Comics / Spotlight / Queer Comics

I Am Not My Penis: A Response to the Roseanne Barr Controversy

By J. Skyler
November 1, 2012 - 13:06

An average picture of me, wearing all women's clothing.
Last week, actress/comedian/advocate Roseanne Barr made a few disparaging comments regarding transgender women. She has since apologized and taken the time to explain her point of view and why she feels she has been mischaracterized regarding the situation. Although Barr stated that she is in favor of trans-advocacy and admitted to responding to some users on twitter out of anger, her statements regarding bathroom access ("if she has a penis she is not allowed in" and "Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms. Respect that FACT”) are problematic because they convey the idea (however unintentional) that transgender women are not "real" women, and as such deserve segregation; a number of people who actually are anti-trans have used her statements to justify their bigotry, which I believe is the primary reason so many trans activists (including myself, which I admit was a knee-jerk reaction) responded with such fury. Barr stated that she initially spoke out in favor of two teenage girls who were "frightened and confused" by a transwoman using a sauna at a university. In an opinion piece for the Montreal Gazette titled "Some Transgender People Owe Roseanne Barr an Apology" Jillian Page wrote "I have said this before: there are many born-females out there who are concerned, even afraid, of the idea of pre-op or non-op trans people using the women’s washrooms. Trans people need to reach out with kindness to them, discuss the issues, offer reassurances — not attack them with vile, sexist words. That only confirms their fears, and comes across like they are being attacked... by people with penises." This is all very true and it took me a few days to write this, because I wanted to be as articulate as possible.

"Which bathroom do you use?" may seem like an odd question to ask someone, but I've been asked more times than I can count. As a transgender woman, but one who has not gone through hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery, I exist in a perpetual state of dysphoria, both on an intrapersonal level as well with society at large. People look at me and automatically think "man" and attach to me all the preconceived notions of what it means to be a "man," even though those perceptions have nothing to do with how I percieve myself.

Transgender women and men on average become aware of their gender identity by age five. In Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality (2010) by Jerrold Greenberg, Clint Bruess and Sarah Conklin, it is stated that "[d]uring the years from age 3 years to age 5 years, children begin to develop a strong sense of gender and what that means to them and the people around them... if they are in school or a day care center, they have probably observed other children and learned for themselves that boys and girls have different body parts. At this time the child realizes that he or she will not normally change over the life span. This concept is known as gender constancy." In short, boys and girls recognize physiological differences between the sexes and then recognize themselves as being either male or female. For children like me however, while we go through the same process and come to understand gender constancy, we nonetheless recognize ourselves to be the opposite sex, despite our physical anatomy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the biggest misconception about transgender identity is that it begins and ends with the transitioning process of sex reassignment surgery, instead of being acknowledged as a life-long attribute. Surgical status does not determine gender identity, gender identity determines itself.  If we descended into an post-apocalyptic society where hormone therapy and surgery were no longer an option and/or if the use of clothing somehow became obsolete, I would still be transgender—that aspect of my identity would not change based on my environment.  

How I look when I prefer to appear more feminine.
For ages, transgender individuals have only been capable of conveying our gender identity by relaying our feelings about our own self-perception to the rest of the world. People quite often have the option of either taking us at our word or dismissing us entirely. However, medical science over the past few decades has provided ever increasing verifiable proof that being "a woman trapped within a man's body" or vice versa is a matter of fact, not wishful thinking or a delusion. In "Transsexual differences caught on brain scan" author Jessica Hamzelou explains that white matter, the region of the brain which is linked to psychological gender "is too small to scan in a living person so differences have only been picked up at post-mortem." So, unless you want to kill me to verify that I am being truthful about my gender identity, you would have to take me at my word... at least until now. Dr. Antonio Guillamon from the National University of Distance Education in Madrid in Spain have been able to identify this phenomenon in living individuals. According to a study conducted by his team, "[t]hey found significant differences between male and female brains in four regions of white matter—and the female-to-male transsexual people had white matter in these regions that resembled a male brain (Journal of Psychiatric Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.05.006)." While the causality of trans idenitfication is not yet an exact science, Charlotte J. Patterson, Ph.D., and Anthony R. D'Augelli, Ph.D., state in Handbook of Psychology and Sexual Orientation (2012) that "these preliminary findings suggest that there may be distinct neuroanatomy associated with a transsexual identity."

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect the reason most people reacted so harshly to Barr's statements is because it reduces us to our genitalia, which is thoroughly dehumanizing. My penis no more defines my personhood than my right or left hand. As human beings, we are all more than the sum of parts, whether we are talking about gender, gender identity, anatomy, ethnicity, nationality, religion or political affiliation. Reducing my life, my narrative—all that I am—to my genitalia is simply not acceptable. Moreover, to suggest a man is his penis would logically suggest that a woman is nothing more than her vagina, a cultural bias women have been fighting against for centuries (this again, was not Barr's intention, but could easily be interpreted as such). A few years ago, I was watching an episode of Half & Half which has stuck in my mind ever since. Valarie Pettiford, who portayed Dee Dee Thorn over the course of the series, was resisting getting a biopsy because she couldn't help but feel that if she were to loose her breast to cancer it would make her less of a woman. Despite their adversarial relationship, Telma Hopkins who portrayed Phyllis Thorne, spoke to her not only as a therapist but as a woman, stating "the most important organ a woman has is her brain. The rest is just window dressing." In all of history, in all of literature, is there any statement that captures the essence of feminist theory so perfectly (and how shocking is it that it came from a UPN sitcom)? Over the years, people have told me I'm fairly intelligent, and by that standard, I consider myself to be all woman.

Some might ask why bring this issue up at all on a website dedicated to comic books. The answer of course is that the LGBT column here at The Bin is dedicated to covering and discussing the depiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes in comics... or a lack thereof. Accurate representation and diversity in fiction matter, because love it or hate it, the media plays an integral role in shaping our perception of ourselves and the world around us, and in a world where the vast majority of transgender/transsexual representation is reduced to the punchline of a joke on your average sitcom or a showcase by a stand-up comedian, people like me feel quintessentially alien to the human race. The majority of the essays I've written here relay just how deeply fictional characters have impacted my life. As I mentioned in "Mystique: Crossing the Boundaries of Sex, Gender and Human Nature" it's wonderful to extrapolate trans-related issues from characters like Mystique, but someone like her would never be plagued by a desire to peel the flesh from her bones because she feels as if her body just doesn't fit quite right as I have. I've never come across a fictional character whose narrative mirrored my own, at least not to a degree I'd like. As a child, I didn't even know there was a word for people like me, let alone an entire community around the globe. Until my early teens, I thought I existed in a vacuum. For people like me—for children like me—to be viewed as a threat for entering a bathroom when our sole purpose for being there is not to make a socio-political statement, but to simply empty our bladder and/or bowels, situations like this are an intense amplification of our daily, life-long struggle to bring our minds in cohesion with our bodies—one which a number of non-trans individuals are completely oblivious to, or refuse to even attempt to comprehend.

The television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is one of the rare instances where I have seen 3-dimensional, scientifically accurate representation of transgender people in mainstream entertainment (specifically the episodes "Transitions" and "Fallacy"), but as usual, it is always attached to a negative connotation; in the case of SVU, simply because that is the very nature of the program. If society at large is never exposed to trans-related issues, in school, in entertainment, or at home, then it's perfectly logical for people to react out of fear when confronted with something they do not understand. Same-sex attraction after all, was a petrifying concept in early 20th century America, not only due to the influence of the Religious Right, but because the psychological, psychiatric and medical associations compounded those fears through faulty methodology in categorizing sexual orientation. Public Service Announcements aired to school children and on major television networks likened gay men to child molesters and kidnapers. ParaNorman (2012) is arguably the first children's film to feature an openly gay character (in the English speaking world at least), but like the reimagining of the Alan Scott Green Lantern, or the portrayals of Will Truman and Jack McFarland on Will & Grace, it is still a white-gay-male making those first steps towards greater mainstream inclusion for the entire LGBT community. Hopefully, the day will soon arrive when a self-identified transgender or transsexual superhero will headline a self-titled comic book or animated series, risking life and limb to save the world. One, who at the end of the day is no less plagued by the question "which bathroom do I use?"

Follow me on Twitter @jskylerinc

Last Updated: September 6, 2021 - 08:15

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