KEEPING OUR COMMUNITY ALIVE
by Melanie Yarborough
It really was the best of times and the worst of times. A transgender movie had been released every year for the past 5 years. Most talk shows from Donohue to Oprah to Jerry Springer felt obliged to do segments on crossdressers or transsexuals. Ru Paul had her own syndicated show. Even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did drag as Marilyn Monroe at a party fundraiser.
The communications revolution of E-mail and the Worldwideweb gave the transgender community full access to the public. Dozens of books and videos on crossdressing and transsexualism had been published in the past 10 years. Some universities even held forums on Transgenderism as a field of study. Support groups operated in most of the 50 states, in many parts of Europe, and in other countries. The Gay and Lesbian community had accepted us, identifying itself now as the Gay-Lesbian-Bi-Trans community.
But at the same time, attendance at major support group meetings was down. Community activities took a back seat to the fast-paced demands of society. Few stepped forward to volunteer as leaders. Those few who did found themselves overwhelmed, and quickly burned out.
Why is the community seemingly in decline? It hasn't been enough just to exhort trans-people to do more. We need to figure out hwo and why it's occurred. A little psychology and sociology can help explain.
Turnover has always been high in our community. People enter, are active and leave, some even a little like shooting stars. Why?
Psychologists have pointed out three stages of minority group identification: CONTACT, IMMERSION, AND INTEGRATION. This model can also apply to other diverse groups: homosexuals, ethnic minorities, political groups ranging from the Christian Coalition to the Communist Party.
Whne a closeted person first finds a larger community, there's that intense initial process of CONTACT. The world is turned upside down by the realization "Hey, there's other people out there just like me!" Merely seeing it through a third medium like television, movies, or books only gives a muted impact. It's much stronger to meet another transperson or a roomful of them face-to-face. This leads to accepting one's identity, and seeing oneself as part of a minority- instead of as just a single dysfunctional individual.
Next comes IMMERSION. For us, we call this Gender Euphoria. One throws off fear and bursts out of the closet. One starts to go to meetings and gender-friendly places such as Gay establishments. One makes initial purchases of an abundant wardrobe, makeup, wigs, jewelry and other female accoutrements. One starts to go out in public en femme. Depending on one's situation, some grow their hair or get their ears pierced. Some may even do electrolysis or experiment with hormones. It becomes, for a while, the center of life: I'm trangendered, therefore I am.
Finally, comes INTEGRATION. Often, the euphoria plateaus off. One has reached one's short-term goals. One feels one can present well enough in public. Shopping or socializing en femme is no longer a fear. Being transgendered stops being a secret shame, and becomes routinized. Some find their marriage, family and job at risk if the envelope is pushed too far, and try to strike a balance. Others recognize they are transsexual and move on towards transition, either non-op, pre-op, or post-op. Still others find the self-confidence in themselves as persons in their own right, and not just as transgendered.
Most members of the transgender (and other) communities go through this dynamic. The result is generations of members who join, become intensely active for a few years, then leave. It's not necessarily about the gender community failing them or about members somehow outgrowing it. It's a social process.
Another reason for apathy is the eroticism of transgender. It's been said before that Drag is a Drug. En femme, many of us are under the influence. Focusing becomes difficult, attention spans shorten, and even physical coordination can diminish. In such an inebriated state, is it any wonder it's hard to get anything organized?
Also transgender is a highly personal thing. Most of us spend our first thirty or more years in the closet, and build our own fantasy world around it. Even when transgender is brought out into the light of day, it's still a personalized thing. Not to chastize but to illuminate: Some still see it as a private fetish, not a minority rights movement.
And finally, many of us are all too typically male, having been socialized as dominant and aggressive. Many of us have even had to overcompensate masculinity to offset the shame of wanting to feel female. This shows up in many not-so-nice ways. We compete to see who can be the "more femme than thou". We adopt the most stereotyped sluttish images of women. We feel we know what's best for the group and have contempt for others whose opinions are different. We form cliques, and look down on the newcomer who doesn't present as well as we feel we do.
Part of the solution seems to be consciously recognizing these forces. And working with them, not against or in spite of them.
We need to intervene gently in the CONTACT-IMMERSION-INTEGRATION cycle. For those in initial contact, we need to make it as pleasant and educative as possible for them. A newcomer has their heart on their sleeve, and their feelings can be easily bruised. They need to be nurtured. For those in immersion, we need to constantly reiterate in word and deed the ideas of moderation and balance. And for those in integration, we need to consciousness raise and emphazise the community as a whole. And sometimes, to groom and support their leadership.
The erotic and personal components of transgenderism can't be wished. We need to confront these feelings through group and individual discussions. Perhaps our community mental health professionals can teach us ways to temper these inclinations.
And moderating those brawny masculine tendencies should be a priority. Again, this requires discussion as well as eternal vigilance. Self education helps. This can involve reading or studying feminist issues. Spouses and partners of the transgendered can be of immense value here, advising us what being feminine really is. And it's more than just a short skirt and high heels.
Many different communities have historically ebbed and flowed. These include the anti-slavery and alcohol temperance, movements. Or the Black power and Gay rights struggle. Or Labor Union organizing and Women's suffrage. The Transgender community is also subject to these same ebb and flow forces. Our job is to adapt to new realities and to keep the movement alive.
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