Have you ever been reading online reviews of say, I don't know, some fantastic-looking pair of yoga leggings that would make your life better because you would be more confident, athletic, and eat fewer Bunny Grahams when you were wearing them? And you notice how all the reviewers have been asked to describe their body type and personal style, but not in their own words; they have to pick from like four adjectives for body type, and then four adjectives for their personal style. And sometimes they even list their height and weight and an age range. I always look at those profiles and think "I could never leave a review on this site." Generally, I don't leave reviews anyway. I prefer to grouse about my purchases to people who are uninterested in and unable to do anything about whatever it is I'm unsatisfied with.
The thing is, I don't identify as "classic" or "romantic/feminine" or "casual/sporty." I don't describe my body type as "athletic" or "lean" or "tall and slim" or "short and curvy." I don't seem to fit into any of those categories. You might look at me and easily classify me; and I might easily do the same for you. It's easy to do that to people, isn't it? Without the complication of psyche and memory and inner dialogue and self-comparison and self-distortion, it can seem simple to name the things another person is or isn't.
It could be that not everyone lives with as much gray as I do. I'm sure that's true. (For instance, I have trouble spelling gray consistently. I can never remember which one is the American spelling and which is the English... so let's stick with the "-ay" for this post. I'll drive some of you grammar/English buffs crazy.) But I know there are many people out there who struggle with the idea of categories, too. We're the "Others." Occasionally I've read your review, Other. And I've wondered what you were like. It's such an unsatisfying term, so nondescript, so mysterious. It could mean anything. How can I trust your opinion when I don't know anything about you?
Categories are appealing because people want to identify with one another. We want to see the ways we're alike in a simple, clear, unambiguous way. But let's be real: categories are also appealing because they're tools for dividing, for distinguishing, and for distancing ourselves from one another. And the danger is that when we focus too much on simple categories like body type or personal style or religion or political party or sexuality or gender, we tend to ostracize and dismiss or condemn, rather than appreciate, understand, and listen.
Because "Other," she's a smart cookie. She's worth listening to. She put a lot of thought into her review. She waited until she'd washed and worn her leggings three times before she passed judgment, and she was nice enough to post a picture of how her leggings looked on her legs. Which weren't really that athletic, but they weren't thin or exactly curvy, either. They were just legs. Most of us have them, but it doesn't really matter that much what type they are, or whether they wear classic trousers or a lacy boho-style skirt or yoga leggings. It doesn't even really matter what's between them, as long as we use them (and all our other parts) in ways that are considerate and respectful of those around us.
Bet you didn't see that coming, did you? I didn't either, really, except that I've been thinking about it so much. About how so many people I know are hung up on this little category, allowing it to obscure these people they see as Others, to make them something hard-to-understand, even unnatural or criminal. Perhaps that is a reflexive response. But it's unfair, and it unnecessarily complicates a situation that although complex, as every person's identity is, shouldn't be considered beyond comprehension. Things only remain strange and foreign when we hold them at a distance; if we want to understand, we must be brave and go out to meet them.
Most people have legs. That's true. Most people have genitals. That's true. Most of us do some "same things" with our legs. We walk, if we can. We put some sort of clothing on them, usually, at least if we're leaving the house. Most of us do some "same things" with our genitals; they're functional that way. But functions aside, the similarities end. Some people run ultra-marathons with their legs. Some people's legs are so beautiful they're insured for millions of dollars. Some people's legs are too weak to carry them anymore. Some people's legs never were able to walk. What people decide to do with their legs, how they choose to dress their legs, where they take their legs, is up to them. Maybe you feel uncomfortable around muscular, powerful legs. Maybe the skeletal-like legs of someone who can't walk make you uncomfortable. Maybe your own legs make you uncomfortable. But uncomfortable or not, no one gets to decide that anyone else's legs are unnatural or unacceptable.
What you do with your legs, how you feel about them, that's personal. Same goes for what's between them. And I've a good idea that everyone would answer a little differently. Because as comforting as it is to know that there are other people in the world with an "athletic" build who also define their personal style as "flirty/bohemian," you should not assume that those people also like to work out just like you do, or that they would exchange your closet for theirs, or that their review of yoga leggings will prove helpful to you. It doesn't work like that, does it?
Boiling gender down to someone's genitals, or more accurately, down to the genitals they were born with, doesn't allow for the freedom of expression that we afford to most of the other parts of our bodies. Lord knows I don't have the legs I did when I was born... or when I was one, or two, or ten, or twenty. That would be weird and also maybe awesome. And contrary to what some would have you believe, genitals are not the operating system for our beings, not any more than any other physical part defines or controls us. That defining, directive organ is the brain. And people who have a healthy, functioning brain know that they are much more than the sum of their parts, that their parts do not define them.
Categories can help us make sense of things. But they are almost always going to be superficial. If you enjoy them, I suppose that's your prerogative. Just don't assume that everyone you meet will fit so easily, or even wants to. It's not our job to put other people in classes, or boxes, or closets, or separate bathrooms. Our job is to look at our legs and all the other pairs of legs around us, all the working, running, hobbling, bony, lumpy, still, weak, and broken legs and say "Good job, legs. You are trying. You are not harming. You are doing. You are being."
If you've never known a trans person, please withhold judgment until you do. And if you can't seem to find a trans person to talk to, there are many ways to meet one virtually. Read something by a trans person.* Watch a YouTube video.** You might discover that they're not the frightening, unknown Others you imagined. You might discover that a trans person is just legs and pants and thoughts and a brain and a lot of gray areas that are hard to define. In other words, they're human, just like you.
There’s a Buddhist concept where, if you’re asking a poor question [...] “Are you this or that?” That what Robert Pirsig says that you can answer, according to his telling of the Zen tradition, you can answer with this word mu, M-U, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything. - Padraig O Tuama
Pádraig Ó Tuama is the community leader of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His books include Sorry For Your Troubles, Readings From The Book Of Exile, and In The Shelter: Finding a Home in The World. Find the transcript and audio version of his On Being interview with Krista Tippett here.
* Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg ANYTHING by Leslie Feinberg is amazing.
* An extremely articulate, thoughtful, informative account of gender identity and transformation called "How do I know if I'm trans?" by Mattie Lents. Don't let the title deter you; this article is for everyone.
** Some YouTube videos to watch:
a five minute interview with Laverne Cox, please ignore Chris Matthews when he speaks... bluh.