Over the past few years, attacks on transgendered people in public places have been on the rise. In 2009 a transwoman in Queens was pelted with rocks, beer bottles and misogynistic slurs. Just weeks before in the same borough, two men used a belt buckle to beat a transwoman named Leslie Mora. In late April a widely disseminated video captured two teenage girls punching and dragging Chrissy Lee Polis from a women’s room to the front door of a Baltimore-area McDonald’s. That video, made by an employee, shows bystanders just watching, with little move to aid her.
Crimes like these often stem from simple homophobia; but they reveal a more specific discomfort with the ambiguity that transgendered people embody. The intensity of that discomfort extends to many situations that fall short of violence. Insults and isolation in housing, the workplace, gyms, schools and always, always in public bathrooms—premised on resolute gender binarism—leave transgendered people forever making the “wrong” choice. There are, for example, queasy debates at Smith and other women’s colleges about how to negotiate the presence of students who are admitted as women but graduate as men.
Transgender identities challenge us to think about the morphisms of “sex” and “gender,” “woman” and “man,” “real” and “not real.” This is a hot topic in academic circles: for example, attempting to disambiguate the notion of “identity” as a matter of legal subjectivity, when, say, a man with a heap of warrants is finally arrested—but by the time the police catch up, he has become a she, and in the name of that transformation asserts as a defense that “he” was a different person. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of discussion as funny or unimportant, but I think it’s necessary, not merely because it directly affects the lives of the transgendered but because it tests and expands the thinking of those of us who are not transgendered yet whose collective responses shape the social environment.
Take Smith. Its administration has said it welcomes trans students as part of a diverse community, but apparently not all students and alumnae agree. For some, a commitment to remaining a women’s college rests on assumptions about what a woman is as a biological matter, what gender is as a social construction and why a woman’s experience is, or is deemed to be, different from that of a man. Trans students evoke squeamishness particularly among older alums, as well as among those who come to a “single sex” school for its white-glove, ladylike connotations, or perhaps out of commitment to women’s education as a form of empowerment (Gloria Steinem went to Smith, after all). This contentious conversation scrutinizes not just the gender of individual students but overall institutional identity. The debate at Smith brought to the fore, for example, those who were unhappy to see their school’s feminine image newly shared with transmen.