I’m standing in the hallway outside my classroom. It’s 7:30 AM and the students are wandering zombies aimlessly shuffling about before first period. Boys are punching one another in their simulated battles for dominance, their “just playin” fights that too often lead to actual fights. Girls are complaining about the people in their lives who are “doin too much.” Couples are clinging to one another—a girl draped across her boyfriend’s arm and shoulder, hallway princesses holding hands, “sweet” boys playing grab-ass with anything that moves. There is no personal space and unwanted attention is chastised with a sharp “Boiii!” or “Whatcha doin, son?” I separate anyone who is getting overly friendly but mostly keep to a policy of non-interference. There is a culture of invasiveness among these children and it’s hierarchy is governed by rules and social patterns that are as foreign to me as deconstructionist literature is to them. I smile. The framework recommends smiling; be in the hallways, greet them with a smile, make them feel welcome and they’ll develop the right attitude toward learning. I don’t believe this, but I don’t have anything better to offer so I go with it. It’s become a habit. I smile all the time now. It has become an ingrained response similar to Dr. Hibbert‘s laugh; it spreads across my face regardless of how appropriate or inappropriate the situation.
While I’m monitoring the hallway, a boy who looks eighteen but is probably fifteen or sixteen stops in front of me. He stares at me and I can almost hear the grinding of his mind’s nefarious machinery. His cocked head and aggressive posture reveals the sinister twist to his thoughts. I smile and brace myself for what is coming.
“Have you, ma’am,” he emphasises the word and let’s it hang in the air a moment, a lot of the students do it as a way of feigning politeness while letting me know they don’t believe what they are saying, “had it, you know?”
Yes. I do know. With his eyes resting on my crotch only the village idiot would miss his meaning, but I smile and play dumb. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on, son. You know.”
I stand there cloaked in my smile, my Supergirl cape.
“Have you had it cut off?”
My jaw tightens and I can feel my teeth grinding into one another, but gods be damned if I don’t hold that smile in place. He smiles, too. A wide, moon-faced grin that says he holds power over me and it amuses him to use it.
The eleventh grade administrator stalks down the hallway bellowing, “Let’s go! Clear the hall!”
I stopped telling administration about these incidents because I know they won’t do anything about them. It’s just kids being kids, they say, don’t let it get to you. The boy knows I won’t say anything. So we both stand there, smiling at each other, until the administrator has shuffled farther down, as much a hallway zombie as the students. Then the boy walks off in the opposite direction.
I could answer the boy with a simple yes … or no … or even that’s none of your business. But that isn’t why he is asking the question. It isn’t why anyone asks the question. And it’s a question I am asked on a fairly regular basis. Not always with such blunt rudeness, but always from the same place of entitlement. Whether it is have you had it cut off, did you have the surgery, did SRS hurt, how much does a vagina cost, does it work, or do you still have a dick the SRS question always comes from the asker’s belief that, as a trans woman, the status of my genitals should be public knowledge. And it isn’t just boys or even kids that ask these questions. For those of us who lack “passing privilege” (a problematic term for which there is not a suitable alternative) and those of us open about our trans* status, it is often one of the first questions we are asked by friends, acquaintances, and people introduced to us. And there are only two reasons for asking it: the asker is trying to invalidate our identity or the asker is sexualising us.
When it comes to gender identity, asking the SRS question is always an attempt to invalidate trans* identity. If an asker intended to validate my identity they would look at my presentation, the social cues I give off or, and this is a radical concept, they would just accept my stated identity. After all, that is exactly what we do for everyone we assume to be cis gender. Further, for me to ask invasive questions about the status of a cis gender person’s genitals would be considered adequate grounds for a sexual harassment suit. We don’t ask women presumed to be cis gender if they have a tilted uterus, or men presumed to be cis gender if both their testicles have descended, as our way of validating their identity because it would be insulting. Thus, the need to ask a trans* person if they have had surgery can only come from a place of insult and disregard, because we understand such “curiosity” to be inappropriate in other situations.
Further, the nature of the question prevents the person being asked from replying in a way that will not result in an invalidating of her identity. [Note: I will use her as example because it is my experience and it is a more common experience for trans women than it is for trans men; as our society makes penises the standard, even cis women are defined by our culture as human beings who do not have a penis versus human beings who have a vagina] If she answers that she has not had SRS, her gender identity is immediately forfeit because, in the game of male, female, neuter, the presence of a penis trumps everything. If she responds that she has undergone SRS, her identity is not validated but becomes the subject of further inquiry and comment. Does it work? How much did it cost? It’s not like you can have babies with it. Do you have phantom penis syndrome? Well, it doesn’t work like a real vagina. Each of these follow-ups is a directed attack with the goal of invalidating her identity. Nor can she decide not to answer the question because her silence becomes an admission that she has not had SRS.
The SRS question is also a sexualising of the trans woman. It takes her out of humanity and reduces her to her parts. The only time a person needs to know if the other person has a vagina or a penis is if there is a mutual decision to have sex. To ask her, do you have a penis, is to tell her that she is good for only one thing: being a receptacle for a penis. Not only is this transmisogynistic, it is also an example of heteronormative bias, traditional sexism, and oppositional sexism. It reveals more about the asker’s biases and motivations than it does about trans* identity.
The argument is often made that when the asker is genuinely interested in having sex with her that the asker is owed an answer. But this argument assumes it is only their interest in having sex that matters. It is narcissistic to reason that because the asker wants to have sex that she, our trans woman, is obliged to be the asker’s sexual object. If she desires a sexual relationship then full disclosure is necessary, however, if she has no interest in sexual relations with the asker, she is under no obligation to answer the question. In the case of the latter to ask her if she has a penis is as inappropriate as asking if she is wearing underwear or if she is menstruating. Society recognises the other two as inappropriate questions and should recognise the first as one, also.
The status of my genitals is no one’s business but my own. If and how I decide to reveal this information is at my discretion. The persistence of the SRS question reveals more about the asker’s personality, their invalidation of my identity, and their tendency to view others as objects for sexual gratification, than it does about who I am and what my journey has been like.
- Lies about transgender people (and how to spot a rubbish journalist) (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- 8 Questions to Avoid Asking Trans* People (cisprivilegecheck.wordpress.com)
- What is Cisprivilege? (cisprivilegecheck.wordpress.com)