Invisible Women

Visibility matters. To be sure it carries with it various risks; to be known is certainly not always to be loved. For example the type of visibility transsexual women “enjoy” in society is of perhaps the lowest order; stereotyped, parodied, and exploited- this is what our visibility in the mainstream media usually accounts for. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating to take note of where we are not visible. Recently various trans and women’s websites have been blowing the lid off of a particularly egregious episode of appropriation. By now most people have heard of the beleaguered and persecuted “gay couple” in Malawi who have just been sentenced to prison terms in an inhuman miscarriage of justice. What far fewer people know, however, is that they are not quite a gay couple per se. Indeed, one half of that couple understands herself quite firmly as a female.

Questioning Transphobia among others have taken a look at this issue, and as per usual Skip The Makeup has an excellent overview of the problematic media coverage. It is erasure writ large. I will not rehash (much) the details nor the criticism of why so much of the coverage has been, at best, condescending, borderline racist, and erasing when others have done this so well. What’ll concern me this afternoon is responding to the criticisms of people who feel that the trans community is making a mountain out of a molehill. Many, including within the cis LGB community, have suggested that it doesn’t really matter how Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies or what her life experience is, and that what matters is that folks care about two people being persecuted for loving one another.

It’s a seductive argument, certainly, and adheres to the ever enticing liberal equalism that asserts difference only gets in the way.

The problem is that those same people- especially the cis gays and queers among them- would not let this excuse wash if some other human rights issue that got wide press omitted the fact that one of the people being attacked, maligned or disenfranchised was gay, and this would be a perfectly valid response. Why? Because explicating how various forms of discrimination operate and bear on a case like this is elucidating; it highlights the struggles of groups of people to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe that discrimination is a thing of the past. If something bad happens to a member of your community, wanting to raise hell about it is a natural reaction.

Secondly, it ought to be obvious why it “matters”: because Tiwonge Chimbalanga says she’s a woman and bloody well lives as one. Does it not strike these people, especially the cis LGB folks among them, as more than a little rude and disingenuous to simply ignore that and condescendingly wave her off? That is really what is at issue here with the media coverage, including the New York Times’ cringe inducing speculation that society had repressed Tiwonge into merely being deluded about being a woman. It smacks of the same cis LGB attempt to colonise and claim trans people as merely extremely gay individuals, regardless of what we say about ourselves. Or the attempts by those same people, and some particularly tone-deaf feminists, to cis man’s burden us by asserting that our identification merely marks us as particularly battered victims of the gender binary.

The perpetuation of such beliefs, the privileged right to define us, are the consequences of this kind of erasure.

The other response to this critique- that quibbling over identity is a mug’s game- is twofold.

  • For one, the uncomfortable question has to be asked: Would this case have courted such international outrage had Tiwonge been identified as a transgender or intersex woman from the start?
  • Two, to consider the difference between being publicly regarded as a man as opposed to a woman, a mere ‘quibble’ over labels for transgender people is to display a rather saddening lack of empathy. It is pretty damn important to us.

Another argument I’ve heard floated is from some savvy liberals who say that these distinctions are a western invention and that by imposing the label of trans on Tiwonge, we are the ones erasing her. This is what I call ‘hipster privilege’, left wing constructions of privileged statements that use emancipatory language to express marginalising ideas (you can also file feminist transphobia under this). Everything I’ve read from trans activists and feminists who’ve called out this erasure has been based on Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s own expression of her identity as quoted many times over (and then usually redacted by many mainstream media organisations). I’m not imposing this on her. She, time and again, has called herself a woman.

Now let’s look at a different sort  of erasure for a moment, and how this type of erasure has a very bad habit of silencing women in the most patriarchal ways possible.

In Australia much brouhaha has been ginned up by conservative whites- mostly men- in power and in the media who are seeking to ban the burqa, a ban which mainly targets religious dress like the face-covering niqab. Recently a Sydney talkback radio programme on station 3AW hosted a rather roudy roundtable debate on the matter. Most of the callers were openly hostile, one woman brazenly declaring herself a racist, another bemoaning the loss of “Australian culture,” we’ve been here before, these shades of Islamophobia and racism are nothing new.

What was rather interesting was what happened when a Muslim woman and community representative, Sherene Hassan, who is the VP of the Muslim Council of Victoria, was called in to participate in the debate with three white men in the studio. She would be on the phone, speaking with presenter Darren James, and the two panellists, liberal Nick McCallum, and right winger John Michael Howson. At least that’s what was supposed to happen. After being kept on hold for over twenty minutes Ms. Hassan was finally told that she was not wanted on the show as Mr. Howson refused to speak to her. Whatever perspective she had to offer, as a  Muslim woman professional and community activist, was effectively silenced.

What was Howson’s justification for this?

“Well it was another propagandist coming on. We know what we’re going to get… I’ll tell you what it is Nick. They are well skilled propagandists who come on at a moment’s notice with their rote and we’ll get the same thing.”

You really do have to listen to the recording to hear the sneering behind these words.

And so, there you have it. Three white men hosting a debate to a primarily white audience, ginning up racial resentment, taking calls primarily from said white audience, all about a political issue that surrounds a law which if passed explicitly targets Muslim women. But an actual Muslim woman’s opinion on the matter? Shut down from that discussion. Mr. Howson does not seem to think very highly of his listeners’ ability to take it. An actual Muslim woman becomes a “propagandist” unlike the ostensibly neutral Mr. Howson who knows what’s best for women of colour.

This is the real problem with erasure: it compels people from minority groups to stay out of these debates, even in ostensible democracies and free presses, and to let the dominant group hash out their future. The charity of white liberals like Mr. McCallum must be relied upon and obstacles are thrown in our way if we try to stand up for our own rights.

The erasure of Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s identity has a similar effect in marginalising and silencing trans voices, including that of Ms. Chimbalanga’s herself, despite the pretensions of so many to care about what happens to her.  For the New York Times, BBC, and countless cis LGB activists to say they know her identity better than her (and that’s okay anyway because they’re trying to save her) has particularly colonialist overtones that can’t help but marginalise. Trans people need positive visibility and above all our voices must be heard, not second guessed, buried on page A12 followed by a challenge to our self-knowledge, but heard.

Respect need not be mutually exclusive with advocacy.

Gender Identity Dismissal

Political conflict is one of the oldest human games and it never goes out of style chiefly because it’s perpetually self renewing. It’s not a coincidence that the only remotely funny things on Saturday Night Live these days are skits mocking contemporary media and politics. It has an odd quality of breaching new boundaries and regurgitating themes that are centuries old at the same time. Its almost addicting, sport like quality is what drew me into many seemingly pointless arguments on the Internet lately about transgender issues. Yet as I reflect on what happened and what I took away from these debates, I’ve begun to realise that there is, at least for me, some benefit to them. After all, what better crucible to thrash and grind one’s own ideas in than one where they are constantly under assault? Like a planetessimal being shaped and hewn by the random bombardments of an infant solar system, one’s ideas may emerge pockmarked and flawed, yet simultaneously fully formed.

So it is here.

The first conclusion I’ve come to after these many often heated discourses with conservative and anti-feminist men, as well as browsing through this week’s right  wing media is this: the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder can no longer do this community any good.

Far from validating us or lending us the touch of Scientific Truth what I have found in the crossfire is a fundamental truth: GID stigmatises and marginalises us. It devalues our words and erases our experiences. It empowers people in white coats to speak for us, our preternatural and perpetual custodians without whose validation we do not exist- no matter how loud, urgent, and insistent our existence may be.

Not long ago when discussing the many foibles of the so-called Men’s Rights movement through the lens of a particularly transphobic article I discussed the phenomenon of the Cis Man’s Burden, which is the cultural belief that trans people are little better than deluded children and that it is the noble duty of a self-respecting cis man (and less often, woman) to do what is best for us and cure us of our mental illness. We do not love ourselves, they say. We don’t love our bodies. Not like they do.

Yet time and again when I have encountered these hideously frustrating sirens of cis supremacy (and often, male supremacy), the slightest scratch tears away the smiling masque to reveal a snarling visage that denies you angrily and recoils in terror at your ‘mutilating’ ways. To claim the smallest bit of the terra firma of your own soul angers them greatly. Visions of hacked off penises fill their minds, and the men among them squeeze their legs together in fear at the thought of what we do.

Never mind protest after protest from our lips; the million and one voices raised up to both allay their fears and assert ourselves.

“That’s not how surgery works.”

“Not every trans person gets SRS.”

“My body, my choice.”

“My relationship with my penis is complicated.”

“But I love my body, why can’t you?”

Tears, joy, anguish, love, fear, rise up like a symphony they will not hear. Cannot hear. Why?

Because to them we are disordered and “Look!” they say “Here in this here DSM is the proof! This isn’t politics, it’s a fact! Gender Identity Disorder! You’re sick!”

Time after time I see it elevated high in an already cis-centric discourse- that simplistic reading of the DSM’s deeply flawed and conceptually troubled diagnosis for trans people. Even the psychiatrists who support the diagnosis would say that reading it as a mental illness is not an apt way of regarding it. But then who can blame the threatened layperson for grabbing onto the D in GID like a solid rock in a roiling tempest of gender uncertainty?

And who really rises to challenge this in the media but the precious few independent trans voices we possess in this community? Who, unchaperoned by some doctor or “expert”, regularly shatters the cis discourse and defiantly insists on existing before the eyes of millions?

This past week I have seen the Washington Times, that sure bastion of white male privilege and cultural conservatism, articulate just that dismissive thought on our mental states when they deemed fit to opine on the upcoming ENDA legislation:

“Similar problems abound in this bill, which treats a conscious decision to choose a new or different sexual identity as if it were an inherent, unavoidable condition. But it’s not. It’s actually a psychological disorder, officially listed as such by the current American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Our children and our co-workers should not be forced by law to be held hostage to such disorders, nor should employers be forced to have psychologically troubled persons as the public face of their businesses.”

Those words in black and white, words I know in my heart are believed passionately not just by conservatives but by many cis people on the left who hate us or simply do not know better, were the final angrily hammered nails in the coffin of my own naivete about GID.

I had long been in the camp that argued we needed this diagnosis to access health care, and that the movement to end it was dominated largely by white and economically privileged trans people who were not sparing sufficient thought for those who would suffer the most from a revocation of this diagnosis. Part of me still believes that, and I’ll return to that very important issue in a moment.

But let’s look at the reality presently. GID already fails to grant many of us needed healthcare. Advice on how to secure black market hormones abounds precisely because of this systemic problem. Most insurance refuses to cover it, most states in the US have laws explicitly banning Medicaid from covering transgender care.

And what do we get in return? “Proof” that we are a mentally ill community of ‘self mutilators’ and disordered penis-hackers (as always the transmisogynist discourse ensures little to no regard for trans men’s issues. It is the trans woman that is the fixture of cis anxiety, owing to the patriarchal nature of our present culture). In exchange for empowering psychiatrists to speak for us, judge us, control us, and in exchange for a diagnosis which supposedly proves beyond our own sense of knowing that we’re correct about ourselves, we have to accept that people will always see us as mentally ill.

At this juncture I wade into the territory of ableism and the discourse thereof which I’m certainly a good deal less qualified to speak about as I’m coming from a position of privilege. We shouldn’t live in a society where a person can be marginalised by labelling them as “mentally ill,” nor one where anyone is stigmatised as ‘disordered’ and thus ‘abnormal’ and subject to dehumanising or degrading treatment. I hope my effort to undo this diagnosis does not appear ableist. Rather what I want to do is shatter it so that trans people themselves can gain a needed boost in shaping the dialogues around our lives; dialogues that are less medicalised and more humanised. In other words revoking the right of privileged scientists to name us as “other” against our will.

As to the matter of transgender healthcare, Callen-Lorde Community Health Centre, a place near and dear to my own heart, recently had this to say about a new and improved diagnosis for GID which I had initially approved of, called “Gender Incongruence.”

We appreciate the APA’s proposed “Gender Incongruence”(GI) diagnosis is an effort intended to de-stigmatize gender non-conformity and improve transgender-identified people’s access to mental health care. We agree with the intention behind this effort; however, we endorse an alternative viewpoint, based on our years of collective practice knowledge. We believe GI will continue to inappropriately pathologize gender non-conformity, maintain barriers to medically necessary health care, and lend justification to gender based stigmatization and discrimination.”

While Helen Boyd’s beliefs and my own do not always coexist happily, I support her signing onto the Callen-Lorde letter. After many debates I’ve come to realise that what has happened with GID is not simply a matter of misunderstanding or lack of education. It’s, perhaps, the intended effect. To keep us marginalised in a little box where we’re perpetually under the purview (and control) of a patriarchal psychiatric establishment. What I hear time and again from trans people who have found sympathetic doctors and therapists is that those who didn’t give a toss about the diagnosis or the DSM were the best. They treated them as people that were trying to grow and change in accordance with who they knew themselves to be.

By contrast the horror stories I’ve heard have come from trans people who dealt with doctors and psychs for whom the DSM was a bible, whose printed text spoke louder than the voices of their patients and could never be challenged. These doctors were not terribly big on seeing their patients as people. Access to healthcare was restricted all the same, GID or no GID. A trans woman I know in Minnesota, unable to work due to disability, is beholden to the lone psychiatrist in her area who refuses to let her take hormones until her deeply conservative parents agree to the treatment, despite having a GID diagnosis.

She’s 24 years old.

The fact of the matter is that this diagnosis is a sham. Clinging to it is to accept the idea that without psychiatry and the men in white coats we are nothing. It is to accept their whispered warnings of worse things to come if we leave their loveless embrace.

But to steal a phrase from old-guard socialism, the truth is that we have nothing to lose but our chains.

From the Callen-Lorde letter once more:

An inappropriate pathway to transgender-specific medical care: There is legitimate community concern that removal of a mental health diagnosis would limit access to transgender-specific medical care. While a minority has succeeded in using the legal system or in fulfilling their insurer’s requirements for coverage to access care, the majority of people needing transgender-specific medical care are denied coverage. GI maintains these barriers to care. Medical interventions are better substantiated by the use of medical diagnoses, not psychiatric diagnoses. Access to transgender-specific, medically necessary care can be directly and more effectively addressed by utilization of a revised medical diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The psychiatric needs of transgender people are better addressed by existing psychiatric diagnoses.”

I’m very much inclined to agree. The path to healthcare must be sustained by the agency of the trans person themselves and individual diagnoses tailored to who they are and what their needs are, not a one size fits all lie that stigmatises more than it saves. Already in Britain the GID diagnosis is becoming obsolete as the NHS pledges to provide care with or without it.

Love, not masculinist pseudoscience, is what will ensure we get the care we need. How we will get there, however, is also an important matter. It will not simply ‘happen’ once the diagnosis goes away. We’ll have to fight, we’ll have to build new frameworks of meaning and come up with new theories to give intelligible form to our experiences. It certainly won’t be an easy task but I’m ready to do my part. Many activists, unregarded and forgotten, even by other members of their own community, have already toiled on these issues. I have faith that a post-GID world can be a better one for trans people of all classes.

The fundamental, bedrock truth is and always has been that gender dysphoria was never really about us per se. It’s actually not that different from what a cis LGBQ person might feel in a conservative environment prior to knowing there are others like them out there and people who will love them: the oppressive sense that you ‘know’ you’ll never fit in, never be what your parents want you to be, the fear of losing friends, family, loved ones, status, and one’s sense of place. That does not arise from a discrete condition one may label a ‘disorder.’ It’s an understandable sense of fear, self-loathing, and depression that arises from feeling that to be your true self will make society hate you.

This is what gender dysphoria is.

Yet no matter how many times I explain this, men thrust their fingers angrily at the DSM and hearken to its supposed objectivity, and the alleged scientific truth it brings.

But I know better.

I know my own heart, my body, my spirit, and my life.

I am not sick.

I am not disordered.

I am a trans woman and I’m not going anywhere.

I need no chaperone, no white coated man or woman to act as a walking, talking identity card.

I need only to be.

The Master’s Tools

Super Italicised Editor’s Notes: I’ve been quite busy with schoolwork and reading of late so, to all three of you, I apologise. It’s been fulfilling but draining and I scarcely have the energy to write things for this journal. Updates will continue to be sporadic but I have some ideas knocking about.

More Editor’s Notes: Andrea James has graciously responded to this piece at length and I encourage everyone to consider what she has to say.

In the past I have mentioned trans rights activist Andrea James, a highly successful trans woman who writes for and maintains the invaluable resource of TSRoadmap.com, which for its relatively small flaws remains a compendium on trans feminine transition without compare. I still link it at the side of this website for those neophyte trans people who may be poking around the net for information that may stumble on this blog. Ms. James keeps up with it, updating it periodically, and keeping up with its news feed which is one of my sources on trans community news these days.

But I have to say I was disturbed to discover her latest venture, which appears to be an outright attack on two, admittedly dangerous and self-hating, trans people. Linked in the news section, I read this with both interest and concern. Andrea James could well be a scholar if she put her mind to it and much of her website contains comprehensive deconstructions of transphobic ideology, pseudoscientific and otherwise. This is no exception, save for the venom she injects into certain elements, which I will discuss momentarily. The two people she is attacking here are people she, with good reason, lumps together with a group I derisively call the “HBS crowd”, a group of conservative transsexual women who claim to have an intersex condition, “Harry Benjamin Syndrome,” and claim dominion over who is and is not a true transsexual. Much of their online presence is dedicated to outright assaults on the trans community, using extremely bigoted language that would not be out of place in a bar (“men in dresses” “eunuchs” etc.) and they appear to use little else besides political orientation to make these determinations.

They are the Uncle Toms of the transgender community and I do not use this term flippantly or lightly. I do not say this because they don’t think as I do; I say this because they actively reify cissexual oppression and buttress it, claiming standing as a trans person in one breath to legitimise their hatred, while in the next disowning it and appropriating an intersex identity as part of their perpetual self-loathing. I’ve seen HBSers cheer on transphobic feminists, support anti-trans legislation, and reject attempts at equality such as the promotion of the word ‘cis.’ They claim to know who is a real woman and who isn’t, using ‘standards’ that are incredibly demeaning to trans people and women as a whole. Indeed, there is precious little difference between their beliefs and the ideals of your run of the mill ignorant cissexist.

Their betrayal of other trans people is impossible for me to forgive. I do not begrudge those who wish to live in stealth and otherwise separate themselves from the political community. That’s their right, we transition to make our individual lives better and I cannot blame a trans person one jot if they elect to do so. My problem is that they then actively work against the rest of their fellows. They have so internalised cissexist hate that they then project that self-loathing onto the rest of us. They feel illegitimate because they have been so bogged down by a society and a medical establishment that told them this was so, that they’d always be second-best also rans as women. From this perspective, their condition is a sad, lamentable one. HBSers are victims of cissexism as much as the rest of us, and regrettably they turn around to assault the rest of the community in thrashing attempts at legitimising their own identities. They create hierarchies of womanhood with themselves at or near the top and the rest of the trans community towards the bottom. They absolutely must feel more legitimate than other trans people in order to feel legitimate period.

The brilliant author of the webcomic Trans Girl Diaries has some excellent satires of their mentality in these particular pieces.

After this very lengthy and deserved thrashing you may wonder, then, what my problem with Andrea James is in this instance. HBSers attack the community by creating websites and sockpuppets designed to promote  their unique flavour of transphobia, Ms. James comes in with her +10 Hammer o’ Justice and all is well, yes? Well, much as I love Ms. James for doing what so many of us can’t, there is a thorny ethical question here that ties into other such information campaigns she has run in the past.

HBSers, regardless of their self-loathing politics which are externalised onto the rest of us at every opportunity, are still trans women. They are still vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence and discrimination. The men who have sought to rape, murder and utterly destroy us don’t give a whit about what they would see as semantic political differences. HBSer, TG, WBT, TS, trans women, we’re all just trannies to them, and thus subhuman. For Ms. James to decide, by fiat, who is worthy of protection and who isn’t, I am afraid she’s simply playing into the hands of transphobes. I consider the two women she’s just outed to be odious and detrimental to our community, but I cannot countenance putting them in harm’s way, regardless of the hate they are spreading.

You do not out a trans person, nor splash their photos, full names, and place of residence (if not exact address) on the Internet, end of story.

In digging up all of this personal information, including their personal histories and the like, I feel as if she is going too far to make her point. Can a trans woman activist like Ms. James, however well intentioned, wield the cudgel of cis violence against her (and indeed, our) enemies? Is this ethical? My answer is a resounding no. I understand she is trying to name and shame as well as hold these people accountable for their words and actions, piercing the façade of their innumerable alts and sockpuppets to prove they’re fewer in number than they appear and so forth.

But from Ms. James’ own description, Candice Elliott is apparently confused and possibly going through a midlife crisis. In attaching herself so forcefully to an identity and taxonomy used by trans-hating psychiatrists she is, in my mind, attempting to find and legitimise some identity for herself in a world deeply inimical to trans people. We all have our weak moments, and yes we should be judged by how we handle that weakness, but no you should not be put at risk of violence by other trans people for it.

When she speaks extensively about public figures in the cis scientific community like Ken Zucker and Ray Blanchard she’s mostly going over things that are on the public record. But by outing people like Ms. Holder and Ms. Elliott she’s entering far more dangerous and far more sinister territory. There is, however, other radioactive water that she is carrying:

“As shown in the photo below, Holder is passing for black about as well as passing for female.”

I’m not going to comment on Holder’s skin alterations. I put it in the same category as I do furries; fine by me, I have better things to do with my time than prove you ‘wrong’ in some cosmic sense. However the tone here taken by Ms. James clearly indicates mocking and derision. It is, in my mind, amoral for a trans woman to mock another based on one’s ability to “pass” by their standards (which are invariably influenced by the media imagery of a misogynist culture) and it simply reifies cissexism as much as any HBSer rant does (indeed, many of them do the same, as the pyramid I linked on TGD above shows). How can Andrea James indulge this for even one moment? Would Holder’s wrongdoing be any less problematic if she looked like a supermodel? Of course not. This merely feels like kicking sand at her out of spite (deserved spite, mayhaps, but spite all the same) and echoes the ugly statements made by Lynn Conway about the appearances of some trans people she disapproved of.

The objectifying before/after photos echo an ugly media trope that is often used against trans women, and although the ‘before’ pictures don’t show them in guy mode, it still has an ugly vibe to it that makes me rather uncomfortable.

You cannot fight cissexism and then turn around and indulge in it when it is convenient for you to do so. I don’t claim any right to do so just because I’m a trans woman.

I applaud Ms. James’ valiant efforts on behalf of the rest of us, but I also implore her to be careful when outing people who are otherwise private citizens. It’s a tremendous dilemma because one wants to push back against their misinformation and hate, but they are trans people all the same (whether they claim otherwise or not) and as such are vulnerable to transphobic violence and discrimination. Opening them up to that is unconscionable, unethical, and should be unthinkable for any trans activist.

It might make things harder, yes, but I learned long ago that nothing worth doing is easy, especially that which is virtuous. We must fight our enemies with dignity and without reducing ourselves to their tactics.

The Ministry of Footnotes

My previous article was, in a word, a doozy. It is, if I may be immodest, ambitious and expansive in its arguments. This leaves it especially prone to puncturing from any number of people with ready examples of individuals and institutions or events that fall outside the parameters I laid out in The Ministry of Strength. So, tonight, I’ll address some of the weaknesses of my argument and anticipate some responses thereto.

I certainly don’t deny that exceptions to the theories exist. I’d be a little scared if they didn’t. No modern society contains 100% socialised individuals. Indeed, no society ever has. The very proposition of individuality requires that one not be ‘fully socialised.’ By fully socialised I mean simply that the individual has fully internalised the mores, folkways, and ideas of their society and never challenges or personally interprets any one of them. Such people do not exist, of course.

To construe any totalising argument from the thesis of Ministry is to miss the point of such a theory. It’s never meant to explain absolutely everything, only to corral what factual realities it can find into a cogent framework of understanding.

This theory is intended to explain a broad social trend, not society as a whole. If this reads like a lengthy disclaimer, it is in a sense. I was fortunate to learn when I was very young that no philosopher or social scientist could ever explain the world at a stroke. But this is also going to be an attempt to clarify Ministry of Strength against a backdrop of competing ideas and common arguments.

i.

The first issue comes from what one might call the countervailing (and very arguably dominant) ideology to the notions put forth by my previous article. The Culture of Victimisation. Just this afternoon I got a slightly used sociology textbook in the mail, much to my delight. Not far in, however, under the chapter headed “Culture” there was an aside in one of those ‘Thinking Critically’ insets entitled “Don’t Blame Me! The Culture of Victimisation.” In it you are presented with five cases of this supposed culture that are very sensational indeed.

Among them are things like a man leaping in front of a Subway train in New York, surviving, and then suing the City for 650,000 dollars due to the nature of his injuries. Four similar examples are given and the author then begins to discuss what he sees as the possible existence of a culture of self-victimisation. I find the examples to be spurious. Not because they didn’t happen, but because it’s rather hard to fit these sensationalist outliers into a true understanding of victimhood. We occasionally hear some story about an outrageous lawsuit or enormous rewards being reaped from them by people with relatively minor grievances but is this really victim culture?

This Culture of Victimisation is a popular theme among conservatives to be sure, but the argument there is very often expanded to include women, people of colour, LGBT people, the disabled, and so on. To claim that they are perpetuating such a culture. Many white conservatives are fond of arguing that ‘self segregation’ occurring in poor neighbourhoods is the product of this “victim culture.”

This, however, seems to support my argument that as a society we’re redefining ‘victim’ into a self-created category. Oftentimes without much in the way of real evidence. The author of the textbook, John J. Macionis, says the following:

“What’s going on here? Is US culture changing? Historically, our cultural ideal was “rugged individualism,” the idea that people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies. But this value has weakened for several reasons. First, everyone is more aware (partly through the work of sociologists) of how society shapes our lives. We now recognise that categories of people (such as Native Americans, African Americans, and women) have suffered real historical disadvantages. But more and more people these days are saying they are victims, including white males, who claim that “everybody gets special treatment but us.” ”

Needless to say, I have trouble swallowing this. The most glaring solecism in my view is that he seems to suggest individualism is on the decline in our society. As I said last night- and stand by today- the very opposite has occurred. In the United States especially we have become increasingly individualistic, to the point where we are actually denying the existence of social forces, institutions, and most acutely oppression itself. The idea that, as Macionis states, “people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies” is a consensus view in our culture, not one that is withering away.

Out of that idea comes the notion that one can self-victimise. Ironically, Macionis makes a critique that could not exist but for a culture in which individualism was so powerful. The very idea that a whole culture of individuals victimising themselves exists could only come about in a society that exalted the supreme power of the individual.

ii.

It should be noted that Macionis points out that white men are among those engaged in this sort of culture. Up until very recently I’d have agreed with that idea.

It’s worth taking a step aside now for a mea culpa. Even up until quite recently I have inveighed against reactionaries like Men’s Rights Activists for being ‘self-victimising’. I myself, without realising it, participated in the shameful exercise of perpetuating this insidious idea; that one could make one’s self a victim and attempt to profit from it.

A far better critique, I realise, would be to call out such groups for their hypocrisy. Oftentimes conservatives of various stripes will accuse me and others of being self-victimising before immediately turning around and bemoaning the sorry state of the white male at the hands of faceless feminist or NAACP oppressors. This is less self-victimising than it is pure selfishness, I realise, and naturally hypocritical. It’s just better to point that out to them: “if I’m being self victimising then surely you are. Or can we both agree that this idea is a fallacy?”

This is certainly what I’ll try to do from now on.

iii.

I should clarify my views on capitalism a bit as well. I threw around the term “rational-individualist capitalism” without defining it clearly, which is a huge faux pas on my part. Its meaning can be adequately intuited but I should not leave such things to the reader as that’s just kind of mean.

Essentially, rationalist-individualist capitalism is as much a theory of society as it is a theory of economics. It holds that all human beings are rational actors serving their self-interest, always calculating and strategising to their maximum advantage. Thus, in this model, even apparent altruism has a selfish core. It also posits that individuals are supremely powerful and can overcome all obstacles if they are talented enough; if they fail or stumble it is entirely their fault and no one else’s. It minimises the role of group action and collectives, it also minimises (or in extreme cases outright denies) the existence of a society.

This is, in short, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” capitalism.

I went to pains to call this rationalist-individualist capitalism because to call it “capitalism” full stop as my Marxist and leftist friends are so fond of doing, is perhaps a grave mistake. Such is implicitly determinist, presuming that what we have at present is the inevitable form of capitalism that it was destined to take. The essential and basic ideas of capitalism do not lead to this society inevitably, however, at least not capitalism as an economic theory.

A good sociologist must always keep in mind that no social institution is inevitable. The institution could’ve been different had the historical chips fallen differently. Capitalism and the economies of every country are no exception.

What makes our version of capitalism so special is that it is not just economics, it’s philosophy as well. The individualism and rationalism therein which posits that economics can objectively prove human beings are entirely selfish and are best left to their own individual devices out of which an orderly and efficient equilibrium would emerge… are entirely political ideas. There is precious little that is objective about any of this, and it isn’t even really economics either. It makes many assumptions about human nature simply to make mathematical models of global economies work.

The rationalist part in particular is what gives rise to this idea of humans as inherently selfish, who’ll stab you in the back if given half the chance and if there was profit in it. This, of course, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy among both the capitalist class and economists, but that’s a tale for another day. What’s important to remember here is that underlying this notion of victim culture is the idea that the self-victimiser is trying to leverage something out of you with their victim status.

Macionis’ idea was that it was money, of course, as seen in the cases of those high profile frivolous lawsuits. In the twisted ideology of those who promote the idea of “victim culture” those who call themselves victims are actually making themselves part of a privileged class, because then they’ll be pitied, sympathised with, and perhaps even lavished with money or book deals.

Furthermore, mutatis mutandis, this also relates to the MRA obsession with false-rape allegations. In their construction of this idea, they see every woman who accuses a man of raping her as coldly calculating her maximum advantage. Rationally pursuing a selfish interest. This plays into, of course, the stereotype of women as deft manipulators who can play the fiddle of emotion, but with the coldest of intent behind it.

The selfish individual, always ready to screw over who they can for profit (financial, social, or spiritual), is a key figure in the Ministry of Strength.

iv.

A worthy question may be asked now, however. How does that square with the idea that victims are weak? It does require a bit of cognitive dissonance, really. It exists for the same reason that entitled people can believe trans activists are self-victimising before going off to complain about how they themselves are victims of some social ill.

I might also say that you can accuse a person of being weak by accusing them of taking the easy path (self-victimising to win an argument or win sympathy, say). In this view, there is no contradiction between the weak victim and the conniving victim.

But at heart the idea remains: in a society of selfish individuals, a person must have a selfish reason for claiming the title of victim. Thus the privileged person asks first “what do they want from me?” In this vein it’s instructive to consider the constant panic among white conservatives in the US about the ‘threat’ of black citizens demanding reparations for slavery. For them, this is the selfish motivation underlying black community activism.

In this racist assumption you may find the core that resolves the cognitive dissonance of the privileged. A person is too weak to win resources the hard way, ergo they call themselves a victim in an attempt to guilt people into handing it to them- or in the case of the female false accuser, dodge responsibility for a regretted night of sex. This is how many people are now conditioned to understand any activism or any accusation against victimisers (whether as groups or individuals).

v.

A brief aside may be spared here for media portrayals as well. One may raise the objection that many women are often portrayed sympathetically in the media (fiction and nonfiction) as victims we’re supposed to collectively care about. One might further argue that some form of misandry keeps us from seeing male victims brought onto Oprah to shed their tears.

Two points to be made here:

  1. The use of women as sympathetic victims in the media is usually conjoined with some sort of redemption wherein they throw off the shackles of the label and reclaim themselves. They proudly tell how they “stopped being a victim.” Alternately they may be set up as someone for men to save (see the Jessica Lynch story) or as a tragic victim of their own failings.
  2. The unwillingness to show male victims often is borne of misogyny at heart, not pure misandry. The aversion to countenancing the male in society as a vulnerable figure who can be hurt, and who would be comfortable with sharing their feelings and admitting their struggle is ground in ideas of masculinity that are directly tied to patriarchal ideals. There is no feminist conspiracy barring public sympathy for men who’ve been in some way victimised. This aversion is very strong when it comes to men who are victims of sexual violence in particular. Rape is still understood as something done only to women. Some laws even explicitly define rape as unwanted vaginal penetration by a penis. This exists largely because the patriarchal construction of Man will not tolerate a man being the victim of sex crimes.

vi.

Here might be a good place to address another spinoff of the selfish victim argument. The idea that we want to induce guilt in others. The accusation of ‘guilt tripping’ is familiar to any liberationist who has debated the privileged and I regret not addressing the matter sooner. One MRA I sparred with recently made the thinking on the matter quite clear. They said in no uncertain terms that feminists and similar groups wanted to induce guilt in order to squeeze tangible concessions out of people and thus gain more privileges. It’s not hard to see how this fantastic idea dovetails with the concepts I outlined earlier.

As I see it, guilt is the exact opposite of what we want. I do not want men or cis people in general to feel guilty because of the things I tell them or argue for (unless they themselves have committed some grievous wrong, in which case, guilt away). But in general, no. Why? Because it’s ultimately counterproductive. Guilt is self-centered by nature “I feel bad about what I did, woe is me.” What is being asked for is not yet more selfishness (which is what gets us into these predicaments in the first place) but more empathy.

See the world differently than you saw it before. See me as a human being, if you’re feeling inclined towards the radical. Consider new ideas. But don’t debilitate yourself with guilt.

vii.

While this is nearly last I think this is among the most important connections to make. As a trans person how often have you heard from some particularly callous and callow sorts that you have “created your own class to self-oppress in” or somesuch.

Consider that for a moment.

You are being accused of inventing a marginalised group to be a part of so you can… reap the rewards of being marginalised? It sounds bizarre but with the elements outlined above and in conjunction with those put forward in The Ministry of Strength it’s not really that odd. Privileged people and even those who are not so terribly privileged think that it’s very common and desirable for people to claim a victim status for some selfish end. Thus it entirely makes sense that trans people would be attacked by bigots and entitled sorts who feel, in all sincerity, that we actually made this up just to get the apparent special favour that comes with being a victim.

Not too many other people get hit with this exact iteration of bigotry. It’s hard to accuse a black person of making up their existence as a black individual, for example. The bigot can argue that they invent their oppression, yes. But beyond that, no. It is a testament to how far behind trans people are when our very class is accused of not existing. The odious Jack Donovan, MRA extraordinaire and professional ironic gay man, levelled this charge at trans people multiple times claiming that we made up our class to reap some ill defined benefit to being oppressed.

Think of how this pervasive ideology benefits those with power and privilege. To actually convince the mass of society that it is those who claim to be marginalised who have or seek privilege. How many times have you heard the LGBT lobby accused of pursuing “special rights”? How many times have you heard it claimed that we seek privileges over the rest of the hardworking, God-fearing populace? All of these ideas derive from this individualist ideology surrounding victimhood and the attendant notion that one can make one’s self a victim, with all emphasis taken off of any victimisers.

Like most cultural and social forces that afflict the marginalised, it seems trans people are prone to getting it especially bad.

viii.

Looking over these “footnotes” I know I may raise more questions than answers. None of this is easy and what I propose is an expansive way of examining this subject, part polemic, part sociology, part historical, part political science. But I feel we’ll be the better off for looking at this matter in a very different way going forward. Inasmuch as the fallacy of “victim culture” was put forward in a sociology textbook by an author who otherwise seemed disinclined to conservatism, it’s clear that what’s being challenged is a deeply engrained consensus viewpoint.

As illustrated last time, however, the need is urgent. Real people are being harmed by this ideology and its failings become abundantly clear in those cases.

Edit: Footnote seven was added a day later based on some thoughts I had after publication.

The Ministry of Strength

Anyone involved in any sort of emancipatory activism, from flame wars in forums to robust street protesting, is bound to be familiar with the phenomenon I’m about to describe:

“What’s the big deal!?”

This is most often asked when you broach a subject of media criticism or a critique of seemingly innocuous language. You’re told that it’s ‘not a big deal’ if someone says, say, ‘fag’ persistently in the most derogating way possible. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if a commercial is in any way commodifying or objectifying women. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if, say, a late night talk show host predicates a gag on trans panic. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Such is the power of privilege that the obvious, and in any just universe the only needed, answer never occurs to the offender for even a moment. “It’s disrespectful” ought to be enough, yet somehow it never is; so we are left justifying our anger at a seemingly small bit of errata that must appear like a speck of dust in the night to the privileged people we try so valiantly to reach.

We’re left trying to explain why it isn’t, in fact, so small. Why it is that that speck of dust is just one point in a far larger duststorm.

In that process the next bomb is very likely to be dropped:

“Why are you self-victimising?”

So it is that you pass through the gilded oak doors of the Ministry of Strength.

I.

It should go without saying that such little bits of nonsense are a big deal for the same reason my aforementioned dust storm is a big deal. When one is buffeted and utterly enveloped in one, one tends to be offended by every grain of sand in it. When we take umbrage at an example of irresponsible journalism or other exploitative or bigoted media, we’re merely pointing and saying “look, there’s the dust in my storm; that’s just one part of it, but it’s there.” We are not oppressed by the image or the word en toto, but are instead stung by its existence in a sinful constellation of ideas and legitimations that do us precious little good. In other words, its role in the grander scheme of things.

That much- the fallacy of the ‘big deal’ defence- is abundantly clear. But wither this Ministry of Strength?

It flows out of that all too common accusation that tends to come out of our attempts to show others the storm that swirls around us. The accusation that we are somehow making ourselves victims in pointing out a disrespectful word, thought, or image that is a bolt in the framework of institutionalised marginalisation or oppression. We point it out to say, in essence, ‘this is real.’ In this there is, to be sure, some strength. There is the strength to break free of seeing only the objectivated meaning of these images and instead see them for what their true purpose- latent or otherwise- really is.

So where does being a victim come into it? Needless to say, this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Every single one of you reading this has probably had this happen to you, seen it happen, or perhaps even done this yourself: someone says they’re offended or disrespected by something and they are told they have a victim complex by the nearest available wielder of privilege. It serves to immediately put the complainant on the defensive, and it’s quite effective as a silencer to boot.

And yet the phenomenon goes further still. Witness this recent exchange on a blog written by a rape survivor. Familiar words enter the fray immediately:

“So your life now revolves around victimhood? Perpetual and eternal. That’s sad. You should move on. Life’s too short. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.”

I don’t need to tell any of my readers this is but a small sample of this kind of nonsense. It’s ubiquitous and it’s churned out daily. In my observation of this I found that a nagging question pressed itself ever more firmly into my conscious thoughts: What is with this ‘victim’ poppycock? I believe I can now begin to formulate the elements of an answer.

II.

To say that calling anything “Orwellian” is a cliché is to insult clichés. Yet so rarely is Newspeak found so readily and in its perfect form, just as Orwell intended. So rarely is a meaning well and truly inverted and perverted in the way that words like ‘love’ were  in Orwell’s dystopian future.

“Victim” is the word that we’ve somehow made into a perverse opposite.

Where once ‘victim’ necessarily implied the existence of a victimiser, it has now become an individual phenomenon, located entirely in the person labelled ‘victim.’ Where once calling out oppression was popularly understood as bold and courageous, it is now seen as weak and ‘self-victimising’ (more on that connection in a moment). In our contemporary and popular understanding of the term, if I am a victim it means I’ve made myself one and am wallowing in it for some ill-defined reward; it does not mean, as it once did, that I was hurt by someone or something.

This will take a great deal more careful study but I believe I can trace the origins of this to four points.

  • The changes to the law in the 1960s.
  • The self-help culture that emerged in the 1970s.
  • The backlash against emancipatory activism by the marginalised in the 1980s.
  • And the general form of rationalist-individualist capitalism that has come to dominate our society.

One of the first things that a privileged person, confronted with their privilege or with the existence of oppression, will try to do is to deny that the oppression exists. In this aim, they’ve been greatly assisted by the raft of legislation bequeathed to us by the activism of the 1960s. From the Voting Rights Act to Title IX, a broad swathe of (though by no means the entirety of) de jure marginalisation and oppression was struck down.  This alone facilitates the privileged line that is most often used to combat any number of call-outs: “You have your rights now so any failures you’ve had are your own. You’re totally equal now, you’re just being lazy/self-victimising.”

This ignores the complexity of such things, naturally. The law is only one avenue of oppression. Often it is the most overt, yes, and the existence of legal repression is one of the surest and obvious signs of socially sanctioned marginalisation of some group. But its absence does not mean inequality vanishes with it. If society itself remains unchanged, it’ll merely be displaced elsewhere.

But this is how the raft of 1960s-era civil rights legislation is used in this formulation. In order for it to be used in this way, however, (with special attention to the ‘all your failures are yours’ bit) more needs to be added to this stew.

By the mid to late 1970s the repackaging of the 60s counterculture into manageable, marketable fun size chunks was well underway and a major spinoff of these efforts was the beginning of the now ubiquitous self-help industry. Taking bowdlerised ideas of 60s liberation and individual freedom, they began to project a message that you were entirely responsible for how you felt, and that you had the power to completely alter your personal state, regardless of outside influence or outside forces. Indeed, some even promised that with the right attitude adjustment you could will outside forces to change for you. (This chicanery continues today in the form of the execrable book/program/cult The Secret).

Obviously not everyone bought into this. But society is a funny thing. We are ever in a dialogue with it and are invariably shaped by it. This conversation (or dialectic if you prefer the five guinea word) acts on society even as it acts upon us. Dialectic, in its most literal form, may actually be the best word to use as this is a saga about language and its evolution. For even as people might’ve rejected the deeper mysteries of self-help culture, they came to be entrapped by its argot and its message of individual empowerment. It began to undergird messages in cheerful daytime television (which would take off in the late 70s), children’s television, and the plotlines of popular programmes.

This then segues into the 1980s. “Backlash” is a term most often associated with feminism due to Susan Faludi’s perceptive use of it in her groundbreaking book of the same name, examining the travails of the 80s. But it just as easily belongs to all emancipatory movements. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town best known for one particularly gruesome event:

“Philadelphia is known as the site of one of the most infamous race-related crimes in American history. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered by white supremacists on a highway outside of Philadelphia. The crime and decades-long legal aftermath inspired the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.” (from Wikipedia)

Here he declared his unwavering support for “states’ rights”, the same notion trumpeted by segregationist George Wallace nearly twenty years earlier as a bulwark against desegregation.

This would be the beginning of a cavalcade of such ‘dog whistles’ to white men who felt increasingly antagonised and threatened by the sudden growth in power of both women and people of colour in general. It is worth noting that the small but potent transgender liberation movement was no less harmed by this backlash. What small but significant victories we had won in the 1960s were thrown back in our faces many times over as the 70s and 80s ground forward. The AIDS epidemic hit trans women of colour especially hard, and the backlash-mood of the time made it all the easier for much of the government to turn a blind eye to this suffering.

The 1980s then were the decade in which those who perceived themselves the losers of the 60s revolts found their footing again and began to reassert themselves as a political force. Out of this would come the battles against “special interests” (read: NOW and the NAACP), the crusade against “political correctness” and the beginning of such terms as “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism.” All of this nonsense, the New Racism and the New Sexism as I called it in the past, got its true start in the 1980s when the Republican Party’s infamous Southern Strategy was in full bloom. Similar forces were at work to varying degrees in other parts of the English-speaking world as well. It is no coincidence that the 80s were a time of conservative governments blessed with longevity in Britain and Canada as well.

In this period, our final bullet point also rose mightily into the stratosphere. Though individualist capitalism has been prominent in American culture since at least the 1920s, it truly hit the big time in the 70s and 80s with thinkers like Milton Friedman eagerly exporting new and ever more radical ideas to western democracies that praised the individual and the power of markets. All of capitalism’s legitimating mythology- the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility, the power of the individual, and so on- was greatly amplified by the new and ever more expansive pushes towards deregulation.

Needless to say, I do a very poor summary of economic history here and certainly entertain no delusions about doing justice to so complex a subject. I merely hope to illustrate with broad strokes the historical antecedents of our present predicament. (Should one wish to learn more they could do worse than to begin with this documentary.)

At any rate, so it was that capitalism itself- a dominant and powerful part of our social legitimating structure, as well as a source of much of our society’s meaning- came to throw its ever engorging weight behind this notion of the all-powerful individual. The climax of this would come with Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation to the magazine Women’s Own:

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Thus the ultimate formulation of our current problem was writ large. At this point they all intersect: privilege of all sorts, capitalist individualism, the denial of collective responsibility, the exaltation of individual power.

What follows from such a belief, now shared by many, is all too easy to formulate. If you “cast your problems on society” you are self-victimising and therefore weak.

Now where did weak part come from? All of the above? Yes indeed. There’s just one more bit, however, one of great interest to the feminist.

III.

Over the course of this time period we came to exalt a very particular type of masculinity. The classic archetype of the unwavering male-as-stoic-defender, that John Wayne model of manhood that would defy all odds to defend the ones he loved, and so on and so on. We had always worshipped this model of manhood to some extent over the last, especially, two hundred years but it seemed to become hugely popular in the wake of the Second World War with ever diminishing tolerance for alternate expressions of masculinity, perhaps because of the rise of the mass media combined with pervasive fear of Communism (the latter making apparent the supposed need for strong male warrior types).

What we artificially divided into masculine and feminine fell, as they always did, into a hierarchy with all that was good and masculine at the very top, with the dainty qualities of the feminine relegated to a status of tolerated inferiority. Because we as women were reified as the weaker sex, and socially defined feminine traits were reified as intrinsic to us, it followed that whatever was feminine was weak. In regards to this newly juiced up conception of manhood, this meant all feminine traits were verboten for men. Any hint of weakness was to be scrupulously avoided like death itself.

With the rise of the women’s movement, women were increasingly free to take on the roles restricted from them by patriarchy. The unforeseen problem was that this aspirational ideal was still based on a fundamentally patriarchal one: to be masculine is to be good. This would inevitably bring women as a whole into contact with the idea that weakness (as defined through objectivated patriarchal structures, lest we forget) was to be shunned if one wanted to be taken seriously.

Without a doubt, we wanted to be taken very seriously, and we fought twice as hard when we were thought of as half as good. We swam upstream, and indeed are still swimming upstream in many sectors to reap the fruits of our labours. Yet while we still live in the master’s house (a la Audre Lorde), one constructed of patriarchal dark iron, we run into this fear of weakness. Fear of the feminine in ourselves.

Assuredly this branches off into complex topics all on its own; these too I’ll write about in time. But for now let’s return to the Ministry of Strength.

IV.

Thus we live in a society that values a very particular idea of strength, one which women now feel very compelled to live up to (with the added handicap of us being thought of as intrinsically feminine and thus intrinsically weaker). We also live in a society that has constructed the individual as all-powerful, even able to shape her or his surroundings through sheer will, and a society that is increasingly sceptical of its own existence, much less the existence of structures that could repress or marginalise whole groups of people.

At base, to be a victim is to be hurt. In the patriarchal conception, to be wounded is to be undesirably weak. To admit it is an even greater taboo. If one thinks that these masculine ideas don’t afflict women in dire circumstances I direct you to the heartfelt words of a woman I spoke with recently on the subject:

“May I add, and this is something else that others may be familiar with: The alienation from the victim role can inhibit true processing of an event.

Feeling as if something bad has happened is a natural part of grief/processing. Yet, we’re encouraged to ignore this huge step of dealing with things that happen in our lives and encouraged to just get back to normal.

Yes, I refused to accept that I was a victim when I was raped. I thought it would make me sad and slow and weak. I thought that saying I had been victimized would be caving in and giving power to the person who wronged me. Now I realize that I did myself a grave disservice, and thought I was being strong when I did so.”

This is a phenomenon affecting and, indeed, afflicting real people.

Without a doubt, a man who was raped or abused would be compelled to feel even worse by his peers. By social standards we still nurse, he is given every reason to see himself as a failure.

We pretend that we can will away the fact that we’ve been victimised. The assailant becomes almost incidental, tangential, a nonfactor. All that matters is you. It’s not hard to see how this ties into the pervasive culture of victim-blaming that still dominates our society. When a woman is raped the accusations fly, even sometimes from other women, about the clothes she wore, where she was walking, or where she was partying, or what she was having to drink, or what she did or did not do, or who she did or did not sleep with.

In it all, the rapist is lost, relegated to being a merely implied spectre in the whole thing.

If this woman, who is to blame for her own rape according to some in society, dares to socially locate that rape in broader cultural phenomena rather than as a justified consequence of her actions, she is immediately called self-victimising. So it was with Ms. Chester, the blogger from earlier, who uses her words to help combat these evils and knows from whence they sprung. A man accused her of self-victimising to silence her, positing to her that Orwellian ideal that there was strength in supplication, redemption in denial, joy in silence. He enjoined her to move on with her life, unable to fathom that this is how she is moving on with her life, as she comes to truly understand it for the first time.

It is so mystifying and threatening to him precisely because we believe now that the role of ‘victim’ is entirely self created and self-imposed, and that if only one were strong enough it could be wished away, along with all the attendant pain.

In our ongoing conversation with our culture new phrases and ideas have begun to come out of this. “Inspiring stories” in the media will often feature the moment when the subject proclaimed “that was the day I stopped being a victim.” When less-sympathetic victims are spoken of by others it is not uncommon to hear that they “let themselves” be a victim. People fond of giving aggressive, ‘ tough-love’ style help will take you by the shoulders and say forcefully “stop being a victim!” if they feel you haven’t taken the appropriate amount of control over your life. All of this is out there, and until quite recently I myself used many of these phrases flippantly, unaware of how I’d bought into this ugly new concept of victimhood.

It is a Ministry of Strength, in the Orwellian sense, then. A social institution dedicated to the proposition that weakness is strength. The activist, oppositional posture is cast as weakness, whereas apologising for those in power is cast as strength. Strength comes from doing the one thing that obviates your healing: denying that you’ve ever been hurt. The focus for victims of rape and abuse is now on shrugging off the mantle of ‘victim’ before doing anything else. If you can erase the label from yourself, you’ll be cured and pure again, so goes the self-help wisdom. Inasmuch as it exists on the same continuum as victim-blaming and slut-shaming it is plain to see where the interest for broader Feminism lies in this matter.

Some might argue that we see very prominent cases of victims shouting j’accuse at their tormentors. Yet study the discourses surrounding those events. If it is a woman claiming to have been raped, invariably mentions of the Duke Lacrosse team will surface. If it is the victim of a war crime they’re branded as glory hogs or terrorists in disguise. If it is the victim of discrimination in housing or employment, they’re branded attention whores trying to strike it rich in a lawsuit. That is how these people who dare to speak up are cast and framed. They are mercilessly pilloried for their efforts and assumed to be selfish (another rationalist-capitalist idea, by the by), they are rarely seen as entirely sympathetic.

Our present economic structure excels at producing atomised individuals, and when combined with the creaking but still operational machinery of patriarchy, as well as the better oiled rigs of transphobia, racism, and homophobia, it creates atomised victims. Victims who are actively encouraged to not fight back, or even admit that they’ve been victimised. Victims who are encouraged to be alone in their sense of victimhood. Should they dare speak the name of their assailant, he or she will always be Thatcher’s individual- never part of something bigger. There are only individual bad guys out there, and anyway they don’t matter as much as your own self-victimisation, do they?

Conclusion.

Recently I got into a sparring match with someone who deployed the self-victimising ploy yet again. She said to me:

“I don’t know, I want to start a [forum] for women who look out the window and say ‘ “i have more control over my life than the world does over me and i am going to live my life knowing that.” “

I responded as follows:

“Your concept of “self-victimisation” is false and does not exist. To be honest, I look out the window every day and think “I have more control over my life than the world does” in my heart. How could I not? I have things to do, a life to live, degrees to get, dreams to fulfil. How could I not think that empowering sentence each and every day?

I want independence, I want the fruits of my labour to be ripe and bountiful. That’s exactly why I fight sexism, and there is something ennobling about that very act that gives me even more strength to keep right on saying that the world has no power over me. I recognise and grapple with reality, but also try my best to rise above it. Why? Because I can do no other.

Recognising discriminatory or biased behaviour, however small, is not self-victimisation. Fighting against bigotry (whether it be sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, or all of the above) is not allowing one’s self to be defeated by the world or surrender power to it. It’s the very opposite. It’s the seizure of strength, of identity, and independence.”

What struck me most was that it seemed to win over my opponent, who deleted her accusatory posts and left one to me saying she’d love to hear my stories of overcoming adversity sometime, something for which I hope an opportunity soon presents itself.

In this is, perhaps, part of the solution to our problem- and it is a problem we all face whatever our group identities. That solution is to continue to emphasise and frame the strength of activism. Activism need not mean taking to the streets or leafleting. It can just mean having the strength to say “hey, that’s transphobic, stop that.” That alone is the activist posture that resists the perpetuation of marginalising or alienating norms. That alone will do to qualify for the activist label (that’s certainly Fox News’ standard). But it is not enough in the face of these new oppressive ideas that have redefined victimhood. We must smash this new Ministry of Strength with the very real strength we possess, and remind others that this strength stems not from apologising for the way things are but from actively working to change it, and from proactively seizing your identity from others who would define it for you.

In this lies strength, in this lies freedom.

Feminism and I

In my recent writings I have taken great pains to criticise elements of feminism that I believe are failing the women this movement purports to serve. I stand by those challenges and will repeat them so long as there is need for them.

But I should also dedicate this space to my own robust support for the ideals that undergird feminism and there is no better place to begin with an introductory question: what does feminism mean to me? What follows is my answer to this question, a modified version of which appeared on Reddit in a thread of the same name.

I will not simply trot out the radical cliches about how “feminism is the belief that women are people” and it would take only a few seconds for an observer to note that I most definitely believe in equal opportunity and equality between the sexes. These two statements, for me, go without saying. The deeper definitions for me have more to do with the following: love and respect for yourself as a woman and a willingness to confront unfairness.

But Feminism is, above all, the standard to which I repair.

When times are at their hardest, it lends me strength. It lent me strength for much of my life, even when I did not think it my own. It gave me an enormous amount of courage, the strength to not hate myself for wanting to be a woman, the strength to see something positive and worthwhile in it, and the strength to face transmisogyny; strength I didn’t know I had.

Because above all else it is the term ‘repair’ that matters most. Feminism gave me the strength to not simply sit down and shut up or hide in a dark corner, but to forcefully assert my dignity, rights, and right to exist. It gave me the ability to repair my strength when it was left mercilessly battered and tested.

When I came out it gave me the strength to stand up to my father, who groped me and demanded to see my underwear. The strength to know this was not only wrong, but why it was happening.

It gave me the strength to stand up to radical feminists who said I had no place in the movement, and to find the courage to never doubt my own womanhood.

But it’s not just about my own life. My mother is not a self identified feminist, yet in making certain things clear to her she began to realise she had a right to self respect as a woman. She began to wake up and see that no, it wasn’t okay for her husband to withhold medication from her in exchange for sex or to dismissively tell her to take a cab on a night she needed an ambulance, it wasn’t okay to force himself on her the night before her father’s funeral after she said no dozens of times, it wasn’t justified or excusable that he used to hit her, it wasn’t right that he constantly put her down, it wasn’t hers to accept her role in his deluded fantasy…

To many men, especially, it is hard to see why it would take something like feminism to get someone to realise those basic and essential things. Well, that’s why it’s still very necessary. Because even in this day and age it is so easy to beat a woman down into self-loathing hopelessness.

That is why I say that feminism is not Michfest. It is more than a building, or a convention, or a sign, or a Women’s Studies Department. It must be that place where you discover it’s okay to have dignity. It must be the ideal that equality is more than a word, or an airy thought, but a reality that you can live.

It’s about more than material political battles, it’s about the battles you fight in your own life.

It is about developing the habit of freedom.

It’s the battle one of my closest friends fought to find self worth as a mother after spending several years in sex work just to raise her child and pay for medical treatment. It’s the battle another friend had to accept that she could be into BDSM. It’s the battle my mother’s still fighting to find the strength to divorce herself from a man who controls all of her savings. It’s the battle my trans women sisters fight every day to see themselves as people of worth, in a society that dumps on them twice as hard because they are women. It’s about the time I launched myself out of my chair to condemn a man speaking to my classmates with pride about how he kicked his pregnant daughter to the curb, with the child of her rapist, because she was a ‘slut.’

This is more than politics, it’s more than a gathering of opinions; it’s my life, and the lives of the people I love.

That’s why I identify outside of the wave system. The whole Third Wave et al. series of designations is useful academically but I do not like to box myself into one mode of feminist thinking. I let my experience, learning, critical thought and observations inform what I believe.

Because as I said, feminism is more than anything tangible; more than something that can be corralled in the neatest of confines.

In all of this is my rejoinder to the ceaseless and witless suggestions about “equalism”. Those experiences are why a separate word is needed. But I am an equalist too. Feminism is about standing up for yourself as a woman, in addition to equalism and humanism.

It is the standard I hold proudly, and I’ll never let it go.

Castles in the Air

In the many debates I’ve had about the truth of my existence the question of whether one can ever truly be trans is a pressing one. How do you know you’re a woman? What does this mean about gender? Does the fact of my existence better support biological essentialism or the theories of social constructionism? Thus it is that again my life is reduced to someone else’s ideological pawn. Must I validate anything by existing? Other than the already obvious fact of human diversity, of course. But nestled in this tangled mess is the burden of my own past, which I’ve recounted in some sketchy detail here recently.

How to see it and how to understand it is an ever pressing question, the answer to which evolves over time. How we reinterpret our biographies is part of how we live our lives and how we measure its progress, in a way. One is often considered mature when they can look back on the relative immaturity of their younger years- a time when they were sure they were absolutely right. So what do I see when I look back on those days when I was younger and when I was still struggling to know myself?

Pivoting off of this thought provoking post over at Sugar and Slugs I thought its particular timeliness in the wake of Daughter Also Rises (Part I, Part II) meant this would be a good time to re-examine some of what I said.

I was impressed most of all by the fundamental honesty of her post and I think it touches on a fundamental question that dogs us all, not just trans people:

How do we know what we know?

The sociology of knowledge, such as it is in its very theoretical and airy form, exists to try and answer this question and is generally at the basis of what we know as social constructionism. This was best epitomised by the groundbreaking text The Social Construction of Reality by Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger that, while dense as a brick and an extraordinarily wonky read,  is nevertheless worth considering. We do, to a great extent, invent our knowledge. Male and female are loose biological concepts that have been reified into socially constructed genders and identities. That is to say that the gender expressions of males and females and all who exist outside of that binary have at least some societal grounding. What we consider the ‘trappings’ of male and female are socially determined.

But then other things come into it. Why, for example, would I find such peace from taking hormones if biology didn’t somehow become part of the mix? There are many interlacing layers of complexity to be found here.

But that aside, what we understand as gender has a largely socially constructed definition that is reified by the existence of what a layperson sees as two mutually exclusive sexes (and I say ‘layperson’ because biologically speaking things get considerably more complicated than that). Thus all of that said, how do I know I’m a woman?

I just know. How can I describe how this feels? I really cannot imagine the alternative any longer and with each passing day I feel more and more at home.

This raises another question, however. This life is a hard one, one that is complicated by the many externalities of womanhood in a patriarchal society. The latter creates a welter of problems before one even gets to the part about being trans. Some particularly dense radical feminists ask why on earth one would want to be a woman in this society with all the problems we face, when one was born with a one way ticket into Male Privilege. Why indeed.

The answer lies back in World of Warcraft.

One of the details I ought not to have skipped over in my telling of that story and which I may edit in later was how I handled my first Bad Female Experiences. I was flirted with, even against my expressed wishes, stalked, had photos demanded of me, heard and rolled my eyes at innumerable sexist jokes, and so forth. The first two were especially bad. A lot of people tend to blur the lines between fantasy and reality in these games and more than one person who I roleplayed with, even for just the briefest of times, felt we had “a moment” and sought to declare their undying affection for me.

My stalker felt very much the same and he was quite determined to be my betrothed, regaling me with tales of how I’d lay against his bare chest while he played the guitar and held roses. I’m honestly a bit unclear on how that might’ve worked physically. This was something wholly new to me that I had not really experienced at all in high school. Suddenly I was surrounded by men who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who felt entitled to my time and attention, who stalked me, and who underestimated my capabilities.

Did this suck big time? Absolutely. But something else happened in that crucible. I found the strength to fight it. I certainly didn’t enjoy being treated like a woman in this respect, but I found a sense of pride in standing up for my dignity against it. When I lived as a male I didn’t ever really want to stand up for myself. I never had the energy or desire to do so. Even though I came under fire as a woman, I found I had the sense of pride I needed to find dignity in battle, so to speak.

This is not to spin my WoW experience as some kind vortex of misogynist misery; in my two years there I had some great times and met some absolutely wonderful people, men and women alike, who treated me as a friend and comrade. Suffice it to say, we kicked the arse of many a raid boss together. But the gendered experiences were instructive. When men foisted gifts upon me in thoroughly unwarranted contexts I felt hopelessly put upon and burdened. But I also found the strength to not indulge in the commodity model they were buying into; I knew I owed them no attention of any sort, least of all sexual, and learned to not feel pressured into accepting unwanted gifts or advances.

In summary, being a woman has its problems but I had the strength to deal with those challenges, drawing on a well of dignity that was somehow unavailable when I was struggling to be a male in society.

Sugar and Slugs makes an interesting point here:

“If womanhood comes, as many transsexuals seem to believe, from some kind of internal knowing (which itself seems like a form of mental essentialism), I have no way to know that my experience of “knowing” that I am a woman is the same as the “knowing” that other people experience. It’s nonverifiable.”

It seems like a wash but I can answer it, I feel. How we know ourselves, as individuals, and then vis a vis our various group associations, is an individuated self-knowing that is likely as vicissitudinal and unique as a fingerprint. So, naturally, my self knowing as a woman is different from my female best friend’s self knowing, which is different from my mother’s self-knowing and so on.

Thus while my self knowledge is unique, it is not invalid.

That knowledge is coloured by experience and how we grow into ourselves. Some of it is self knowledge based on our physical form, and the distinctive ways that hormones can interact with our brains, as well as consciousness of our particular social location in the broader world.

“If, on the other hand, we take a stance that “existence precedes essence”, and that as Simon de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born a woman, but becomes one”, we can see womanhood as something that arises from the form and capabilities of the adult female body and the way in which that person is treated by the wider world.”

Thus this becomes a part of self knowledge for some, if not self knowledge en toto.

How do we draw the line that bifurcates essence and its prototypical ‘existence’? We cannot. Aside from simply being unable to know the consciousness of another person, we also have to account for individual variance. Shared experience is not analogous to identical experience. Thus how we see our individual womanhoods (or manhoods, or other identities as the case may be) depends on who we are as individuals based on a very diverse matrix of individual stimuli, variables, and experiences.

In my own case when I look back on my childhood and my teen years I know that I was not fully a girl, and that particularly in many of my interactions at school and in the outside world I was socially located as a male with the many things that implies. But I also know that I was not fully a boy in any sense. I was someplace that was less easily categorised. The rise of my own feminine essence, to use de Beauvoir’s term, can probably be traced back to my tentative steps into gaming.

Was I not a female before that? My self-understanding says that I was, just heavily repressed. I have no way of proving this, naturally, but that’s what it seemed to feel like. The reason I can’t prove it is a very simple one.

Womanhood isn’t any one thing.

I’d have to say I was a woman because I did or didn’t do x, y, and z. That makes no sense whatsoever and is incredibly reductive. The constituent parts of my experience, taken by themselves, and compartmentalised into bullet points, do not amount to a definition of womanhood, any more than a brick adds up to the Empire State Building. But taken together and arranged in a certain way, all those experiences I delineated, great and small, added up to something I understand as womanhood.

It would be wrong to say that just because I played female characters in video games or tried on my mother’s clothes, I’m therefore a woman. Those are just building blocks of my tower of womanhood, so to speak. Essential parts, but mere parts all the same.

In short, I was not a cis girl growing up, no. But neither was I a cis boy. I had what best approximates as a trans girl’s childhood. One of a million different kinds but a distinctive experience all the same, during which one internalises the mores and ideals of a patriarchal society and during which one can build up the same amount of baggage many cis girls have to unpack by the time they hit 20.

Constantly being told to be insecure, to hate yourself, to see yourself as less; to see yourself as less beautiful, less capable, in need of constant improvement conveniently provided in small doses by expensive products, on and on. How many times did I watch television or some movie and wonder why it was always “the hero gets the girl” and not the other way around, or wonder why every even remotely independent woman had to get hitched to a man as part of the boilerplate “happy ending”?

Figuring all of that nonsense out actually took years of slow and steady intellectual growth. It was on my road to feminism that I began to discover this, and on this path I’d begin to unravel what was within me as well.

Nebulous Persona is fundamentally correct that we have no solid, firm, incontrovertible proof of our womanhood (and presumably trans men of their manhood, or nonbinary people of their identities) at least in terms of something that could be written and considered as inerrant and objective as a physics formula. But then… neither does anyone about any of their identities or self-understanding.

No matter what I or anyone else says, I know those who are convinced that I’m somehow disturbed or evil will continue to see me as such. I’m quite sure that any fundamentalist, MRA, extremist feminist, or general, run of the mill hater will read my story and ‘pick holes’ in it. I cannot convince these people of my identity in any rational, logical, or Socratic sense. There’s just an element of decency that many people have which allows them to take a leap of faith and understand the personal truth of my womanhood, to understand what I mean when I tell my story to them, the way many of my mother’s relatives seem to ‘get it’ more or less.

But they do not do what they do because they were presented with a flawless argument.

Such attention is paid to trans people, and such harsh absolutist questions (“How do you know who you are!?”) are asked because who we are still seems to upset a great many taboos. Yet we all, each of us, somehow upset the templates laid out for us at birth. In some little way, we stand out and engage in our own unconscious acts of rebellion. Why? Is there a test that confirms some cosmic veracity of one person’s taste in fashion, for example?

Of course not. Nor will there ever be. Why should there be?

Why should my rights depend on such? It is one of the reasons why I consider the growing body of research into homosexuality to be academically useful but politically flawed. Why should it matter if it can be biologically ‘proven’ or not? Our democracies defend the choice of religion- no one argues that Christians needed to have ‘Christ-like DNA’ before they were accorded protections under our laws. No one argues that political speech must have a biological origin before we bestow the blessings of liberty upon it. So why do I have to prove myself in that way, with anything other than what I feel is my own lived experience? The obvious answers of heteronormative and cisnormative social standards leap to mind, of course.

Thus it is that while I consider these questions to be useful to consider from various academic and theoretical standpoints, I feel that they above all constitute castles in the air. To whatever extent they are solid and tangible, they’re far out of reach, occupying an almost mythical space in our collective conscience.

When I was a wee one I loved The Phantom Tollbooth and it remains my favourite children’s story. Few tales were such an elegant celebration of education and knowledge.  Toward the end Milo ascended to the beautiful Castle in the Air, high above the Mountains of Ignorance, where the exiled twin queens of Rhyme and Reason were locked away, and freed them that their wisdom might again reign over the land. To my mind, on this subject and quite a few others, we could do a lot worse than to become Milo and spring Rhyme and Reason from these aerial castles of ‘proving one’s gender.’

How do I know I exist?

Because I am here.

The Daughter Also Rises, Episode II and III

(Parental Advisory: This post discusses penises and sex. Please dismiss all children and small animals from the room and fill out your form letter to Focus on the Family in advance to save yourself some time; cheers!)

This might just be one cliché all too many trans women of a certain age can relate to.

When I first saw the anime character Ranma my first thoughts were: “damn you to hell, you lucky bastard.” That was back in seventh grade. This is the part of the story where I tell you things you might have been expecting, where I tell you how I snuck into my mother’s closet every time my parents were out and tried on her clothes.

It’s also the part where I tell you that I had a strange sense of envy every time I saw a character on TV that somehow managed to change sex, and how even as I didn’t acknowledge myself I thought that was really cool. It’s the part where I tell you about the high school classmate who made me extremely jealous of him by coming to school dressed as a princess for Halloween.

A lot of that stuff is what fits into the more traditional narratives that cis people are likely to be familiar with.

Despite remembering little else about either the movie or the year in which I first saw it, the part of Ace Venutra: Pet Detective I most recall was the ending where the police lieutenant was shown to have a penis. The ‘jokes’ that followed, and indeed the gag that the revelation of Ms. Einhorn’s identity represented were quintessential transphobia. Yet I was fascinated by it. The same was true of the movies in which crossdressers and drag queens appeared, which were often bedevilled by bigotry and mockery.

If you’re a young trans woman growing up, do you think that’s going to fuck with your head? Just a little? Remember too that this is specifically on top of the broader female-oriented socialisation you’re already receiving which screws with how you perceive women and femininity in general.

Despite the fact that the characters in question were not designed to be sympathetic, however, I still liked them. I was fascinated by them and the fact that what they were doing was even possible, despite the fact that I was being taught each and every time that it made one an object of ridicule and derision. It isn’t fun to contemplate, especially when one feels so drawn to it. That was the only avenue presented to me, as it were. The only way I could do what I wanted and live the way I wanted was to put on a huge blonde wig and a tonne of makeup, it seemed, which was part of how I was denied my true self. Society seemed to say this was my only option. I was made to feel ashamed of any possibility of being trans, as well as made to feel ashamed of my womanhood.

It’s a curious feeling, envying Bugs Bunny for crossdressing. Even stranger to look at a young Eric Idle and envy him for looking pretty in women’s clothing.

The relationship of trans people to clothes is an intriguing one because it’s often the locus of a great deal of hatred against us. Trans women are endlessly vilified as “men in dresses” or “men who want to wear high heels and bras” and so forth. Our clothing is a symbol of a great many things, and oppression is one of them. But clothes also became the symbol of liberation to me. The very things I could not wear, could not do, couldn’t express myself with. If you’re a cis woman think about why you wear what you do. That’s the same reason I wanted to wear certain things. To express myself the way I wanted to.

I was under no misapprehension that clothing would make me a woman.

I also had no ‘fetish’ for them.

My awareness of my dysphoria didn’t light up until I was in my early teens, really. Why? Because honestly I was too busy when I was younger, escaping, building spaceships and cars and cities and Super Mario World and teaching earth sciences and conducting Beethoven’s Fifth and reconstructing the International Space Station from what were then artists conceptions. That’s why. I spent a decade escaping, already, and it wasn’t until I was around 12 or so that I came to realise what I was escaping from.

It began with raiding my mother’s closet and underwear drawer when my folks finally began to leave me at home alone. I’ll never forget my first proper outfit, a black button down blouse with a grey pencil skirt. I walked around the house thinking about how funny it felt to walk around in stockings. Despite being a tomboy a skirt had a certain allure because it was what was restricted from me, I was raised to think it was taboo to touch, much less wear, and as such these types of clothes were completely mysterious to me.

I marvelled at how they fit and liked how I looked in it. I looked at myself in the mirror for many days, weeks, and even years after imagining myself as a cis woman.

What most stands out in my mind was when I confessed this to my mother, out of guilt. The shame and intense self-loathing I felt was too pressing to ignore. I definitely knew by then I couldn’t ever, ever tell my father. I remember distinctly telling myself I’d take this secret to my grave in regards to dad. But mom? Perhaps she’d understand, perhaps she’d not be mad at me for doing this terrible thing. The bedroom was dark because she was watching television in it and I came in, crawled onto the bed and told her quietly, taking advantage of my father being out of the house.

I’ll never forget how she just stared forward, unblinking and unthinking and eventually just brushed it off, not saying much else. I wanted so bad for her to tell me that it was not only okay but normal. I wanted so bad for her to tell me that what I was feeling, what made me want to try on that blouse, was just part of growing up and nothing to feel ashamed about, whatever the TV might say. But the non answer she gave just lead me to mumble that I wouldn’t do it again and she sent me on my way. My mother, these days, feels a lot of guilt about that moment. She regrets sending me away like that, silencing that one oblique cry for help.

I don’t hate her for it, not at all. Today she’s one of my biggest supporters in all of this and she’s damned as hell proud of her daughter; I’m proud to call her my mother.

But back then, neither of us knew what was going on, and I was looking desperately, I realised, for someone in authority to tell me why the hell I was feeling like this. Most of all to tell me it was okay. Why I’d envy some anime character who turned into a woman if he stepped into cold water. Why I utterly despised getting my hair cut with a fiery and virulent passion.

High school, as I discussed last time, provided me with some clues to this rather intricate puzzle of identity.

But I still graduated without a whit of serious understanding concerning my situation.

The year 2004 proved to be a watershed in a variety of ways because it was a year of firsts and a year that represented my first tentative steps into real adulthood- and into an awareness that would prohibit me from ignoring the urgency of my womanhood any longer. 2004 was the year I met my first real girlfriend, the year I went abroad for the first time and visited Toronto, Canada, and the first time I had anything approximating sex.

I say approximating not because of my usual fetish for qualification but because I actually wouldn’t have coital intercourse until some time later. I had no desire to penetrate my then-girlfriend, something that saved us a mint on condoms, in retrospect. She was largely fine with this too. But the fact was that I felt no desire whatsoever to stick my cock into anything or anyone. I didn’t think that meant anything though something in the back of my mind dimly alerted me to the possibility that this wasn’t exactly a frequent occurrence among the male-bodied.

I didn’t feel like I missed anything, though. I still don’t. I have almost no desire in that direction, something that I learned the hard way years later after actually attempting coital sex.

What my ex-girlfriend taught me about myself as a person was much more profound, however. I came to realise both my own emotional immaturity and the fact that I was uncomfortable with the expectations placed on males in heterosexual relationships. It is no lie to say that when I was with her I felt the best when I was naked. Not because it meant we were having sex, but because I didn’t feel disguised by or hidden in my clothing. Through it all, she was a sweetheart; she didn’t burden me with anything and was very accommodating to my many flaws at the time. But I knew she was looking for something in me she wouldn’t find.

When she broke up with me I was left a gibbering mess owing to my aforementioned emotional immaturity and my lack of understanding of how romance was supposed to work. I was still labouring under the assumption that there was a rulebook somewhere and I’m not proud of the things I said or the asinine thoughts I indulged at the time. It was late 2004 and I was in the midst of completing my first semester at the University of Connecticut, wondering how I was going to carry on.

It felt that dire, I thought, because I needed some sort of romance in my life to live.

Childish, no?

Extremely so. Again I’m not proud and some of this hurts to write and commit to the Internet but I’m trying to paint a very particular picture here with more brushstrokes to come. I was 17 at the time, about to turn eighteen and I felt life was over because of a silly puppy love break up (dutifully splashed all over Livejournal. Bet you didn’t see that coming!)

I ought to have been past that, certainly, or at least understood that life went on and that I was still very young with all the time in the world. But there was a lot I had been sheltered from, both by my parents and by my own fears and anxieties. I was so sheltered that I didn’t realise my ex-girlfriend’s perfectly reasonable decision to break up with me was not the true cause of my problems. Being with her allowed me to put a sort of spackle over them that enabled me to make emotional ends meet at a vulnerable point in my life, but that was gone when she broke up with me.

She may well have saved my life in doing so, dare I say. It caused me to examine the serious emotional problems I was keeping under wraps, the problems that made me nearly fail my best classes, had me sleeping in until four or five in the afternoon and entertaining very dark fantasies involving my head and a shotgun.

Did she see any of this in me? Maybe. We broke up because of distance, chiefly. But it did shake me out of the reverie of denial I had luxuriated in for the prior six months.

Despite the fact that I was in college and living on my own, technically, there was a lot I hadn’t done. I had never arranged a doctor’s appointment on my own, never mailed something from the post office before, never shopped for clothes on my own before, never realised I was wearing my shoes a size too large, never realised I wasn’t in fact a medium in letter-sized clothes, didn’t take care of my own financial business with the school and with the federal government, had never went to a pharmacy to fill out my own prescription, didn’t know how to drive… The list went on.

That I had come as far as I had despite both a crushing vortex of naiveté and self loathing, as well as my own sheltered inexperience was remarkable in its own way. I graduated with honours from one of New York City’s best high schools, I won a scholarship to go to U Conn, and I was- from all outward appearances- on track to a successful life.

Yet all of the preceding was a sign that something was amiss in my life. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. Or the afternoon. I looked into my future and saw only either a void or me reflexively and perfunctorily discharging the duties of a life I didn’t want to lead.

Part III:

How did I tie all of this into womanhood?

The connection isn’t always easy to draw. A lot of this is based on feeling and the fact that I simply grew more passionate about life the more I accepted my womanhood.  I am quite confident that any raging transphobe or “sceptic” out there would read my words and walk away unconvinced that any of this has anything to do with a desire to transition.

Well, to hell with them. They’re not who this is for.

I can’t convince people I’m a woman anymore than my mother could convince someone she is by telling her life story vis a vis gender as best as she can phrase it. There is a point where her story is what it is and must be taken as such.

I do not believe womanhood is any one thing. I do not believe womanhood is something made by clothing or other accoutrements. I do not believe there is any right way to be a woman per se. There’s an element of self knowing that went into it and this story is about the dawning of that consciousness and that understanding.

It is about how I launched myself out of my chair when a preacher bragged to an audience I was a part about how he kicked his own daughter to the curb because she had been raped while wearing revealing clothing, even as she would learn she carried the rapist’s child. Even as a youth audience cheered for him I stood, darting out of my seat, for the shocked young women around me and voiced my anger at such hatred being passed off as a matter of pride. I did so yet again not only because it was the right thing to do but because it tugged at my very dignity. I felt a sense of empathy and kinship with a young woman who I’d never met and whose face I’d never see.

In many ways my journeys to both feminism and womanhood are intertwined, each wrapped around the other like a double helix.

When I first stood up to my father as he verbally abused my mother and treated her more like a child than a partner, I felt the same sense of dignity. The same was true when I lectured him about teaching my little brother to catcall at women from the car. As I got older my father realised that I was slipping out of his control and influence. Our arguments about women’s rights became more frequent and more personal as I reminded him of his abuses of my mother. As I went on another withering speech against him on some forgotten day a few years ago he interrupted me as he so often did and asked me:

“Are you a woman?”

He would often ask me this angrily, as he thought men had no right to advocate for women.

Yet every time, since that first day he asked me that, I always wanted to scream “YES!” Without fail, that crying affirmation sang through my thoughts each time that question was asked of me. It was personal for me, not just because I was fighting for my mother, but because it was just plain personal.

Even during high school I had these fights with my father and even then he began to question my sexuality. He thought I was gay. He caught me shaving my armpits once and lamented the fact that I never, ever stood up to pee. I still don’t know if it was a ‘sign’ or not, that. It just felt more comfortable and less messy. You have to admit, sitting on the toilet can be pretty relaxing.

But all of this set the stage for 2005.

I would quit UConn and return to New York City in the hopes of rebuilding my life at a local college. Why? Well because I thought I had found the reason for my depression: the campus. I thought going to school in rural Connecticut was a major downer for someone who was a city girl at heart and that going home would fix everything. I ignored the fact that my depression, among other things, could trace their roots back to my years in middle and high school.

2005 was the year that I discovered Neverwinter Nights and with it, Dungeons and Dragons.

On August 30th of that year I joined a player run roleplaying server and stepped for the first time into the messy and cacophonous world of online roleplaying games. I had been brought there by a pair of friends who, knowing that I loved to play female characters, asked me to roll one so I could RP as the daughter of one of their characters; I felt flattered and eager to try my hand at this world.

So it was I stepped into a rabbit hole that I haven’t quite found my way out of yet.

This only reinforced my sense of contentment in playing female characters. Not only did I get to simply play as one, I got to truly roleplay as one and act in society as a female, both in character and out of character. I was introduced to a myriad of new sensations in this. One was the fact that many people were surprised to discover I was “male” (as at the time, the ongoing guilt I felt made me feel compelled to tell anyone I got to know moderately well) and two was the fact that I was very flattered by that fact. I came to call it one of the highest compliments another player could give me, despite the endless apologies of players who thought that such statements would offend my manhood.

Oh, if only they knew.

Within months I started life at a public university in New York City and in a single semester I made the dean’s list and achieved a perfect average. It seemed I was correct in thinking that returning to a major city would help me feel at peace with myself. But by mid-2006 I began to crash again. Suddenly my motivation was sapped and my drive became a distant memory. Depression returned, arguments with even my mother of all people became frequent and I found myself possessed of a distaste for life once more. Again I chalked it up to hormonal emoness but the difference was that I was 20 years old. That excuse might’ve flown at 16, but at this point it was getting worrying.

What happened next was the beginning of a two year love affair with World of Warcraft; I’ve often wondered if I delved into WoW because of my malaise or if it was WoW that made me lazy and lethargic, in addition to deepening that malaise. In the end I believe that it was both, with more emphasis on the former. I escaped into video games for the same reason I escaped into paper mache and single player RPG fantasy as a child and a teen. Now I had found the world of online roleplaying where I could get a reasonable substitute for a social life and where no one knew me by a male name I hated or by a past I wanted to hide.

The name. Oh, my name, yes…

Many narratives focus on trans women who want their penises somehow excised from their bodies and I don’t deny that this sensation has gripped me many a time. Especially when I’m trying to buy pants. In my particular case though what I wanted more than anything was to get rid of my name. I was named after my father, a man I loathed, and that made me a Jr. which simply layered on the indignities. I fantasised ever since I was young about having different names. First I went through male identities like Michael, Scott, or my favourite: Selmester Quayle. Yes, when I was 8, I preferred that mish mosh to my given name.

But as I played through online games and adopted female names I discovered I just really adored those. It was in World of Warcraft that name Quinnae was born.

At this time I was also getting to know someone who would become my mentor, or my ‘familiar’ as she’d often describe herself. She was the one who brought me to WoW and who sensed something in me that needed nurturing when we first bumped into each other in NWN. If I had to bestow the title of lifesaver to one person it would be her. For the sake of her privacy which she guards jealously I’ll not say much more about her, other than to point out that whatever wisdom I would gain over the next four years could always find its origins in things she taught me. She gave me the strength and confidence needed to confront my innermost hidden and deep-rooted problems, as well as the knowledge to do something about them. She also helped me come up with the name and character of Quinnae.

But all other names I’d come to be called by… Qeraeth, Qera, Qerawen, Lorrainess, Zoe, and more… all resonated with me better than my given name. When people in chat referred to me by the gender of my characters I felt my heart sing for some reason. What’s in a name? For me, everything. To be freed from my old name is a joy I cannot relate with the poor power of words.

But in World of Warcraft something else changed too. Rather dramatically.

Despite still being unmotivated and depressed in the real world when I played these games I felt a sense of overweening confidence and even arrogance for the first time in my life. I stood up to people, I spoke forcefully and powerfully, and I actually made people respect me. To be certain, something must be said for the power of the Internet’s anonymity and the fact that I wasn’t in the same room as any of these people, but I knew it also went beyond that. Being known as Quinnae, rather than by my old name, and being understood as a female, rather than the male persona I’d been socialised into, suddenly and somehow gave me confidence for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

People looked up to me, I debated many a fool on the games forums about issues great and small. I became known as an intelligent and even wise woman that people were proud to call ‘friend’ or ‘guildmate.’ Even when I revealed my then-male identity (something I hated doing with a passion) people still looked up to me because they had seen the Quinnae side of me, the part that was unleashed upon entering the game’s society as a woman. I cannot rationally explain why I felt this way or what this means for any generalised concept of manhood or womanhood. I can only relate how it made me feel.

How it felt was, again, like pure liberation.

I would learn a lot, and do a lot of growing up between 2006 and 2008 but my life would also come to a veritable standstill. Those two years were necessarily lost. In that time I played WoW, Lord of the Rings Online, and Warhammer Online, all getting the same general feeling. I loved being my true self online.

It was not a desire to wear pink, or any frilly things, or to don glitter, or play with Babrie, or whatever else it is the media says about us that motivated transition. It was being myself that did so. The characters I played were oftentimes how I envisioned myself as an adult. A confident, intelligent, and mature woman who could command the respect of others and hold her own. It’s hard to put into words how and why that felt so right.

I did not transition to be a parody of womanhood; I transitioned to be an empowered woman.

It was in World of Warcraft that I met the first out trans woman I would come to know, and it was through her that I came to one of the links over on the right: TSRoadmap.com. The saga her and I shared is a long, winding, somewhat sad, somewhat romantic tale defined by us both coming to terms with ourselves and discovering who we really were and what we really wanted. While I never told her during much of our relationship I was poking around that TSRoadmap site more frequently than I felt I had any right to, and even as early as December of 2007 was discussing it with a female friend of mine tentatively. She told me once a few years ago that between the two of us she had the boobs but I was a bigger woman than she was.

Ah, I love ‘er.

That floodgate thus opened, it was only a matter of time before I would at last work up the strength to take the plunge and transition.

With that, I end this phase of the story and will let this sit for a while. The final chapter, which will summarise the events leading up to me coming out, will be placed under a new and even wittier title whenever I feel like it. But I hope this elucidated some of the things I felt and experienced. There’s a lot of detail left out despite the fact that this post came up to 8 pages in MS Word. The essence of it all is that this felt right and I never identified with the male identity that had been foisted upon me. Why not carve out my own male identity then? It’s hard to explain other than answering with a question: Why not carve out my own female identity?

When I thought of presenting as female I felt at ease with myself. But when I was younger and my parents, noting my detachment and my troubles at school with both making friends and dealing with bullies, did their best to give me new identities to try on- new disguises, as it were- I resisted furiously. I wore shirts and ties chiefly because of their bland neutrality. I didn’t want to wear modern menswear, even the brighter, leaner formal stuff. I just wore the same bland khakis and white striped shirt every day with a different bland tie. I wanted no other masculine identity. I wanted to be me.

So it was that she was born.

The Daughter Also Rises

It isn’t unusual for a new year to inspire reflection. Though it sucks when it gets caught on your blazer.

We are the masters of our own stories as human beings and our understanding of the world around us rests, in part, on how we rationalise where we’ve been. In other words, how we remember and understand our lives as they have been so far. This is true of all humans, not just trans people, but it takes on a special significance for us sometimes because when you get right down to it, our pasts are what sire the discrimination and othering that we face.

For the last two weeks as some of my entries here have indicated, this has been on my mind. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on where I came from and how I understand myself as a trans woman. It is enough for me to say that I just know this is the right course, naturally. I cannot argue with the results: my future is now impatiently awaited, my energy feels boundless at times, I can actually envision myself doing something worthwhile in my future. I cannot, and do not argue with how I feel and the rightness of it all. Yet I still feel compelled to write about this, to tell the story such as it is so far.

Perhaps it is just that after having subjected myself to so many cis narratives of late, I want to put my genuine story of trans womanhood out there to counteract the lies.

Perhaps this is just something I personally need to do on the eve of my return to college, a day that marks the beginning of a life I want to live.

[I should emphasise that this is my story and mine alone. Any comparisons to certain cliches about trans life are to better illustrate my own story by contrast, not to diminish anyone else’s. If it is to be taken as any sort of instruction on trans identity it is to say we are not all the same, but neither are all trans people like me.]

So, now to the beginning…

I was a child of the 80s and born into the infamous brown bricked projects of the South Bronx where I spent the first 4 years of my life before moving to condo in a slightly less poor neighbourhood. The stories most often told about trans people where a five year old child adamantly refuses to play with toys of a certain gender stereotype is not my story. I have virtually no memory of those years except the faintest clip of me running down a hallway in my pyjamas and then staring at a line of rat poison in a corner thinking it was candy.

Given that I’m still here I don’t think I ate it.

But Barbie was never my thing. She still isn’t. I loved me some trucks and Lego. I never once felt like I was playing with the wrong toys. Indeed,  I almost can’t blame my father for not seeing my transition coming. When I was a wee one I used to get all excited at Bigfoot, the large Ford monster truck, and quickly took to Nintendo NES like a duck to water. Or a duck to hunt, mayhaps. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that he began to call my masculinity into question.

In retrospect I was one hell of a tomboy and I have no regrets about this. Why should I? The story that is most often told about us involves little trans girls insisting on playing with dolls and walking around in mom’s high heels. Does this stuff happen? Of course it does. Even I played with mum’s shoes. But it is not the only definitive trans story. It certainly wasn’t my story. For my money Lego are the coolest toys ever for all genders. I felt comfortable with how I was raised, in that respect. Despite my father’s abusiveness I had a more or less enviable childhood. I thought nothing of the fact that there were times when I was little that I’d look in mirrors with my penis tucked between my legs.

There are phrases that are often bandied about in regards to us, such as “woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa. Even I’m guilty of using that to describe myself. But that is not my phrase, it only very imprecisely describes how I felt, and it is but the faintest approximation of many trans lives I’ve read about and know personally: including my own. I never felt trapped in my body, even as it masculinised. I didn’t like it, certainly, and I hated my facial hair but I didn’t shave it out of laziness. But trapped? No, not quite. Even to this day, with everything I now know and despite the occasional envy I find myself feeling of certain cis women or other trans women, I do not feel trapped in this form. I’m more grateful for it than anything else, oddly.

To say I was trapped in a man’s body would be a very old fashioned and ciscentric way of putting it. A way to help the uninformed more easily understand my situation. In reality I came to understand the fluidity of gender identity, gender presentation and an understanding that my body did not limit me to one way of life or one way of being. How I came to that knowledge was part of a long and often circuitous journey that took place mostly in high school. How and why did that happen? Because little Quinnae lived in her own world.

If there was ever any indication that I didn’t feel quite right with the world around me it was my intense desire to escape from it. All children are imaginative, and often beautifully so. But in my case there was a clear desire to utterly disassociate from the world around me as often as possible. For me, every day brought a new symphony of imagination where I was something else. I loved my stuffed animals loads and often played with them, pretending they were real, but their roles in my life were not to attend a tea party, no. They were players in my orchestras and students in my classrooms, with instruments and implements I had made using paper and spaghetti noodles. Oh how I loved spaghetti noodles…

I would use them to reinforce everything I made from paper, to keep it together.

Then there was the paper. Paper everything. I put traffic lights and street signs all over the house and pretended to drive around it. I built mockups of paper cities combining elements of London and Seattle and New York into my vision of a super metropolis. Over and over and over again for years. I built the Mushroom Kingdom. I built Ancient Rome. I destroyed them with earthquakes and space invasions and built them right back up again. I begged dad to get me a whiteboard so I could teach my classes with it and one day he obliged me by getting a huge one he’d found one day in the garbage. After that I just went to town on teaching. I used the textbooks from all my classes at primary school and unsurprisingly I aced all of my tests without studying.

There’s nothing unusual about a child flying away into their fantasies and their imaginations, and maybe that’s the point of all of this. So many trans narratives as articulated by cis people focus on what’s “wrong”. Being imaginative isn’t gendered, of course. Some psychiatrists might say I wasn’t really trans because I pretended to be James Bond for much of my middle school years.

You should see the cool gadgets I made. The cell phone car remote, the laser watch, the gadget laden briefcase. I did it all. I played James Bond, M (male and female), Moneypenny, and the Bond girls and villains. I was a one girl show with every fantasy I enacted, often talking to myself in a variety of voices. I still smile and flush with embarrassment all at the same time when I look back on it all… and also feel a sense of pride in all the laminated ID cards and credit cards I made.

There are moments now when I lament what I might have missed had I been raised as a girl, and yet looking at what young women are made to go through in their youth I feel almost glad I missed it, for I might well have hated it all.

My style these days is feminine and formal, the caricatures of myself that often accompany my posts are a good approximation of my button down blouse and skirt style. But I think I’d have been an overalls-girl as a kid and would’ve resented anything that compelled me to wear a dress.

I often feel ashamed to admit that as if that makes me somehow illegitimate as a trans woman. Yet I know in my heart it doesn’t. My road was unique and to see myself as lesser is to accept the cis stereotype that all trans people must be just so. So I was a tomboy, sue me. I live under the whim of no psychiatrist and I thank the goddess every day that this is so, for I know that some might look askance at me were I to relate this tale of my childhood. Some would have said that I was not truly trans for that, or that I might have been ‘just a crossdresser’, and sought to make my life a misery.

I made that. ...When I was 20
I made that… when I was 20.

Yet what I got out of my childhood was a zest for independence, and I know I’d never have been happy had I accepted the whims of those who thought they knew better.

But something else happened in my childhood as well.

We are often told, usually by transphobic cis women, that because trans women didn’t grow up as girls they cannot truly know what it’s like to be a woman. Needless to say, I always disagreed with that, though I found it hard to put my response into words until I really sat down with my childhood and gazed back through that dusty looking glass. When I was a kid I internalised the social messages being doled out for both sexes. While my parents insisted I was a boy and I believed them, I still looked with curiosity at what was meant for the girls at school and came to internalise other things as well. Things that would eventually come to make me hate myself.

I saw how my father treated my mother, how he hit her, yelled at her, belittled her. I saw her weep and I saw her appear to be powerless against the man who was eight inches taller than her. I remember my own father would berate me for crying or talking about my own feelings and how men ought not express such things. I saw the way girls were portrayed on television in the 90s as squealy, fashion obsessed herds in rhinestone and pink and wondered “is that what being a girl is supposed to be?” I saw all of my favourite TV shows and their male protagonists and figured men were naturally more interesting than girls with their one-dimensionality.

I internalised these things and so much more, as many young women do. It took its toll by the time I reached high school where I finally began to come to grips with the absurdity of gender stereotypes, and especially how wrong and demeaning the ones about women were. But it was entirely the truth that by the time I was 15 I hated myself for reasons I didn’t fully understand. My desire to transition was born sometime in the 10th Grade, though I wouldn’t really know it for what it was until many years later. But it had nothing to do with the fact that I was desirous of Barbie dolls or pretty dresses. It had everything to do with how I was feeling, and it was granted its first utterances when I went on feminist rants in History class against young men who asserted, ever so politely, that women who dressed a ‘certain way’ should take responsibility for their rapes.

In those moments I felt personally threatened for some reason by those words, and when the women behind me cheered I felt a sense of kinship that I didn’t understand at the time either.

This was the dawn of my awakening as both a woman and a feminist. The realisation, slow as it was, that there was power in fighting. I didn’t want to suffer in silence, I wanted to act, and to speak up, to stand and take charge of my life in the face of injustice. It’s just one more thing that doesn’t fit with the agreed upon story, for we are ever supposed to relish our silence and passivity. In my case it was that I was coming to realise such passivity was yet another lie about womanhood I’d been told. Women could stand and fight.

It was during this time that I wanted to really get to know other women, and I never fully admitted to myself why I felt more comfortable walking to the train station with a young woman than with a group of men, why I felt like a third wheel in every last group of boys I ever travelled with, or why I felt much happier at a mixed gender lunch table than even the one for nerdy guys. I did, however, using my socialisation come up with a particular rationalisation for it.

I wanted to date all of those women. At least, that’s what I told myself. After all, my father was insistently raising me to “go get ‘em tiger” and I had a penis, therefore I must be a man. Despite everything I felt and was beginning to realise about how bullshit all of that was, I knew nothing else. Happiness must come from dating and sex. Combine this with the rush of hormones that the onset of puberty brings and, well, disaster would strike oh so many times as I struggled to figure this all out.

I admired many women for many reasons. I admired Captain Janeway for her strength and leadership (and a voice I secretly and desperately wanted). I admired some of my female teachers for their skills. I admired some of my classmates for being something I couldn’t, or being smarter than I. I even admired several for their sense of fashion, wearing things I wished I could try, that I was inexplicably drawn to. In all of these cases the admiration was platonic and at times, even noble. Yet I funnelled it into sex for fear of what it meant. I could only be attracted to them in the strict sense. I could desire nothing feminine and even female role models were bad because, well, they’re female and I wasn’t, right?

Even as my father denigrated my female friends for being ugly and telling me to have more confidence in myself so I could go after “hotter” women I felt something was deeply in turmoil inside of me. I thought it was teenage angst over not getting girls, something I surely wasn’t alone in. But that was how I made myself understand it. As I reflected on all the sappy letters I wrote and my hysterically emo diary entries, I came to realise I never really fancied any of those young women or my teachers. I did not want to sleep with them, I wanted to be them. The way I had ruthlessly objectified them and shunted all of my feelings into pure carnal attraction was born of socialisation. It wasn’t just from how I was raised but from how my male peers kept trying to reinforce the idea that cross gender friendships were impossible, along with hosts of other signals.

Even through all of this some might say that this only would add up to me being a gender non conforming male. But again, there was a self-hating that emerged from all of this which was, I realised, me hating my feminine self.  It was all due to how I had been raised to see women and womanhood. When I spoke out for it, as I did in class, I felt at peace with myself. When I forced myself to deny it and to act as male as possible, I loathed myself. The simplest way to describe it is that I felt more in line with my true self the more I identified as a woman, not just as an effeminate or nonconforming male.

Even in high school when I was largely oblivious to this and thought “transvestites” were jokes I played games like Knights of the Old Republic and Morrowind to rush into the alternate realities I had so craved as a child. “Why am I always a woman in these worlds?” I asked myself. Eventually, my friends asked as well. So did my father, quite angrily.

By the time high school had rolled around I’d grown out of my desire to build fantasy out of paper, crayons, and noodles, but still craved escape. So it was that I did, into every RPG I could get my hands on. I still distinctly remember the one time I tried to play a man in Morrowind I just couldn’t continue after barely reaching level two (in a game where it’s possible to get over level sixty). But then I rolled my short brown haired Breton woman and went on my merry way, fireballing and slashing my way across Vvardenfell. So it was too in every Star Wars game where I had a choice.

Suddenly, I realised, a woman could be the hero and could kick ass.

It seemed such a trivial and elementary thought. But I was raised in a sheltered environment. I was terribly asocial, my friends were the aforementioned stuffed dolls, and my parents did little to change this. I was brutally bullied in middle school and was a touch misanthropic by the time I got to high school. Through it all I’d been raised on certain media images and by my fathers’ insistent stories about the way the world was.

Which was why it took Star Wars and Star Trek to show me women could own. And it was why it took role playing games to show me that I liked being a woman who could own. I grinned with a strange sense of pride when my Knights of the Old Republic character got to call another one a “sexist pig.” A little stab of rebellion, the same way I felt back in history class when my female teacher gave me a warm smile when I stood up against the sexism of other students. It felt so right and it felt so just, despite everything I was raised with.

Each time I didn’t feel like a feminist male, I felt like a woman who was standing up for herself and her dignity. I ask cis women to remember how it felt for them as they may have felt many a time in their youth, how terrible it must have been to reckon with the fact that they were raised to hate themselves as women, or to see themselves as lesser. That they were raised with preconceived notions about who they were supposed to be that ensured they had to expend enormous amounts of energy to just untangle the lies and discover who they really were.

I had to do the same thing.

It was so strange that it took video games to cause this awakening, and perhaps it was fitting that my father constantly threatened to break the CDs and engaged in Jack Thompson-esque rantings about the evils of gaming. Yet I persisted and became comfortable with female characters, honestly lamenting other games where I didn’t have a choice. By senior year there was an abundant sense I didn’t want to acknowledge. The reason I played as females every chance I got was because I was a male every day of my life, why should I waste time in epic fantasy worlds pretending to be who I wasn’t?

I never had the courage to say that, instead coming up with circumlocutions about how I felt more in touch with my feminine side or how the female character looked better, all those old chestnuts.

I didn’t want to say, in part because of all that shame that still stalked me:

“I am a woman.”

Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon to a monitor near you.

Out in the Rain: Gender Activism and its Discontents

Last time on Nuclear Unicorn I took down an MRA’s  transphobic blog post on trans peoples’ lives. What was most striking about the article were things I didn’t even get to discuss despite the prodigious girth of my response; chief among them was the fact that the author’s entire supposed purpose in writing it, his thesis, was left largely unproven. It became clear that he was following a very classic pattern that cis people indulge in when criticising trans people publicly. It’s a classic transphobic syllogism:

I don’t like x. I also don’t like trans people. Therefore x causes and enables trans people.

This idea afflicts most gender activism as trans people of various types tend to be excluded from it or cast as some kind of bogeyman in various gender studies narratives. Some genderqueers, androgynes, and other non-binaries rail against transsexual people for, as they see it, playing into the gender binary. The execrable Julie Bindel, and feminists like her, follow a similar pattern. She doesn’t like patriarchy and proscriptive gender roles, therefore they cause the existence of the trans people she so loathes. Christians don’t like modernisation, pluralism, diversity, and what they see as decadence, therefore all of those things cause the existence of the trans people they so despise. For Jack Donovan, his hatred of feminism and of women in general, which occludes all else, leads him to believe that trans people could only be a feminist conspiracy.

The mutual exclusivity of all of these theories should be proof enough that they’re wrong and bear little relation to reality. Their purpose is to buttress the ideologies of the speaker rather than actually address the concerns of trans people or discuss our place in society.

The fact that Donovan barely addressed his own thesis and spent a great deal more time whacking trans people with tired old bigotry and inapt comparisons is a reminder of what the real purpose was in writing the article: to be transphobic. His performance in the comments speaks for itself. When a trans woman challenges him he is reduced to a bingo-card ready script. He objectifies her, calls her ugly, calls her a man, and then essentially devolves into gibbering cursing every other sentence while simultaneously claiming he faces lots of discrimination as a white cis man.

All very droll, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might say.

I have to be entirely honest here. In addition to feeling mistrustful of radical cis feminists and most cis feminist websites, I also feel threatened by most MRAs. The Spearhead article is Exhibit A in my case for this. One could easily write it off as one radical that shouldn’t define the movement, but given that Spearhead is linked to so approvingly on many Men’s Rights websites, that the comments were all praising Mr. Donovan for the piece (except a couple of trans people who came in to question it and two others), and that the Spearhead is cheerfully endorsed by fantasist conspiracy theorists, it’s hard for me to trust MRAs or their sincerity.

Like many cis radfems, MRAs have a major centering problem. They define the “What about the menz?” fallacy. Indeed, the entire movement is built around that premise. But the simple reality is that everything is about them and their needs.

Take for example this thread from Reddit. I’m a bit biased, of course, since the thread in question links to your humble correspondent’s journal but it is very instructive to consider what happened there. The thread was meant to call attention to the hypocrisy of radical feminists in regards to their transphobia. But out of 34 comments over 20 of them were written by MRAs or people arguing with them about their “but what about how feminism treats men?” points of view. For context the forum in which this was published is called Equality, and is largely devoted to getting male and female (almost exclusively cis) gender activists to talk to each other. Thus the question of feminism’s problems vis a vis (cis) men is addressed daily.

By contrast this was the first post about trans issues for a while and one of a tiny number discussing trans women’s relationship with feminism. Despite this, the cis men couldn’t help but make it entirely about themselves and their needs. For my money, this was the best, and most telling comment by one of the MRAs about my piece:

“it discussed penises. it was therefore partially about men. Men who changed their gender, but men (or at least, formerly men) all the same.”

I don’t need to dwell on what’s wrong with that statement or why it’s transphobic. What’s most important to consider right now is that it’s appropriating, trying to shoehorn my argument into a pro-Men’s Rights agenda, never mind that you have to completely mangle trans women’s identities to do so. It is a reminder of the fact that when it comes to cis centering MRAs are as bad, if not worse, than a lot of cis feminists.

Every discussion about feminism must be about them and their cis male concerns. Never mind that trans women are routinely silenced and marginalised, rarely spoken of, and often spoken for in absentia and very poorly.

“Not supporting people who were born biologically male, and infact demonizing them and trying to strip rights from the non-females, is exactly what feminism is all about.”

Here’s a clue, sweetie. I am not you. Nor am I a man. Do not include me in your chest-beating ranting. Please. Seriously.

It ought to go without saying that I do not support discrimination against men, and my writing record does speak for itself on this matter. I believe that feminism must have a good relationship with as many men as possible. Just as Patriarchy could only operate with the consent of large swathes of women, the solution to Patriarchy must come with the cooperation of many men. I also never bought into the arguments about the power of the penis, whether used against pre or non-operative trans women or cis or trans men.

But the fact that so many cis male MRAs got huffy about the fact that I didn’t make half the article about them was quite significant. I spent 100% of my energy discussing trans women’s relationship to feminism because it doesn’t get talked about very often in the public square. So to have that public discussion derailed by cissexist MRAs was incredibly telling. That only one other known feminist chimed in to give her support or say anything at all was equally telling.

This is what leads to my complicated relationship with gender activism and my mistrust of MRAs in particular stems from the fact that they don’t notice or care about their erasure of trans people, never mind the men they routinely leave out or refuse to speak for directly (men of colour, disabled men, etc.). This is not to say that feminism has reached the mountaintop, only that more and more feminists appear to be acknowledging that there is a mountaintop to reach.

There is quite a long road ahead, for certain. Feminism at least has the tools of liberal liberation ideology to work with that make it a much easier fit with the cause of trans rights. As discussed last time, Men’s Rights being largely a reactive movement of the privileged, draws its intellectual inspiration from the right.  Halting steps forward are being taken by feminist groups. More and more are at least operating from the basic premise that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that all other gender identities on the spectrum are also to be respected. That MRA websites like the Spearhead are 50 years behind on this is a reminder of why trans people should be very wary of that movement.

Yet before feminists begin patting themselves on the back for how tolerant they are, as white liberals are often wont to do, it would be instructive to consider the higher level failures that feminism has stumbled into of late. Feminists should think long and hard about Recursive Paradox/Genderbitch’s withering criticisms there, and ask themselves why such a strong willed and beautifully passionate activist could be turned off to feminism, to the point of downright despising it. The answer matters a great deal.

In many ways, the failure she talks about isn’t even especially “high level”. The fact that I feel tempted to call it that simply because the feminist in question that she lambastes is self proclaimed trans positive is a terrible reminder of how far we have to go. Much like the cis men in the Reddit thread, Melissa McEwan centered her own feelings and ideas in a discussion that had everything to do with real life discrimination against trans people, and in that sense there’s nothing ‘high level’ about this failure at all. It’s the same thing, except with a smile on its face.

It is not enough to mouth the words about trans people, and to say that you accept and tolerate me. That comes with a great deal more responsibility than many feminists are willing to accept it would seem. Many recoiled when we challenged them for their public mourning of noted transphobe and radfem writer Mary Daly. Feministe got it right with this excellent obituary written passionately by a cis feminist who told a complete story of Ms. Daly’s life and how her journey with feminism was tainted by it.

That is called accepting responsibility and being accountable for the history our movement has, which is often very chequered and complex.

This excellent comment by another cis feminist is still another example of how to get it right while still remaining committed to feminist principles. But far too many other cis feminists clearly didn’t even try, thinking that footnotes or lofty claims to ‘starting a debate’ would mollify the many trans people who were offended at endless pictures of Mary Daly with that goddamned axe of hers (or labrys, as one pedant corrected) and the glowing obits she received from many feminists who claimed to be trans-positive.

All of the comments there are worth reading, of course. The words of little light, an excellent trans woman blogger are powerful as always.

Without a doubt, MRAs are still trying to pass Trans 101. Many don’t even realise they have to take the course. Feminists are fucking up, by and large, at the 301 level. Annoying and even angering but still a sign of (oh so slow and iterative) progress of a sort. But if you stop there and disown us for those failures, then it’s all for naught. As Melissa McEwan and others must come to understand, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot be trans-positive and still wallow in cis privilege when it is convenient. You have to give up some of your idols, yes, because you ought to believe that the higher commitment to human rights, to women’s rights, and to equality matters much more than burnishing the image of Germaine Greer.

Individuals like her need not be feminism.

Feminism is more than a person, or a building, or a blog, or a Women’s Studies Department, or a single march, or a Guardian column. You have to let go of that sense and remember that feminism is about all of us, and that feminism is liberation. It is a higher ideal that should always transcend the worldly and human failings of individuals, and thus you should be unashamed to call them out for their failures and acknowledge their role in the movement. There need be no contradiction in any of this. If we are to be better than our enemies then we must own our failures, not make cheap excuses or go on privileged tirades about “the important things.”

Fighting bigotry is the important thing.

Celebrating it or eliding it is the antithesis of that.

Don’t let feminism go the way of Men’s Rights; an insular, reactionary, ideology that spends its time boxing with shadows and kicking the oppressed while they’re down.

Be feminist.