The New York Times published an interview on Monday with Vidari DeGuzman, a youth worker at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a service organization for LGBT youth in New York City.
Although relatively short, I found the interview revealing about issues of race and class that often get obscured in discussions of gender identity. Is "gender identity" a singular experience that every person has, or is it a series of individual experiences differentiated by race and class and other factors? Is there such a thing as "men's experiences" and "women's experiences" that transcend time and space that we can generalize about? Or is that just a convenient story that we invent?
I transitioned on New Year's Day of 1998. New Year's Day is like a second birthday. When the New Year approaches, I always think of how my gender has changed over the years. Has yours?
Said DeGuzman: "As a youth, I went there when I had nowhere else to go to. It was a place where they accepted me for who I was." A lot of the clients are low-income youth who are homeless, having been kicked out of their parents' homes. DeGuzman, who identifies as a transmasculine individual, and a transman, was a client of the Institute when he was younger. "It was a place where they accepted me for who I was..." Some years later, he decided that he wanted to medically transition. Coming from a Filipino family full of nurses, he felt resistance to going into the nursing field, though his long-term goal is now to become a nurse.
Growing up in a white upper middle class family in the 60s and 70s in a New Jersey suburb, I never knew nor heard of anyone who was kicked out of their homes for being gay. Such a idea was foreign to my family and my neighborhood. I am sure that there were some people in town who did have those experiences, but I never heard about it. In fact, I had never heard of anyone being kicked out of their homes for any reason at all. Of course, I'd never heard the word "transsexual" at that time, and even "gay" was a foreign concept. But my point is that my gender identity might have formed very differently if my relationship with my family was such that my identity might get me kicked out of the house onto the streets at a young age.
Another facet of this regards my career goals. College was mandatory, as was my parents paying for it. When I graduated, I wanted to become a teacher, but my parents were aghast at the idea. If I had suggested being a nurse or a secretary, I think they would have been equally outraged. They wanted me to become a medical doctor, but since I had flunked organic chemistry, that was impossible. They insisted that I get a law degree. I didn't want a law degree. But the idea that I would "settle" for being a teacher was enraging to my parents. Their friends in the neighborhood and the family all agreed with them. They gave me a choice. I could go to grad school for teaching, and pay for it myself, or go to law school, and they would pay.
I went to law school. There I learned to argue people into submission, and other tender arts. I came out an arrogant loudmouth, ready to ignore other people's truths and make them bend to my will, as befits a young upwardly mobile middle class man. It gave me a pretty nice income, as I was good in an interview situation, and potential employers were ready to bank on my asserted ability to claw the eyes out of opponents. I met a young lady of a higher class and fell in love. My in-laws thought I was the cat's meow. They were very, very disappointed when I transitioned.
I don't mean to make this a personal story. Rather, I'm pointing out that when I began to address my internal gender identity, it was partly because the person I had become was so alien to my internal values and perceptions of myself as a person. My search for my gender identity came in reaction to this super-imposed masculinity of the 1960s white American upper middle-class. DeGuzman's masculinity, by contrast, appears to be against the backdrop of a quite different upbringing and cultural values. Did DeGuzman become the me that I left behind? Far from it, as much as I can tell, and thank goodness for that. Did I become the DeGuzman-that-was? Doesn't sound like it either.
When I compare my experiences with those of both transgender and non-transgender friends and how they dealt with gender expectations, it sounds like males of similar class and race had experiences more similar to mine than anything I've heard from people of other classes and races. Race and class changed the experience of gender. I wonder if gender is this unitary phenomenon that we all talk about, or if it really is different and we just pretend it's the same.
This all reminds me of the research done by my friend Dr. David Valentine, who wrote a wonderful book based on his dissertation, Imagining Transgender. In it, he talks about how we imagine that "transgender" and "transsexual" are these unitary categories, but his research shows that race and class and other factors makes them different. It also reminds me that I am now involved in helping to plan an international conference on transgender rights, and the experiences of so many of the other people involved are so radically different from my own. I have to keep reminding myself that my experience is not the yardstick against which to judge their needs and expectations. In fact, in many other areas of the world, people who we would consider "transgender" simply consider themselves "gay." In fact, it might be an overweening exercise of privilege to tell them that they are "transgender."
I wonder whether you all think that your gender is affected by race and class and other social factors? Perhaps we should all take stock of our gender of the past year on New Year's Day, and think of our hopes for our gender for the new year. Does your gender have resolutions? If your gender had resolutions, what would they be?