If I were to give a measured reaction to Riki Wilchins now infamous “Transgender Dinosaurs” editorial in The Advocate, it would amount to this: it is yet another example of hierarchal inversion where we assign a moral-political value to genders and then exile the ones we disapprove of. The kind of visibility Wilchins writes about is based on a trendy ethic that suggests if you aren’t visibly out of the mainstream, then you’re The Man, and part of The Problem. This, however, neglects the fact that ‘standing out’ in that way carried unacceptable risks for most trans women, historically. It also ignores, from a moral perspective, that if we attach moral value only to accoutrement—or suggest that the latter is indispensable to moral behaviour—then we are creating an exclusionary, even bankrupt political ethic that is based simply on what is fashionable, not what is politically necessary.
We begin with this quote which, in a way, neatly sums up everything that is wrong with Wilchins’ ideas:
“Never having passed as female as I’d grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary…”
A revolution is about a substantive change in material relations of power and ruling; it is about making the world less violent, less oppressive, more equitable and just. It is not about whatever Wilchins is suggesting is revolutionary here, which seems to be little more than “women should dress and look the way I want them to look” and “trans people should express their gender in the way I want them to.” Do I even have to say something to the effect of “As a feminist, I think that’s sickening”?
But Wilchins’ transmisogyny goes beyond that. The entire story, an efficient distillation of radical transphobia, pivots around a woman with no voice, a girl that Wilchins renders a mute doll in order to make her trendsetting point that trans girls and women are now insufficiently transgressive, beginning immediately with the kind of objectification that characterises most mainstream media coverage of those same women.
The article’s opening words say it all:
“She was a lovely 13-year-old girl, with long blond hair, bright hazel eyes and the budding bosom and hips of the woman she would soon be.”
And throughout the article she remains “this blond.” Her hair colour, a “budding bosom” and a dress are who she is for Wilchins’ purposes. One wonders how this nameless young woman would react to having been used in such a way. What did she have to say about transition? About her life and the meaning of her gender? We don’t know, because she is merely a mirror in which Wilchins sees her own existential insecurities grimacing back at her.
She suggests throughout the article that we somehow stop being trans people if we gain any kind of conditional cisgender privilege, if we cease being ‘visibly trans,’ however that is assessed in our deeply fluctuating society. “But the question of blockers — if you could take a pill that would stop you from being transgender, would you take it?” she asks, constantly equating a “pill that would make [gays and lesbians] heterosexual” with hormone blockers and passing-as-cis. For Wilchins, there is no “residue” when a trans person “passes,” nothing that marks us as special or non-normative.
Outwardly, this may be so. But as Wilchins herself ought to know, being trans is a rather depressingly holistic experience. Phenomenologically, being trans is an all-over, inside-out life; the ‘inside’ never goes away, no matter what you do. We can manage it psychologically, we can mend the worst side effects of that double consciousness, and stitch its frayed edges, but it is hard to make it go away completely. Why? A trip to the rather ugly comments on Wilchins’ piece should suffice (Trigger Warning):
“Yeah. Sure. Males all start out as female in utero — except for the XY chromosomes in every cell of their bodies. … Letting the “T” infest the LGB was the worst idea since Troy decided to pull that attractive wooden horse inside the gates of the city.
THIS is what we get for it: Heterosexual males who make it their life’s obsession to force everyone else to pretend that normal human reproductive biology doesn’t exist — and denying the rest of us our inalienable right to use the correct pronouns of our mother-tongue per biological sex of the person about whom we are speaking.”
I quoted this sickening screed at length to remind any readers disposed to Wilchins’ views just where the heart of transphobia lies: biological essentialism. We are marked from birth, and always will be in the eyes of cissexists. They hate us because of what was marked on our birth certificate, in essence. No matter how we look, how normative, how ‘attractive’ (and indeed, sometimes the more normative we are, the more viciously we’re attacked, particularly by left wing transphobes like the one quoted here), we will be pilloried if our trans status is known. We will always be subject to the most vicious, vituperative hate from those who are outraged at our mere existence, no matter about our hair or “budding bosoms” or wide hips or pretty dresses or what the hell ever is making Wilchins upset. In other words, there is no “leaving” transgender.
When she says of the nameless 13 year old girl that “She didn’t cross gender lines or even rub up against them” Wilchins is simply lying. The girl transitioned. She charged through the Great Wall of Gender. How on earth is that not “crossing gender lines”?
Living with that knowledge, that coming out is always a dangerous and disturbing exercise that threatens the very foundations of your life in an uncaring world… that stays with you. Knowing that your history is inalterable, that you had a history where you needed to come out, transition, expose yourself, take enormous risks, and endure deep dysphoria to claim a gender that cis people take for granted… that stays with you. These psychological realities are also part of being trans, and while having passing privilege takes some of the sting out, it does not make you “not trans.” That is, to be blunt, a petulant and self-serving thing to suggest, and represents the kind of exclusionary radical politics that drives trans women away from most queer circles.
Martha Nussbaum, in her devastating criticism of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, summarised the queer-feminist Zeitgeist perfectly,
“Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness. These symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly. … All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech.”
Substitute “words/speech” for “gendered performance” and you get the gist of this ethic. Now, consider Wilchins’ purportedly hopeful conclusion to her article: “More youth are queering their hormoneless, surgery-free identities, doing versions of non-male and non-female and all sorts of gender drag in between that both mock binary genders and threaten to turn them inside out.”
The echoes of Butler’s empty buzzwords ring through the sentence.
I am in no way suggesting that what Wilchins describes is a bad thing; what I am specifically doing is critiquing, just as Nussbaum has, the idea that we should attach a privileged moral value to symbolic transgression. The troublesome move here is that Wilchins and others seem to believe that this sartorial and physical rhetoric is the path to the promised land, while those of us who use our hard won autonomy to eschew such “mockery”[i] are simply “counter-revolutionary”—never mind what we actually believe and do. I use makeup, wear my hair long, and I tend to favour skirts; according to Wilchins’ activist balance sheet this must outweigh my work for a radical transgender led nonprofit, work and leadership in a women’s rights club, and my writing.
I have tried to devote myself to using the few talents I have to minimising the suffering of those I can help. The reason I am even writing this article is in the hopes of comforting sisters afflicted by dangerously misguided ideas like Wilchins’. The narcissism that inheres to focusing on presentation and performance is anathema to real political change, which demands empathy and labour on behalf of others, irrespective of their bodies and appearances. Our bodies, our choices; is this not what was meant to be our guiding light? For many of us, our resistance takes us down different paths towards the dream of building better institutions for us all.
Performative rhetorics have their place and can, yes, jolt observers into an uncomfortable place that then engenders new understandings, and a slightly better world. The mistake is in overemphasising such performance as the essence of resistance; this is invariably going to come at someone’s expense and the power dynamics it engenders do not go away with a wish, however much Wilchins and her fellow travellers may wish to ignore them. Oftentimes white, masculine queer folks who run various political events, parties, shindigs, and rallies often wonder why more trans women—especially trans women of colour—don’t show up.
Wilchins’ article is the reason why.
Wilchins, like Butler, “delights in her violative practice while turning her theoretical eye resolutely away from the material suffering of women who are hungry, illiterate, violated, beaten. There is no victim. There is only an insufficiency of signs,” to quote Nussbaum once more. There are very real, material reasons underlying trans women’s “performative” choices—some radiate from the bright sun of our self-esteem, others are painfully emblematic of oppression’s cribbing—all are personal, few are talked about and understood, and none are so much as hinted at by Wilchins’ self-reflection. We need only more subversive gestures that stick a rude finger at the gender binary; we need not consider what trans women’s lived lives are actually like and what multitudes may be contained in our diversity.
If that absence were the only problem, this would be sin enough. Yet Wilchins and others fill the void instead with inflammatory rhetoric that antagonises and demeans the very women that others like her fret about including. It is a conviction that transgression positively correlates with radicalism and morality; to the rest the hindmost. In the process I’ve become the very transsexual menace Wilchins once celebrated.
Forgive me if I refuse to play along.
[i] I would also imagine that most genderqueer people prefer not to think of themselves as having purely reactionary genders that exist simply to mock and parody the hegemonic, but rather as people whose genders exist for their own sake.
Really wonderful post, Quinnae.
I can’t help but wonder if some of Wilchins’ motivation is personal. I know I’m filled with significant envy (despite knowing I shouldn’t feel that way) towards people who transition/have transitioned before puberty, and I’m still a relatively young transitioner who passes well. By focusing upon the “revolutionary value” of bodies that aren’t as often read as female, I wonder if Wilchins is asserting value in her own body and identity that the vast vast majority of people deny, like a coat of armor. The existence of someone who not only won’t go through that struggle but also, in Wilchins’ mind, won’t even benefit from Wilchins’ own political struggle really challenges that valuation and seems really threatening.
I don’t mean to patronize Wilchins’ argument with this psychoanalysis, but moreso to say that I think her article illustrates a tension long felt in the trans movement (notably, passing privilege) and how that divide is widening to the point where some honest, empathic conversations might be appropriate in lieu of keeping a lot of resentment bubbling inside. As you very well articulate, I agree that Wilchins’ article isn’t a good example of such a conversation (although it might be an example of that resentment), but I do wonder if there’s something to the divide between pre, during, and post puberty transition that could possibly use some airing out.
I know precisely what you mean, and I have felt it myself. I thank you for living up to the name of your blog and writing with a kindness and sympathy that, yes I agree, this issue deserves. My withering words were necessary in a way, but I think others like you are capable of more eloquently speaking to Wilchins’ humanity and her trans experience, which is no doubt riven with a great deal of pain that merits comment and activist discussion. These are matters which do indeed need “airing out,” and I’d like to find a way to do that without giving into these trendy hierarchies of value.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ophelia!
Like everything Wilchins writes it reeks of socio economic privilege. What she says is true only for an economically privileged few with wealthy open minded supportive parents, not the poor kid from the trailer park with gender issues being bullied every day in some hell hole in red state christian america. Somehow Wilchins (and her former sidekick in STA and later Transexual Menace Denise Norris) get to project their own personal psyche as the voice of our community whether we want to be represented by them or not. As Robert Heinlein once said of L. Ron Hubbard “I knew Riki Wilchins when she was still a small time crook.” Chelsea Elisabeth Goodwin
Please leave me out of your residual anger, Chelsea. I hold you no ill-will, but be careful on the defamation of character thing.
Life is seldom perfect, but the events which you still feel resentment over are 20 years in the past. Let it go finally and you will have a happier life.
Reblogged this on tambrosia.
Hi there, I’m glad to see another response from a trans woman to that horrible, dis-empowering article that RW wrote for the Advocate. I particularly appreciated your comments acknowledging that sometimes passing-as-cis privilege can result in greater social consequences when one’s trans status is revealed. I myself have an intense memory of an evening when I was walking with another trans woman, and when a certain man guessed at my trans status through my friend he proceeded to ignore her entirely while focusing intense aggression towards me (he threatened to kill me). Now that isn’t to deny that passing privilege can make life easier in a wide variety of circumstances, but it is to say that over-simplistic gender-as-transgression narratives often ignore or obscure complex realities that many trans women have to deal with.
I also appreciated your comment calling out Wilchins’ bogus claim that the young woman she wrote about “didn’t cross gender lines or even rub up against them.” That phrase really bothered me when I read it in her piece, but somehow I didn’t get the full implication of her words until I read your blog post above. Riki Wilchins is lying in that claim, and in doing so she is erasing many potential difficulties that that woman could encounter as she grows up.
That having been said, I feel less certain about the comparison made here with Judith Butler’s academic work. I admit that I am still in the early chapters of Gender Trouble myself, but what I have read of it so far doesn’t feel *anything* like the kind of oppressive narrative that Wilchins put forward. On the contrary, I think Butler’s work on gender theory is a quite intentional rebuke of the genital-essentialist, anti-trans woman writers of early second wave feminism. And while she certainly challenges social concepts of gender normativity as part of that rebuke, I don’t think her conclusion is that “radical, transgressive” gender expressions are superior to “normative” gender expressions. In fact, she *explicitly* states that that interpretation of her work is incorrect in the preface to the more recent edition of the book. I think Butler’s opinion is more like, “gender is an artifice, but many aspects of human lives are artifice, and so that doesn’t mean gender is useless or meaningless.”
In fact, I met Butler in person, and she did not seem the least bit transphobic or transmisogynistic to me. If anything, I felt she was making it a point to carefully consider my perspective during our conversation. Her demeanor was relaxed and respectful throughout.
Thank you so much for your comments, I loved your post on the matter as well, and it’s good to see so many other trans women speaking out against this and reaffirming our realities!
And yes, you’re absolutely right, unfortunately; sometimes “passing” adds to the danger of being outed, particularly with cis men, who will see the “deception” as a personal insult and existential threat. The feeling of having been “duped” will often enrage them because they feel like you’ve threatened their heterosexuality and masculinity. I’m so very sorry you had to go through that, sis. *hugs*
As to Judith Butler, I agree and have read the latest edition of Gender Trouble with her reflective preface; she does indeed rebuke people for misconstruing her theory or overemphasising certain minor points (the drag queen business is one paragraph in a two hundred page book, yet it is what Gender Trouble is best remembered for in queer circles). I should say that my quibble is less with Butler herself (though I would still argue certain points; see the Nussbaum piece I linked for a brilliant philosophical analysis), than it is with Butlerian thinking; the school of thought it spawned in the academy and amongst her acolytes. Her writing has been used to fuel the ethic of people like Wilchins and it is, without a doubt, academic writing that remains quite fashionable and trendy.
Her later work, like Undoing Gender, is a damn sight better than Bodies that Matter and Gender Trouble, but I am still mistrustful of her. I don’t know if she’s really done enough to curb peoples’ misinterpretations (if indeed that is what they are) of her work.
Finally, I should add that the link between Butler and Wilchins was one I made because Wilchins herself made it repeatedly in other writing. She’s even called Gender Trouble “an owner’s manual for transsexuality.” She’s very much a Butlerian in her thinking, and the bit about “parody” I quoted is part and parcel of the popular interpretation of Butler’s work.
I’m gratified to hear that she patiently heard you out, and I do not believe Butler herself is transmisogynist any longer. Her later period works are an elegant testament to her evolution on certain critical questions around trans-ness. But, in my view, the school of thought she created around herself is very much a trendy monster of her own making, and those of us who question and criticise Butler in these discussions are right to lay this at her door, considering that she is the ideological foremother of Wilchins’ arguments.
Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment. 🙂
I do see your point about Butler’s writing spawning a certain school of thought. There’s no question there is truth to that, and some of that has been mis-appropriated and directed as oppression against trans women who live outside those kinds of “anti-paradigmatic” paradigms. (Personally, I tend to think of those kinds of ideologies as being something like an oppressive gender binary that just happens to sit at right angles to the original oppressive gender binary… it simply replaces a “female” and “male” binary with a “transgressive” and “non-transgressive” gender binary. Something I plan to work out more fully on my blog when I get a chance).
Nevertheless, I do personally view her much more so as an ally than anything else. I think one other thing to keep in mind when it comes to her work is that she is also challenging a lot of recurring racist tropes in second wave feminism and I think much of her work opened the door for more sex-positive ideas in feminism. I think both of those things are very important, and also particularly important from a trans woman perspective. And for her to call out those things was not necessarily an easy task– those problematic concepts were deeply embedded in the thinking of many feminist writers back during the period in which she was writing.
Thanks for discussing this with me, and for your supportive comments about the unpleasant encounter I mentioned *hugs*
The “transgressive” vs “non-transgressive” gender binary model is one that I’m not convinced of. In my experience, while the ideas that transgressiveness is good exist, it’s my experience that they’re only weaponized as tools of transmisogyny. At the very least, there’s a ternary: “transgressive” people, who are considered cool, attractive, and whatever else (in those circles), “non-transgressive” people whose genders are unworthy of comment, and trans women, whose supposed non-transgressiveness is considered worthy of comment, and who can’t really access the benefits of being “transgressive” (while known to have transitioned away from a male birth assignment. I’ve had a genderqueer friend who was open about having transitioned from a male birth assignment be told that sie was exercising “binary privilege” over another genderqueer person).
But, from my perspective, both of the not-trans-women categories are essentially the same thing. We’re not on the same side of some transgressive/not-transgressive binary as cis people. We’re on the opposite side of a binary of people who transitioned from a male birth assignment and everyone else, which, rather than being unique to queer circles, is just a replication in queer circles of what exists in the broader society. Meanwhile, some people on the other side play at being “transgressive” for queer cred, while they reinforce transmisogyny and at some cases by reinforcing transmisogyny.
Thanks for the eye-opening read, Quinnae! Didn’t realize how far Wilchins had shifted. I discovered your blog some time back when doing one of many searches and I like the way you think. I have come around to very similar conclusions as yours regarding this rarified queer darling of the academic feminist, sociologist, bleh, bleh, blehs. Look forward to reading more of yr stuff on academic feminism.
Well, I have I special interest in the matter considering that I’m not only a trans woman, but one of the academic feminist sociologist bleh bleh blehs myself. 😛 I love academic feminism and that’s a big part of why I write this sort of material. Thanks for your comment!
I just read Riki Wilchins’… whatever that was… about an hour ago to avoid studying for law school finals and I’m so glad I stumbled on this! It was just a combination of everything I keep finding frustrating and alienating about the queer community all in an unbearable radicaler-than-thou tone. As someone with serious body-image issues tightly lashed to having been assigned male at birth and gone through a testosterone-fueled puberty, I’m not sure what I was supposed to take away from it. It seems like I’m supposed to feel like an impediment to other trans people by worrying about passing when I go out for ten minutes to buy mangoes or to a bar for a night for some fun. Obviously, the structures that result in this kind of external and internal pressure are NOT AT ALL at fault for the devaluing of trans women’s bodies and identities, but just us insufficiently transgressive transsexual girls.
I think I felt the most resonance with the description of being trans as a “depressingly holistic experience.” That’s exactly the way I feel about it. Many of us are being constantly battered by immense, and often multiple, fears, scarcities, sorrows, and rejections; opting to configure our bodies or self-expressions to appear cisgender does not relieve many of these problems and causes none of them. I feel a huge sense of loss relating to my assigned sex and my body. I also have a complicated kind of envy toward cis women, along with trans women who get access to blockers before puberty hits. These facets of my experience have not stopped me from doing advocacy work for trans people and writing an article (selected for publication!) on reinterpreting the existing Title VII to prohibit employers from making any adverse employment decision based on a gendered trait that doesn’t constitute a bona fide occupational qualification. All of this is coming from a girl who is cisgender in her dreams and disappointed when she wakes up! I’m pretty sure RW is pointing the finger at the wrong phenomenon.