Get to Know thy Neighbour: Breaking Down the Gender Binary at the Local Level

By Daniel Oledzki

I awoke one morning to find myself shackled.
Not tied to something tangible, but bound by imaginative and yet definitive boundaries – like borders drawn on a map.

I think most people would call this puberty.

As I proceeded to navigate through the perils and pitfalls of adolescent development, I was made increasingly aware – by those looking out for my best interests – that what I was doing during this period of self-exploration and expression was just plain wrong.

Even now, as a straight, white, middle-class male (which, to be completely honest, is pretty much like winning the identity lottery) I find I am told what is or isn’t socially acceptable for me to do as a man just as often as I was as a girl.

Oh. Yeah. I’m transgender.
Did I forget to mention that?
Maybe because it’s actually not that big of a deal.

Though it certainly seems to be to other people.
To the extent that even strangers feel entitled to ask all about my genitals.
Are we going to have sex later? If not, you probably don’t need to know that in order to know me. And if that was your intention, your chances would be greatly improved by beginning the conversation with something like “Hey handsome, can I buy you a whiskey?” as opposed to something like “So, uh, how does it, like, work?”.

Oh very well thanks, but you’ll never find out first-hand: intrusive, arrogant, douchebags just aren’t my type – sorry.

Personally, I’m totally okay with answering questions about being transgender (after all, if you aren’t transgender yourself, you’d have no way of knowing what it is actually like), as long as you and your questions are respectful.

It is not a complicated concept.

In a similar way as if you were to ask me about the square footage of my igloo, I wouldn’t be super stoked to sit around and tell you all about growing up in Canada either.

In fact, some of my favourite conversations with new friends have involved them saying “I’m so glad to have met you – before I did, I didn’t know transgender people could be normal.”

This is because, in my experience, there is a fine line and a big difference between ignorance and unawareness. Unawareness is rooted in the narrow version of reality presented to us by mainstream consumer capitalist culture… whereas ignorance is usually rooted in assholes.

While I am fortunate enough to have always had a loving and supportive family and friends, I have also had my fair share of physical attacks and verbal venom spat in my face, simply because those people truly believed my very existence posed some kind of threat to their own.

The problem isn’t me – it is all of us and, more importantly, it is what we’ve been strongly conditioned to perceive as a threat to the very sanctity of social order.

That is, anything that extends beyond the arbitrary and yet somehow absolutely essential gender identities of male and female.

Nothing more, nothing less.

I have experienced having my identity reduced to a conceptual conundrum: the transgression of a seemingly impenetrable social boundary (from one gender to the other). I’ve also experienced the limitations placed upon both male and female people on either side of that binary – as well as the sincere fear in the eyes of people who didn’t know how to act towards me at a time when I appeared most androgynous.

I have also met far too many people – even those who are happy within “traditionally” defined gender roles – that find themselves restricted to their sense of self-identity and expression at various points in their lives.

If the majority of people feel this way, it can’t be natural.
So what happened?

I remember fondly the realm of playground politics, where nobody really cared who you were when you played house as long as you did not choose the character they wanted to be. Even then, you could easily accommodate gender switching: two moms or two dads to share and/or take turns.
I always opted to be the dog, in case you were wondering (budding psychoanalysts need not apply) but even that was totally acceptable!

This was all possible because of the classic kindergarten rule we all learned on day one: you stand in a circle with your arms outstretched and wave them around and as long as you don’t step into somebody else’s space and smack them with a flailing forearm it’s all good in the kinder hood.

Why isn’t that approach to sharing social space applicable to adults?

Because we are not supposed to be playing house anymore, we’re supposed to be buying them.

Simply put, the gender dichotomy supports the economy.
(I’m also ready to admit that it is not that simple: there are a myriad of other factors at play, but for the purposes of this particular post, I’m doing the whole “simply put” thing.)*

It is far easier for consumer capitalist culture to function if everybody is divided into two easily defined and identified opposing categories that can then be marketed and sold to each other.

Naturally occurring diversity has existed across time and space, but has been stifled, subverted, and swept under the historical rug for the sake of supporting power structures.

We can change that.

Us. All of us.

The pivotal linchpin of consumer capitalist culture also has the potential to become a very worrisome wrench in the works.

So let’s stop conforming and contorting ourselves into uncomfortable boxes at the bottom of the pyramid.

And hey, if you are among the fortunate few who are genuinely happy living your life within a “traditional” male or female identity, party on! Nobody is trying to take that away from you. The issue is that the same opportunity to identify and live a life of choice is not equally available to everybody.

Furthermore, this is not just about transgender individuals, or people who identify somewhere along the spectrum between male and female – this is about everyone and anyone who has ever felt restricted by “traditional” gender norms.

Fact: that is a lot of people.

What a shame! Naturally occurring diversity is the most excellent element of human existence and experience. Nobody likes hearing the same story told over and over and over again, so why do we keep paying for it?

To be fair, a lot of hard work by a lot of individuals throughout the years has led to mainstream media branching out into alternative representations.

That having been said, this means – for me at least – that I’m now faced with just as many presumptuous statements as I am questions.

“Hey! I know you! I saw something about you on [insert name of day-time talk show here].”

Well, no, actually, you don’t know me.
I’ve never been on a day-time talk show.

You know me about as well as I know astronomy based on the ability to name a few constellations.

But you could get to me know me.

About how I’m transgender, okay, sure, but also, how I’m right-handed.

Or about my unrequited love for various sports teams, or which Broadway musicals are in my personal top ten, or how much I know about dinosaurs – to name only a few examples.

Because I am so much more than just transgender.

We are all so much more than just our gender.

We don’t need to wait for mainstream media to offer us any alternatives.
We are the mainstream, and all of the alternatives therein.

We are the reality, not their representations.

So let’s leave the label making to the bureaucratic paper pushers and not let anybody else’s definitions define us anymore.

Let’s get to know our neighbours, in all of their wild and wonderful diversity, and support them in that (I’m not saying you have to love ‘em).

Get to know your neighbours for who they really are, regardless of what you have been told about them, and whether the facets of their gender identity and expression are socially acceptable or not. In the process, maybe even get to know yourself a little better, and learn how it is more than okay – in fact, it is our right – for all of us to live a life of choice.

Because, I support you wholeheartedly whoever you are, and whoever you want to be.

I just ask, in return, that you do the same.

*Encourage me to write another article on this, if you feel so inclined. Debate is healthy, and a true catalyst of change. I am more than happy to carry the conversation forward with you, I just ask that you bring an open mind. And whiskey.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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