By now word of the great Gay Girl in Damascus hoax has spread throughout the western world and the blogosphere, becoming a much ballyhooed object of derision, snickering, finger wagging, tut tutting and all the rest. For those of you not in the know, here’s Color Lines’ Akiba Solomon’s deft summary of recent events— it precedes an analysis I highly recommend:
On February 19th, shortly before Syria’s Arab Spring uprisings began, an American-born Syrian lesbian named Amina Abdullah Araf launched “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Araf had been posting comments and debating Middle Eastern politics online for years, but created her own space at the urging of Paula Brooks, co-founder of the news site “Lez Get Real.”
Araf’s blog featured her erotic poetry and her coming-out story—risky material since homosexuality is illegal in Syria. She also spread news of the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors, prompting Time.com to call her “an honest and reflective voice of the revolution.” In late April, Araf claimed that Syrian security forces visited her father’s home and accused her of “conspiring against the state,” “urging armed uprising,” and “working with foreign elements.” Subsequent posts found Araf “going underground,” although she was still able to “encourage other women in Syria to be more upfront” via an email interview with cbsnews.com. Last week, a cousin posted a dramatic account of Araf’s abduction by three armed men. Like the rest of “Gay Girl in Damascus,” that entry is now unavailable to the public.
Because they’re human beings, members of the LBGT and progressive blogesphere took to Twitter, Facebook and petition sites demanding information and protection for Araf. Days later, the blogger’s “Catfish”-style caper unraveled due to skeptical tweets from an NPR reporter; news of fake photos on Araf’s Facebook page; and an unnerving interview with a Montreal woman “Araf” had seduced via Facebook. On Sunday, The Washington Post revealed “Araf” to be Tom MacMaster, a white 40-year-old from Virginia who was raised a Mennonite and attends a graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.
At this point, MacMaster should have just said, “I’ve come down with a terrible case of white, male privilege. Please medicate me.”
Let me explain this very plainly: As a trans, queer woman of colour who writes authoritatively about her experiences I am very directly affected by the aspersions cast by this hoax. My words have power only if you believe them.
Now, this is hardly to claim that this little plague of white cis het guys in women costumes are the sole cause of all doubt and derision cast on those of us women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, PWD who speak out and speak loudly as we testify to our truths. That is certainly not the case. But they play so very deftly into the hands of that rash of men who say that there are no women on the Internet and that everyone claiming to be is really some creepy neckbearded guy in his mum’s basement. It gives a very powerful excuse to people who want to ignore us, erase us, marginalise us further, and another reason for them to simply shut down their minds whenever they read words of power from those the mainstream media almost never listens to.
In impersonating women of colour and queer women, the two fools behind Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real have done immeasurable damage with their high profile ‘outings.’ When so many of us out there are not listened to, are not given interviews with Time Magazine and CBS News to tell our stories in our own voices, what these two men have done is given every reason to news corporations to be even more gunshy about taking sources seriously if they do not come through the “proper channels.” It was likely as not a battle for some reporters to get their bosses to seriously accept ‘Amina’ as a credible interview subject, for instance. Now it will be an impossible battle when a real woman of colour has something to say to the mainstream press.
Times are very hard, to be sure, and as I am now working in the fundraising department of a radical transgender rights oriented organisation I’m seeing yet another dimension to the endless Great Recession unfolding before me. Simultaneously, what I am constantly astonished by is how people in the most economically disadvantaged communities always manage to find a penny here and a penny there to help their sisters, brothers, and siblings in need. We’re out there looking out for each other and that never fails to give me hope.
It sounds a tad bit cheesy, yes, but for all of my snarky sarcasm and the like, I’ve always put a lot of stock in that gift from Pandora’s Box. It’s a precious resource in the trans community. So, what am I waxing all poetic about and what not? Well, this time around I’d like to solicit you all to fundraise for a charity near and dear to my heart– so much so that I’m actually working for them. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organisation for low income trans people of colour, has radical aims that dovetail with the themes I often speak of on this blog. It is hard to imagine a better organisation for me to devote my time and energy to. Indeed, it’s part of why I’ve been a tadbit too busy to write these days. But it is the Goddess’s work and it feels decidedly good.
On that note, this is our latest fundraising project:
I’ve been pretty busy helping with the organising and the fundraising that an event like this requires but for the moment I’ve been given a pet project and if any of my readers are interested in doing a spot of good then you can hop on over to Indie GoGo and check out our online fundraiser leading up to this gala. Please feel free to contribute, but if you don’t want to or are unable to, then I encourage you to pass the link along to any friends, colleagues, allies, and so on who may be interested. With initiatives like this every dollar helps.
My work here has been, in no small measure, interesting and a crash course in many things. But it has, above all, been a beautiful insight into the community that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have forged and of which I am proud to be a part. I’m not the kind of woman who is easily persuaded into advocacy and I would have never offered my blog as a place to help our fundraising efforts if I couldn’t say the word “our” with confidence apropos SRLP; if I didn’t feel a sense of ownership, a sense of community, I’d have never mentioned my blog. But I did so eagerly because SRLP isn’t just where I work. It’s a workplace where I can be out as a trans woman without the slightest second thought, and it’s a place where all of the markers of isolating distinction and discrimination do not count against you. A place where I could seek support from everyone on staff when I experienced a transphobic incident a couple of weeks ago.
In sum, I do believe in SRLP and what they do; they practise what they preach and I love them to bits. They are that rarest of organisations that will make my usually cold onyx heart melt and go all mooshy.
This is one of only a few nonprofit organisations that reflects the radical vision I have; radically gender equal and positive, feminist/anti-patriarchal, and as much as possible a non-hierarchical organisation that constantly militates against forces compelling them to sell out. As much as possible, I can say with confidence having seen things from the inside, we really do try to ensure that the trans community has ownership of this non profit and that we are never beholden to the powerful or the “great and good.” Small donations from (yes I’m using the PBS phrase here) people like you make that radical goal possible.
Okay I’m done being all sappy. If y’all are generous I may throw a slug comic up here soon when I get home. Thanks in advance.
It is, by now, a cliché to suggest that transgender people of most any stripe are somehow acting contrarily to nature. This has numerous ideological expressions. On the political right we hear this from conservative Christians and “men’s rights activists,” from science we hear this from any number of would-be psychiatric colonists of our experiences, and from the left we hear this from any number of groups including a certain clique of radical feminists.
What I have found interesting is that these types of feminists– the Julie Bindel set, essentially– come from a school of feminist thought that placed a good deal of primacy on the sacred, natural body; hence their obsession with SRS and the like. I am always reminded of my father (Goddess knows he was no feminist in the slightest) angrily asking me if I was saying that God had made a mistake. Clearly I was challenging Him by saying I was “born wrong” (or something like that). The whole theoretical construct relies on a welter of cis projections and is not based on anything I’ve said, naturally. But the framing of this clique of feminists is much the same: substitute Nature for God. This simple gesture is at the heart of much leftist and science-based oppression, the generative nucleus of all that is right and good is simply shifted from an all powerful white male divine to an all powerful Natural Order/Balanced Ecosystem that we cannot challenge.
It is exactly the same ideological manoeuvre that feminists rightly opposed in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. A move that allowed the scientists to pooh pooh the religious by telling them there was no God who ordained everything… while preserving the Ur textual explanation for the inexorability of white cis male supremacy in a new form, this time ‘scientific.’ For eco-feminists, there was less emphasis on science as they understood what was going on with the then-ascendant sociobiological explanation for gender. But they simply reinvested a kind of mysticism into Nature. And thus people like Sheila Jeffreys would ask me “So are you saying Nature was wrong?”
What is tacitly ignored in all of this is the fact that humans, by default, act contrarily to nature. Virtually nothing we have done as a species, as a civilisation, has been purely natural. It never fails to make me smirk when I hear arguments about the virtues of naturalism from someone wearing glasses. Such arguments almost invariably are arguments for the preservation, in part or in whole, of the status quo. The “balance of nature” or the “will of God” always just so happens to demand that our present arrangements of power and hegemony, on one particular subject or on all subjects, are pre-ordained and foolish to fight. The set of conservative transphobes on the political right require a vision of a male/female caste system that is ineluctable, easily maintained, and lifelong that can ground itself in the perfectly constructed male/female body. The transphobes of the left, many with roots in various ecological movements, assert that nature has created a perfect body that any changes to (changes that are not sanctioned by dominant ideology, at any rate) are unnatural, aberrant, deviant, and ‘mutilation.’
What is lurking behind all of this is the anthropomorphising of the generative nucleus in each system: God or Nature. The intelligent design movement of the Christian Right in the West provides us with the clearest expression of this notion: God is a designer, a divine watchmaker, whose intelligence is used to carry out His intent in the world and thus all of nature has a sentience-ordained purpose; acting contrarily to that purpose is objectively ‘wrong.’ Since God can be conceptualised as a person, this is easier to swallow if you give yourself over entirely to the religious fervour that enables belief in a literal divine figure, lounging on a cloud somewhere in the heavens. With Nature it is much more clearly a metaphor that has spun wildly out of control. Nature, many transphobic scientists and radical feminists say, has intent as well. We can discern this intent scientifically and politically, and then measure deviance from that standard as an objective metric of ‘wrongness.’ To act contrary to the intent of nature is thus empirically, scientifically, wrong. Politics is removed from the equation, and this analysis is presented to the masses as a neutral, ineluctable truth. One which just so happens to say that the current order of white cis male power is natural and inevitable.
It is interesting to think about why certain cis radical feminists have participated in this discourse, one constructed on a theoretical paradigm that has suggested that women are intrinsically inferior to men.
This is the discourse that radical feminist transphobes are accessing when they deny trans people any semblance of personhood based on how we supposedly challenge the natural order. It uses exactly the same logic, relies on the same Archimedean Point of an all powerful, unchanging divine nature that does not err, and can be easily manipulated to come to conclusions about women that are antithetical to feminism. The ‘perfect body’ of womanhood suggested by some cis radical feminists bears a strange resemblance to the alabaster angel who bears children for the fatherland. To define women solely on the basis of our fertility is not only a losing game, but one that reinforces a central ideological pillar of patriarchy: that we really can be bound by our supposedly universal ability and desire to give birth. Since this is “natural” there can be nothing wrong with it. It is objective, neutral, ahistorical, and apolitical.
Feminists, perhaps better than anyone else, know why that is bullshit and what that imports into our highly political culture. It is precisely my own radical feminism, very specifically, that has given me the strength to confront and push back against these oppressive ideas. It is my feminism which helps me feel, in good conscience, that I am right to oppose any notion that subsumes our shared humanity beneath the weight of an abstract ideal.
The reality that human beings must confront is simple: Nature has no intent. It is not conscious, it is not intelligent or otherwise self-aware. It does not think, it does not plan, it does not design. Nature, as such, is a constantly evolving, changing, messy, illogical riot of constant evolution and adaptation that has no discernable “intent” in the sense humans understand that word. As a woman, my inability to bear children does not define me; to phrase this differently, my inability to bear children has not spared me the ravages of patriarchy. Cis men treat me as a woman, with all the negativity that implies. My lack of a uterus does not insulate me from that. The meaning of “woman” in our society is not synonymous with the meaning of “womb.”
We’re making a very tragic mistake if we think so.
To talk of nature is to talk of something that changes, that evolves. We all know this on some level: not a single one of us looks or is shaped much like we were when we were born. Nature is not a static thing held in perpetual equilibrium. Like the human beings that arose from it, nature changes constantly. Nature is change. To say that what we were born with is intrinsically good, and any alterations thereto are intrinsically bad has nothing to do with nature. It is an ideology. It is, in a word, politics. The world is one that evolves and that blossoms: human life at its best, at its freest, is a life of blossoming, a life constantly in motion whose ultimate course is one of many winding roads and hairpin turns.
To whatever extent it can be determined that evolution has a ‘plan’ or some preconceived order (metaphorically speaking, of course) we as humans, by our very nature (real nature, in this case), are under no obligation or compulsion to follow that plan. One of the things that defines us as a species is our ability to discern evolution and think about it; that awareness is part of how we then step outside of evolution, at least in part, and decide with our own self-awareness what directions we may take.
Women are not ‘intended’ for anything, and certainly not by dint of birth. In my own case, as a woman, as a trans person, as a human being, did God make a mistake? Yes, absolutely. The God conjured by humans, by men in particular, did indeed make a mistake. Because the God is not in the sky, He is invested in every doctor, every clergyman, every teacher and parent, who ever tried to force me to be someone I did not wish to be. It would be more accurate to say that they failed.
But to put it another way, if one believes in Deity of some kind, or a Creator, the best way of imagining it is this (and this applies very much to the Naturalists as well). No, God/Nature did not make any sort of mistake; but we ever fallible human beings have a lot of mistaken assumptions about what we have been given to work with.
 I’ve never claimed to be “born wrong” and have long since abandoned any notion of being “born in the wrong body.” The very idea that being trans is the correcting of a mistake is made necessary by a society that imposes definitions on us that are inherently limiting, binding, and always against our will. In a just society, my evolution as a gendered being would have been unremarkable and like any other.
 I can’t take credit for this. A discussion with the ever brilliant little light yielded this idea from her and I thought it a brilliant, spiritual and social resolution to what I have always considered a deeply flawed question.
Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual harassment.
It was a whisper, a murmuring, but an audible one in a few news outlets ranging from the BBC to the New Yorker. A recognition of something oft unregarded, unreported, and unnoticed.
The rafts of journalism produced by the case of IMF Chairman and Socialist party patriarch Dominique Strauss-Kahn has taken a variety of angles on his alleged rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York City except that which may matter most: the perspective of the maid herself. The whisper and murmur I heard was the fact that journalists were noticing this. Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker said the following in his blog about the French reaction to the rape case:
Listening to the political classes attempting to come to terms with the destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn today, I heard hardly a thought for his accuser. It seemed a good measure of the depth of France’s political malaise that it took a Le Pen to show solidarity with the working woman against the Socialist Party’s favorite son.
Emphasis mine. This is the great invisible wall of silence that surrounds rape in our society and puts the lie to any notion that men accused of rape are automatically condemned at the end of a woman’s pointed finger. That a few journalists are at last speaking about this, albeit in hushed tones tucked at the end of articles, is heartening. But it calls attention to the glaring absence of concern for the victims of rape, or even those who- in the public eye- come to be known by the title of “accuser” with all of its hectoring, negative connotations.
In all of the commentary out of France over the last few days what we have seen in cavalcades of speech and soundbites is concern for the IMF, for the reputation of France, for the fate of the Socialist Party. Yet none have said, even with due deference and qualified tones, something to the effect of: “if the accusations prove true, my heart goes out to the victim of this horrendous assault.” We are instead fed the lie that “innocent until proven guilty” or scrupulous neutrality in general means to assume that Strauss-Kahn is the victim of some set-up. To dare to suggest that it is, in fact, likely he raped that young chambermaid is to be hopelessly biased. To say you believe a conspiracy has netted him and that he’s just not that kind of guy- as many French politicians across its political spectrum have- is ‘neutral’ and ‘unbiased’ thinking.
To clutch one’s pearls about France’s reputation but not spare a thought for one moment that this young woman’s reputation may be forever tarnished by this case is supposedly fair and balanced.
To look at the comment sections of many news websites is to find armies of people- mostly men if the screen names are any guide- saying that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, propounding on their virtuous fairness and neutrality, refusing to rush to judgement and so forth. All while saying that some invisible mass, some nebulous powerful force, is presuming him guilty. It is difficult to fathom what it is these people are seeing when most commentary on these articles appears to assume Strauss-Kahn is innocent. As has been said, it is no more neutral to say you believe he didn’t do it and that such a crime is ‘far fetched’ than it is for me to suggest it is, in fact, very likely.
Strauss-Khan has a reputation of sorts. Ironically this is being touted as precisely the reason it would make sense to ‘set him up’ with a false rape accusation. It’s a nightmare that the man himself nursed according to an interview with the newspaper Libération:
Strauss-Kahn then volunteered to the journalists a hypothetical example of something that could bring him down: “A woman raped in a parking lot who is promised half a million euros to make up her story.”
Yet this is rarely described as ‘far fetched’ and ‘fanciful’- even though it is. Malicious false rape accusations- charges made by a woman who knows she was not raped, and is intentionally setting up a man- are exceedingly rare. 500,000 Euros is rather a pittance for leaping headfirst into the jaws of a misogynist media that will eviscerate, with glee, a lying temptress- the figure of many a male nightmare. Most women, even those who have not been harassed, assaulted, or raped, know all too well that there is no joy in dealing with the criminal justice system (whatever country they may live in) when it comes to charging a man as their assailant. To say nothing of that fact that generally women are simply disbelieved. We are the “accusers,” magically transmuted into the active one doing something to a man, rather than reporting something done to us. This is, again, considered a scrupulously neutral posture on the subject.
As I engaged in the ritual striptease meant to appease the airline gods at Denver International Airport, standing at the bin that I had claimed as my own with an advert I paid no attention to staring at me from its bottom, a TSA agent walked up to me. I was depositing my grey blazer in the bin, my belt soon to follow, and I grew nervous, my throat tightening as it often does on security lines.
But all that the blue uniformed man did was smile at me and say “Good morning to ya, ma’am.”
At that moment I knew, as if a disembodied computer voice had said in my head “Conditional Cissexual Privilege Activated” that I was safe. For now. I escorted my belongings, the worn leather boots that could theoretically contain a bomb, the belt that could theoretically contain a trigger mechanism. Or cocaine. My handbag full of feminist literature (now there’s something explosive). That was when motion caught my eye and I saw something ominously towering over the old fashioned metal detector. The rounded slate grey hulk of an x-ray machine scanning men and women in a surrendering position, arms held unthreateningly high above their heads. I swallowed thickly wondering if the jig was up, if I would at last have to face transphobia at the airport, if I would have to sit in a room listening to impertinent questions about what was in my knickers.
As I approached the metal detector and drew nearer to the x-ray machine I felt cold and uncomfortable, as if I were approaching some tainted evil artefact from one of my fantasy games. The dread relic of a tyrannical lord. All prose of a purple hue aside, however, I came to realise that the scanner was only for people who rang the metal detector inexplicably. Thank Goddess I decided against those nipple piercings.
As I glided beneath the metal detector’s auspices I escaped the intensified gaze of the guards when the machine didn’t go off. I was waved past and sent to collect my freshly x-rayed belongings.
When people, from activists to academics, assert that the personal is political it is an injunction to reflect on the wider meaning of quotidian events such as this one. It is a call to recognise the event not as an isolated monad among multitudes, but linked to others by a web of societal relations that can ensnare us all (or liberate us). I knew that day as I submitted myself for screening that I was coming up against the great legal fiction of gender that exists in this country, the fact that the timid bulge an x-ray scanner might have revealed were I subject to it would have marked me as a deviant, a potential terrorist with plastic explosives in her knickers, or just someone to be publicly humiliated otherwise. The fiction that sustains the meaning which licenses such behaviour is the patchwork quilt of laws in the US that defines gender.
It is always with such things as this in mind that I read transgender legal scholarship. As dispassionate and ‘objective’ as I try to peruse the readings on law and trans people, I find again and again that I am simply unable to divorce my lived, and embodied reality from that reading. A while ago I simply decided I should stop trying to distance myself; this was my life, after all. What cis privilege refers to is precisely the fact that the above scene I described is something a cis person almost never has to deal with concerning airport security. Or anything else in their day to day life. The definition of cis privilege is precisely that one can live a life where their gender is legally recognised as being beyond reproach.
So, a brief sidebar for all my usual readers whom I love and adore; yours truly has participated in Bitch Magazine’s blog carnival celebrating all manner of feminist click and anti-click. I wrote an article about the meaning of online gaming to me as a trans woman and as a feminist and posted it on The Border House. You may find it in all its glory here. The essence of the article is that I learned a tremendous deal about what it meant to be a woman in contemporary society- vivifying the second half of Susan Stryker’s famous (to me) definition of womanhood: “A woman is one who says she is and then does what woman means.” I learned, in ways both empowering and painful, what being a woman meant.
What’s more, I would come to terms with who I was, and most important of all, roleplaying showed me that there was courage and strength in womanhood. It prepared me for the fight that would explode forth in all its fury when I finally decided to come out. The article was meant to convey some of the reasons that a video game can be more than “just a game” and to illustrate the importance of pride in a world where shame remains all too common. There were more issues that I should have explored, in retrospect, and might be fruitful areas of consideration for future articles. While I looked up to several women characters in video games, and some on television like Star Trek’s Captain Janeway, what was inescapable was the whiteness of all of these women. It was something that has complexed me to this day; it’s still a struggle for me to see myself as beautiful when compared to white women. Video games by themselves are hardly to blame for this, indeed I would cast more of the weight with our wider media culture, but they still played their role.
Conversely, Night Elves offered a curious escape from that trap. I could at least be proud to be purple. These are matters I’ll have to think on more deeply to be sure. My analyses of cybersociology often miss issues of race in any great measure and this is something that has been bothering me more and more. I have things to say on this, things I’ve felt, things I’ve experienced through that ultimate form of participant observation research known as life, but it will take time for me to order them in my head.
On that note, enjoy the blog carnival and I will be back soon with another Transgender Studies update!
What follows is a modified and edited version of my thoughts on two recent readings that I did for my Transgender Studies course. I was responding to a chapter from Viviane K. Namaste’s book Invisible Lives that critiqued queer theory-based transphobia, and to an article by Judith Butler entitled Undiagnosing Gender. The editing was not extensive, just some minor edits for clarity since this article began as an email written in one draft, and removal of names and personal references. Regular readers of this blog may recognise some familiar themes, such as my almost requisite praise of Anne Fausto-Sterling and talk of ‘dynamic history.’ Usually I wouldn’t belabour that, but this was written for an audience less familiar with my writing, so bear with me! These admittedly lengthy musings were well received by both my advising professor and my colleague in this independent study.
Viviane K. Namaste:
Her Tragic Misreadings chapter from Invisible Lives is a brilliant analysis of how trans people are often misunderstood in postmodern queer theory. It’s a brief overview, sometimes all too brief, and perhaps vulnerable to criticism because of that. But the points she makes are well defined, sharp, and poignant. Last semester when I critiqued Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and her take on Venus Xtravaganza, it was this book I was reading, which you may well recall. Namaste makes an excellent point by bringing to light the fact that, as she says, “Here is the point: Venus was killed because she was a transsexual prostitute.” This is a matter she raises very bluntly in response to the fact that Butler seems to elide that point entirely, and more specifically Venus Xtravaganza’s trans subjectivity. In attempting to assert that her death represented a “tragic misreading of the social map of power” Butler seems to suggest that Venus Xtravaganza’s death was the result of her pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle.
I disagree with that vehemently.
Naturally I also disagree with Butler’s assertion that transsexual people only offer an “uncritical miming of the hegemonic [sex/gender system].” In the entirety of Bodies That Matter’s treatment of Venus Xtravaganza, what emerges is a rather callous effort to misuse the material that Jennie Livingston recorded of Venus Xtravaganza to support a particularly cissexist reading of trans people. There can be no question that Xtravaganza wanted a nice house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a “washer and dryer” as she said during interviews, but this has to be understood in the context of growing up in abject poverty and having very few vectors along which to cultivate dreams of a better life. It is particularly unreasonable for a white cis woman with an upper class education to cast aspersions on such desires. I don’t think Xtravaganza misread anything. She knew the risks, she knew the unlikelihood of her long term dreams coming true, but she did what she needed to in order to get by in a world where no one would even claim her body after she’d been murdered.
It is in this vein that I also agree with her critiques of other writers like Marjorie Garber and Carole-Anne Tyler. The issue with Garber as Namaste paints it is that she uses simulacra of transvestism that continually make reference to the transgression of gender boundaries, but does not seem to really dwell too much on the actual lived experiences of people who may be crossdressers; in my view, regardless of the intentions that inhere to her discipline’s epistemology, this is a fatal flaw that dooms her analysis to having an all too limited purview. Namaste is eminently and resolutely sociological when she critiques Garber and Butler by insisting that they do not examine the “material, discursive, and institutional locations” that TS/TG/CD people occupy. The title of her book, Invisible Lives, is her fundamental point: the quotidian lives of trans people, the whys and wherefores of what we do, and the experience (a concept so foundational to women’s and gender studies) of everyday life is completely ignored. This is central to Namaste’s entire work and it is the absence of such from a lot of Butlerian theory that annoys her.
It can be said that Namaste is missing the point of what Butler and other postmodern theorists are trying to do, but I disagree with that for one reason: even if Butler and those like her are being headily theoretical on purpose to discuss that miasma of social construction that is greater than the sum of its parts… the practical and day to day effects of that kind of theorising are what truly miss any kind of postmodern point. To wit, Butler’s theorising that transsexual people ‘uncritically mime’ dominant gender is an old idea that is still used to oppress trans people and actually obviates complex understandings of how everyone reinforces gender in one way or another, whether they are cis or trans; or gay, queer, bi, or het. It leads to the academic fetishising of trans people who are held to a double standard. It is categorically unpostmodern to do so and it actually reifies ontologically strict categories that should be anathema to postmodern theorists (i.e. to say that all people from this constructed category are thus and so seems to go against everything postmodernism and poststructuralism are trying to do).
From here Namaste pivots to a larger critique of postmodern and queer theory and the ability of either to adequately theorise the transsexual or transgender person. The cure to the academic fetishisation is, of course, to provide a detailed analysis of everyday life for trans people, which is a significant reason that it’s important to do so academically.
What I disagree with is her sweeping dismissal of queer theory’s usefulness, but given the time at which she was writing (2000) I think she could be forgiven for seeing an academic monolith in the version of queer theory that dominated the academy when she was writing this in the late 1990s. Nevertheless she is correct when she says: “Critics in Queer Theory habitually fail to consider that their selection of texts is a social process that embodies the production of knowledge and discourses on sexual and gendered objects. In this manner, queer theory is blind to its own institutional workings.” What she goes on to say about what queer theory connotes as “inside” and “outside” (heterosexuality and homosexuality respectively) is also very apt and it leads into a point I have made many, many times over on this subject:
There is no outside to gender. We are all part of the productive power structure that creates gendered meanings in one way or another. It is unethical to suggest that trans people reinforce gender norms without critically interrogating how you yourself reinforce those norms and how other cis people might also be doing so. This is not the first academic quest to search for an “outside” that just so happens to include the academics penning these ideas. For a lengthier and more brutal analysis of the Quest for Outside as I call it, you can see my blog post on the matter here.
Namaste’s critiques are, ironically, vividly illuminated by Judith Butler’s Undiagnosing Gender. My thoughts on it below are in some ways an expansion of both what I have said here and Namaste’s thinking on how to approach social analysis of trans lives.
Judith Butler, Undiagnosing Gender:
This piece from Professor Butler represents, I think, a profound evolution in her thinking that takes a completely different view of transsexual and transgender people than she seemed to in the early 1990s, and it was with this ‘era’ of her work that Viviane K. Namaste was so critically engaged. In Undiagnosing Gender, however, there seems to be a change in Butler’s perspective that responds to Namaste’s criticism. In writing this piece about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis she begins by asking straightforwardly:
“To understand the differences between these two views [broadly, pro- and anti- diagnosis] we have to ask how the diagnosis is actually lived. What does it mean to live with it?”
With that simple framing, Butler takes a rather different road than she did in Bodies That Matter, or even in Gender Trouble and it gives her a rather authoritative tone as she explores this particular issue. I feel that she sketches out rather expertly the two broad scatters of views that surround the issue of GID: those who want to keep the diagnosis to ensure medical access to transition for trans people, and those who oppose it because it stigmatises trans people and permanently relegates them to a second order of humanity.
Howdy, everyone! Things have been rather busy of late, class is taking off again and I’m having a grand old time. I’ve gotten out my bullwhip and leather hat since I’m taking a course in the archaeology of ancient women, and I am also taking a transgender studies independent research course with a good friend of mine which, as part of our grade, we will be liveblogging. More information on that will come as soon as it is available.
For those of you who enjoy my writing, enjoy my latest work from The Border House:
Cyberfucking While Feminist: Here I publish the first of several interviews with women and feministy people who erotically roleplay online. Their experiences have proven to be quite interesting. The first interview, published here, as well as the yet-to-be-published ones to follow are interesting tales of both empowerment and struggle with misogyny.
Characters done Right: Kreia from KotOR2: This loveletter for my favourite character ever was a long time coming. Kreia, the shadowy and dark mentor Jedi from Knights of the Old Republic 2, is analysed by yours truly in loving detail.
It’s Not a Dress! It’s Transphobia!: This article briefly examines one of the more aggravating tics of speech I’ve found in online gaming- the defensiveness and mockery on the part of cis male gamers about the fact that spellcasters wear robes that sometimes (*gasp*) have bright colours.
As always, enjoy! I’ll be back with more updates soon.
One of the rather fun things about being trans is that you live in a world where doctors poke and prod you hoping to find deep answers about why you exist- deep, award-winning, and powerful answers that will at last enable them to explain what the hell is up with us; because it’s not like we’re authorities on our own lives or anything.
To set the snark aside, I’m of course talking about the endless quest to find an etiology- or medical explanation of origin- for trans existence, a recent example of which can be found here. It is a particularly transfixing matter that seems to occupy the place of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth in the eyes of our medical masters. A Lost Ark of the Covenant with which to at last claim final dominion over us. The ultimate Holy Grail being a “trans test” whereby folks in white coats will be able to objectively prove that someone is trans.
Yet like all the foregoing it is a myth, a legend. There is not likely to be any one coherent, purely biological/neurological explanation for our existence. The drive to research the matter is not inherently evil, mind, but the resources being dedicated to it come into question when studies of this sort appear to be to the exclusion of more directly beneficial research, like longitudinal studies on the long-term effects of hormone treatment on trans people.
Recent studies have been justified by asserting that they will benefit young trans people with early identification of trans-ness. But let us be as honest and realistic as possible for a moment, shall we? What would make things easier on young trans kids is not an MRI scan or some kind of trans test. It would be a world where having a trans child would not be a terrible thing, where bullying of children who defied gender norms would be frowned upon and actively discouraged, where parents raised their children to accept a multitude of gendered possibilities. A “trans test” would not even be a stopgap measure to help young trans people.
When I first came out to my father I naively waved studies in his face that spoke of this thing called “Gender Identity Disorder.” But his first reaction to me was not to say that my gender was valid. It was to say that since it was a ‘disorder’ there must be a ‘cure’- you know, one to make me into a boy again, like he wanted.
Transgender does not need a medical etiology in order to be accepted morally. The entire issue is a massive red herring that deflects a necessary moral and philosophical argument into whether or not we objectively exist by the standards of a game we are rigged to lose. We are already on the backfoot because we live in a world where our voices do not count, we merely concede more ground when we suggest that narrow, incomplete studies that reveal- at best- a small piece of the puzzle should speak for us.
The critical moral argument that we must never lose sight of is whether it is okay to discriminate against someone because there isn’t a biological explanation for their existence. For most any situation, the answer is a resounding “no” among decent people. We do not say that people of faith bring discrimination upon themselves because they ‘chose’ to be a part of a given religion, and when people do say this, they are rightly derided for being assholes. We do not get sidetracked into asinine arguments about how some people are born Jewish and have Jew brains and, y’know, they just can’t help it and that’s why we should be ‘tolerant.’
No, actually. You should avoid bigotry because it’s simply the right thing to do.
When I first began blogging many years ago I never dreamed of being able to do what I do today; what began as yet another emo diary on Livejournal has evolved into something beyond my wildest of dreams (which at the time were pretty modest, admittedly, but still!). I made the move to WordPress to make a fresh start after I had reached a point in my transition where I felt comfortable talking about trans issues and my own experiences in a more public setting, and yet even then I never expected much.
My feminist mentor at the time, who encouraged me to blog, told me that she knew my writing in this space would do something positive. She had such starry eyed, high, maternal hopes for me that I felt sad at what I thought the inevitable disappointment would be.
Yet here I am, a year and a half later, engaged in the self-absorbed metawank of blogging about blogging and looking back with a smile. I never expected, nor wanted huge numbers of readers. But I also did not expect to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives; one woman came out because of something I wrote here that let her know she wasn’t alone in having a non-traditional trans childhood experience. That remains one of my proudest accomplishments and one of the best examples of the power that writing has. It’s the reason that blogging is its own kind of activism; if the pen is mightier than the sword, so is the keyboard. Writing gives people hope, it can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and it does have the power to make the world a slightly nicer place. So long as it can do that, I feel comfortable spending what time and energy I can spare on this space and on my other online writing projects.
Words do matter, and they have the power to heal as well as destroy or wound. I see it all the time on sites like Questioning Transphobia, which themselves inspired me to think that my voice mattered enough to be heard on trans issues and feminism more generally. Those pounds of prose, both on and offline, gave me the strength early on in my transition to get self-acceptance right, to learn to love myself, to learn that the problem lay not with me but with a cissexist and misogynist culture. I’ve had limitless self confidence, energy, and pride ever since. Writing and reading the writing of others did that for me. It was those powerful words that helped me feel unashamed of being trans, proud of being a woman, and taught me the potency that comes with defiance.
All of this has lead not only to an improved quality of life for me but also helped me do more out in the world, helping student organisations at my university and organising activist events as well as spreading the word about trans feminism to all who would hear it at school; all of this helps, and all of it began with me reading the work of someone who dared to speak up. That, for me, is what made my life liveable. So, this is why I write.
Writing is its own kind of activism and part of a new vanguard in a number of movements that reaches more people than resistances of ages past could have dreamed of. It’s something I’m proud to be a part of for a number of reasons.
Over the course of these festive next two weeks I will be trying to kick back and relax after working assiduously over the past semester- working harder and with more enthusiasm than I ever knew was possible for me- and above all I want to thank everyone who’s visited this blog, the friends I made through my writing here and elsewhere, the people whose comments- supportive and critical- add to what I write here, and to the various famous people I’ve critiqued who were kind enough to start conversations with me, like Andrea James. If my words make you feel a little better about our often troubled world, or lend you some comfort and reassurance I am glad for that. Because I sure as hell can’t play the violin, so this is the best you’re going to get.
Words have enduring power, they stir and cause a quivering of the marrow whose resonance is unlike any other. I didn’t begin this process of writing to enter the world of activism; in many ways, it found me when I had people telling me that things I’d written, whether here, or as comments and posts on other websites, had a profound effect on them. It found me when people made connections with me, romantic and friendly, that began with powerful writing. Beautiful emotions, comfort, reassurance, love, peace, friends, all of that came from what I had written. I thank all of you not only for following and being a part of my work, but also for all of the amazing things you do, literary and otherwise.
What a long, strange trip it’s been- and it’s going to keep chugging right along. I’m aware that normally themes of ‘giving thanks’ surround the US/Canadian holiday of Thanksgiving, but between wanting to roll my holidays into a big, mushy ball of happy, and not having written a proper Thanksgiving post here, I’ll just say that I’m giving thanks here and now. This is a pretty big time of year for me, not just because of the Winter Solstice or Christmas, both of which I keep in my own ways, but because I actually came out this week a couple of years ago. That, and tomorrow’s mah birthday. So I figure it’s a good time to say ‘thank you for giving me the gift of your readership.’
If I don’t update this space much for the next week it’s because I’m out in the world having exciting adventures that will someday be turned into feature length films and totally not because I’ll be playing the new World of Warcraft expansion or anything.
Happy Holidays to you all! Goddess and/or Flying Spaghetti Monster bless us, everyone!