It’s trans* awareness week and all we are talking about are handbags and shoes

This week is Transgender Awareness Week (#TransWk), which leads up to Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20. I actually think there should be a whole month dedicated to trans* awareness, education, and discussion. As a culture, we are so rigid in our concept of gender and gender identity. Too often the fluidity represented by trans* people is not just misunderstood but found to be threatening, frightening, and ultimately dangerous. Far too often, living a life that is authentic ends tragically. And that — that vitriolic and violent level of hatred — is not only disturbing to me but makes me by turns depressed for our species, and very angry.

So, clearly, there is a lot we could be talking about during Transgender Awareness Week. Like, why do some people refer to transgender as trans*, with that asterisk? There’s an answer for that:

Let’s start with why the asterisk is being used. If you aren’t an expert google searcher, you may not know about the availability of the “wildcard” feature for when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for or when you’re looking for a whole heck of a lot. The * (asterisk) is used as a wildcard in web searches by acting as a placeholder or a fill-in-the blank symbol. Let’s say you are looking for studies on LGBTQ youth risk behavior (which, if you’re anything like me, is how you spend your Sunday mornings), and you want your query to come back with a broad array of studies and behaviors. You could search “LGBTQ youth are * likely to *”, where the asterisks are acting as “blank”s. Go ahead, google it right now, and then come back totally getting how it works.

So, the asterisk is a blank, a placeholder, an etc., an includer. What the symbol means when it is put at the end of trans* is rooted in this same “wildcard” use. It is expanding the trans* umbrella to include folks who identify as transgender and transsexual (the terms usually understood as included when the prefix trans is used on its own) as well as other identities where a person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. In the sense that it is a placeholder for suffixes of trans, that is, trans_____, the asterisk is standing in for *gender, *sexual,*feminine, *masculine, *folks, *person,*guy,*girl,*woman, and *man (note that not all of these are one word. For example, transgender is a single word, but trans woman is two). However, it is also inclusive of identities that do not start with the prefix “trans,” but can be understood as under the trans* umbrella. These identities include, but are not limited to, genderqueer, bigender, third gender, genderf*ck (see what I did there?), gender fluid, genderless, MtF, FtM, Two Spirit, non-binary, androgynous, and masculine of center (MOC). While all of these identities are distinct from one other, each can be understood as under the trans* umbrella because the folks who identify with them do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth and/or are “queering” (deviating from norms; blurring) gender expectations and assumptions.

When the asterisk is put on the end of trans*, it expands the boundaries of the category to be radically inclusive. It can be understood as the most inclusive umbrella term to describe various communities and individuals with nonconforming gender identities and/or expressions en masse. In addition to its use as an umbrella term, it is also used by some individuals as an identity to describe just themselves (e.g. “I identify as trans*”).

See? We’re already learning and gaining awareness! Huzzah!

Too bad all the stories I am seeing in recent days are focusing on a very narrow window of topics related to gender. In short, a lot of people are really, really focused on what other people are wearing! Now, don’t get me wrong, I think talking about removing limitations, stigma, and gender-coding from our sartorial lives is a perfectly relevant thing to talk about a lot of the time. Stop the tyranny of pink! Let “boys” wear tutus! And so on. Yes! Abso-fucking-lutely!

But sometimes I just want to move the conversation along. When do we get past the outside and start focusing on the much more important inside? The spark. The soul. The heart of it all. Probably because most cisgender people — ie, people whose identity matches their sex organs — find it terrifying. What do you mean gender is fluid? What do you mean that gender is a construct that has changed throughout history and means different things in different cultures? I like my gender fixed! Because it is, goddamnit! Men are men and women are women! (stomps off muttering about damn feminist hippies and their commie ideas)

So then, when a 13-year-old kid in Kansas wears a Vera Bradley handbag to school, well, cue the angry mob:

A 13-year-old boy in Kansas was suspended on Wednesday for wearing a Vera Bradley purse — and officials say he can’t come back until he takes it off.

Skylar Davis told KCTV that he had been carrying the colorful Vera Bradley handbag for months until one official at Anderson County Senior-Junior School insisted that he remove it on Wednesday.

After telling Assistant Principal Don Hillard that he wasn’t going to take the purse off, Davis’ mother, Leslie Willis, was called to pick him up.

“I was a little furious, and I called the school [and spoke to Hillard] to reverify the story, and yeah, he refused to take off his Vera Bradley bag, nothing more to do it,” Willis recalled to KCTV. “Skylar has been going to school since August with that same Vera Bradley bag on, hasn’t taken it off. What is the problem?”

Willis added that there was no rule about purses in the school handbook.

Davis pointed out that girls at the school never faced punishment for wearing their purses.

“I don’t think everyone should be treated differently,” he said. “Everyone should have the same privileges.”

So this kid has been taking a purse to school for months. His mom is cool with it. Seemingly everyone around him has been cool with it — until he walks by That Guy. You know the one. Transphobic, homophobic, freaked out if everybody does not exactly conform to his world view about gender, guy. Now, whether or not Skylar is trans* or gay or straight or queer or questioning or asexual or nothing is not even the point. Fuck all that. The point is, Skylar liked his Vera Bradley bag and he wore it everywhere because that is his thing. Why the fuck do you care? It’s a bag! Is the presence of this bag what is actually worrying That Guy? No! It’s not about that stupid bag! It’s this ridiculous idea that if a person wears the “wrong thing” it will totally turn them gay (or some other non-cisgender, non-straight identity). If that was true, then I need to find whatever piece of clothing turns you into a multi-million-dollar-screenwriting-deal person: stat.

Not 24 hours later, I see this meme going around Facebook:


First of all, kudos to that parent. Yes, she tried to talk her kid out of the pink shoes. But ultimately, she saw that allowing her child to be himself was way more important than any so-called fashion or gender rules. Also, I feel like there’s an important lesson here about follow-up questions. Maybe Sam’s reasoning would have seemed more obvious at the time — I bet he likes zebra print shoes because he likes zebras — if our whole emotional grid didn’t overload every time something tread too closely to the gender rules fuse-box.

I’m not saying these stories shouldn’t be out there. I’m just wishing we could take the next step. If hearing about a boy wearing zebra shoes opens your mind to the possibility of learning more about trans* issues and people, then great. Let gender-bending clothing stories proliferate across the land! Handbags and shoes as gateway messengers of awareness! Huzzah!

Except … I keep feeling like that’s not happening. I have this chronic worry that people see these stories and it just solidifies what they already think, good or bad. Because social media is constructed in such a way that we end up talking essentially to ourselves — aka people who have very similar values as us and probably think the same way about things 90 percent of the time — I worry that the messages we hope are changing minds one light-bulb-moment at a time are just hitting up against a reef and bouncing back to us. But maybe that’s just me. I do come from a long line of obsessive worriers.

I guess what I’d like to know is that the messages are breaking through. I’d like to see comments on things I post on The Sin City Siren Facebook and twitter feeds that validate that someone just got a little food for thought. Or to see a discussion happen that creates that coveted chain effect of change.

But more importantly, I’d like to know that an awareness week like this is actually helping people. Real people. Like my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, and the kids who go to school with my kid. Or, let’s take it all the way, and say I hope it helps my kid. Because we don’t really know who my kid is, yet. She hasn’t told us, yet.

And that’s sort of the point here. We don’t decide for others who they are or who they get to be. I don’t get to look at you and then just hand you your identity. And for the cisgender readers, just think about that a moment. What if someone stopped you at the bathroom door, as if you don’t know which one to go in? What if every time you left the house you knew someone was going to call you a freak? What if a small-minded asshole could just walk up to you and kick you out of school or fire you from your job or evict you from your home, because you don’t dress and act the way they think you should?

Each of us live in our bodies and travel through our lives and we know in the core of our being who we are. I don’t have questions about my identity. I know who I am. And so do you. It doesn’t matter what that identity looks like or if it “makes sense” to other people. Because that identity still exists, regardless of whether or not you get it. You, me, that person sitting next to you — we all get to decide for ourselves who we are. Assumptions need not apply. But believing, respecting, and validating are always welcome. And I think that should go double for our kids.

**Editors note: I realize that some may take issue with my not using genderless pronouns throughout this piece. Please be patient with my own learning process and that it will take time to relearn writing rules that have been ingrained and in use for decades. Thankfully, English is a living language and will adapt. As will I, with practice and time.

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