The Master’s Tools

Super Italicised Editor’s Notes: I’ve been quite busy with schoolwork and reading of late so, to all three of you, I apologise. It’s been fulfilling but draining and I scarcely have the energy to write things for this journal. Updates will continue to be sporadic but I have some ideas knocking about.

More Editor’s Notes: Andrea James has graciously responded to this piece at length and I encourage everyone to consider what she has to say.

In the past I have mentioned trans rights activist Andrea James, a highly successful trans woman who writes for and maintains the invaluable resource of TSRoadmap.com, which for its relatively small flaws remains a compendium on trans feminine transition without compare. I still link it at the side of this website for those neophyte trans people who may be poking around the net for information that may stumble on this blog. Ms. James keeps up with it, updating it periodically, and keeping up with its news feed which is one of my sources on trans community news these days.

But I have to say I was disturbed to discover her latest venture, which appears to be an outright attack on two, admittedly dangerous and self-hating, trans people. Linked in the news section, I read this with both interest and concern. Andrea James could well be a scholar if she put her mind to it and much of her website contains comprehensive deconstructions of transphobic ideology, pseudoscientific and otherwise. This is no exception, save for the venom she injects into certain elements, which I will discuss momentarily. The two people she is attacking here are people she, with good reason, lumps together with a group I derisively call the “HBS crowd”, a group of conservative transsexual women who claim to have an intersex condition, “Harry Benjamin Syndrome,” and claim dominion over who is and is not a true transsexual. Much of their online presence is dedicated to outright assaults on the trans community, using extremely bigoted language that would not be out of place in a bar (“men in dresses” “eunuchs” etc.) and they appear to use little else besides political orientation to make these determinations.

They are the Uncle Toms of the transgender community and I do not use this term flippantly or lightly. I do not say this because they don’t think as I do; I say this because they actively reify cissexual oppression and buttress it, claiming standing as a trans person in one breath to legitimise their hatred, while in the next disowning it and appropriating an intersex identity as part of their perpetual self-loathing. I’ve seen HBSers cheer on transphobic feminists, support anti-trans legislation, and reject attempts at equality such as the promotion of the word ‘cis.’ They claim to know who is a real woman and who isn’t, using ‘standards’ that are incredibly demeaning to trans people and women as a whole. Indeed, there is precious little difference between their beliefs and the ideals of your run of the mill ignorant cissexist.

Their betrayal of other trans people is impossible for me to forgive. I do not begrudge those who wish to live in stealth and otherwise separate themselves from the political community. That’s their right, we transition to make our individual lives better and I cannot blame a trans person one jot if they elect to do so. My problem is that they then actively work against the rest of their fellows. They have so internalised cissexist hate that they then project that self-loathing onto the rest of us. They feel illegitimate because they have been so bogged down by a society and a medical establishment that told them this was so, that they’d always be second-best also rans as women. From this perspective, their condition is a sad, lamentable one. HBSers are victims of cissexism as much as the rest of us, and regrettably they turn around to assault the rest of the community in thrashing attempts at legitimising their own identities. They create hierarchies of womanhood with themselves at or near the top and the rest of the trans community towards the bottom. They absolutely must feel more legitimate than other trans people in order to feel legitimate period.

The brilliant author of the webcomic Trans Girl Diaries has some excellent satires of their mentality in these particular pieces.

After this very lengthy and deserved thrashing you may wonder, then, what my problem with Andrea James is in this instance. HBSers attack the community by creating websites and sockpuppets designed to promote  their unique flavour of transphobia, Ms. James comes in with her +10 Hammer o’ Justice and all is well, yes? Well, much as I love Ms. James for doing what so many of us can’t, there is a thorny ethical question here that ties into other such information campaigns she has run in the past.

HBSers, regardless of their self-loathing politics which are externalised onto the rest of us at every opportunity, are still trans women. They are still vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence and discrimination. The men who have sought to rape, murder and utterly destroy us don’t give a whit about what they would see as semantic political differences. HBSer, TG, WBT, TS, trans women, we’re all just trannies to them, and thus subhuman. For Ms. James to decide, by fiat, who is worthy of protection and who isn’t, I am afraid she’s simply playing into the hands of transphobes. I consider the two women she’s just outed to be odious and detrimental to our community, but I cannot countenance putting them in harm’s way, regardless of the hate they are spreading.

You do not out a trans person, nor splash their photos, full names, and place of residence (if not exact address) on the Internet, end of story.

In digging up all of this personal information, including their personal histories and the like, I feel as if she is going too far to make her point. Can a trans woman activist like Ms. James, however well intentioned, wield the cudgel of cis violence against her (and indeed, our) enemies? Is this ethical? My answer is a resounding no. I understand she is trying to name and shame as well as hold these people accountable for their words and actions, piercing the façade of their innumerable alts and sockpuppets to prove they’re fewer in number than they appear and so forth.

But from Ms. James’ own description, Candice Elliott is apparently confused and possibly going through a midlife crisis. In attaching herself so forcefully to an identity and taxonomy used by trans-hating psychiatrists she is, in my mind, attempting to find and legitimise some identity for herself in a world deeply inimical to trans people. We all have our weak moments, and yes we should be judged by how we handle that weakness, but no you should not be put at risk of violence by other trans people for it.

When she speaks extensively about public figures in the cis scientific community like Ken Zucker and Ray Blanchard she’s mostly going over things that are on the public record. But by outing people like Ms. Holder and Ms. Elliott she’s entering far more dangerous and far more sinister territory. There is, however, other radioactive water that she is carrying:

“As shown in the photo below, Holder is passing for black about as well as passing for female.”

I’m not going to comment on Holder’s skin alterations. I put it in the same category as I do furries; fine by me, I have better things to do with my time than prove you ‘wrong’ in some cosmic sense. However the tone here taken by Ms. James clearly indicates mocking and derision. It is, in my mind, amoral for a trans woman to mock another based on one’s ability to “pass” by their standards (which are invariably influenced by the media imagery of a misogynist culture) and it simply reifies cissexism as much as any HBSer rant does (indeed, many of them do the same, as the pyramid I linked on TGD above shows). How can Andrea James indulge this for even one moment? Would Holder’s wrongdoing be any less problematic if she looked like a supermodel? Of course not. This merely feels like kicking sand at her out of spite (deserved spite, mayhaps, but spite all the same) and echoes the ugly statements made by Lynn Conway about the appearances of some trans people she disapproved of.

The objectifying before/after photos echo an ugly media trope that is often used against trans women, and although the ‘before’ pictures don’t show them in guy mode, it still has an ugly vibe to it that makes me rather uncomfortable.

You cannot fight cissexism and then turn around and indulge in it when it is convenient for you to do so. I don’t claim any right to do so just because I’m a trans woman.

I applaud Ms. James’ valiant efforts on behalf of the rest of us, but I also implore her to be careful when outing people who are otherwise private citizens. It’s a tremendous dilemma because one wants to push back against their misinformation and hate, but they are trans people all the same (whether they claim otherwise or not) and as such are vulnerable to transphobic violence and discrimination. Opening them up to that is unconscionable, unethical, and should be unthinkable for any trans activist.

It might make things harder, yes, but I learned long ago that nothing worth doing is easy, especially that which is virtuous. We must fight our enemies with dignity and without reducing ourselves to their tactics.