Sisterhood in Silence

Political questions- those nagging spectres both august and utterly debauched- linger and haunt if you take up the charge to be a citizen. Not just a citizen of a given country in some formalistic, legal sense, but a citizen in the sense of being a self-conscious member of a society (preferably without borders) with a sense of obligation to others. The tests of this political citizenship are always dictated to you by those bedevilling questions.

One question that I’ve run from, that I have leapt breathlessly through intellectual halls of mirrors to avoid is this one that I will now stare in its smiling face:

Am I Breanna Manning?

Global Comment editor, theologian, and trans activist Emily Manuel recently spoke to the media silence and leftist silence around the fact that “Bradley Manning” may very well be Breanna, a trans woman that the US Government arrested before she had a chance to transition and claim her identity more publicly.

Silence is a sinful little thing.

Its threadbare cloak promises protection and even seems to provide precious warmth against the ill winds of oppression. We hope that by keeping our heads down, staying mum, and conscientiously parroting the conventional wisdom of our age that we will secure that most precious commodity of transgender life: peace. I use “we” very forcibly here, this is an article in which I fully implicate myself for the silence I describe here. I cannot plead ignorance, like many in this community I knew about the leaked IM conversation between Manning and Adrian Lamo that has since become the ur text of Manning’s transgender identity in its public incarnation. I knew and said nothing.

Why did I do it? The answer, as I calculated with a coldness that frightened even myself, lies in the fact that if Manning becomes publicly understood as a trans woman, she will be the most famous trans woman in a generation. Perhaps ever. Outshining even the objectified stars of Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, or Jan Morris. But her fame will be for having been branded “T” for Traitor, and in a militarised nation like the United States that is not a scarlet letter one wears lightly. When combined with the oppressive weight of how stereotypes work at their most depressingly basic level (“If one’s like that, they’re all like that!”) there is no way the Manning case ends well for trans women.

Ms. Manuel is right that it is not “bloody likely” that the left will come riding to our rescue, gallant knights in trendily ironic armour ready to stand at our sides. We will be, in all probability, sold out.

At the vicious intersection of ableism and cissexism, we as trans people find ourselves under constant suspicion that we are “crazy”—that our genders are a mark of “madness” and uncivilisation. In an ableist society, this is to be marked for death. The transphobia merely juices it against us in particular, as the class of trans persons. We sit now on the precipice of this subtle, pervasive hatred exploding orgiastically on cable news.

And we are woefully unable to fend off such an assault, particularly if the strike is made through the vector of Breanna Manning, the “Traitor” and the one who “made America vulnerable to terrorists” or somesuch. Lies, of course, but who will defend a trans woman accused of these highest of crimes in the American state?

In the end, we have to.

The risk to us is tremendous. The silence we share on this issue seems protective. Maybe if we’re lucky, we seem to think, we can get through this trial without it becoming a public issue, Manning gets locked up for life, this goes away, and we’ve dodged a battleship-grade munitions projectile.

It is a temptation. But I would not trust to this hope, any more than I would trust to the hope of our hipster knights saving us.

Emily Manuel’s article was a castigation to the cisgender majority on the left who might be peevish at best about accepting a trans woman as their hero who stuck it to the Man.

But there is the lingering question of that great “we” I mentioned at the start of this piece. We trans women. Will we accept Breanna Manning as a hero? Will we accept her at all? Or will we disown her in the hopes that this blood sacrifice will appease the lords of patriarchy for another while?

This does seem, after all, a relatively hopeless fight. We’d be up against cissexism channelled through that realm where democracy as discourse dies a terrible death: cable news. We’d be up against Fox News, the New York Post, the Big Three, and MSNBC all taking potshots. Can you see it now? A “balanced” panel of experts filling rolling news airtime by debating whether or not we are human beings; a Sean Hannity “documentary” about transgender deception; J. Michael Bailey being wheeled out as an expert; editorials in major newspapers that politely cluck their teeth at our plight while saying in the end maybe we shouldn’t be allowed near anything important. To say nothing of personal ramifications: we may be fired, beaten, harassed more than we already are.

It can seem hopeless.

But we should meet them nonetheless.

What those of us who, like myself, have hesitated must face up to is that we do not have the luxury of choosing battles like this, not truly. They choose us—and as regrettable as this function of our disadvantage may be, we only harm ourselves by shying away from it. Manning is getting a lot of much needed support, yes. But her sisters should stand by her and acknowledge her as a sister. If for no other reason than to lend that much needed, precious gift that it stretches the limits of our poor power to give: to tell Breanna that her understanding of her reality is real.

To tell her that she is not only a hero, but one we will embrace as a woman, as a sister.

It may well all come to nothing, but we will be the better for trying. Facing down impossible odds, staring down barrel of society’s collective gun, it is what we as trans women do so well: it is a condition of our simply being. If any of you have strength to lend to Manning, give her that iota in the form of recognition.

It is tempting to enshroud myself in silence, but if there is one great truth transition taught me it is that silence will not save me, nor any of my siblings in struggle. It will not make this go away. Ending my silence will not, concomitantly, utter a word of power that brings hellfire upon all trans people. Ending my silence will deny cisgender men in power the right to bind me in this particular way.

So, how do I resolve the vexatious question that urged the penning of this article? In the end, there is no morass or thicket of complex issues, no great philosophical lodestones to be delicately weighed against one another. There is just one simple moral question and I resolve it thusly:

I am Breanna Manning.

The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much

Editor/Dungeon-Master’s Note: I sat on this for a while and almost didn’t publish it. Fear of speaking out bedevils most of us who say what is not exactly popular. I thank the women and men in my life for always reminding me that what I have to say has value.

Those of you who have spoken to me at any great length know that I am quite big on the idea that if you scratch a misogynist you will find a transphobe, and vice versa. There is a continuum of prejudice in our society; it’s scarcely a coincidence that Western people who bleat loudly about savage brown men in the Global South who “oppress their women” then turn around and defend egregious sexism in their own countries. But it is always an interesting exercise to find just where the linkages appear. It came to my attention that John Derbyshire, a man who writes for that great pillar of social justice The National Review Online, had this to say about not just the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, but the very idea of sexual harassment:

Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like “racial discrimination“? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?

Kurt Schlichter, who works on these cases, spills the beans in America’s Newspaper of Record this morning.

“When you consider that, more than a decade ago, Herman Cain settled some unspecified sexual-harassment claims, you also need to consider that the only things you need to file a lawsuit are the filing fee and a printer. Facts are optional.”

There has never in the history of the world been a people better mannered and less inclined to insulting acts of prejudice than today’s Americans, yet we’re supposed to believe that the nation is seething with “harassment” and “discrimination,” women being groped in every business office and crosses burning on every lawn. For Heaven’s sake. Aren’t there any grown-ups around?

I might very well ask him the same question; if there’s an adult in the room at NRO, it isn’t Mr. Derbyshire. One scarcely knows where to begin really. An upper class white cisgender hetero man thinks Americans are legendarily disinclined to acts of prejudice? News at 11.

What’s interesting for me, however, is sketching out how ideas this especially odious are not just isolated monads floating in nothingness. According to Lynn Conway:

In his writings, Derbyshire for some reason often returns to an issue that seems to particularly haunt him: the existence of gay males and “effeminate men”. We’ve included examples of his writings on these topics below, in which you can sense the particular and peculiar focus of his horror about homosexuality, namely that some people enjoy “being penetrated”, and his perception of the degradation and humiliation such penetration involves, notwithstanding that “Women expect a certain amount of penetration as coming with the territory of femaleness … ” (J. Derbyshire, The Houston Review, April 25, 2001).

And now, of course, for the coup de grace, a quote from a certain book review Derbyshire wrote for the National Review (courtesy of Andrea James):

Part Three is the book’s most difficult section, because it deals with the rarest and most puzzling aspect of male effeminacy: According to Bailey, less than one man in 12,000 is transsexual, a condition defined simply by “the desire to become a member of the opposite sex,” whether or not that desire has led to actual surgery. The striking finding here is that there are two quite distinct types of men who wish they were women, distinguished by the choice of erotic object. On the one hand there are “homosexual transsexuals,” who desire masculine men—heterosexual men, for preference—and who dress and behave like women to attract them. And then there is the “autogynephilic transsexual,” a man whose erotic attention is fixed on the idea of himself as a woman.

The strangeness of this latter type is captured nicely in the title of Bailey’s chapter on them: “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies.” An autogynephile is essentially a heterosexual man whose object of desire is an imaginary feminine creature which happens to be himself… or herself, depending on how you look at it. Such a person was usually not effeminate as a child, has likely been married, and does not show typically homosexual preferences in career or entertainment choices. The historian and travel writer Jan (formerly James) Morris, to judge from her autobiographical book Conundrum, belongs to this category. The consummation of sexual desire presents obvious difficulties for the autogynephile. Indeed, it is occasionally fatal: Around 100 American men die every year from “autoerotic asphyxia,” which seems to arise from a conjunction of masochism and autogynephilia—the two conditions are related in some way not well understood.

All of these types—girlish boys, male homosexuals, transsexuals of both types—are of course human beings, who, like the rest of us, must play the best game they can with the cards Nature has dealt them. No decent person would wish to inflict on them any more unhappiness than their mismatched bodies and psyches have already burdened them with. At the same time, there is circumstantial evidence that complete acceptance and equality for all sexual orientations may have antisocial consequences, so that the obloquy aimed at sexual variance by every society prior to our own may have had some stronger foundation than mere blind prejudice. Male homosexuality, in particular, seems to possess some quality of being intrinsically subversive when let loose in long-established institutions, especially male dominated ones. The courts of at least two English kings offer support to this thesis, as does the postwar British Secret Service, and more recently the Roman Catholic priesthood. I should like to see some adventurous sociologist research these outward aspects with as much diligence and humanity as Michael Bailey has applied to his study of the inward ones.

Derbyshire, J. “Lost in the Male.” National Review, June 30, 2003. pp. 51-52.

You can go to Andrea James’ webpage on Derbyshire to read her pleasurably scathing response and some other interesting quotes from “the Derb.”

The little games of Six Degrees of Political Separation one can play with patriarchy are very interesting. To recap, John Derbyshire is a man who thinks sexual harassment is the legal equivalent of the tooth fairy, and who is also best mates with J. Michael Bailey whose deeply transmisogynist and unethical ‘research’ The Man Who Would be Queen is a prime example of modern cissexist pseudoscience, is also quite scared of men taking it up the chutney. When one tilts her angle of vision just so, just a few degrees off the horizon of patriarchy, one starts to see all of these things as connected. Derbyshire does not believe these things in isolation from one another, they are part of a fabric, a framework. One notion leads into the other, one idea reinforces the other. This is patriarchy as a belief system.

Who We Really Are

It seems almost obvious to belabour this point and yet I feel it bears repeating; we do not often see recognition of the fact that transphobic cis men are almost always misogynists of some flavour as well (often as not, a fairly strong flavour). There is a powerful connection between the hatred of all women generally and the hatred of trans women specifically. Men like Derbyshire, who at this point I definitely would not trust to be alone in a room with me, in a very broad sense understand what most transphobic men understand: we are women.

That’s a rather paradoxical statement to make, considering that it is almost fundamental to the definition of transphobia that it constitute an unwillingness to recognise a person’s gender. What makes men like Derbyshire transphobic is that they see women like me as “men,” right? Yes and no. We occupy the cultural space we do for a reason. Cis men who laugh off sexual harassment as so much whinging about misconstrued compliments are transmisogynist men as well, and they hate us because we are women. When they talk about crazy women making false accusations they are talking about us as well. They are trying to make our world smaller as well.  The protest of their transphobia, the assault on our gender, the mad rush to undermine us, pathologise us, erase us, or vilify us is, like most masculinist protest, premised on deep seated insecurity. They do interpellate us as women; they just don’t want to.

Transphobic feminists operate on a somewhat different level. For them it is very vital to constantly assert we are men. For your run of the mill, average cis male transphobe, the stakes are different. In a bizarre way, they see what that vocal minority of transphobic feminists do not see: that we are a fundamental threat to how most people in our society understand gender, and that if we are possible, anything might be possible in the realm of gender. It is no longer so comfortably fixed in the immutable essence of finely crafted genes with a thousand millennium pedigree. They cannot help but to see us as women, to see us as occupying that same dangerous, violently contested space that cis women occupy. They cannot help but fight with us to try and keep us there.

Who Are they Trying to Convince?

It seems almost absurd to take an idea to my readership so simple that it forms a bedrock assumption to the epistemology of most regular readers of this space, I’m sure: that trans women are women. But in most mainstream writing on the subject, be it on Huffington Post or The New York Times or O Magazine, that is actually not a proposition that is carried through to its logical conclusions. One of the reasons that I have taken the Herman Cain allegations so seriously, and the aggressive co-opting of anti-racist rhetoric by white conservatives so seriously, is because these things are very much about my experiences and my social location as a woman of colour in this country. Too often we see trans people put into segregated boxes of exoticised and discrete unitary “Experience” that more or less fully elides our lived reality in a given gender.

I have something to say about being a woman, without qualifiers, in America. Many of us do, and many of us do feel as personally attacked as many cis women might when a powerful man tells a major media outlet that women with a grievance should “think twice” before coming forward. Trans women are so hated by cis men in part because we are women. Even as they aggressively insist that we are actually male, be it through hateful words spoken in arguments, debates, or violence and rape, or published work in an academic journal, they are saying that just as much for their benefit if not more. They fixate on us because we are women, and that scares them to death.

Cisgender men tell themselves many rather twisted stories about why we transition, most reading like some pulp horror novel dashed with awkwardly inserted sci-fi elements. Perhaps it’s that we hate men so much that we “castrate” ourselves or that we’re men who drank the wrong estrogen-infested water one day and suddenly wanted to be girls, or perhaps that we were just regular ol’ guys who just woke up one sunny day and decided to transition. However they construct it, it frightens them deeply. It frightens them deeply because we are women. We’d not be much of a threat if we weren’t. There would not be this widespread cis het male moral panic about trans women “deceiving” them into fucking us if we were not women.

Their constant protests that we are men fall into the same realm of that clichéd therapist’s question: “Who are you trying to convince, me or you?” They must cling to that idea that we are men, even as a whirlpool of doubt draws their every thought of us into gendered oblivion.

And in the final analysis it makes sense that a man like Derbyshire, who views trans women as an idle curiosity, fit for colonisation, analysis, and study by a white cis male friend of his, also sees women as endlessly touchable and endlessly lying. The only way the truth can be found is if trustworthy white cis men like J. Michael Bailey cage us and study us. What would we do if we had our druthers on? Why, we might start filing golddigging sexual harassment claims when Mr. Derbyshire is being a perfect gentleman, only seeking to regale us with his thoughts on the deep (and I do mean deep) meaning of penetration ten times after we asked him to stop…

In summation, cisgender men have a profound obsession with trans women, and specifically what we do with our penises. Many cis men wince and get nervous at the thought of a trans woman having SRS, and I ask you to consider the relation between this and Tucker Carlson saying that he involuntarily crosses his legs every time he sees Hillary Clinton on television.

The bedrock truth of the matter is this: transmisogynist cis men hate us because we are strong women… and that scares the living daylights out of them.