Following on from my last post on transgender and drag-queens, another cause of confusion that seems to arise with surprising frequency is the idea that people in the trans* community are “full-time” or “part-time”. This one I can understand far more easily than I understood the confusion over transgender and drag-queens, and I think part of the problem lies in the fact that the terms “full-time” and “part-time” are frequently used within the trans* community itself to mean something subtly different from how those terms are used in general, and that being transgender has a subtle but important difference to being gay or lesbian.
As it is something that most people seem to understand, like the previous post I’m going to try to explain what may appear to be an oddity within the trans* community by reference to sexual orientation. Most people now understand that some people are gay, and importantly most people understand that a person does not cease to be gay or lesbian if they don’t currently have a partner. Similarly some people are bisexual and they don’t cease to be bisexual just because they don’t currently have a partner or because they have a partner of the opposite sex – in the latter case they may appear to be heterosexual to people who don’t know otherwise, but they remain bisexual.
So we largely understand that people are gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual regardless of their current relationship status; similarly a person is a transvestite, is transgender, transexual, gender-queer or whichever label they choose for themselves, regardless of the gender they are currently expressing. So in the trans* community what we mean by full- and part-time is that the person either expresses their preferred gender consistently – full-time – or they only feel comfortable expressing their preferred gender either in places where they feel safe whether that be trans*-friendly venues, in private, in places far from where they live or “other”.
You might be thinking (and you would not be alone in this) “why would someone live their life part-time, only expressing their preferred gender in certain places,” or, “why can’t you just be who you want to be?” This is not an unreasonable question, and to answer it, I’d like to look again at sexual orientation.
I said at the beginning of this post that a person doesn’t cease to be gay just because they don’t currently have a partner, and this is obviously true. But what if we ask a different question: what if “being gay” was judged on a different metric than simply the fact of sexual orientation? What if it that person was permanently judged on the perception of being gay? What would happen if the gay community used the terms “full-time” and “part-time” in the same way that the trans* community uses it, which essentially boils down to this: in all situations everywhere, there is a high probability that you will be identified as gay, and in risky situations – say you have no choice but to wander past the local BNP hang-out – you have no choice but to be identified as gay, and a potential target for abuse: given those circumstances how many gay people would be “full-time” and how many would decide that “part-time” is safer? Or, to put it another way, how many gay people always feel comfortable holding hands in public?
I don’t ask the question in order to Godwin this post, but it has a serious implication on the subtle distinction between life within the trans* community and within the gay community: once a trans* person has left their house expressing their preferred gender there is no going back. Unless that person is extremely lucky and can “pass” as the gender they are expressing, every situation they encounter that day is potentially fraught with danger. If they’re on public transport and someone takes a dislike to their appearance, they are threatened. If they’re in a shop and someone takes a dislike to their appearance, they are threatened and so forth, and – most importantly – there is nothing they can do about it. Once a trans* person steps outside their door, they are wearing a badge that says “I am transgender”. Not everyone will see the badge, and of those that do most won’t care, but that badge can almost never be completely hidden.
“But everyone I know who is LGBT is full-time”
An objection to the part-time question is “But everyone I know who is Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual and/or Transgender is full-time, that’s nonsense!”. The simple answer to this is, “You almost certainly know someone who is lesbian/gay/bisexual and/or transgender, but you don’t know it because they have to live part-time.”