“Isn’t everything we do and buy about identity?” a friend asked recently. I balked. I was pretty sure that everything I do and buy is about providing enjoyment for myself.
But then I thought about it more. Certainly the clothes I wear exist solely to signal what I am to others: variously, a professional, a bohemian, a hipster, a music lover, an artist. Otherwise I could pare my wardrobe down to the number of items needed for comfortably enduring snow, sunshine and rain, and drastically cut the time I spend doing laundry.
Is this pure vanity? Am I no better than the high school kid who goes through a goth phase, caring way too much about whether he is “misunderstood?”
It could be argued that it is important to signal an identity, that it puts you in touch with what you want and need in life. Wearing a suit to an interview lets the employer know that you clean up nice and will impress customers. Wearing a gay pride bracelet makes you visible to potential dating partners. Wearing a thrifted dress and horn-rimmed glasses helps you find the people at the party who brought the IPAs and have the Bon Iver tickets. Never mind that in a perfect world, we’d talk to everyone, give everyone a chance, and like who we like, regardless of what they’re wearing.
I signal my interests to others, but I recognize it as vanity. And it goes without saying that I would never sacrifice love, family or friendship at its altar.
Most of us, especially women, came to grips long ago with the fact that we don’t look like what we want to look like. We’re chubbier or mousier or hairier or less attractive than we want to be. We mature and we learn that it doesn’t matter. That there’s a grace in living life and not giving a shit what anyone thinks, in being a genuinely interesting person despite a mediocre exterior, in learning that people who won’t get to know you before judging you aren’t worth your time.
My husband’s transgender identity signals that he is a woman. To be more specific, it signals that he has a vagina. Political claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Because let’s be honest, his ultimate goal is to be indistinguishable from a native vagina owner, not to merely be seen as one of those (perfectly legitimate, in his estimation) “women” who has a penis.
But what does signaling that he has a vagina do for him? It’s irrelevant; having a vagina doesn’t say anything about a person except that she has a vagina. It’s also untrue, making the purpose of his signal even more dubious.
It’s not to attract mates, as both men and women preferred him before his transition. It’s not to let someone know he can bear their children. It’s not because he might need to borrow a tampon. It’s not even a sign that he has certain interests.
This particular signal delivers no information of value to those who receive it. It is a signal that is relevant to the sender alone.
The transgender identity literally signals itself: “It’s important that you think this about me, for no other reason than it’s important that you think it.”
And for that, for the mere, meaningless need to convey to strangers an assertion about his anatomy that isn’t true and doesn’t interest them, he was willing to destroy his marriage.