A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory

In analysing the place of transgender and transsexual people in the theorising of various disciplines one finds several common threads that link together the entire enterprise. Society can often be quite messy and yet paradoxically can also be found to have identifiable mechanisms of operation that grind certain social forces inexorably forward. So what am I getting at with this? What are the common threads? Well, with the invaluable assistance of an expert social theorist who happens to be a trans woman, I believe I have found four.

Trans people are not the only group of people hard done by social and political theory; there is a lot to be learned from analysing how theoretical paradigms have utterly excluded other marginalised peoples. In her 2007 book Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell articulates an excellent exegesis of Western social theory that lays bare its deeply Eurocentric assumptions as well as the colonial enterprise that underlay it. The colonised world, she says, was merely a data mine whose raw numbers would be exported back to ‘the metropole’ (Europe and America) for theoretical production that would then come together as a definitive vision of the colonised. In this way the relationship between coloniser and colonised is no different when regarding the academic realm as opposed to, say, the political or industrial ones.

The links to how academics conceptualise and (more importantly) use trans people are quite clear here. Metaphors of colonisation are quite useful for discussing vastly unequal social dynamics within Western countries as well; histories of appropriation and exploitation are certainly not limited to the majority world and ‘data mines’ can be found just down the street from where I’m sitting as surely as they can in Ghana or Pakistan or Aboriginal Australia. What’s more the trouble with such theory is not just that they appropriate, misuse, and distort the experiences of the colonised, but that in other instances (particularly in the weaving of generic theories of society) they are ignored altogether. Connell has identified four movements of colonialist academia that she says characterise most attempts to theorise about society: the claim of universality, reading from the centre, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. I will go through each in turn and discuss their relevance to gender theory and trans folk specifically.

In her pathbreaking paper The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto [1991], trans woman cyborg-feminist theorist Sandy Stone articulates in brief summary an idea that structures both this article and a lot of my thinking in general about trans people’s relationship to medico-juridical establishments and the academy:

I wish to point out the broad similarities which this peculiar juxtaposition suggests to aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitation. …

Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practises within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorising are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorising about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency.

This all makes itself manifest in the fascination some theorists have with us, fetishising the exotic trans people they see in their mind’s eye as either innately radical or conservative, denying that trans people’s individual self-understandings are meaningful (unless they comport with a dominant cis narrative), and a belief that the ideas expressed either in patriarchally-controlled medicine, psychiatry, or the academy can somehow save us. Thrumming beneath it all as a foundational gloss is the idea that we can neither speak nor act for ourselves, that we could never be adequate producers of knowledge about our own lives.

This is accomplished in the following ways:

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Outside: An Exodus From Patriarchy on the Backs of Women

Intersectionality is often lost on those who most need to make certain connections.

The operation of Kyriarchy in its peculiarly patriarchal forms never fails to impress me. As I look at a certain claque of radical feminists who claim to be fighting against a system of gender oppression in our world I find myself confronting women and men who have, in truth, merely internalised patriarchal power arrangements and are regurgitating them in a strange way. I’m speaking, of course, about radfem transphobia. Joelle Ruby Ryan, a trans woman academic, recently attended a conference in New Hampshire called Pornography as Sexual Violence. In trying to present on the often untold story of how trans pornography impacts both our community and gender in general, she found herself attacked by two transphobic feminists: Robert Jensen and Lierre Keith. Her story, passionate and quite understandably outraged in tone, can be found here.

In it she quotes at length a screed from Ms. Keith. You’ll forgive me if I decide to take a shotgun to yon barrel of fish. Some might say that it only dignifies the remarks of such people to debate them or to fisk them. I prefer, however, to think of it as providing a learning resource to someone who might find themselves oppressed or harassed by such ideas. The power of symbolic violence- the use of rank, position, privilege and entitlement to impose meaning on a subordinate person- should not be understated. I and many other trans people have learned the hard way why such arguments are wrong, but someone still struggling to find themselves and feeling vulnerable might be hurting. To me, the more responses there are to this kind of nonsense, the better. Now, on with the show.

A Journey Down a Familiar Path

Keith begins by saying the following:

Well, I’ve personally been fighting about this since 1982. I think  ‘transphobic’ is a ridiculous word. I have no strange fear of people who claim to be ‘trans.’ I deeply disagree with them, as do most radical feminists.

When I was a wee lass back in high school I used to argue with this rather tiresome Republican boy (incidentally his name was Robert as well) who one day angrily declaimed “there’s no such thing as homophobia! I’m not irrationally afraid of gay people! And ‘homo’ means same! I’m not afraid of things that are the same!” Now, I know what you’re thinking. “He has a career waiting for him in Fox News!” Quite. But secondly he sounds quite a lot like our friend here who’s supposedly from the opposite side of the political spectrum, which is not uncommon when dealing with this minority of radical feminists whose stock and trade is inverting reactionary arguments and using them against the oppressed in the guise of being anti-oppression.

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The Laboratory of Dreams: Theory from an RPG Sourcebook

(Image Credit: Grand Universe by Gary Tonge, antifan-real.deviantart.com)

When we’re children we’re often taught that great ideas are the product of great minds; blessed ideas that spring forth from the creator’s cranium like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and miraculous. But the truth is that ideas of the most compelling sort have no one source, and can come from the most intriguing of places assembled from seemingly dissociated bits and pieces. Recently in my writing about theory I’ve tried to convince you to look at it as something that grows from daily life and is itself a kind of practise as a result. What this way of looking at things enables you to do is see ‘theory’ as being more ubiquitous than it may first seem when you, say, look at a college textbook.

Enter Eclipse Phase, a pen and paper RPG set several hundred years in the future with a post-apocalyptic setting. The action, however, need not take place on the despoiled Earth. Our Solar System is home to countless colonies, some independent, some confederated, that express the gamut of human ideologies. One of the game’s overarching themes is transhumanism which the book itself defines as: “an international cultural and intellectual movement that endorses the use of science and technology to enhance the human condition, both mentally and physically.” Now, there is certainly no question that such an ideology has innumerable pratfalls. It could potentially become a 21st century expression of eugenicism, for example. People with disabilities in particular are right to be wary of such and the cultural genocide it can entail in the wrong hands.[1]

But the funny thing about ideas is that they are multifaceted and thus easily repurposed, and Eclipse Phase’s presentation of its interpretation of transhumanism is quite compelling. Loving a good ‘trans’ pun myself, I decided to explore the concept a little bit, and sure enough, I was rewarded:

To many transhumans, gender has become an outdated social construct with no basis in biology. After all, it’s hard to give credence to gender roles when an ego can easily modify their sex, switch skins, or experience the lives of others via XP. Though most transhumans still adhere to the gender associated with their original biological sex, many others switch gender identities as soon as they reach adulthood or avidly pursue repeated transgender switching. Still others examine and adopt untraditional sex-gender identities such as neuters (believing a lack of sex allows greater focus in their pursuits) or dual gender (the best of both worlds). In many bioconservative habitats and cultures, however, more traditional gender roles persevere. (Eclipse Phase Sourcebook, p. 35)

You see, in this distant future, humanity has discovered technological means of changing bodies at will, preserving consciousness in a handy, downloadable file format, and in the process taking “my body, my choice” to a whole new level. The game explores economic inequality in depth as well, and thus the limitations of one’s bodily autonomy imposed in a world where economic injustice has simply evolved in certain crucial ways. But nevertheless, this section on gender elucidates something rather fascinating that RPGs can do for us: allow us to imagine and actually play around in a future that we might do well to fight for (at least in part- I could do without the rampaging out of control military AI that destroyed Earth in Eclipse Phase’s canon, thank you very much).

What is fascinating, in part, is twofold. One, trans people of all sorts (myself included) are already living that paragraph in various ways, and two, that the future it posits is one in which being transgender is not only accepted, it’s an experience virtually the whole of transhumanity (transhumanity!) shares. Biological essentialism has been well and truly shattered, and right along with it, patriarchy.

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A Cliché Trapped in a Metaphor’s Body

When one reaches a certain point in transition and begins to delve into this riotously diverse, loose aggregate we call the “trans community” and its close cousins to whom we are the red-headed step sister (yes, quite the odd family, no?), one inevitably hits the wall of language.

What do you call yourself? To what group do you belong? How should you be addressed? How does this relate to how you address others? What language is hurtful and undermines you? On and on the questions and contemporaneous realisations go. Words, wonderful words, surround, bind, and penetrate you. At the end of the day again and again we are learning, re-learning, and un-learning language. Trans people are, along with certain other loose confederations of humanity, perhaps more deeply attuned to the vicissitudes of linguistic power and how language does power than your average bear.

And why is that? Because there is one realisation along with all the other usual ones (i.e. why it hurts when, as a trans man, someone calls you ‘she’ or a ‘woman’) that demonstrates language’s power.

The words we have often obviate any meaningful way of discussing our experiences.

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Theory is Yours: A Brief Archaeology of Trans Feminist Awesome

This post will appear as a crosspost on QT very shortly and was addressed chiefly to its audience, and thus the ‘this space’ term refers to Questioning Transphobia. Otherwise, enjoy!

In looking out at the vast, expansive canon of gender studies literature, and in light of even the most superficial analysis of its myriad failings it is easy to feel dispirited by what it has to offer trans people. It is all too easy to understand the instinct to abandon both queer and gender studies as a privileged exercise in neo-pathology, the postmodern turn of the same ideologies that guided the hegemonic psychiatrists of decades past. One could find yet more examples, of course.

Judith Lorber, someone readers of my blog may remember my past disagreements with, had this to say in 1994 about trans people: “[trans folk do not challenge the gender order because] their goal is to be feminine women and masculine men” (Lorber 1994, 20). Yet again we find the tireless obsession with attributing a politics to identity in the simplest possible terms, yet again we find the clutching of pearls with regard to the innate, literal body politic of trans people. It might perhaps be too obvious to tell Professor Lorber that for all of her elegant theorising about the socially constructed nature of gender she cannot bring herself to describe trans people by their proper pronouns (for example calling Renee Richards “he” and Billy Tipton “she”) nor to belabour the questionable hypocrisy of being unable to break out of the role of arbiter even as she derides the imposition of gender schema upon people.

However, to simply shine more light on the white cis women of gender academia and call them to the carpet for their tacit transphobia does a disservice to the armies of trans folk that have devoted their not inconsiderable intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy to challenging these things since before I even drew breath.

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Lost in Trans-Lation II: Attack of the Bad Puns

What follows is another journal entry, as the really bad title might well have clued you in to. This one is a brief analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Needless to say, I loved the book, and equally needless to say I found a means of relating some trans issues to it. The entire thing is nowhere near as deep and comprehensive as I would have liked. There are a multitude of ways to read those 120 pages that comprise Ms. Woolf’s most famous feminist work. For instance I did not get to expound much on my idea that the Internet allows countless people from a variety of backgrounds, including otherwise very marginalised ones, to have a vast and endlessly interesting room of their own. The proliferation of blogs has created innumerable platforms that are both very personal and very public- perhaps transcending the firm dichotomy between them- for people like sex workers, trans folk, radical activists across the various spectra, people with disabilities, the impoverished, and more. It is, certainly, a point I should have dwelled on.

It is a great shame that a feminist blog named after Woolf’s book is a hive of transphobia, but excepting the corrupted allusion that it represents the growth of the Internet and the infinite number of ‘rooms’ it has created has advanced the cause of social justice like no other.

I should also not have to belabour the point of a certain significance that accrues to a simple fact: I’m getting perfect scores on these essays that routinely mention trans people in a positive light, and that routinely critiques (and indeed, more often than not, trashes) our opponents, feminist and otherwise. Where among other professors this might occasion deeply undesirable battles, I find myself supported at every turn by both my professor and others in the department. Comments where my professor expresses mirth at my witty eviscerations of transphobes are more common than not. It is also worth mentioning that the room of my own this blog represents, and the larger salons of our own that websites like Questioning Transphobia embody, are what helped me hone my skills to not only speak in my own voice as a woman who is trans, but to do so well.

With that, I raise my coffee mug to Virginia Woolf and pray that I am doing her proud. She exhorted us, with passion and verve, to write and add our wisdom to the libraries of the world. Goddess knows I’m now trying to do my part.

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I Am Whoever You Say I Am

In the long march into academia one naturally becomes intimately acquainted with the geeky and esoteric minutiae of whatever discipline one has chosen for their career. Over the last two years I’ve found myself up to my eyeballs in gender studies text and find it utterly fascinating. I’m often seen scurrying to and fro with a book or two tucked under my arm and my desk is covered in all manner of books appertaining to my passions. But importantly, when you are trans-anything and delving into the wild and woolly world of gender studies you have to be ready for the fact that there will be lots and lots of highly credentialed, intellectual academics theorising about you who do not know what the hell they’re talking about.

This occupational hazard is, to put it bluntly, both annoying and the reason I’m doing the sociology of gender in the first place. The only way this is going to be truly fixed is when we start writing the theory and we start conducting the research, casting our eyes not just on this wild and strange tribe of “transgender” but also on cis people whose views are far more powerful in shaping how our fractioned community is gendered and understood. What I’m looking at today is a particular strain of thought that is increasingly common in Third Wave feminist theorising; it is ostensibly trans positive but ends up being highly fetishising, stereotypical, and ultimately transphobic. It stands in contrast to that Janice Raymond school of theorising that constructs us purely in terms of an outsider, an enemy who constitutes a patriarchal invasion-cum-Body Snatchers. This vision instead sees us (or some of us) as ‘useful’- we have utility in the quest of certain cis feminists to smash the gender binary. Yet what unites both of these seemingly oppositional philosophies is that they are theories formed by cis people about us, relative to their gender ideology, and that construct us as ‘other.’

There are a few major currents in this new feminist theory that merit deconstruction and they will likely be familiar to most readers in one way or another:

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The Soul of History: Breaking the Silence of Biography

This post was originally going to appear on Nuclear Unicorn first, but evolved into something written for Questioning Transphobia very quickly. Still, it has more than earned its place here and is part of the project of confession and catharsis that “The Daughter Also Rises” began, in the hopes of telling a true trans story- my trans story- and illuminating just how complicated this whole thing is. Enjoy!

I was not so happy as I looked in the pictures on my parents’ walls. It was something that resonated with me as I read a beautiful, radical poem by Jo Carillo ‘And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You’ which used as a leitmotif pictures of Latinas working under the sun that might hang in the livingroom of a blanquita radfem. Like so many things in the anthology- This Bridge Called My Back- that poem is immortalised in, it made me think, not just about its own very important subject which is, alas, an all too salient issue even today… but about the pictures that were once on my wall too.

They were windows into a very particular past, a past that is assuredly a minefield on multiple levels. Much has been said, including on the pages of Questioning Transphobia itself, about those pictures. How they can oppress, or how they can liberate. It vexed me because as a budding sociologist I’m easily entranced by questions of meaning, and constantly working upon my mind was a need to decipher the meanings of those pictures in my own life. Not just the meanings of the photographs themselves, but what they represented.

And to begin the, perhaps necessary, use of ten guinea words in this piece; what the past those pictures evoked could say about my subjectivity.

What it means to be trans is one of those existential questions that excites and puzzles as surely as other such questions about the categories of human existence, the lines drawn in flesh that mark us off as one thing or the other. In the more evolved discourses of identity politics and its modern intersectional incarnations, there is an understanding that being trans carries with it a certain experience, a certain perspective on the world that only trans people have.

Certainly the vagaries of this can be disputed but one question that I’ve had and felt very troubled in answering is this one: Is my lived experience as someone who was forced to be male part of my subjectivity?

Let me be clearer still: I was never a man, no, but I lived as a male per the directions and encouragement of every social actor in my life up until the age of 21. In moving through the world in that utterly ill fitting skin, that imposed disguise whose existence tantilised the very edges of my conscious mind, I still ended up seeing things a certain way and being made to undertake certain actions, think certain thoughts. Such for me provides rich perspective, and informs my participation in discourses on misogyny. But can I talk about what that meant for me and what it felt like? What the specific experience was for me as a young trans girl- a woman forced in very deep ways to put on what society deemed a male persona? Can I say that this taught me something about male privilege or provided me with some perspective on what being a young man might be like?

Not without siring a world of trouble, that much is for sure.

I cannot speak about my past and lend a voice to those pictures that were once on my wall. I was not living as I wanted then, I was indeed battered into silence- sometimes quite literally- and I did not yet fully understand the essence of who I was.

But I was a person back then too, goddamnit. I lived. I breathed. I experienced life. I saw things. Felt things. Oh Goddess, the things I felt.

Transition is not going through life as a passive, unreceptive automaton until a switch is flipped and suddenly “YAY I’M A WOMAN/MAN!” and then suddenly all comes to life and now you live a life worth documenting and recounting. I was a person then too, in all those long, interminable years before transition. I was Quinnae-in-waiting, in a sense, but I was also Quinnae-in-progress. Despite this reality, this unshakeable duality, these contradictions held together by the insistent fact of my existence, I still feel immense fear speaking about my past with authority.

It’s a legitimate fear we’ve all felt, of course. We fear the slings and arrows that can come from any direction- from family, from radical feminists, from conservatives, from MRAs, and any number of people anywhere that might be invested in attacking our identities. We fear, with good reason, that the minute we say in a discussion “I used to live as a man/woman” that we remind people of a spectre we had hoped to banish, remind them that we are different- and in a way that often unsettles cis people. We fear we may shatter the selves that we have worked so tirelessly to build, shedding blood to make whole because we place before our potential tormentors the irresistible red meat of discussing a gendered experience as our assigned-gender, rather than who we really are.

We are often silenced because of this, and inhibited on speaking to the immense complexity of transgender experience. We fear that speaking of our pasts will court that tiny but vocal claque of radical feminists who will simply go “Aha! You DID have male privilege! We win! We win!” We fear people’s inevitable confusion and their bigotry. All with good reason.

In a recent article, Lisa spoke of the acceptable narratives of trans-ness, with a focus on the element of the acceptable liberal narrative that holds we are totally and forever happy after transition, the end. What I will focus on here is what comes before that, the hegemonic discourse surrounding pre-transition life. It is, in short, that everything is bad and terrible because you are “trapped in the wrong body” and waiting for deliverance as you sit in a swirling vortex of darkness. To a large extent this is true in its way- who among us does not remember deep depression and self loathing? I had suicidal ideations, virtually no will to live, and by the time I hit 20 my energy to do anything productive or meaningful had at last become the latest casualty to the dysphoria.

But the problem with the dominant narrative is that it tacitly insists that that’s all there is to pre-transition life, and my story was always more complicated. Talking about that isn’t easy because it upsets the prefabricated story that most cis people have about us, even when they want to be supportive, sympathetic, and mean well. The “trapped in the wrong body” cliché sums it up very aptly. The perception is one of a binary switch and also part of the same he/she media trope that bedevils so much ‘journalism’ about us (wherein the wrong pronoun will be used to refer to the trans person in past tense while the correct one is reserved for the present, post-transition person, which speaks volumes about how we are seen).

Perceptions of transition presume that you are exactly like a cis person in every way until one day you wake up and decide you want a sex change and BOOM, now you’re a man or woman. But the fundamental truth, as we all know, that our personal biographies are much more unified and complex than that.

I didn’t play with dolls when I was little, not because I felt like I couldn’t, but because Lego was fucking awesome. On my bookshelf right now, just above my copies of Whipping Girl, Women, Race & Class, and Gender Trouble, is a huge Lego starship I made and have carefully preserved. I was raised on and still adore video games. When I was a wee tyke I’d always get excited at seeing monster truck rallies on TV (my favourite was Bigfoot). To the cis observer, I didn’t fit the stereotype of the insistent five year old demanding the stereotypical trappings of femininity. But it didn’t change the dysphoria I would feel. So I was a bit of a tomboy growing up; doesn’t mean I’m any less of a woman for it.

That’s the other problem with the hegemonic cis narrative- it forces trans men and trans women (and excludes genderqueer folk, naturally) into a highly gender stereotyped fable… and then turns around and blames us for reinforcing their gender binary.

What I would experience as a trans girl was distinct to being me-who-is-trans, if that makes any sense. It’s my story and is not The Transgender Experience, but it is an experience of transness. What happened to me was that many parts of myself began to pull at me mercilessly as though my soul were being drawn and quartered. I fought against my gender socialisation as much as I felt compelled by it. This lead to contradictory postures in high school. I understood and fought against rape-apologism at age 16, earning the admiration of many female classmates, but also ended up employing entitled views about women. I became what I would come to loathe the most, a Nice Guy ™. All of this informs how I see gender politics today because, among other things, I feel I can testify to the fact that I saw certain gendered phenomena from the inside and could say with the kind of confidence that comes with that kind of knowing how remarkably troubling and disturbing it is.

Yet the reason I reject a simple male privilege analysis is because what I experienced as a trans girl is quite simply not really the same as what a cis boy might have. I internalised enough to act out some male socialisation, yes, but that has its own very distinct consequences that imbricate with the issues of potential privilege. It’s that male gender socialisation makes you utterly despise yourself as a woman, loathe who you feel you are deep inside, and worst of all compel you into a kind of ritual debasement that is a special form of torture: objectifying yourself. I strained so hard to accept I could have female role models and want who they were, their strength, their passion, their intelligence, and in some cases, yes, their fashion sense. But relentless pounding from my father, my peers, the media, all made me feel there was only one acceptable avenue for admiring women and femininity: sexual attraction.

I can’t begin to describe how that fucks you up as a woman. There are no sesquipedalian words for this, no academic prettifications I can conjure to lessen the blow of how intense I mean that to sound. It is deep and it is troubling; its enactment profoundly deepened my self-loathing and was part of what ultimately sent me spirialling downward. I owned nothing about myself, my dreams, my sexuality, nothing.

Talking about that is difficult, not just because of the shame I still feel sometimes, but because I fear that it will lead people to armchair psychoanalysis. More than a few right wing types and “men’s rights activists” have claimed trans women are just self hating men who mutilate themselves. That line of bigotry also has a silencing effect, because in talking fully and faithfully about my past I need to be able to say that acting out such and such male socialisation was like inflicting wounds on myself daily. It was deeply ingrained self hate and I need to explain a lot about my pre-transition subjectivity in order to fully explain that. I have to remind you of my past, and entreat you to step into that picture that once hung on my wall.

I also have to navigate the unyielding and craggy shoals of transgender politics. The perpetual fear of “making us look bad” stalks my mind, as I’m sure it dogs many of us here. I fear sometimes that if I say “when I was forced to live as a man, I didn’t get harassed in the street; now my life is completely different and my relationship with the outdoors is fundamentally altered” I will earn the ire of those who demand I stick to The Narrative for the good of the community and not try to give voice to my past self because it will just confuse people and undermine my identity. I don’t fully blame other trans people for doing this; the fears are very real, unfortunately. Part of the appeal of The Narrative is that it’s simple and easy to remember. It could probably fit into a limerick I don’t have the patience to think up right now.

But the fact is that we’re far more complicated- like any human being might be. That’s not good for a bumper sticker, but it is reality. As the comments here demonstrate there are a multiplicity of transgender perspectives and experiences. Being trans is a bodily experience too, and yet even that differs. When I stand up and say that I never felt ‘trapped’ by my body, will someone think I’m making us look bad or confusing people? What might people think if I tell them that for me changing my name was far more important to me than anything about my genitals? That it was less my penis and more things like my name that clawed at me and made me feel empty inside, defined by others but not by myself.

How might I describe that? I might put it in the terms I put it to a cis friend of mine who listened rapt:

“In the past, when I wrote my name or signed it, it felt as perfunctory and connected to me as a serial number. An assigned thing that signified this entity known as “me” but had no connection to my soul otherwise. It was just a thing for a form.”

She is enthralled by this and ‘gets it’ more than many cis people do. Yet I’d fear saying this to a broad audience, I would fear leaving myself to misinterpretation. The fear of that, of doing wrong by the trans people I love, silences me oftentimes. Yet I still try, on my blog and in comments sprinkled here and there, to say ‘this is my experience’- and I have found many people who, much to my surprise and pleasure, seemed to understand and welcome the complications I added to the transgender stories they had heard.

The real power of this, however, is in the person I will never forget, who read a blog post I wrote where I spoke of the tomboyish aspects of my youth and how I didn’t fit the stifling “classic transsexual” narrative that is so often repeated in news outlets right around the world. She came out after reading it because she at last felt she wasn’t alone in having that unique childhood. She didn’t play with mum’s dresses and high heels either, but she is no less a trans woman. It makes you wonder how many more of us suffer in silence and are having their pain prolonged by that ciscentric, cis-friendly narrative of transition that leaves them feeling “not trans enough” to save their lives.

I know in some way, we have to start breaking this vow of silence. How, I don’t know. But I feel like the answers lie in those pictures. I wasn’t as happy as I looked in them, no.

But nevertheless that was a woman and a human being.

On.

My.

Wall.

Author’s Note: Some of the flourishes at the beginning and especially the end of this piece owe themselves to Jo Carillo’s beautiful poetry, which I sorely wish I could have linked in this article. As I came to accept myself as Latina I wanted to elevate these voices and add their textures to my contributions to trans discourse, but I want there to be no mistake about who they belong to.

Daughter of Zero Queens: Roleplaying as Resistance

 

My Cleric of Lastai, Liera- in purple with the staff- sitting 'round a fire with her friends. Yes, including the dragon.

Picture it: a World of Warcraft RPPvP server, 2006. A good friend of mine takes up a wager with a female friend of his to test a “theory”- at least it was nothing but a theory to him, at that time. She had often sparred with him about the idea that women were treated differently in online gaming and he was more than a little sceptical. If this were about treatment in, say, the workplace or the home environment or out in the street, this back and forth might have gone on forever. But this woman had a solution that only a game like WoW made available to her. She made a bit of a wager with my friend: roll up a female character, play her, roleplay (RP) her if you like, and don’t tell anyone you’re a man in real life.

My friend agreed, being the adventurous sort and an avid RPer to boot, and went forward. To this day he still tells me how his experiences over the course of the next month completely changed how he understood the treatment of women in games like this. He found himself flirted with, harassed, the target of other unwanted advances, as well as finding out why chivalrous acts could be construed as condescending or suspicious. He even discovered that in an RP guild he was fought over by some of the male officers in a way that culminated in theatrics that eventually sundered the guild.

In his own words:

“Guys used to hit on you randomly asking for ERP [cybersex] and then if you actually interact on an equal level they think you like them, and if you turn down their advances it’s rage quit time.”

Certainly not every person will have the same experiences or reactions, but what always fascinated me was how easy it was for him to suddenly see through the eyes of a woman in society because of WoW. This is but one of many possibilities offered by roleplaying that could represent revolutionary breakthroughs in how we all understand society and the lives of our fellow human beings.

For me personally, as I have alluded to many times, being able to roleplay as a woman gave me an education similar to my friend’s but also enabled me to simply be myself. Unlike my friend, I expected to be treated differently and sometimes unpleasantly, but I also took in the joy of simply affirming one’s womanhood. In those days I would publicly lie and say that I roleplayed as women to simply express my “feminine side” and what not. I didn’t want to admit to others what I increasingly knew in the most guarded recesses of my mind: that I roleplayed as a woman in part because I was one and had no other way to express my gender. Being a woman was and is awesome to me because being myself is awesome.

Roleplaying means many things to many people. For some, simply playing a single player game as a fictional character constitutes RP. For others, it means consciously and directly acting out that character’s fantasy existence through constructing backstory and plot around them, and engaging in actions and dialogue that would be “in-character” for them. In either case, though, I have come to discover that roleplaying allows an incredible amount of agency to be invested in the player and provides a gilded road that can bypass the often problematic stories and imagery that adorn many games. You may find yourself surrounded by images of women who seem to exist to only cater to hetero male fantasy, but your female character does not have to be that. Indeed she can actively rebel against it, or any number of other ideas that predominate in the game’s setting. In that lies the power of RP.

Indeed, for a long time my women characters were explicitly designed to be strong and confident, never defined in terms of the men around them, but as their equal partners in the game world. When I played Neverwinter Nights I played a Cleric of a sensual goddess. But I did not do so explicitly for sexual reasons. Most of the time she wore conservative robes, but her revealing outfits were reserved for religious festivals and rituals where the sex had a meaning beyond eye candy, as rituals that honoured the sacred act of lovemaking. Whether matronly or overtly sexual she was not simply an archetype but a complex woman who owned her body, her sexuality, and her entire self. I even RPed her journey from worshipping a more conservative god of healing to worshiping this goddess of love as one of self discovery and assertion of herself.

There was more to her still, of course. She was a wise woman (Wisdom score of 30!) who came to the aid of many characters who were having one problem or another and quickly developed a reputation as a kindhearted counsellor. Her crises of faith were born of deep introspection on her part, and as she was middle aged they were part of a “mid life crisis” of sorts. The compelling interactions she had with other RP characters made her reassess who she really was. On the flip side she also loved hard liquor and was never afraid of having a good time with the people she shared her village with, unafraid of partying after a hard day’s battle.

I could go on, but the essence of this is that in the midst of this Dungeons & Dragons environment I wove an interesting female character who could articulate sexual struggles, religion, and the social location of womanhood and still be fun to play. Some of the people I played with were not exactly radically-minded. Some were quite conservative in real life. Yet the character was loved. Strong, complex women are not “political”- they’re just damn fun and interesting.

The namesake for this screen name, Quinnae, floating courtesy of her Levitation spell; one of many benefits to being a Priestess of Elune, along with great dental.

On the subject of religion I should relate more personal insights. I often play as characters with some religious grounding, which is ironic considering my history (and I’ll get to that in a moment); Priests or Clerics, Paladins and Druids are often my primary roleplaying characters. On my shelf right now, side by side (perhaps very appropriately) with my gender studies and sociology textbook collection are my many hardbound D&D manuals, a good chunk of which are about the fantasy religions of various settings.

When I was young I grew up with a conservative Catholic father who took “God the Father” a little too seriously. Through his faith he buttressed unchecked patriarchal authority, the subordination of women, and even quite a bit of racism (particularly Islamophobia). It’s no surprise homophobia and transphobia also came to him through his idea of God, and when I came out I faced a fusillade of assaults from him that included saying I was violating God’s will by transitioning and that my “devil reading” had made this happen. I’ll not belabour these descriptions any longer as this should paint a sufficient picture of why, for a long time, I hated religion and looked down my nose at people of faith.

That hatred existed in the midst of my RP life, of course, which began in 2005. But I figured my characters were just fiction, as were their goddesses and gods, and it was all “just a game.” Yet over time, especially as I got into playing my Cleric and reading the more in-depth compendiums about pantheons in D&D I began to realise that faith as a central organising principle in one’s life was something that could be very positive. I was very much blinkered by my self-centered perspective and yet, almost as if against my will, my own characters pulled me out of it. My Cleric was a woman whose faith taught her that love was love, no matter what form it came in, to name an example. Her goddess was a symbol of that conviction in openness, love, and the idea that pleasure in moderation was utterly sacred rather than profane. I came to understand that my father’s Catholicism was not the only form faith had to take.

Faith could evoke metaphors for beauty rather than self-abnegation.

I do not credit RP with all of these realisations, of course. A Christian woman I know and love in Canada, and who happens to be married to another woman, was a huge support in my life as I was coming out and indeed a second mother to me. She’s just been ordained in the United Church of Canada. She and her pagan priestess daughter above all deserve credit for showing me what faith can be.

And yet I also know that roleplaying was what initially opened my mind to what they would eventually teach me. As I looked through the guidebooks and found gods and goddesses for all sorts of things, and vastly different descriptions of all manner of churches, temples, lyceums, and groves for worship I came to realise that what faith was, what it could be, was not limited to bitter, closeminded evil. The Richard Dawkins style of white atheism that I had flirted with up to that point withered under that slowly blossoming realisation. The characters that I would so lovingly roleplay, from my NWN Cleric to my WoW Priest, would chart lives of faith that were not built on hate, or on othering, but on self-empowerment and a sense of social justice that infused their many actions in the game world, whether it was cleansing a den of undead or battling the Lich King or healing the wounded behind enemy lines their faith gave them the power to do what was right and resist oppression or the temptation to oppress.

Had I never been given the opportunity to roleplay religious characters I might’ve gone right on keeping my privileged assumptions about how people of faith were “irrational” and “weak minded.”

The title of my piece is a reference to the Marion Zimmer Bradley book I’m reading at the moment, Lady of Avalon,  where one of the protagonists is known as the “Son of a Hundred Kings,” a messianic figure in the classic fantasy tradition, the chosen one whose coming was foretold by prophecy, et cetera et cetera. My characters on the other hand are not built on that notion of exaltation above all others. They are the daughters of no queens or goddesses, but ordinary women called on to both do exciting things and simply muddle their way through life. They, like quite a few good RP characters I’ve come across in my time, don’t require a legacy or a prophecy to make them interesting.

Roleplaying is not just about slaying dragons or annihilating evil old gods who threaten the world, it’s about capturing the aspects of ordinary life that can make us all who we are. I love those little details. The first Paladin I ever made, Zoe, was a notoriously messy eater . My Priestess, Quinnae, is a brilliant artist and still plays with stuffed animals. My WoW Paladin, Sera, carries wine and fine cheese with her everywhere. Some come from backgrounds of privilege, like Sera, others like Zoe never knew anything but nomadic lives. But all of these little flourishes help them come to life and they evoke depth that is sometimes, or even oftentimes, lacking in the bigger characters written into the canon of all of these games.

When I RP I have no overtly political goal in mind. I never did, I never will. Certainly when I RPed as women I never expected to undergo a transgender transition in real life, or for my views about religion to change. But the effects were there all the same. Even in this fictional space I could be truer to myself than I was, at the time, allowed to be in the “real world.” Despite it all being “just a game” my knowledge of the experience of many women in society was deepened long before I came out (and it was deepened and widened much further).  I had often held a traditionally liberal view that women sometimes had a rougher time of things but it was an academic knowledge held from a distance. Playing WoW, even three years before I came into my own as a woman in the real world, made that knowledge experiential, rather than abstract.

When Gary Gygax first worked with his partners and wrote up what would become the first edition of the Dungeonmaster’s Guide I am certain he never dreamed that his game could promise salvation and comfort to transgender people who could afford to play, and yet there it is as a very positive unintended consequence. The great benefit of roleplaying worlds is that they allow people to transcend boundaries and move in social realms as someone completely different. I haven’t even talked about how one can come to a better understanding of racism or classism through RP.

But above all it allows you to take control in the face of a gaming world that is sometimes or even oftentimes hostile to women, people with disabilities, LGBT people, or people of colour. It allows you to dare to be the character that many developers don’t write, to be the character you want to see in a fantasy realm. It’s a fascinating realisation of Gandhi’s old aphorism: “be the change you want to see in the world.”

I roleplay that change.