Human beings are idiosyncratic in their attempt at a dual existence, both as an unique individual and member of multiple collectives. By their very nature, collectives discourage individuality, hoping instead of a unified body. A good, albeit hyperbolic, example of this is the Borg from Star Trek, aliens who wipe their members of any individuality through the use of nanotechnology to ensure loyalty and unison in the hive mind. Our societies and communities may not be quite so blatant in their attempts to homogenize their bases, but do try in subtler, more subconscious, ways.
It is my belief that humanity is not quite evolved enough yet to accept that we are a race of complete individuals, which is why there are many collectives in this world that seek to harm other groups based on a stereotyping of one aspect of its members’ lives. For example, radical religious groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church often pickets and protests against members of the LGBT+ community, under the pretense that every single member of this community is base, animalistic, a sinner, and evil. Are there members of the LGBT community that fit that description to some extent? Yeah, probably. But to cast that big of a shadow over an entire—also huge—group of people is short-sighted and fearful. There are plenty of LGBT+ people who are absolutely upstanding citizens of the world, fighting to cure diseases and feed the hungry—things that the so-called Savior of the Westboro’s congregation advocated for.
I realize this is a very extreme example. Most groups aren’t so obvious with their prejudices and expectations for membership. For better examples, consider what it means to be an American, a woman, a man, an adult, a feminist, or queer. What stereotypes surround those titles? When someone you see identifies themselves in one of these ways, what would make you question the validity of that identity? What do you assume about a person who introduces themself in one of these ways? Upon pondering, one begins to realize just how many unspoken rules exist in being a part of a collective, even though many I’ve listed aren’t organizations or corporeal groups.
However, we’re always told that we are like snowflakes, each of us unique from any other of the seven billion people who live on earth. That we should be proud of who we are because we are a limited edition, one of a kind person. This understanding is comforting in a lot of ways, it gives us validity, it gives us some vague sense of purpose. However, At the intersection of the self and society, there is friction. This is true for every individual, regardless of race, gender, orientation, or socioeconomic class.
Each of those signifiers carries expectations with it, and many individuals fit some, but certainly not all of them. Unconsciously, we all experience pressure, day in and day out, to conform to these expectations, even though there’s no one standing there with a rule book passing down judgment. We’re told not to care what society thinks, that only our self-image is important, but that’s naïve. As I mentioned before, we’re not as evolved as we think we are. We’re individuals, yes, but we’re also inherently social. Failure to conform makes it more difficult to socialize. Thus, friction.
The example I’ll use here to illustrate just how painful this friction can be is the transgender community. As a transguy myself, I’ve experienced this first-hand. My experience, however, is not universal and cannot be applied to all trans people.
I’m a guy, who was born into a (very) female body. People in the world who do not know me assume that I am female, and that I conform to all of the expectations surrounding femininity. If I introduce myself, they become confused, as my name is decidedly male, no room for unisex usage. I’ve thrown off their understanding of what collectives I fit into, and therefore what can easily be summed up as to who I am as a person.
The straight, cis-gendered community—as a whole, there are many members of the community who are staunch allies—has problems understanding transgender community. Why would anyone change genders? They ask, clinging to their long-held belief that gender is determined by genitalia.
Increasingly, the transgender community has faced some level of opposition from the greater queer community. Some say that we’re reinforcing binary, heteronormative understandings of gender by transitioning medically. Several members of the queer community have asked me why I even want to medically transition, that it’s “queerer” to leave my body as-is and live my life as a man.
As a multiple-letter member of the queer community, this question often causes friction in my mind. My desire to belong and fit-in to the queer collective is at odds with my self’s desire to not only present as a man, but be one. In my mind, it’s simplistic to say that my body is enough to challenge normative understandings of gender. Society’s already seen the pregnant man, there was no overhaul of the binary. It is not through bodies that gender norms are questioned, as there are typically (not counting the various forms of intersex people) two types of bodies. The gender binary is built largely on bodies. My self, my individuality, says that to really break down gender norms, we must rely on identities and brains and the parts of ourselves that defy collectivism.
Until humanity can evolve to the point that blind collectivism is the default, trans people, as well as all people, really, will have their identities drawn and quartered until they choose which powerful collective force to submit to. I look forward to the day when we are allowed to be individuals, but I’m not holding my breath. To say I’m reinforcing gender roles is like reinforcing a wall of steel. What does it matter?