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By the time I crossed the border of accepting myself as a masculine woman and therefore transgender as well as lesbian, I was in my mid-sixties and had already crossed enough borders that this one was easy for me.  It was just a matter of giving language, and therefore conscious awareness, to something I had always known on a less conscious level.  When I was younger, it had been fiercely scary to believe that I could trust my own feelings and intuitions, as opposed to the theology that taught me my heart was full of desperate wickedness.  It had been frightening at first to call God "Mother" and claim Her as my divine lover and friend in spite of the consistently male images and language I had been taught. I had trembled before crossing the border where I cast off belief in an angry God and turned instead to an unconditionally loving, all-embracing God.  It was terrifying for me at age 11 to realize I was attracted to girls, not boys, because at the time the most positive resource I could find about lesbianism was Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness -- which was not that encouraging and which I now realize was at least as much about transgender as about lesbianism.

Having transgressed these borders with their fiercely patriarchal "border police," I happily claimed my gender transgression and described it in my books Omnigender and Transgender Journeys (the latter written with a male cross-dresser named Vanessa Sheridan).  It wasn't very long, however, before I discovered there are "police" on the border between the identity called lesbian and the identity called trans, especially the identity of pre-operative transsexual women.  I have noticed five different varieties of "policing."

 

Police Squad #1 argues that it is destructive of safe-space for women to be invaded by "a chick with a dick," so policies have been developed that admit "women-born-women" only.  Since every September I lead "Sisterly Conversations," a workshop for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women of faith at Kirkridge Retreat Center, I had to give this argument a great deal of thought. I didn't want to offend the long-time lesbian and bisexual attendees -- and I didn't want to subject transwomen to a cold or rejecting experience, not even for a moment.  So I discussed with my sisters the fact that gender identity and behavior are not necessarily the same as the person's genitalia. We decided that to exclude a transwoman because she could not yet afford surgical sex reassignment would be classist; and to reject her over a penis for any reason would be to uphold the essentialism that has been used against us women all of our lives.  So far our transwomen participants have not only failed to cause any disturbance; they have brought great gifts to our Sisterly Conversations.

 

Police Squad #2 is more subtle: the fear that male privilege will intrude into women's safe-space because transwomen who grew up male may carry with them attitudes of superiority that they developed during their socialization.  But this seems to me to deny the torment these transwomen felt, hating male privilege and hating their male anatomy because they knew all along that they were girls and then women.  And if perchance some attitudes of special privilege happened to cling to a small minority of transwomen, what better place for them to be than with their lesbian sisters, where almost everyone has "ovaries" big enough to teach them a new way of relating!

 

Police Squad #3 comes from the transwomen's side of the border.  It is the insistence of some that having paid the price of full transitioning, transexuals should be permitted to pass as women without bothering to identify with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender politics or any other political movements.  And indeed they have the right to do that, especially if they are able to withstand scrutiny and conform to the female half of the binary gender paradigm.  My plea to them is based on an altruistic care for other people.  If they care about transgender youth, and if they care about those who are mannish enough to be unable to pass, and if they yearn for justice for all, they will withdraw their support from the male-female polarity and become politically involved.  But certainly the choice is theirs.

 

Police Squad #4 rises out of the lesbian fear that our ranks will be decimated by having too many of our best and brightest cross over from androgyny or "Butchness" to become transmen.  This policing is very different because it is not aimed at transwomen, but rather at women-born-women who are transitioning in the opposite direction.  I think we lesbians can let go of this fear by trusting in the woman-identification most lesbians feel, and in the huge diversities within the universe.  The number of those who leave our ranks will not be inordinate.

 

Police Squad #5 is one I have encountered among religiously conservative lesbians: the idea that gender ambiguities are wrong because they do not adhere to the clear-cut gender dualism in Genesis 1 and 2, where it is written that God created human beings either male or female.  People seem to yearn for clarity, a yearning that helps to explain the popularity of right-wing Protestant and Catholic churches.  But ambiguity is not necessarily the opposite of clarity.  Often the opposite of ambiguity is idolatry, which mistakes the part for the whole and excludes attention to the other equally important parts.1  That is certainly true of gender: the clarity of the binary gender paradigm is achieved only by erasing thousands of transgender lives (including intersexual lives) and subordinating millions of female lives.

I remember an objection raised by a lesbian whom I had assumed was a man: she first identified herself as lesbian, but expressed distress at ambiguities caused by an omnigender paradigm in which everyone would be free to express their gender identities without fear of reprisal.  Apparently clarity (no matter how inaccurate) mattered more to her than paying attention to the huge middle space that would generate important insights, leave room for creativity, and make room for people like herself -- and myself.  Personally, I thank God Herself/Himself/Itself for the diversity She has created, and I ask all of us to do whatever we honestly can do to blur the gender borders that have thwarted so many lives.

 

The proper response to border crossing is not border policing. It is the creation of just social and economic policies here, there, and everywhere.  Any comparison to immigration policies is purely intentional.

1 Doug Adams, as quoted by Gail A. Ricciuti in her forthcoming book on Preaching as a Work of Art.  Ricciuti writes about the "sacred value of ambiguity."

©2007 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.  A version of this article was originally presented at the CLOUT (Christian Lesbians Out) Gathering in July 2007 ("Crossing Borders, Confronting Racism, Claiming Grace," Atlanta, GA).  Provided as a part of TransFaith on-line with permission from the author.