Once Out of Nature: Life Beyond the Gender Binary
Last summer, I promised myself that I wouldn’t miss a sunset. I would set out on foot along my suburban street, toward the blaze of molten gold limning our small local mountain. I wasn’t far from farmland. Half a mile away, a little-used dirt road threaded between fenced-off pastures and uninterested cows toward the purpling mountain. If I walked far enough, on the right hand side I’d come to a grass-fringed mudhole and startle two great blue herons.
This was nature, I would think, real nature, whose wings still beat in the mountain’s lengthening shadow.
But was it? The herons were here only on account of the mudhole, and the mudhole was here to give domesticated cattle access to water. My decision to label part of the scene “real nature” was a romantic simplification of a muddy intersection of living systems, a projection of human categories onto the unsubdivided sprawl of life.
There’s nothing natural about our notions of nature. “Nature” is a human category, a construct that reflects our longing to define the place in the universe we simultaneously inhabit and conceive. During my open-mouthed awe at the startled herons’ flight, “nature” meant an order human beings may witness, protect, or despoil, but necessarily stand outside, because “nature” is defined in opposition to us. But oddly enough, the idea of “nature” also grounds our conceptions of humanity. People seem natural to us when they reflect what we oxymoronically call “human nature”—our sense of how people are and should be.
The artificiality of ideas of nature and human nature is old news to philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and others who study human mind and culture. But what’s old news in academia is still a matter of life and death to people like me—people whose gender doesn’t fit the “natural” binary categories of male and female. People who see us as “unnatural” have a tendency to ostracize us, fire us, kick us out of our homes, or verbally and physically assault us. But over my fifty-plus years as a transgender person—forty-five living as a man, the past six living as a woman—the worst harm I’ve suffered has come from self-inflicted wounds. Like many trans kids, I grew up tormented by my inability to understand myself in terms of “natural” categories of male and female. The combination of my male body and my unshakable sense of being female seemed, and still seems, to exile me from human and any other kind of nature. Even now, after years of living as a woman, my gender doesn’t feel natural to me. My gender is a mudhole, a conscious, willful reshaping of both physical and human nature that cannot fit comfortably into either.
Like the herons’ mudhole, in which the natural and the human intersect, my gender represents the collision of what logically ought to be mutually exclusive categories—male and female—and exposes the inadequacy of those categories. That, perhaps, is why some react so violently to people like me. We are mirrors in which they see the artificiality of the “natural” binary of male and female, its incompleteness, and the contradictions it conceals.
I understand that anger. I spent most of my life longing to be, as the song says, a natural woman. But the longer I live as my true self—as a woman whose every female X chromosome is invariably paired with a Y and who was born and bred male—the happier I am to live outside nature. I am what I am and I do what I do, without fretting about how what I am and do fits or conflicts with “natural” ideas about what a woman should be or do. It’s cold outside the gender binary, but you can’t beat the view of the gloriously category-confounding universe. And even when it’s lonely, we aren’t alone. The exploding universe we inhabit is filled by the God who, my Jewish tradition teaches, can be conceived only as that which is beyond human conception.
A Mismatch Between Body and Soul
You don’t have to be transgender or Jewish to see the limitations of nature. The unhappily aging speaker of W. B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” declares:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress….
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Like me, Yeats’s speaker felt disgusted by the mismatch between body (Yeats’s speaker calls his “a tattered coat upon a stick”) and soul. But Yeats’s speaker went much further than I did, rejecting not only his “bodily form” but “nature” itself. In what someone somewhere has no doubt already identified as an early example of post-humanism, the speaker tells us he looks forward to spending eternity in “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enamelling.” Becoming “artifice” rather than a “natural thing,” he believes, will enable him to sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come” without having to suffer through it.
Like Yeats’s speaker, I looked forward to dying, to escaping the body that was doing such a bad job of reflecting my soul. Like many trans children, I occasionally tried to escape my body by killing it; unlike all too many trans kids, I wasn’t good at suicide, and my body and I continued hurting and being hurt by each other into my mid-forties.
Ladin, Joy. Once Out of Nature: Life Beyond the Gender Binary.Tikkun 28(4): 10.