Imagine the body is an artist’s canvas. Some have been prepainted blue (we like to call those male) and some have been prepainted pink (we like to call those female). For sake of simplicity I am not going to address those canvases that are prepainted a mixture of pink and blue. For this example I just want to stick with the most common pink and blue canvases (bodies).
Of course a canvas is useless without a painter. So let’s also imagine a painter that is separate from, but also inseparably connected to their canvas, be it pink or blue. Imagine the painter as the conscious center of the brain, if you tend to lean toward science. Or, if you are spiritual or religious, imagine the painter is the person’s spirit or energy. Basically, the painter does the thinking and feeling, decides what to wear for the day, likes strawberries but not bananas, desires a life of purpose and looks for love and connection. Call it spirit, or consciousness. Call it the little alien cabdriver in the mind. Whatever the painter is, it always occupies a body, and that body is limited to one of the two canvases: pink or blue.
Similar to the canvas, painters have color also. But unlike the canvas, the painter’s color is more nuanced. Most have a dominant color, such as blue, speckled with flecks of the less dominant pink color. Or the other way around. This describes probably most people. For example most women work with a pink (female) canvas (body) but have traces of blue (male) characteristics such as unusually large feet (or what one might be tempted to call “man-sized feet”). This is completely normal and very common.
Most importantly we must remember that the painter is completely invisible. The only thing anyone ever sees is the canvas.
Now, imagine a mostly pink painter who has been given a blue canvas to work with. In other words a body that has been defined as male, and a spirit, consciousness, “self” that is predominantly female. This is no less normal than a blue painter using a blue canvas. But it is perhaps less common. Certainly less recognized.
The question then becomes, what gender (if we must assign a gender) do we give such a person? Do we stick with the body and define a person by “what” they are? Or do we look longer and deeper into “who” the person is? It seems ridiculous, actually, to define a person by their body, by the “what”, rather than by the “who.” Such a judgement would be like criticizing the “Mona Lisa” because it wasn’t painted on a block of wood. Besides it is obvious, painfully obvious, that a pink canvas can be painted over with blue and thus, for all practicality, actually become male.
This is not a complicated metaphor. A transgender woman is a pink painter using a blue canvas (a woman “self” walking around in a male body) Likewise for a transgender male (blue painter, pink canvas). The only thing that makes the situation difficult is the fact that the painter is invisible. The only thing the painter has to work with is the canvas. That’s the only thing people see. So we take hormones, we dress differently from what people would expect, we change our names, we have operations. We do whatever we can to change our canvas so that it represents who we are.
That is not hard to understand. It may be hard to accept. It may be hard to believe. It takes a little trust and patience and imagination. But trust and patience, and especially imagination are really good qualities to have. So the next time you sit down next to someone in the coffee house and think they may be transgender, don’t mention gender at all and don’t ask any questions. Just introduce yourself. Ask their name. Try to uncover the painter.