18 May 2014

Transgender Culture: What Is It? Or Is It?

The moment you talk about a "culture", you're not part of it.

Perhaps it's trite to say that. But, like so many other statements that become cliches, it is so trivialized, not because it's not true--if anything, it's cliched because it's so true--but because it's uttered so often and so glibly by people who feel smart or wise for using it.

Anyway, the first sentence of this post sums up the problem I've always had with the use of the term "transgender culture."

Now, there are cultures--like the Hijra of South Asia--consisting of trans people.  They indeed have their own customs, rituals, mores and, some might say, language.  And their culture can be said to be a function of the symbiotic relationship the cultures surrounding them (i.e., those of India) have with them.  Returning to the example of Hijra:  They are treated as a separate caste and have suffered increasing discrimination as India has become more Westernized and Christianized. But people still call on them to officiate at weddings and funerals, to offer blessings for other occasions and to ward off evil spirits.

But, as Kat Callahan points out, almost anyone who speaks of a "transgender culture" is talking about a Western or American idea of what it--or culture generally--is.  And, as Ms. Callahan points out, the speaker is almost always cisgender.  

What she doesn't say, but probably thinks, is that most Americans, to the extent that they think about "trans culture," define it in much the same way people used to talk about "gay culture" or "queer culture":  bars, clubs, balls and such.  There used to be talk about "queer spaces" where lesbians and/or gays--particularly young ones--could meet.  While such things still exist, I think they are dying out, as lesbians and gays have less of a need to simultaneously assert their identities and integrate themselves into their schools, workplaces and such because of the wider acceptance--or, at least acknowledgment--that your favorite aunt or uncle or most talented co-worker might be gay.

As Ms. Callahan points out, we, as trans people, are taking our place in that world.  That gives us less of a need to create insular identities and customs; of "trans culture", whatever it means, she writes, "It is unnecessary before it even has come to exist."  

Most poignantly, she says, "I am not part of it."  I feel the same way. Perhaps that is the reason why I have had so little involvement with trans, or even LGBT-related "culture" or events:  I don't know of any secret handshakes or kisses, or have any particular habits, beliefs or customs that are emblematic of trans people.  We don't have particular foods, ways of dressing, a language, a body of artistic expression or geographic locations that define us.  Certainly, we don't have anything resembling a common religion:  I've met trans people who are atheists, devout practitioners of mainstream religions, Wiccans and everything in between.  For that matter, I even wonder whether we have a common history, as the current definitions of trans people didn't exist through most of human history.
In other words, we can be nothing more or less than trans people in the culture(s) of which we are a part.  No one else can define what that means for us.