It's No Longer Reasonable to Be a Man

The trans revolution is the most exciting and challenging phenomenon in our depressing time.

Ofri Ilany
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A contestant in the Miss Trans pageant in Tel Aviv.
A contestant in the Miss Trans pageant in Tel Aviv.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

A video clip currently making the rounds on the web shows Israeli extreme right-winger Michael Ben Ari declaiming his views about the situation of Europe and the West. From Ben Ari’s point of view, it goes without saying, the West is in an utterly degenerate condition. The proof of this is, of course, its readiness to accept transgender people. In the clip, the former MK from the National Union party tells about incidents that occurred, he claims, in Canada, when trans women “went to the women’s bathroom” or did something else not to his liking. “It’s hallucinatory, it’s a joke, Western society has turned itself into a laughingstock,” Ben Ari says, guffawing maliciously. The interviewer can only nod in agreement: The whole trans thing is totally off the wall.

If Ben Ari were a lone case, his tirade wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But in the past few months, the transgender issue is clearly unsettling other cisgender people, too, some of them far less extreme than Ben Ari. Thus, the well-known Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri wrote in this paper (in Hebrew) about “the toilets of transgender people” as “an example of a pathetic peak” reached by the liberal discourse. And in the United States, the conservative-liberal intellectual Mark Lilla argued in a popular article that “the fate of transgender people in Egypt” occupied the media disproportionately, contributing, he maintains, to the rise of Donald Trump.

These are just a couple of examples. What began as a hum of unease over the “exaggerated preoccupation with transgender people,” evolved into an ugly wave of contempt and hatred toward this vulnerable group, and it’s probably going to get worse. The trans community is perceived as a weak link that can be attacked with far greater legitimacy than gays, for example. Batter the trans people and save the West. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that what’s being said today about trans people is almost exactly identical to what was said about homosexuals and lesbians two decades ago: that they are contrary to nature, embody degeneracy and are a small but vocal minority.

This, then, is exactly the time to say honestly that the trans struggle is the most interesting and hopeful battle that’s taking place in our depressing era. It’s useless to deny that transsexuality is a provocative and challenging phenomenon, and these days far from being trivial. But as with other cases, that’s exactly what makes it revolutionary and exciting.

The reasonable reader of news might think that, like many other issues that get blown up in America, the issue of the right to choose one’s restroom that erupted last year, was inflated out of all proportion. But that would be quite hypocritical. For the fact is that those mainly responsible for the toilet panic are not from the trans community; they are right-wing politicians in the U.S. who claim that allowing trans people to choose which public bathroom to enter is a threat to innocent children. In Washington, D.C., armed security guards entered a toilet stall to remove a trans woman.

Nor should we forget that this is not the first time that toilet access has fomented a revolution. The student revolt of 1968 in France broke out when students at Nanterre University protested the authorities’ disregard of their “sexual problems,” including rigid separation of men’s and women’s dorms and depressing toilet stalls.

The trans revolution is indeed under way. The presence and visibility of trans people is far higher than was the case five years ago. Here, too, a process similar to the one experienced by gay men and lesbian women is taking place: More of us know trans people personally; those who don’t know a trans person will in two or three years, possibly in their family or their close circle.

And that, in the end, is what’s important. Undoubtedly, the endless wrangling over questions of representation, codes of ethics, writing protocols of identities and sub-identities, and the censorship of imprecise expressions led – and still leads – to a dead end. Trump’s election proved that the language-police phenomenon was only an illusion. But that’s just the point: The trans case is precisely an example of an avant-garde social revolution that transcends the sphere of the language police. Because, even after the hairsplitting arguments over the correct form of speech in regard to trans people fade, one irrefutable fact will remain: Trans people are here to stay. Like gays, lesbians and bisexuals, they’re not going anywhere.

In fact, it’s possible that the trans brouhaha actually reflects the crisis of hegemonic masculinity. For, given the fact that men control most of the world’s power centers and also usually enjoy a higher income and numberless channels of expression and activity – one would have thought that the transition from manhood to womanhood would be a marginal phenomenon. Yet it turns out to be far from marginal. Indeed, according to most of the existing data, the phenomenon of men who shed their male gender is three times as great as the opposite.

The current customary rules of speech require trans women to be treated as women who were born in a man’s body. But just as no one is born gay (even if the dominant approach today claims otherwise, no one is born trans, either. All the sexual and gender identities known today are contingent on historical circumstances. The recently launched Israeli web series “Spectrum” (Hebrew, with English subtitles) presents an array of figures from the local trans community. Not all of them identify with the “woman born in a man’s body” narrative, or vice versa. The trans revolution has a social and cultural context, and it’s closely related to the more general undermining of the masculine and feminine identity that is taking place in our time.

More and more people, it turns out, feel imprisoned in the male identity. Despite its many inherent advantages, masculinity is becoming less attractive. Men are discovering that it’s more fun and liberating to speak in the feminine (in Hebrew), dress in women’s attire and also to actually become a woman, with all that this entails.

“For years I maintained a strong ‘manly’ image,” says Liv, one of the protagonists of “Spectrum,” a trans woman who is the father of two children. “I am the story of the strong, silent type who gets things done. But that’s not really the story.”

It’s quite logical, if you think about it. The psychologist Gabriel Bukobza demonstrates in his new book, “The Great Drama of the New Manhood” (in Hebrew), that precisely the idealization of the male that was prevalent in patriarchal culture places a heavy burden on the shoulders of men. The fear of being seen as not completely masculine wears down men and sometimes leads to their collapse, Bukobza writes. In our time, too, men tend not to be fully in touch with themselves, which can in extreme cases lead to a trail of depression, suicide and sexual harassment. Masculinity is replete with contradictions, paradoxes and denials that hide behind the facade of a tough, solid identity.

Arguably, to be a cisgender male in 2017 is neither reasonable nor logical. Or, in Ben Ari’s terms, it’s hallucinatory, it’s a joke. Lucky thing there’s an alternative.