Our Transgender Family

At California Dreaming Transgender Conference, in 1999, Melanie Yarborough and Lucy Silvay MFCC gave a keynote speech: Entitled, “Our Transgender Family”. The original text may be found here: California Dreamin’ ’99 Keynote but is reprinted here with permission.

I’d like to talk about something we’ve all experienced in our lives, in one way or another: FAMILY.

Like a family, we’ve all had similar experiences. We all know what it feels like to go into our mother’s or sister’s closets, and try on their clothes. We all know that distant sense of hope on seeing someone famous who’s just like us: either Christine Jorgenson or Corporal Klinger or Ru Paul. And we’ve all felt that terror and joy of opening up to another person and saying for the first time “I’m a crossdresser” or “I’m a transsexual”. We can be out and free to each other, in a way we can never be in the straight world.

In all these ways we’re very much a family. But we need to ask “What kind of family are we?”

Some families are healthy families. According to psychology, a healthy family is one not threatened by differences between family members. It embraces them, and allows them to flourish.

The other kind of family, sometimes called “Dysfunctional”, is one which doesn’t tolerate individual differences. The dysfunctional family is based on SCARCITY THINKING. This is the idea that life will only tolerate so many different needs. In such a family, everyone is expected to look and act the same. Anyone who is different is viewed as a threat to the family and is punished.

Like most families, the transgender family has many different needs. Until recently, transsexual needs determined the direction and shape of our family. Certainly, transsexualism is the most dramatic and far-reaching transgender process. Most medical and legal battles center on transsexualism: hormone therapy, document changes, and sexual reassignment surgery. Transsexuals grab the attention of straight society in a way closeted crossdressing could never do. And, you cannot be a closet transsexual. Transsexuals are on the front line. Transsexuals are our standard-bearers.

But we are a much more diverse family.

What about our forerunners, our Drag Queen sisters? Underneath the sequins and fierce makeup, queens identify as gay men, and want you to know they’re gay men. They’re not trying to pass. The transgender mainstream is often uncomfortable with them, just as the gay mainstream often is. Both communities have accused Queens of being loud and flamboyant, and of giving us each a bad name.

But until recently, Drag queens were the most visible members of our family. For centuries on stages and in cabarets, they reminded the straight world that we existed. And 30 years ago this year, the Drag Queens of Stonewall fought for OUR rights, and for

OUR freedoms. They were the first standard bearers of our family, fighting and advocating for transgender expression on the front lines.

But not everybody is on the front line.

What about our Female-To-Male brothers? They bring a unique dimension to our family. Through their experiences of growing up as women, they’ve been nurturers and caregivers. They bring HEART to manhood, a dimensionality to maleness that’s not usually found in men. It would be too dismissive to say that FTM’s are only MTF’s in reverse. Our Female-To-Male brothers have great depth and color. They are not just a black-and-white negative of their male-to-female sisters.

What about the newest members of our family, our intersexed brothers and sisters? It’s wonderful to see organizations like the Intersex Society of North America and periodicals like “Hermaphrodites With Attitude” providing information and support. The intersexed bring to us the biological reality of transgender. They’re born with the gender ambiguities that many of us come to a little later in life. But they share our experiences-of growing up feeling “different” from other children, of the shame and fear of being outed, of the sense of not being complete as a man or woman. They prove that completeness is not about being a man or a woman.

And what about our silent majority, our crossdressers? Crossdressers have been called confused. They’ve been accused of being in denial. Or of being hypocrites who want to have their cake and eat it too- to enjoy masculine privilege AND feminine privilege. Because they’re closeted, they’re seen as not willing to take the risks transsexuals take.

But crossdressing does not mean just going back and forth between two genders. It means opening oneself up to new possibilities, being able to explore the gender continuum and find a unique space in it. And while frontline activism is important, behind the lines organizing is just as crucial. Crossdressers have been our chapter organizers, our treasurers, our newsletter editors. While transsexuals are our standard bearers, crossdressers are our support team. We can’t have one without the other.

“And what about our spouses, partners, family and friends? We need to understand that transgender also affects them but in different ways. They’re not in the background; they’re actually on the front lines themselves. They often wind up as our defenders. They didn’t ask for this role, it’s been thrust upon them. And they wear it graciously. We need to stop seeing them as an adjunct, and welcome them into our transgender family”.

We also have an extended FAMILY-The Gay Community.

The Lesbian and Gay Community has gone all out for Trans-inclusion. Student groups, local gay & lesbian centers, and national Gay Rights groups are all using the word TRANS. You will now see not just Gay & Lesbian, but G-L-B-T, that’s Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-and-Transgendered. The issue is no longer whether or not they include us-they already do.

The Gay community’s embrace of us challenges any homophobia that still exists among transgendered individuals. Whether or not the Gay movement understands us is not the question. The fact is that they’re willing to accept our diversity.

Some may want to distance us from the Gay community. But must remember: Those who killed Matthew Shepard and Billy Jack Gaither, are the same people who killed Brandon Teena and Tyra Hunter. Those who fight same-sex marriage are the same people who fight opposite-sex transition. And those who make snide jokes about lesbians and queers, are the same people who make snide jokes about men in drag and she-males. To the STRAIGHT SUPREMECISTS of the world, there is NO difference between a faggot and a transvestite.

The Lesbian and Gay community first used the word FAMILY to describe sexual minorities and to designate their own. It is to them that we owe some of our most enlightened ideas: The idea of COMING OUT. The idea of GAY PRIDE, and by extension, TRANSGENDER PRIDE. The idea of a GAY HISTORY, and by extension, TRANSGENDER HISTORY- those famous people and events who came before us, and to which we can look up to as examples. The idea of IDENTITY SYMBOLS such as the pink triangle, the rainbow, or the Lambda. The gay community has paved the way, and we owe them our gratitude.

Like many families, the Transgender Community also has its quarrels.

Sometimes, Crossdressers put down transsexuals by saying, “Why do they have to be so extreme? Why are they so focused, why can’t they just lighten up?” Conversely, sometimes transsexuals put down crossdressers by saying “They’re just toying with transgender, they don’t have a real commitment”. Or those who feel they “pass” better than others may look down on those who don’t present as well. But we don’t need this kind of negativity and judgementalism in our family.

The biggest single threat to the Transgender family is not the Moral Majority. The biggest threat we face is the threat from within: the threat of EGO.

Many of us are closeted in the straight world. But when we’re home with our own, we let it all hang out. Not only do we lose inhibitions and self-consciousness. We may lose civility and the ability to compromise. Many of us must, by necessity, be self-focused in order to survive. In the individual, this is admirable. But when we’re together in our family, we need to let this guard down.

It has been said that there are only two forces in this world: Fear and Love. Fear is understandable in a hostile outside world. But we cannot give it any quarter in our family. In this family, LET LOVE REIGN.

Here amongst ourselves, we can all acknowledge our differences in an affirmative way. We will lose nothing by embracing new forms of transgender self-expression. That’s what our movement is all about anyway: willing diversity.

Crossdressers can honor transsexuals by appreciating the nerve and the verve that it takes to transition, even if they themselves do not feel called to that path. Transsexuals can appreciate that crossdressers have found their own space on the gender continuum, one that suits them. And we can continue to seek out and embrace all members of our family: drag kings, the intersexed, bisexuals, sissy fags, butch lesbians, leather-people, and all genderqueers.

The basic idea behind family is “There’s room for every one of us”. In this family, let’s be sure that the ties that bind us together remain greater than our individual differences.

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