Bill Maher on his weekly gabfest “Real Time” recently put forth an opinion that is sure to get him run out of town, any town, but especially a college town. Take Bloomington, for example, a town filled with folks who believe with all their hearts and souls they know what is right and just and good and, damn it, you’d better listen.
Well, Bill Maher isn’t listening. He caveat-ed that it’s good and great that people confused about their assigned genders — and those not confused but certain their specific assignment is in error — are becoming more welcomed in workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and the whole of western society in general. His kumbaya props established, he then pointed out, awkwardly and sloppily, something I’ve suspected for a while: that today’s focus on gender fluidity and trans people in general is largely The Latest Big Thing.
I could rip apart his essay piece by piece, talking about how he mixes up gays and lesbians with trans people and cites stats about the one while trying to make the point about the other and…, well, as I say, it was a mess. Hidden somewhere in his pile of confusion was something I’ve suspected for a few years now.
I wrote several years ago that the increasing number of young men who wore skirts or halters or painted their fingernails or otherwise thumbed their noses at the rigid binary gender rules the world has imposed since…, oh, forever, seemed to be today’s version of my generation’s Long Hair.
See, I grew up in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, a time of dramatic social and cultural change. And those who wanted the world to know they were on the right side of that change very often communicated it by growing their hair long. That went for both males and females. The guys sprouted wild bushes or mussed, asymmetrical, tortuously parted mops, or even long, straight, Rapunzel tresses. The young women of the day tended to go the long, straight route, a la Julie from The Mod Squad.
By 1970, merely by shunning the barber, you were able to let everyone know you were against the war in Vietnam, you supported civil rights, you were concerned about the environment, and more. Dang, long hair just might have been one of the most effective communications tools ever conceived.
And let’s not forget youth’s eternal urge to shock the bejesus out of mom and dad, the school principal, the cops, the fussy old lady neighbor down the block or, simply, The Man.
In the ’70s, I grew my own hair out at different times in a shoulder blades-length cascade of waves and curls and a beach ball-sized white boy ‘fro. Then, a few years later when I was 23 and 24 and my pal Sophia and I went out clubbing and dancing all night long, I wore eyeliner and colored fingernails and dangling ear piercings. I did those things because I thought they made me look cool and I wanted all the passing frat boys and South Side lunkheads who’d see me to know I wasn’t one of them. Mom and Dad and The Man, too.
Today, that 22-year-old barista who has a five o’clock shadow and shoulders as wide as a doorway but is sporting a slinky, sleeveless dress and affects a Kathleen Turner-style coy yet come-hither accent may or may not be grappling with his-in-the-process-of-becoming-her gender identity. Or he-slash-she may simply be saying, Hey, Mom & Dad, up yours!
Like Maher, I don’t say this to denigrate people wondering what their genitals mean, why their packages aren’t maturing as magnificently as others’ of their putative gender, or why they feel so wrong in their own skin. Just that I can’t shake this feeling that signaling gender fluidity may be hot today and a lot cooler tomorrow.
And it isn’t just the rebellious young doing this displaying. At the bookstore not long ago a sweet little old granny came up to me and asked if we carried any books for trans children. I asked: “How old is the kid?”
“Three,” she replied. “He — oh, I should say they — are questioning their gender.”
I resisted the urge to to silently stare at her with my head cocked to the side, like a dog hearing a doorbell on TV. Three years old. As George Carlin once observed, a three year old hasn’t even located his dick yet. And he wasn’t talking about gender questioning.
Bill Maher noted:
Maybe the boy who thinks he’s a girl is just gay…. Maybe the girl who hates girly stuff just needs to learn that being female doesn’t mean you have to act like a Kardashian…. I understand being trans is different, it’s innate, but kids do also have phases. They’re kids; it’s all phases: the dinosaur phase, the Hello Kitty phase. One day they want to be an astronaut, the next day you can’t get them to leave their room. Gender fluid? Kids are fluid about everything! If kids knew what they wanted to be at age eight, the world would be filled with cowboys and princesses.
The people I know who’ve undergone sex reassignment surgery spent years wrestling with their own feelings, trying to understand their nearly inscrutable perceptions and reactions, working with counselors and medical professionals, undergoing genetic and hormone testing, and any number of other hurdles.
Being trans is not like putting on a new shirt. If that barista is indeed shouting to the world that he despises the rigid binary sex typing imposed on us from birth onward — hell, people paint the nursery either pink or blue even before the kid is born! — and that everyone deserves dignity and respect no matter where they reside on the huge gender spectrum, then I’m with him. But if he’s wearing that slinky, sleeveless dress and doing a breathy Kathleen Turner voice for the same reasons I made my eyes up, polished my fingernails, and wore a dangling earring 40 years ago, at least let’s recognize that there are far fewer trans people these days than people trying to make a point.
And his display, in a lot of ways, is a slap in the face to people who’ve endured the ordeal of becoming trans.