change your state identity documents. In order to work in a mainstream, above-board kind of job, one has to have those documents, and unless you happen to have a particularly progressive employer they have to match the way you look when you walk in the door (and with the USA PATRIOT Act’s insistence that terrorists might have fake documents that don’t “match” their gender it may not matter what your boss thinks). I get that this is all very real and at times a matter of survival.
I also get that it can be a site of resistance, since transpeople routinely bend or break the rules. When the law says that in order to transition one has to have to have surgery to reassign their sex, that statute is intended to refer to genital surgery that will more or less render them both sterile and unable to experience sexual pleasure. But with a sympathetic doctor, someone can get a letter certifying that surgery to change sex has occurred without saying exactly what—that it was top surgery and not bottom surgery, say. There are ways to work the system, and people do.
Experiencing a high degree of mismatch between oneself and the social norm is a bad situation, and people like Chaz Bono are making the best of it.
But here again, like with 9/11 or with gay marriage, I see it on two levels simultaneously, and considering individual people as opposed to large-scale structures produces a dramatically different response. I almost wish I had less appreciation for subtlety and could be more dogmatic. It’d be easier.
That is, though I completely appreciate why people find it necessary to comply with the medico-legal framework to get access to the resources they need, I ultimately don’t think it’s a good idea to go appealing to the state for validation for one’s body image any more than for one’s sex life.
We all have a set of really narrow options of what bodies are supposed to look like and what it’s appropriate to do with them, options that don’t conform to the configurations people actually come in (however it is that you think we come to have a gender and a sexuality and a body that’s a particular shape).
And we all have to work and struggle and cram ourselves into boxes—some more than others, of course—to find a place that’s comfortable within that. Chaz Bono got a bad deal out of the boxes of the gender system. Or, we all get a bad deal out of the gender system, but Bono and other transfolk more than most.
These are real pressures with real consequences, but I simply cannot feel that the solution is to accept the boxes.
We have to expose the boxes as artificial, as constraining, as sometimes deadly. We have to work to dismantle the ways that the boxes hold the power they do over who gets jobs and how people get medical care and all kinds of other services and resources and opportunities.
We have to work toward some different way to configure people, such that you can feel however you want on the inside and look however you want on the outside, with no demand that those fall into a set of patterns, much less a rigid equation.
But, in the meantime, Bono’s decision to get his body surgically altered to move him into a different category than the one into which he was born doesn’t make him crazy, no matter what the fever pitch of think-of-the-children might say. Instead, the system is crazy. And even though I wouldn’t choose the same way of coping with it, trying to make it work for you is a perfectly sane thing.