Archive for July, 2011

Reduced to Pilgrims: The Oppressive Foundations of the Word “Transgender”

It’s time, obviously, for a radical rethinking of how we understand transgender people and lives.  There, I haven’t set the bar very high for this little piece with that opener, right?  Or the super pretentious title?  Good, good.

Well, part of how we can tell it’s time for a restructuring this major is how often we fight about language within our own community.  Transgender vs. transgendered, FAAB vs. CAFAB, male-bodied vs. male-assigned—none of these words lack detractors and supporters, including myself.  (For the record, I use transgender, FAAB, and male-assigned, though I think that last one is passing into common usage.)  It’s surprising to me, though, that no one has rethought this in the following terms.

Our language is handed down to us by our oppressors, and while we are initially delighted to have it (having been without any language for our lives before), we soon realize that this language is inadequate.  Of course it is.  It was built to be so, built not to allow for complicated identities or liberating self-concepts, because they want to keep us self-loathing and simple.

As far as I can tell, the word transvestite came first in terms of “official” language to describe transgender people.  Before it was coined, a world existed where the prefix “trans” did not immediately make young gender variant people giggle in the grocery store when products boasted “no trans fats.”  Obviously before this many different cultures had words for gender-variant people—hijira springs to mind, and fa’afafine—but transvestite was the first word created for us in a Western context, which is, regrettably, the dominant and prescriptive one.  In any case, transvestite was coined by Magnus Hirschfield, the German sexologist, who used it to refer to a whole host of people, some of whom we’d now consider non-binary, transsexual, butch, and an array of other things.  I want to mention here that Hirschfield was a courageous queer man who made enormous contributions to the community, but that didn’t prevent him, with his unchecked cis privilege, from laying the groundwork for an oppressive linguistic system.

From the beginning in the language he coined we see the reduction of trans genders to superficiality.  We simply “dress”  (-vestite) “over, across, or beyond” (trans-).  The coining and usage of “transvestite” as an umbrella term was the beginning of the codification of trans genders as disguises—things that can be put on or taken off, things that can be seen through, pretenses, costumes.

The word transsexual came next, hot on the heels of transvestite and complete with a confusing suffix that made it sound like an orientation.  It had the effect of reducing us to our bodies and compartmentalizing us into the socially constructed idea of two impermeable biological sexes, in some ways affirming and in some ways creating the cissexist “trapped in the wrong body” paradigm.  (This is not to say that some trans people do not feel trapped in the wrong body, or that their experience is invalid, but that the paradigm dictating that all trans people feel this way is cissexist.)  All transgender people were assumed to be transsexual; if they did not desire medical transition, their gender was assumed to be invalid and false because they were not “adequately trans.”  And all of this of course effectively erased bunches on non-op people, non-binary people, and of course transsexuals who weren’t “proper transsexuals.”  Now we were all positioned as “over, across, or beyond” biological sex—just as problematic and untenable a position.

Finally, transgender arrived in the progressive 1970s, like a wish granted for a word appropriate to all of us without prescriptive and limiting nonsense built in.  But we were building on a bedrock foundation of language imposed onto us by our cis keepers, the people who had measured our genitalia and asked about our fathers so they could diagnose us with this or that, and perhaps provide us with the medical care some of us required if we adhered to their strict standards.

Here is my central question.  When we moved into “transgender” as a better word for our community, why did we retain “trans”?  ”Gender,” certainly, but why has our community retained such an attachment to the prefix?  When did we consent to be forever “over, across, or beyond”?  When did we agree to forever live in motion, always on a journey to our true bodies and selves, rather than simply being ourselves as cis people are allowed to do?

That is why this prefix has been made a part of us.  It is because an essential part of the cissupremacist project is to reduce trans people to pilgrims.

As transgender people, we are always moving “across, over, or beyond.”  When we are defined by moving “across” gender, we are sentenced to continue that movement all our lives—and since “across” implies something to be crossed, it is always assumed that our goal is one end of the line or the other: maleness or femaleness, erasing non-binary experience.  As for binary-identifed trans people, we are placed journeying in perpetuity.  We will never reach maleness or femaleness.  If we did we would not betransgender: we would discard the prefix of motion.

Cis people, even trans allies, often discuss the “transgender journey,” or make reference to a trans person’s “journey” while discussing the struggles their trans friends and acquaintances experience.  This is partly due to the kind of touchy-feely new age thought with which many people approach any kind of emotional subject these days (“journey,” “follow your bliss,” etc etc) and partly because our language and culture have trained cis people to conceive of trans people as traveling to their identified gender rather than revealing that gender as their true one.

Even the word transition, highly embedded into the language trans people use to describe what happens in their lives and bodies when they reveal their true gender (as opposed to the one they’ve been assigned).  It is not clear to me that “transition” is the only—or the most liberating—way to understand this process.  For different trans people, “transition” can include a name change, hormone treatment, top surgery, bottom surgery, or all or none of these.  The idea of a “transition”—from one’s assigned gender to one’s actual gender—is inherently flawed and self-contradicting.  While it could be a nonproblematic word if we qualified it more—if we understood “social transition” to be distinct from “medical transition” as some of the more liberatory language-focused circles of the trans community do—it is overwhelmingly used (especially by cis people with layman’s knowledge of trans issues) as a catch all term for what happens when a trans person comes out.

Under this linguistic logic, if a trans woman is understood to be transitioning from male to female, she is not “female” until she has completed such a transition.  I believe it is from this idea that comments issue like the cissexist and transphobic classics, “I shouldn’t have to call him a girl until he’s had The Surgery,” and “If she were really serious about the whole ‘I’m a guy’ thing she’d cut off her breasts.”  Under this logic, a trans person cannot be truly their gender until they have completed “transition.”  It is a logic which ignores the lived realities of trans life—not only are surgical procedures, hormones, name changes, etc. the easiest things to obtain, but it erases completely the experiences of trans people who do not seek to transition in a legal or medical form.

Why do we stay in this paradigm of motion—across, over, beyond?  I propose instead a paradigm of revelation.

We do not “cross over” to our genders; we reveal our genders, which people had assumed were the ones assigned to us at birth.  The process of what is now called transition could be liberatingly reconfigured as revelation.  What one’s true name is, what one truly looks like, what one is, having shed the restrictions of an oppressive enforced gender.

Now, as romantic as this idea of radical linguistic change is, it is impractical.  I don’t necessarily argue that we should stop using these words altogether.  They’re useful for lots of people in articulating one’s lived experience.  The word transgender is by now one with a noble history, though as far as its accuracy it refers only to how we exist in a social world that forces to live lives “across, over, or beyond” gender.  But we should not use the word without reflecting on how its etymology came about—from cis people, connecting us for the first time to “trans” with the word “transvestite,” then “transsexual.”  We must remember how its oppressive origins continue to affect us by rendering us creatures in transit, forever approaching our identities.  We must know our history and we must remember who was codifying notions of “us” when “we” were first becoming a united “us.”  It was not “us.”

These oppressive linguistic foundations are still hurting us every day.  They are, I think, helping to cause divisive arguments over language within the trans community.  It may not have been their initial game plan, but I think the cissupremacist bad guys would be delighted to see us fighting amongst ourselves instead of fighting them.  Now, any community of intelligent activists is bound to have debates about terminology, but I believe the level of this in the trans community to be rather extraordinary.  I would not be surprised if it lay in the oppressive foundation of the language we are given to describe the most basic parts of our identities.

Queer Activism & Stories of Personal Adversity (Or, How Misery Dicks Could Ruin Us)

TW: Discussion of trauma relating to abuse, assault, bullying, identity policing, and probably other more specific triggers I’m not thinking of.  Basically, I wouldn’t go into this post if you’re feeling fragile or are easily triggered by discussions about trauma.

As queer people, we often have painful pasts because of anti-queer attitudes.  I do, for example.  If we’re comfortable talking about it, the pain and trauma in our pasts can be used as a tool for social justice.  Specifically, we can use it as an example of why anti-queer attitudes are bad for us and, ultimately, for everyone.  This is a powerful resource for us, but I worry that we’re using it both too liberally and in the wrong places.

I’ve seen the following interaction occur pretty often in the context of queer social justice discussion:

Person A:  [makes a statement about how they think queer politics work or should work]

Person B: I don’t agree with that.

Person A:  Well, here are my reasons why.

Person B:  But I know what I’m talking about because I’ve experienced enormous pain.  [provides an extremely personal anecdote of adversity]

This almost always ends with Person A being silenced.  They don’t want to be a dick and belittle Person B’s pain and personal experiences, so they feel like any ability to continue to have a dialogue about the issue has ended.  The only real way to respond to an anecdote of extreme personal adversity when it’s provided as a political argument is like this:

Person B:  So, how can you still have that opinion in the face of my experiences?

Person A:  Well, I know what I’m talking about too, because I’ve experienced enormous pain as well!  [provides an extremely personal anecdote of adversity]

Now, first of all, no one should be put in a position in a social justice discussion—or any discussion—where they feel like they have to  provide intimate details of their lives in order to be taken seriously.  I’ll address this more later.

Really, the thing is, it’s not a productive dialogue to have.  We all know that as queer people many of us—most of us, really—have been through and seen things that were unjust, painful, and often traumatic.  It turns into a game of what my friend Maggie calls “Misery Dicks.”  Apparently, Misery Dicks is a Thing and not limited to Maggie—I just Urban Dictionary’d it.  The Urban Dictionary defines Misery Dicks as follows:

A game played where two or more people share horrible things that have happened in their lives. Whoever has the worst life has the biggest misery dick.

You may be surprised to learn that Misery Dicks is not a very fun game!  It is also not a very friendly game!  Or a game that is at all productive!  Most insidious of all Misery Dick’s insidious qualities, though, is that players of Misery Dicks very rarely realize they are playing it.  (To my knowledge, Maggie and I are the only people who play it on purpose.  We usually tie.  Another thing about Misery Dicks is that due to the ambiguous nature of being a person and having subjective experiences, a fairly judged contest of Misery Dicks almost always ends in a tie.  Imagine that.)

So, what I’ve established here so far is that sometimes, when queer people disagree with each other about queer politics, it turns into a big old game of Queer Misery Dicks and that in the immediate context of the discussion, this is good for absolutely no one.  But what else does Queer Misery Dicks do?

It reinforces the queerphobic idea that queer lives are by necessity sad, dreary, painful lives.

How does it do that?  Well, it seems to me that in the dialogue I provided above, Person B is implying that they must be correct in their opinion because their traumatic experiences have rendered them more authentically queer and thus more qualified to speak on queer issues.  Person A is then rendered less queer because they either haven’t been through something terrible or they aren’t willing to share that terrible experience in a public forum.

Person B is unwittingly making the argument that unless you’ve had a life that includes trauma, you haven’t had an authentically queer life.

Now, I think this whole situation is bad generally and ought to stop.  But I do have a slightly more personal note to add: This is harmful particularly to queer people who have been through significant trauma but aren’t willing or able to share information about that trauma in a public forum.  There are queer trauma survivors who are in a place with their traumatic experiences where they are able to discuss that trauma publicly; that’s a brave thing to do.  But there are also queer trauma survivors who can’t talk about their trauma because it’s triggering.  That doesn’t make them less brave.  There are queer trauma survivors who can’t talk about their trauma because the abusers who perpetrated that trauma might see that discussion and come try to retaliate.  They are also brave people.

People need to be more aware of these issues when they talk about being assaulted in the street, being thrown out, being abused at home, being bullied at school with slurs, etc etc.  There’s a time for a sharing of that kind of thing.  In fact, I think it’s a hugely important part of being queer and having a queer support system: sharing that you’ve been through something, getting support, and being helped to heal.

If a political discussion is getting emotional enough for you (and this happens to me all the fucking time, there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it) that you’re getting to the point where you want to go, “Oh yeah?  Well my dad used to call me a freak and scream at me outside the locked bathroom door while I shook and cried hoping the lock would hold!”  Well, it’s time to back away from that discussion and practice some self-care.  I do this myself.  There is nothing wrong, shameful, or weak about it.

I want to end this post with a sticky outy note that just didn’t go well anywhere else in it:  a huge problem with Queer Misery Dicks is it gets SUPER TRIGGERY SUPER FAST.  People usually don’t put trigger warnings on their entries in Queer Misery Dick competitions, and I know I’ve been triggered pretty badly before by someone trying to start a game of Queer Misery Dicks with me.  (Especially because I’m not emotionally comfortable playing it with anyone but Maggie, and was all, “OH NO I AM A BAD WEAK PERSON BECAUSE I CANNOT SHARE INTIMATE PERSONAL DETAILS ONLINE” and got all guilt-ridden.)

And that’s my very longwinded way of saying that willingness to discuss personal adversity is not a qualification to speak about queerness and that all queer people’s lives and opinions deserve respect in a conversation about our community!  Do not play Misery Dicks; it is no fun and anyway Maggie and I are better at it than you.

NB:  What I’m saying in this post probably applies to people who deal with other oppressions, but I don’t want to speak for them.  If anyone has any thoughts on how this works in activist communities of color, disabled activist communities, anything like that, I’m interested.

The Estrangement of Trans Gay Men from Cis Gay Men

I have two queer identities and they are at war with each other.  I have one queer identity and it is fully integrated.  I have one queer identity placed in conflict with itself by outside forces.  I have to pick one.  I refuse to pick one.

There’s always been a troubled relationship between the (cis) gay male community and the trans community.  To the extent that when we say “the gay male community,” we mean, “the cis gay male community.”  It’s presupposed within the language that “the trans community” and “the gay community” are discrete and nonintersecting entities.  There’s been an equally troubled relationship between the (cis) lesbian community and the trans community, but in different ways (read: radfems, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Dirt’s blog, etc), and ultimately I think the (cis) lesbian community and the trans community—at least the FAAB trans community—are more interlocked.  I think FAAB trans people who once identified as lesbians are more likely either to continue identifying that way or to carry on a tight relationship with the lesbian community, whereas MAAB trans people who once identified as gay tend to shed that identification and community connection.  I don’t know if this is correct, or if it is correct why it is correct; it’s just my observation based on the trans people in my little Lebenswelt.  (Things I am in addition to a gay trans man: a douchey person who says things like, “my little Lebenswelt.”)

What I can say is that there is a barrier between cis gay men and trans people in general.  It’s been there for a long time, in the social spaces we occupy within the queer scene, in the ways we present ourselves and are presented to the straight world in media, in the organizations that purport to protect our interests.  It exists because the gay men at the top (who are also, incidentally, white and rich) think trans people are a little too queer, or queer in the wrong way.  At best, they think we’ll scare off the straight people.  At worst, they’re just as transphobic as a straight person who says things like, “But you’re really a man/woman, you silly [insert slur here]!”  All of this is pretty much commonly agreed upon, and we’ve seen it in action many times.  There’s the HRC’s less than stellar record with ENDA, there’s Christian Siriano calling ugly things “hot [slur] messes,” there’s any number of things.

What about the barrier between cis and trans gay men, though?  We belong to the same little gay gang.  Shouldn’t we bro it up and listen to Gypsy together?  I certainly think it would be a good time.

I’ll suggest a few reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.


1)  The gay male community is deeply entrenched in the exact same harmful ideas about bodies that trans activists are working to smash.

When this whole “gay movenent” thing got started, we all got very excited about idealizing the (cis) male body and looking up on it in a sexual way.  Now, that’s all very cool in the way it (sort of) subverts the male gaze (or at least turns the male gaze on other men), and can make it clear in one piece of visual art that this is about finding another man sexy and that is perfectly okay.  The end result of all this, though, has been that one of the banner images of the gay male community, one of the essential elements of our culture, is the image of a cis male body.  That’s going to exclude trans men pretty effectively, for my money!

Also, at some point, young gay men started to engage in a discourse about their sexuality that validates their queer identity through degradation of FAAB bodies.  I don’t know when this happened; I just know I hate it.  Jokes like, “And then she was like, do you want to go out some time?  And I was like, ew, no, I’m gay, I don’t want to fall into the gaping black hole of your vagina!”  Or painting, “Kiss me!  Penis only please,” on your chest when you’re shirtless at Pride. Like the above example of idealized images of the cis gay male body, it comes from a desire to validate/express one’s queerness and one’s sexuality, but it ends up being cissexist and loathsome (and, in the case of degrading talk about FAAB bodies, misogynistic more often than not).  It occurs to me that this misogynistic denigration of FAAB bodies is not dissimilar to the femme-shaming that’s so omnipresent in the gay dating scene.  It’s rare to see ten gay male OKCupid profiles without running into quite a few with “no femmes” or “masc. only” in them.  Misogyny in the gay male community is far from a non-issue.


2) Gay trans men are erased from histories of gay men.

All queer people are to extent estranged from our own history because of the silence surrounding queer bodies and lives.  But woe betide you if you’re trying to find examples of trans people in history, and woe betide you to the nth power if you’re trying to find examples of trans men.  Good luck finding me an example of a well-known trans man from history who isn’t Alan L Hart, Billy Tipton, Reed Erickson, or Jack Bee Garland.  Even those are well-known only in certain circles, and we spend about half our time trying to keep queer women from falsely claiming that these men were queer women—with the exception of Reed Erickson, where we spend all our time going, “That guy had a fucking leopard.  A leopard!  For a PET!  And knew Chris Isherwood?”  (Both of these things are true.)

Gay men have a history in common.  In many cases it’s a cobbled together history, and in some cases it’s still murky, but it has an established canon, stories that are easy to tell and remember, and it’s fairly easily accessible if you have the internet or a library.  (The full extent of the devastation caused by homophobic negligence at the beginning of AIDS is a good example of a murky period.)  Gay men can point to stories of Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Walt Whitman, James I, or Larry Kramer (if they’re feeling a bit radical that day), and say, “Look, that’s us, that’s our past, that’s where we come from.”

Gay trans men are implicitly excluded from this history.  There’s Louis Sullivan, of course, the founder of FTM International and a great man who was taken from the world by homophobic negligence during the AIDS epidemic, but discourse on Sullivan’s life is never a part of gay history except when all queers are lumped into “gay.”  Sullivan is never ever discoursed upon as a gay man or a part of gay male history.  He is always a part of trans history, usually as a “trans man who was gay,” and often as “the first gay trans man.”

In this way, gay trans men are implicitly declared to be modern, new, exclusively contemporary, springing fully formed from the skull of Judith Butler.  Did people like me exist before 1980?  I know they must have, but aside from a single photograph I saw once in a Leslie Feinberg book, I’ve never had any real confirmation of the fact.  The dominant gay male paradigm erases the existence of trans gay men from history, and if we don’t have a place in the gay past, it’s going to be very difficult for us to have a place in the gay present.


3) It is assumed that gay male culture is largely about sex, and it is also assumed that trans men are sexually unattractive to cis gay men by virtue of their trans bodies, ergo, trans men cannot participate in sex-centered gay male culture.

People usually point this out with astonishment at the idea that any trans man could ever possibly try to live a “gay life,” whatever a gay life is—I think these people are assuming a “gay life” is one where you fuck/date/love people of the same gender.  I’ve had this articulated to me usually by people who aren’t queer, except for the countless times I’ve heard gay trans men talk about being worried no gay man will ever be interested in them because of their FAAB bodies.  The latter makes me impossibly sad to hear.  (I’m obviously a walking refutation of the idea, but you know.  It always feels a little self-aggrandizing to say, “Well, gay men want to have sex with me!  Or maybe I’m just crazy hot.”)  Basically, it’s an assertion that cis gay men will never be interested in trans gay men sexually, ergo, trans gay men can’t really participate in the gay community.

This relies on the ancient homophobic assumption that gay men and the gay male community are obsessed with sex and exclusively focused on sex.  Promiscuous, constantly horny, thinking with their genitals.  Of course you can’t participate in the gay male community!  The gay men don’t want to fuck you, and that’s what their community is, a giant orgy!

Of course, the whole assumption that cis gay men won’t be interested in trans men is founded in cissexist and transphobic ideas about bodies and gender.  And I mean, well.  Buck Angel.  Have you heard of him.  And all the gay men who watch his porn.


4)  Gay male culture often involves feminine gender play and expression, and when trans men engage in this, their gender identity is immediately questioned.

If you’ve spent your whole life asserting that no, you’re really not a girl, you didn’t make this up, you aren’t lying, the idea of doing something as quintessentially gay as dressing up as Madonna for Halloween is going to seem pretty terrifying and likely to invalidate you.  The minute a gay trans man participates in the time honored gay male tradition of performing an outrageous, campy version of femininity, his maleness is questioned by those around him.  I once had a boss tell me the reason he consistently mispronouned me was that I liked ballet and musical theatre and sometimes tapped my feet when Britney Spears played in the office.


5) Straight women sometimes feel more comfortable in the company of gay men, and the dominant paradigm assumes this is because they are insecure about being able to attract straight men.  The dominant paradigm assumes that trans people are self-hating and this is the etiology of their gender identities.   The dominant paradigm therefore deduces that gay trans men belong to the aforementioned group of insecure straight women.

This line of thought is usually a sibling to Zucker-esque “straight trans men are lesbians who hate themselves” and “gay trans women are attracted to the image of themselves as a woman” ideas.  It conceives of gay trans men as inadequate straight women.  Because these straight women are inadequate, they seek out the company of gay men, who will not scorn them as straight men do.  They feel so comfortable with these gay men that they wish to become one of them, and they therefore try to do so.

This obviously rests in the idea that femaleness is an inferior condition, one that women must try to escape.  It is profoundly misogynistic and thus of course extremely common, because misogyny is the little black dress of social evils and goes perfectly with every single -ism you can think of.


6) Because of gay activism’s poor record with trans issues, there is significant pressure within the trans community for trans people to minimize their gay identities.

I noticed this especially when the marriage equality movement became extremely intense in New York.  Complaining that the queer movement is too focused on marriage is perfectly legitimate.  I agree.  But I received significant backlash that took this form: “This is a gay issue.  You’re trans.  You are betraying your transness by involving yourself in a gay issue when the queer movement is overly focused on gay issues.”  It’s just one way that gay trans people are attacked for trying to fully live and express their sexual identity and gender identity together.

That’s the end of my litany, I think.  There are more ways the gay and trans male communities are estranged from one another, of course, but I have to leave some ground to cover for the dissertation I finally write, right?

I’d love other people’s thoughts on this.  You may have noticed it’s a subject close to my heart.

I’ll leave you by repeating that it is incredibly fucked up that we think of “the trans community” and “the gay community” as discrete things.  I feel stretched between both and barred from fully joining both because of my membership in the other.  I’m going to drown my sorrows in sushi and Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall.


NB:  When I first posted this on my Tumblr, one of my followers brought up wanting a discussion of how race intersects with this; I want that too.  I unfortunately am not yet at a place in my anti-racist education where I’m competent to provide that.  If you’re reading this and you are, your thoughts would be a gift.