What We Can Learn From Music's Gender Outlaw Mina Caputo

Many people hold a binary view of gender: A person is either male or female.

Posted Aug 05, 2014

At this month’s (August 8) Alcatraz Hard Rock and Metal Festival in Belgium, Mina Caputo will be the first transgender woman to front a prominent heavy metal band. Mina joins other stars such as Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) and Laura Jane Grace (the band Against Me!) in contributing to 2014 being hailed by Time Magazine as a "tipping point year" for transgender awareness and rights. While being one of music's most famous transgender people is revolutionary, perhaps even more so are Mina's insights on gender

Many people hold a binary view of gender: A person is either male or female. We often apply that same binary view to transgender people by thinking of them as being born one sex but identifying themselves as the other sex. And we assume that people's "biology" and "psychology" will ultimately align; transgender people will eventually be all male or all female following gender reassignment surgery and treatment. But on Mina's eclectic and engaging new solo album, As Much Truth as One Can Bear, "Identity" opens with "Look at me, all of me …/I am not a man/I am not a woman." This statement claims that there is no such thing as gender. Mina says, "That's what trans means … it means to transform, to go beyond, to step outside of the binary codes."  

This is a very bold statement considering how much of our culture is based on gender dichotomy, i.e., men are men and women are women. In addition to being labeled boy or girl from birth, everything is labeled in "boy" or "girl" terms — clothes, bathrooms and even colors. Mina says, "I think these folks are desperately trying to convince the mass public that this is how it is, this is how you're supposed to live." But there are many who don't fit neatly into a category. About one percent of the population is transgender and, for them, society's message is that they do not fit in and that there is something wrong with them. 

The mental health profession has historically adopted this biased binary approach and even created a diagnosis in 1980, "Gender Identity Disorder," declaring to the world that being transgender is a mental disorder. Only recently has the field acknowledged this error, replacing "gender identity disorder" with "gender dysphoria." This means being transgender is not a disorder, but distress about gender identity is. This is a substantial improvement, as adopting this term validates the seriousness of the distress often experienced by people who struggle with gender identity and provides access to care, but no longer automatically labels transgender people as mentally ill.  

The mental health field is hardly the only place where transgender people are stigmatized. The results of the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people report alarming rates of harassment, physical assault and sexual violence against transgender people. Those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12 reported high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent). Shockingly, 31 percent of respondents indicated that the harassment was perpetrated by teachers or school staff. The dire consequences of this abuse is highlighted by the fact that 51 percent of respondents who were either harassed, assaulted or expelled because of their gender identity reported attempting suicide. This treatment did not end at school; 90 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work, and transgender people have twice as much unemployment as non-transgender people. 

Mina’s experience of prejudice dealt with a dismissal of her aspirations. "I wasn't supported with my music because I'm supposed to be a plumber or an electrician. You got to get under cars, you've got to get your hands dirty, don't be a pussy." In contrast, the music community has embraced her. This has encouraged her to continue her commitment to connect with her peers and fans. She says, "I like the whole grassroots thing where I deal directly with my fans." Even the heavy metal community, which Mina reports as having given her a lot of grief when she initially came out, has begun to embrace her and is eagerly anticipating Life Of Agony's first show since her coming out as transgender. As Alan Robert, bassist in Life of Agony, says, "It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, blue, green, gay, straight, trans or whatever. Our fans know it comes from a real place and have stood by us."

And as time goes on, Mina's viewpoint is not only being met with tolerance but also acceptance. Others are also publicly challenging binary notions of gender identity. For example, authors Ivan E. Coyote (“Gender Failure”), and Shani Mootoo’s (“Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab”) are similarly describing gender identity less as binary and more on a spectrum, noting the damaging effects of a rigid binary system. Annie Clark, whose stage name is St. Vincent, has also recently supported the concept of "gender fluidity." And by challenging conventional notions of gender identity, Mina and others are continuing a long tradition not only of people like Kate Bornstein who coined the term "gender outlaw" to connoting transgender people not confined by traditional labels of gender, but also of those who have previously challenged traditional models of sexuality and gender roles. 

Mina says, "I'm still unwiring parts of myself and rewiring parts of myself because of those experiences as a child. I think my greatest joy is when I'm in transcendental meditation because I'm free. I'm even free from the female body that I've turned into.  I'm not necessarily transitioning from one gender to the other — to me I'm both, I'm neither, I'm something else … I'm forever changing and so is everyone else. I don't want to be put in a box, even in my own community."  

So as Mina Caputo steps out on the Alcatraz stage, let's celebrate and learn from her and make it safer for other gender outlaws to transform and go beyond. 

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl