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.