This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Mona in Cairo has three Facebook profiles: a heterosexual male one for her family and school friends, who know her only as “Abdul”; a heterosexual female one, through which she can explore being a woman; and a transgender one, through which she can interact with the online community that she has found of people like her. Mona also discovered a black-market source for estrogen online; however, her changing appearance began to attract hostile responses on the city’s streets, and some of the elders in the gay community prevailed upon her to limit her transgender explorations to her room and her webcam.
In a poor Chennai neighborhood, an enterprising transgender woman named Lalitha Yogi has set up the “Mermaid Studio” in her room; people from all over India come here to experiment with being transgender online. Charlotte Wolf, a young transgender woman from Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed her female self when she took on female avatars in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I have met transgender people in the US who began researching gender transition by watching YouTube videos online before puberty, and who now post bulletins of their own transitions online.
Things are tougher in other parts of the world. In Syria, the Assad regime monitors gay websites and uses the intelligence it gathers against gay Syrians; similarly, Israel attempts to blackmail gay Palestinians into being collaborators. Jerome, a teenager who had to flee his home in western Uganda at the age of 15 when he was discovered with another boy, used Facebook to find other gay people; among the men he found online was a gang that entrapped, tortured and extorted him. He fled to Kenya, where he is now a refugee. In early February, he said he was arrested with thirty-one other Ugandan queer refugees while attending a party celebrating the successful resettlement of one refugee. He was held for two days and alleges he was tortured.
Beyoncé is a teenager from a provincial Egyptian town. When his parents discovered his double life, they shaved his head and dragged him through town behind a horse cart before locking him in his room for a month, beating him every day. He kept himself alive by posting “It Gets Better” videos on YouTube advising other young people in similar situations. Lena Klimova, a young journalist in the Urals, has set up a website called Children-404, which does the same thing for Russian youth that LGBT organizations can no longer reach because of the country’s legislation forbidding “gay propaganda.”
When it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, the world is changing faster than anyone could have imagined: not only because of the global rights movement, but because of the digital and information revolutions too. Researching a book, I have recently met young people in countries all over the world who are finding communities—and new identities—online, and then attempting to square those with the often more challenging environments of their offline lives.
In some places, such as Uganda and Russia, these changes have triggered social crises, as the state and the church push back against young people demanding a set of individual rights that are branded as Western and foreign. In other parts of the world, homosexuality has become, as the title of the TV sitcom would have it, “the new normal.” And not only in the “blue states” of the Global North: Latin America has been especially remarkable in its shift from Catholic social conservatism to a new moral code; Vietnam has made moves towards marriage equality. As of this writing, thirty-seven American states now permit same-sex marriage, and a Republican Party report has suggested it needs to soften its stance on gay marriage or risk losing its young supporters.
Meanwhile, a whole new frontier is being established, particularly in the United States: from Laverne Cox to Chelsea Manning, transgender people are coming out. Last year, Time identified a moment in American culture by putting Cox, the glamorous and talented star of Orange Is the New Black, on its cover with the title The Transgender Tipping Point. Increasingly, in the United States, young people declare themselves to be “trans” in their teens. The confluence of a new transgender-rights culture with the information revolution and biomedical advances has also triggered a dramatic spike in children who transition to the other gender well before puberty.
This in itself is drawing radical critique. One critique comes, perhaps predictably, from those radical feminists who insist on the category of “women-born women”: some rad-fems see transgender men as sellouts to the patriarchy, and transgender women as beneficiaries of male privilege because they were born with a penis. But there’s a different critique increasing from another quarter, too: a critique not so much of transgenderism itself as of the kind of gender polarity that says if you are not male, you must be female, and vice versa. A new generation of young people—privileged and generally from liberal environments, to be sure—rejects the notion of a binary gender system altogether and describes itself as “genderqueer” or “agender” or “gender neutral,” often choosing to use the pronoun “they” or “ze” rather than “he” or “she.”
The “genderqueer” movement is growing so dramatically that at some liberal-arts colleges, gatherings now often begin with a go-round of names and “preferred pronouns,” and some students have started to refer to any stranger as “they.” A slew of new words has entered the youth lexicon. Many young people choose to refer to themselves as “pansexual” rather than “gay” or “straight” or even “bisexual”—the last, of course, being a binarist notion to begin with. “LGBT” became “LGBTI” to include “intersex,” which is a medical rather than a social definition, but young people have expanded the acronym to such an extent that Riot Youth, a group I am working with in Ann Arbor, Michigan, calls itself “LGBTQQAA”: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, questioning, asexual and allies. The categories are proliferating and exploding gender binarism: Jay, a high-school kid from a rural town near Ann Arbor, told me that he was a “demiboy”: “half male and half something else.” He doesn’t know what that “something else” is, and he doesn’t particularly care.
Alex Kulick, an early Riot Youth graduate who became a facilitator there, told me that when he joined seven years ago, all the kids identified themselves as “gay” or “lesbian.” Now, almost nobody does: some of them are “trans,” but most are “queer.” The number of kids who come to Riot Youth has increased, Kulick says, “perhaps because Riot Youth attracts students who are not getting the resources they need in school. Gay teens might be getting some of that support, but there’s definitely still a strong need among queer and trans youth.”
Sean Jacobi, who recently graduated from high school in Ann Arbor, was “assigned female at birth,” as the trans parlance puts it, but uses the “they” pronoun. “There are as many genders as there are people in the world,” Sean told me, “because there is no one way of being male or being female.” It follows, then, that every sexual pairing or sexual attraction is its own unique category.
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“Sex,” according to a popular adage in the trans community, is what’s between our legs, while “gender” is what’s between our ears. “Sexuality” is what we do with our clothes off, while “gender expression” is what we do with our clothes. “Sexual orientation” is who we get into bed with, while “gender identity” is who we get into bed as. If the women’s movement helped us understand gender as a construct, then the transgender movement is helping us understand that it is not necessarily fixed at birth.
Herb Schreier, a pioneering child psychiatrist who specializes in gender at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, told me about a 7-year-old patient who has been flip-flopping for three years between being a boy and a girl. Then the kid went off to a transgender summer camp and came back with an announcement: “Mommy, at last I think I know what I am—I’m a they.” Schreier, a heterosexual man in his 70s, points to the success of gay rights as an example: “Who would have imagined a generation ago that two men or two women could marry and make a family? In the generation to come, we’re going to look back at gender and say, ‘Oh, that binary stuff—we’re over it, thank God!’”
Is Herb Schreier right? Is Sean the future?
In liberal America, gay people can join the army, run corporations, get married, have kids, host TV talk-shows. In this context, little wonder that there was no conflict in Sean’s family over sexuality. But when his quest for self-expression drifted into gender identity, the generational lines were drawn. Sitting in on a meeting of the families of transgender kids while on my trip, I watched an otherwise-supportive father explode over the use of pronouns: “It makes no sense, and it’s too complicated! Every kid in my son’s social group wants to be called a different pronoun. How can I possibly remember? And if you get it wrong, it’s like you’re denying their very identity!”
He has a point. But it is reductive to see genderqueer kids as being overly demanding, spoiling for a fight with adults or simply “going through a phase.” Rather, they are finding room for individuation from their parents, as well as engaging in the rebellion that is a key component of youth culture. This is an impulse that germinated not only the hippies and punks, but feminists and gay liberationists too. Many of the genderqueer kids in today’s liberal America are what Charlotte Wolf calls “transtrenders,” using gender as a form of social provocation or subcultural bonding. The majority might later marry and assume the conventional gender roles, much as Japanese boys become company men after being allowed their very structured anime rebellion. But an increasing number will stay in the borderlands and, in so doing, redraw our gender frontiers—and with them, the patriarchy itself.
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Since Alfred Kinsey, Western culture has become comfortable with what Adrienne Rich called “the lesbian continuum”: the fluidity of specifically female sexual orientation. But gender fluidity is potentially more troubling in this biomedical age because of the irrevocability of hormone treatment and surgery. Rose became Fynn and identified as male while in high school, and began taking testosterone as a freshman at Reed College. But when her girlfriend told her she was not eligible to join a campus women’s group because she was now male, she realized she was not happy with her new masculinity: “I think I needed to become a man to realize I was a woman,” Rose told me. She worries that adolescents “don’t necessarily have the mental capacity to understand the misogyny in our culture that might be informing their decisions. I certainly didn’t.”
Still, Rose loves her deep voice and facial hair, a consequence of her year on testosterone, and she is still considering having her breasts removed, as some other butch lesbians have done. In the Bay Area, where she now lives, body modifications such as tattooing and piercing define hipster culture today, in much the same way that long hair defined hippie culture forty years ago. She is the child of a Nip/Tuck world in which cosmetic surgery is increasingly common, a Twilight world in which digitally enhanced bodies are perpetually in flux.
“Where is it written that women have to have breasts?” Rose asks. The very notion of gender determination through reproductive capacity is up for grabs. Thanks to advances in fertility technology and the social acceptance of surrogate pregnancies, the species Homo sapiens no longer requires the coupling of a man and a woman to ensure its survival. It has been half a century since Kinsey helped us understand that there are very few people who are 100 percent heterosexual or homosexual. If the feminist movement of the late twentieth century taught us that there are many ways to be a woman (or a man), today’s transgender movement is helping us to understand that there are many people who are not 100 percent male or female—and in that labeling way of our culture, we are developing a lexicon to cover all the possibilities.
To be sure, an embrace of transgenderism and its possibilities might perversely serve to reinforce the binary: if you have a son whose identity falls outside the box of conventional masculinity, you can solve your “problems” by turning him into a girl; your sissy-boy can become a princess. The extreme example of this is Iran, where homosexuality is illegal but gender transition is legal and subsidized by the government. And evidence suggests that the government pressures some gay people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery.
But according to the more sophisticated gender specialists (admittedly, more likely to be found in the Bay Area or the Northeast than in the American heartland), only a small number of gender-nonconforming children are actually transgender: many more “gender-creative” children, as the Oakland-based psychologist Diane Ehrensaft puts it, are “protogay.” Once you open up the Pandora’s box of gender and begin to understand it as a construct, you have to allow for the existence of what kids today are calling “queerness”: a continuum of gender identities across a spectrum with many possibilities.
Medicine is developing a deeper understanding of epigenetics, or the way our genes are triggered by our contexts. As society advances, we will inevitably develop more sophisticated measures for the very different and individual ways that our environmental contexts—including the intrauterine environment—blend our genes and hormones. There will always be some people whose physical features are determined primarily by estrogen and others primarily by testosterone, but does it necessarily follow that all of the former will feel themselves to be women and all of the latter will feel themselves to be men? And with the ready availability of cross-gender hormones and, increasingly, surgery, the possibilities—for better and for worse—of modifying our bodies to suit the way we feel about ourselves increase too. As the psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner puts it: “My body is no longer my destiny. It is now my canvas.”