(Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus; in addition it assumes knowledge of the game and its story.)
“I just can’t believe a woman is responsible for all of this!” exclaims *Hyun-ae as you finish reading the most revelatory letter in all of Hate Plus’ archives. Her fury boils over—the regressed patriarchal nightmare that had taken hold on her colony ship, the Mugunghwa, the ninth circle of hell she had awoken into when her stasis pod was shattered by a feckless noble in want of a marriageable daughter, the same man who would steal her voice with steel—all of this was sired by a woman who made of her ideology a terrifying suture to bind the wounds of womanhood.
Oh Eun-a, no less an emancipated woman than the President of Mugunghwa University herself. She was the architect of the neo-Confucian patriarchy that the Mugunghwa degenerated into.
If pressed to name my favourite character in the series, I would—to no one’s greater shock than my own—have to name Oh Eun-a, however. In a game series that is an epistolary tableau of complex and intriguing characters, she manages quite the feat by standing out the most. Oh Eun-a is perhaps most easily described—and effaced—as a mad social scientist. But she is so much more than this sideways twist on a hoary old cliché; indeed, she reveals both the impossibility of womanhood under patriarchy and the terrible burdens of idealistic scholarship. Continue reading →
Michelle Goldberg’s feature in The Nation magazine about “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars” landed in the social justice community like an incendiary cluster bomb and its merciless conflagration is still raging online. The article, framed around discourse about race among feminists and implicit villainisation of Mikki Kendall (of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame), enraged many who saw its misrepresentation of complex discussions skew towards condemning forthright voices of colour and protesting the innocence of the most privileged, white feminist leaders.
As someone who was interviewed in the piece, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for this and an obligation to speak out about the impact of something I had contributed to. If I had known that this was the article Ms. Goldberg would write, I would have advised her to write or frame it differently at the very least, or even hand it off to a writer from the communities she was describing who could better handle the fjord-like shoals of nuance that such critiques require. Whatever her intentions or beliefs, which I will not speculate about here, she wrote something that—as I have reflected these many long days—has left many feeling unheard, misunderstood, and villainised.
This, of course, does not even begin to describe how many trans people, myself included, felt mocked by Goldberg’s Spartan and unsympathetic description of the latest debate around the use of the word “vagina” as synecdoche for “women.”
But in the process of expressing that outrage something was lost, ultimately to the point of being effaced entirely: the fact that the article in question extensively quoted myself—a trans Latina—and other women of colour who spoke specifically to the ways that the aforementioned “toxic” culture in feminism had been harmful to us and our communities in particular.
In short, we spoke to the tragic irony of a purportedly intersectional feminism, operating in our names, which then erased us for our own putative good.
In the wake of another round of community-driven call-out articles on this topic, I felt compelled to do something I never thought I’d find myself doing—mostly out of my curious combination of shyness and wordiness—and that was to rant on Twitter.
Well, here’s the more “seemly space” I described, and come what may, here is the fuller version of what I had to say:
The Whitewashing of Activist Discourse
In the wake of Goldberg’s article, the right and proper impulse to defend Kendall and the other feminists of colour who had been antagonised by the piece became the dominant theme of much of the media criticism; it was beautiful in its way, it showed an unbowed community unwilling to be locked out of discourse about their lives and the meaning of their existence. They would not be dictated to about what their activism meant, nor would we stand for undue criticism of a tool that we use to talk back to the powerful.
A prime example of the latter is Janet Mock’s uncompromising response to Piers Morgan and his sensationalising interview that fixated unnecessarily on her embodiment rather than her activism. As she said, speaking to Buzzfeed about the incident, “That’s the special thing about social media now is that we can talk back. Piers doesn’t have the final say…Our media is just as valid.”
But the aforementioned Nation cluster bomb effect ensured that the community became more polarised than ever on the discussion of internal toxicity, and in the process the online debate became entirely about upper class white cis women and how the media was defending their hurt feelings against our online horde.
Some prominent activists even said that the article only defended white women and was only about their interests and interpretations—a fact that was patently untrue by dint of my own participation, as well as that of Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Brittney Cooper, Anna Holmes, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Jamia Wilson.
Indeed, the erasure of what we said in the activist responses to the article, and in the name of the new dominant narrative about it, which asserts that the Nation piece only privileged white women’s perspectives and interests, many social justice activists have repeated the manoeuvre that Jamia Wilson recounted from her own experience with the #FemFuture debacle:
“One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.”
I will also go on the record here and say that for all the unforced errors in the Nation feature’s framing, Goldberg’s use of my interview quotes and snippets of my writing did not in any sense “take them out of context,” as some have alleged. I cannot speak for any of the others, and Mikki Kendall herself has stated publicly that Goldberg misrepresented and misused her words (to be clear, soliciting Kendall’s memories about 5 year old events, and then calling her “obsessive” because she happened to remember, is downright low and patently unfair).
But for my part, my words were contextualised appropriately, and I will not claim to have been used by Ms. Goldberg, nor will I lend credence to the racist suggestion of others that saw me and the other women of colour dismissed as “tokens.”
As I tweeted, our part in the article was either ignored, or we were dismissed as tokens and then ignored. This is not a matter of personal pride and petulance; believe me when I say that there is a big part of me that wishes to squirrel up in a cave and never talk about this again. I did not get into activism to pen extensive pieces about rage culture, nor dwell on these topics with all the potential criticism it could entail or hurt it could cause, on top of the social justice work and academic work I’m already doing.
This is not “look at me”—this is “look at us.”
Feminist Madonnahood Redux
The discussion that Goldberg dove into was one that had been started chiefly by marginalised people. My part in it grew out of a discourse amongtransgender gaming critics (two of whom, including myself, were women of colour). We continued a larger, longer tradition of internaldiscourse about activist culture. For many of us, this was a culture we neither created nor asked for, dominated by norms, argot, mores, and rage sired by a predominantly white, cis middle-class core that had always presumed itself implicitly more knowledgeable about “what the real issues are.”
Activist perfection and ideological purity were always luxuries of the privileged. The perfect activist life is bought; it is a commodity; it could never be something organically attainable in our present relations of capital and ruling, least of all by those of us for whom “compromise” is the air we breathe.
And this inspired discussion aplenty, mostly from the most marginalised or maligned voices in feminism, about a particular form of toxicity that threatened to rob of us of the only community we had. It was a discussion about how we, as people on the margins, hurt each other using activist logics we either did not create, or created under unacknowledged and compromised positions. It is unsurprising that women of colour and trans peoplehave had the most to say about this; we are the ones who most exceed the comfortable boundaries of activist perfection and for whom the compromises so anathema to purism are a necessary way of life.
Many of our discussions about activist rage sought to acknowledge both our own complicity in it, why it happened, what external forces often compelled it (the Nation article is a good example of this, to which I’ll return), and yet also name who too often held the real power in activist movements and what the consequences of that were.
One of the cardinal sins of the Nation piece was that it did the very thing I strenuously avoided in my own writing about the subject: it re-litigated past events and named and shamed individuals, condensing all possible discussion into a singularity from which no light could escape.
Now all debate would be about whether the disagreement around #FemFuture was represented appropriately and how Mikki Kendall as an individual was characterised. It is a ditch into which discussions about activist toxicity are easily driven because of our nigh-on cognitive bias towards discussing individuals rather than social structures—no doubt it was what made Goldberg herself more interested in writing the article the way she did in the first place (or what steered her editors to encourage her to writing the article that way).
Note that I am not saying we ought not discuss these things; Mikki Kendall’s portrayal in the article is, after all, an excellent case study of the subtle ways media bias can operate and why our relationship with the press as women of colour is always a fraught one. But it is instructive to consider how the “rich white women vs. the rest of us” dynamic is all the discussion is about now.
On Misappropriation and its Consequences
The comments beneath the Nation piece itself are, by and large, like the screaming death of reason itself. Everything I ever feared from speaking out on this topic has manifested there.
Men smugly proclaiming this is the end of feminism or proof of its obsolescence, MRAs wailing that men as a whole were victims of “feminist toxicity” and that women should be punished, atheist MRAs proclaiming Richard Dawkins the most prominent victim of “toxicity” from feminists, and still others accusing Amanda Marcotte, Rebecca Watson, Sady Doyle, and other women of being purveyors of “feminist toxicity” (against men, of course).
Meanwhile those on the Left accused Goldberg of supporting apartheid in Israel (because she’d critiqued a tactic of the boycott movement) and Justine Sacco (because she, like others, myself included, had been downright horrified by the way the response to her on social media had spiralled violently out of control—it’s one thing to call out racism, it’s another to have people waiting at an airport to harass the offender, sending rape and death threats, et cetera.).
The polarisation of the discussion evinces many of the issues with online toxicity as a whole, but also the big problem with discussing these issues in front of such a wide audience. Latoya Peterson wrote about this on Twitter recently better than I ever could:
“Real talk: The crew at [Racialicious] expected random shit to happen in feminism. We didn’t expect our peeps to try to eat us too. But you have to look at cycles/systems. If I call out xxx feminist of color for being fucked up, it gives ammo to those trying to discredit. So then, I can’t even critique someone on our beef without thinking about how that plays into power structures. Because I knew if I went hard on xxx feminist of color for xyz problem, people would piggy back on my critique in ways I didn’t want.”
The wide public exposure of what began as a family discussion makes misappropriation inevitable; it attracts swarms of people clamouring to deny responsibility, hide behind it, and tell the whole world about that one time a woman of colour was mean to them.
Which, indeed, was the other dreadful thing about the Nation comments: it seemed to spawn a whole minor subgenre within itself about white cis feminists complaining about a specific incident with a specific woman of colour from a specific number of years ago. It merely added to the drear beneath the article and, in and of itself, acts as a specific form of silencing. For one thing, it disincentivises any feminist from talking about internal community problems and poisonous dynamics, but it makes it triply hard for trans people and/or women of colour to lead those discussions because of the specific ways our words can be and often are misused.
It also makes polarisation easy; it makes sweeping declarations of “internet gentrification” easy and attractive. We can defend the most vulnerable from the most privileged, and at a stroke change or challenge the narratives directed against us.
Whose e-Streets? Our e-Streets
But the problem with this, and the wider idea of internet gentrification and the assumptions such an argument relies on, is that it pretends there is no such thing as internal toxicity that disempowers and silences other marginalised people. It makes no provision for the way we do violence to each other.
I myself nearly got bullied out of activism by two other trans women, one of whom was a trans woman of colour, who mocked and derided me for an innocent mistake and then wished death to a friend I had been defending. In the light of hindsight, I understand why my views at the time were somewhat misguided and that this needed to be addressed, but I was so thoroughly vituperated that I nearly gave up online writing altogether.
I have helplessly watched trans loved ones be attacked by other trans people, shamed publicly as self-hating trans people, because of literally a single misunderstood word. I have borne witness to death threats, to people telling others to commit suicide (or even taking bets on whether the latter would occur), picking apart a woman of colour’s history to meet some arbitrary test of authenticity (one that was, lest we forget, structured by white supremacy), slandering someone into the ground for something they actually did not say, erasing each other’s words when it was expedient in the short term, engaging in inappropriate sexual commentary (be it about genitals, attractiveness, secondary sex characteristics, etc.), yelling at a trans woman who called 911 as a trans woman of colour was on the verge of suicide per her livetweets thereof, and so on.
These are all things we have done to each other. And sorting this out is a discussion worth having. It is still a discussion worth having, and discussing this is not “gentrification.” It is not about making the internet safe for the privileged or denuding us of our ability to respond with forthrightness and courage to those in power who antagonise us.
I have tremendous respect for those like Suey Park—the foremost articulator of the “internet gentrification” concept—who have taken the lead in responding to the prejudicial aspects of The Nation article and what it represents; the work they do for us on the outside of, or the margins, of the mainstream press and funded feminism is remarkable, challenging, and discomfiting in the best ways possible.
In that same spirit, however, we as women of colour must also not allow half of our voice to be silenced in the name of a misbegotten idea of solidarity, and I am willing to say loudly and proudly that we have the ability to have multiple difficult discussions at once, to speak truth to power and be accountable to ourselves.
There is no party line, there is only us.
The True Wages of Privilege in Activism
What I had strained to get at in my writing, as well as in my recent tweets, is the fact that so many norms in activist culture, as well as what gets considered pure and just, is often not decided by us but by better-off white radicals who have luxuries of choice and sacrifice we couldn’t dream of. Indeed, one of the leading headwinds against much of my own work comes from the trends sired by white queer masculine folks with access to class privilege, and whose definition of what constitutes queer culture, radicalism, and solidarity have a good deal more weight than those that originate from trans feminine folks and trans communities of colour.
Such white radicals are the first to wonder why no trans women of colour would show up to an event labelled “Tranny Pride” and then turn around and politely degrade us for being “conservative” or “reinforcing of the binary” in our desire for surgery, feminine affectation, or any number of other perceived sins. Those activist norms are also toxic.
It is worth noting that those same people would likely clamour to show public solidarity with an idea like “internet gentrification” (even as they gentrify neighbourhoods in the physical world), because the “enemy” it focuses on lives somewhere in a Valhalla occupied by Rachel Maddow and Gloria Steinem, and not in the world of activism where these particular white queer radicals I’ve described actually live.
The recent arguments put forth by many social justice advocates posit a Manichean cleavage between two camps of feminism. In so doing, they both erase the complicated critiques of certain (cis and trans) women of colour, and gives wide berth for culpable white radicals to hide and pretend solidarity– with no discussion about how what “radical” even means is something they have far too much control over– while also shutting down discussion over how we can hold each other accountable.
By making this discussion entirely about the already-privileged, we repeat a mistake that I criticised in a recent paper, which described the ways that popular discourse around anonymity focuses only on what (presumptively young, white, cis) men are doing with it. By fixating on men’s purported abuses of anonymity and seeing it only as an accelerant to their virtual harassment of women, I argued, we ignored the ways that online anonymity was of tremendous positive value to women, people of colour, LGBT people, and others (including domestic violence or abuse victims of all backgrounds). We blunted our own understanding of this vital modern phenomenon because of a popular fixation on the way privileged people exercised it.
The same thing is happening here in the wake of the Nation piece.
By allowing ourselves to think of the term “toxicity” only as a dog whistle against women of colour, we neglect the extensive, recent history of feminist insurgency against online harassment, which often critiqued social media, but never used it as coded synonym for women of colour’s voices or criticisms. The best way to overcome the mistakes of The Nation article is not to declare all discussion of online toxicity verboten, but to bring the discussion back to the complicated place we’ve been taking it for years—both in terms of describing internal and external dynamics. As a trans woman of colour it has been the pride of my life to write about both at length; discourse on toxicity, inside and outside feminism, has not only taken place between the privileged.
To give but one of many examples of discussions we could be having louder and more often: how much the linguistic focus of call-out culture (i.e. using the wrong terms, words, et cetera) is possessed of a significant class/formal-education-access bias. We talk about class all the time and piously observe that formal, credentialed education is a privilege, but if someone like my mother, who never went to high school and knows about all this social justice work only through me, were to stumble and say “transgendered” instead of “trans person,” what would we say? And why? If we can be honest with ourselves about that, we have already created a foundation for an important discussion.
That is what has been lost in the wake of the Nation article.
There is no doubt that our arguments have already been “piggy backed” on by many who are operating in bad faith, but if we allow that to silence and erase trans/women of colour with something complicated to say, those of us who embody intersectionality in its truest sense (with specific identities that also inform larger wholes) are at risk of losing the movement that supposedly speaks for us.
We cannot continue to locate the problem of prejudices exclusively in the stratum of elite media feminists or commentators—responsible as they are—we must also look inward at what we allow to transpire in the name of solidarity and what its costs are.
There is no party line, there is only us. And movement or no, everything we are, and everything we embody and represent, will remain on this earth; what we say can either further the cause of justice, or it can be lost in the name of bathing the already-privileged in yet more undeserved limelight.
I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York– New Paltz Women’s Studies Conference. I present it here in its original written form without additional comment.
(Well, one additional comment: If you wish to follow along with audio and hear the voice of Nuclear Unicorn, click here. My profound thanks to Eli Mann for the recording.)
Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies.
Contrary to those theories, feminist and otherwise, that seek an “origin myth” for patriarchy that germinates somewhere in the uterus, patriarchy has no starting point in reproductive organs of any kind—there is nothing in our marrow as women, our DNA, that sets us up as ontological victims of men whose bodies, whose bits, predispose them to oppression.
In the words of legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon: “It is one thing to identify woman’s biology as part of the terrain on which a struggle for dominance is acted out; it is another to identify woman’s biology as the source of that subordination. The first approach certainly identifies an intimate alienation; the second predicates woman’s status on the facticity of her biology.”
Put bluntly, there is no truly feminist or social-scientific way to reason that patriarchy begins in a womb, an ovary, or the vagina. What is much fairer to say is that the meaning society gives our bodies is what oppresses us—and also what binds us together, however unwillingly. I begin here because if I am to speak about trans women’s experience of reproductive injustice, I cannot indulge the false premise that women are born to be oppressed—a very different notion from saying we are born into a world that oppresses us. Much searing truth remains in Simone de Beauvoir’s timeless assertion that “one is not born but rather becomes woman.”
Those words invite us to search for the full depth of their meaning.
Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies, but it is often very intimately concerned with them. I would suggest, above all else, that patriarchy does powerfully regulate and control women’s bodies—not because a sizeable percentage of women have ovaries (not all of us do), nor because many women menstruate (not all of us do), nor because every woman can get pregnant (many of us can’t)—but because there is a powerful, controlling ideology about what bodies are for that transcends the particulars of any one woman’s embodiment.
Transfeminist writer Autumn Nicole Bradley asks us if an infertile cisgender woman would, in a feminist space, “be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?” I would ask you to think of trans women in the same light.
Feminism has often been accused—sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly—of essentialising and universalising “woman.” Yet more often than not it is feminism that has been the necessary antidote to the patriarchal myth that all women are the same bundle of incapabilities imbuing an alabaster, pedestalised angel who exists only for man’s pleasure—for every woman who does not fit, we are cast into the fires of violent oppression at its most naked; women of colour, transgender women, poor women, women with disabilities, loud and outspoken women, sex working women, any woman regardless of race and class who refuses the objectification of that invisible cage. As we are tortured in the shadows, the myth of patriarchal essentialism—centered on a mythic, silent and obedient white virgin upon her pedestal—beats on.
Male dominance gives our bodies a very particular meaning, one that purportedly unites us and submerges all particularity, all individuality, beneath its event horizon. Our bodies are meant for one thing, and one thing alone. Ours is to reproduce; and if we cannot, then we are condemned to the great, ever swelling ash heap of this society—those considered unable to fulfill their supposedly naturally ordained functions. And yet, we know patriarchy does not apply this meaning equally; for all its mythologizing about the eternal feminine and the ultimate indistinguishable unity of women, it recognises we are not all the same. Our patriarchy, struck through as it is by classism, racism, and other forms of prejudice, desperately wants to prevent some women from reproducing—killed or sterilised by the hundreds of thousands, targeted daily by microagressions writ painfully small and propaganda writ blazingly large.
Yet even in this case, we see where patriarchy begins and ends: its alpha and omega is the meaning of women’s bodies, and so much hinges on how suited we are judged to be for reproductive purposes. So much hatred is directed at us around the issue of reproduction—whether it is forcing white women to have children or forcing black women, native women and Latinas not to. Patriarchy really cares about what we’re doing with our bodies.
Consider, no less, how the interventions of women of colour have broadened feminist understandings of reproductive justice: reminding us that reproductive injustice happens when we are forced not to bear children or adopt, as when we are forced to do so. In every case, what links them is both a denial of women’s agency—our right to choose—and a meaning imposed on our bodies by a sexist society that seeks to stifle and suffocate our humanity beneath that overriding myth of idealised motherhood. Motherhood on the terms of cisgender men, particularly white men; comprised of the right kind of mothers, doing the right and proper things—mostly involving keeping our mouths shut and bearing our pain with silence and obedience.
Where does one suppose trans women fit into this?
Feminist activist and city councillor Sarah Brown once posted a conversation between herself and a cisgender man who was sexually harassing her, fetishising her for being a trans woman. He cackhandedly asked her whether she was trans or cis by saying, “so r u a natural woman?”
Her reply: “What, like the song? Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe? Because, I like to think so.”
That natural occurrence is, perhaps, one of the more troubling aspects of our existence, so far as patriarchy is concerned. For a society that believes so very passionately that women are made to reproduce—and to do so in a certain way—the fact that we keep damnably and insistently popping up is a source of unending consternation to those most invested in biologist myths. Put plainly, I am not supposed to exist. I shouldn’t be here, and my occurrence in the universe not only disrupts what is meant by “natural” but also what is meant by “woman.” I share that quality, as I alluded to earlier, with many women whose bodies are not capable of reproducing in the way women are presumed to be universally able to.
You may wonder why I spent the last couple of minutes on so much foreground, by the way, barely mentioning transgender people at first. The reason for this, for summoning up theoretical arguments against essentialism that underlay the best of the feminist tradition, is explained by the following comment from a cisgender woman replying to an article I wrote on Feministing about why “trans rights are reproductive rights,”
“Reproductive rights are at their core the right not to die or be crippled or to be left destitute or be trapped in a violent relationship by an unwanted/unplanned… pregnancy.
Trans women cannot get pregnant, this is not about trans women.”
For all the cisgender women out there who can’t get pregnant, I’m sorry, but I guess this isn’t about you either.
Statements like this, which appear well meaning, mistake the terrain of reproductive injustice for its fundamental cause. There is no doubt that women who get pregnant are ruthlessly targeted by our society for dehumanisation and shackled by a regime of bodily control, one way or the other. But for those of us who cannot, we are in many cases ruthlessly attacked in part because we are unable or unwilling to fulfill the patriarchal mandate that says women must bear children in order for them to be both legitimate and successful women. We all feel that pressure, whatever our bodily configurations may be. That’s because it doesn’t arise from our bodies or begin in the shape of our genitalia, but instead is projected onto us by the society in which we live.
When I came out, one of the first things my father lamented was the loss of his grandchildren, the loss of progeny who would—by blood—carry his name and his “legacy.” Then came the recriminations about what my body was “for” and what “God put us on this earth to do.” I was no good to my family as a woman if I could not bear children. Interwoven in all of this is that very ideology about what bodies are for. It is precisely the same ideology that has seen women coerced into having children, that has seen people of colour brutalised under eugenics programs that sterilised them, and that has created a byzantine web of regulations regarding what trans people can and cannot do with their bodies.
It is the ideology behind laws in many countries that require trans people to be sterilised before our gender markers can be changed on various IDs and the ideology that still sees too many psychiatrists enforcing gender norms on their trans patients as a pre-requisite of trans healthcare. We all have different medical needs as trans people, but for those of us who require hormones and surgery we are often spiritually blackmailed for them (“wear this skirt and makeup or I won’t see you as a serious woman”). We may be charged dearly for the pleasure and then laughed at if we suggest such things should be covered by either public or private insurance. We may also be denied transition altogether.
All in the name of what some people—particularly men—think our bodies are for. What they think a woman’s body should be.
One of the central reasons that what we do is considered “self-mutilation” is that we are seen to be destroying our purportedly natural reproductive capacity. We are seen to be revolting against a genetic inheritance that should obviate the very existence of transgender people; sinful enough. Yet, far worse in the eyes of many petty patriarchs is when trans people express their biological reproductive capacity. All the consternation over Thomas Beatie, the trans man who made headlines with his pregnancies, illustrates this. The laws in Australia, in the UK, and in several American states that prohibit trans people from changing the gender markers on identity documents until we can prove we’ve surgically altered our genitals illustrates this.
Our limited access to reproductive care facilities illustrates this. All such facilities expect an unproblematically cisgender man or woman. So when a Planned Parenthood clinic is confronted with a transgender man who needs a gynecologist, or when a sperm bank is confronted with a trans woman who wants to have children of her own someday, it occasions the medical equivalent of a constitutional crisis that sees these trans people shown the door more often than not, left to fend for ourselves.
When trying to bank her sperm, one trans woman I know was asked by the attendant on the phone why she was doing this. When my friend explained, the staffperson abruptly said “That’s not real” and hung up on her.
A close friend simply got the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” treatment when she revealed she was trans.
We are damned because through transition we may sterilise ourselves, but we are equally damned if we try to preserve and express biologic reproductive capacity. We are caught in the very double bind Marilyn Frye deems essential to oppression. We transition, therefore we upend naturalist myths—and that existence is bad enough—but to make sure we don’t pass on our cooties and do even more violence to that patriarchal mythology, the state demands that we become sterile anyway if it is to suffer our insistent existence.
Little to no medical research is done on trans people and reproduction—whether to simply collect data or to create organs that might allow me to bear the child I should love to have someday—we are not supposed to exist, after all.
Yet do you know what else is really threatening about that existence? About everything I’ve just described? It is the fact that we as trans people—whether we are trans women, trans men, or genderqueer—expose the fatal flaw of naturalism, just as many before us have in ways great and small. But in our way, we put the lie to the idea that to be a woman, or a man, means fulfilling some evolutionary imperative, or to silently obey the edicts of our selfish genes while using the bits we were born with.
We upend the idea that one is born anything, and tacitly remind all that we “become” something.
Let me speak of this from the perspective of trans women.
When I go out into the world and have a gender ascribed to me—one that is almost always some kind of woman—the people who gender me are not thinking about my genitals, or my chromosomes, or what is on my birth certificate. I present as a woman, according to the various cues that our society assigns to the gender of ‘woman,’ therefore I am one so far as they are concerned. Therefore I am treated as one.
I run the same risk as cis women do of going into a job interview and being silently judged because I’m a young woman who “might get pregnant and leave the company”—I might get mommy-tracked, if I’m hired, and if I come out, I run the risk of being fired because I’m trans. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
In the street I face men who sexually harass me because they see me as a woman, and therefore they feel entitled to my body, whatever its configuration. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
I find myself condescended to and mansplained to; I’ve been the target of rape threats, I have been stalked and harassed online, and I’ve been called every sexist and transmisogynist slur in the book—including ones I hadn’t heard of. I was told that I was a “feminazi whore with too much sand in her fake vagina.” I’d never spoken to this man about my body—and but for the word ‘fake’ he merely said what he might’ve said to any cis woman. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
As we speak, trans women of colour in New York City are literally having their handbags raided by police officers who then arrest them on prostitution charges if they’re found to be carrying condoms. Where are their reproductive rights, one wonders? No uterus required, just patriarchy.
Women are not wombs; that is one of the most powerful lessons that feminism has tried to teach a stricken world. I say to you, my sisters in this audience, that I stand with you; I have walked where many of you have walked, and we must not be divided from one another by our corporeality, but united by our shared womanhood.
Women are not oppressed because we have wombs; wombs are attacked because they are perceived to belong to women. For those of us without wombs, because we are still seen as women our bodies are disciplined and controlled in other ways. For trans men and genderqueer people with wombs, who refuse a womanhood patriarchy relentlessly tries to foist upon them, they too find themselves viciously attacked in part because they refuse to adhere to naturalism—they may dare to show that pregnancy does not only define the condition of woman. This is very bad news for patriarchy.
We are learning, as a society, that the Sun does not orbit the Earth. Our entire view of the universe is being changed.
As I opened with a few words from Catharine MacKinnon, so too do I close. She once wrote of oratory, “A platform and a period of time and listeners who choose to be there create a threshold of mortality. If you never say anything else to them (you might not) and if you die right afterward (you could), what would have been worth this time?”
What indeed. What I would say to you if I could say naught else, my listeners for this space of time, is this: I am your sister.
We as trans women are not an entryist plot trying to distract from “the real issues,” we are women who are simply trying to get by, trying to move around, trying to live, and to claim the humanity that is the common birthright of us all. We bring not dissension and dissolution, but the same truths that women down the centuries from Sojourner Truth to the Lavender Menace have brought. The truth of feminism’s promise: that none of us will win unless all of us do, and that we are all ultimately united in struggle.
We as trans women have always been here—for while theoretical debates about our womanhood prevail, the fact of our womanhood prevails in the world out there. Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us; we are targeted because we are women. We are a great sisterhood invisible.
That notion of sisterhood, battered over the years by so much criticism, still thrums through so many trans women who find comfort and refuge among other women like them—and sometimes, as has been blessedly true with me, cisgender women who see in me their lives and struggles recited back to them in a different voice, but one that resonates with theirs.
As women, our diversity has always been our strength. It is not just an invisible sisterhood that links trans women together, but it also links cisgender and transgender women as one indivisible whole that no amount of transphobia, whether postmodern or second wave in provenance, can ever tear asunder. We share something far more essential than a body: we share the fact that we are survivors. We share the fact that patriarchy imposes a meaning on our bodies that demands something soul-wrenching from us.
But we also share this. This spirit, this will, this passion, something that burns beautifully and demands that our swords not sleep in our hands until we have built a world where all women, where all people, shall be free of those imposing ideologies and free of the nightmares that dog too many of us. We share the belief in a better world, we share hope for our children—for those we have and those we were not allowed to have—and we share lives that are insistently and powerfully lived; beautiful lives.
We are you, and you are us.
What links us is not our scars or the ways we have been hurt, but our aspirations to rise above oppression’s fetters, and claim our bodies for ourselves.
Editor/Dungeon-Master’s Note: I sat on this for a while and almost didn’t publish it. Fear of speaking out bedevils most of us who say what is not exactly popular. I thank the women and men in my life for always reminding me that what I have to say has value.
Those of you who have spoken to me at any great length know that I am quite big on the idea that if you scratch a misogynist you will find a transphobe, and vice versa. There is a continuum of prejudice in our society; it’s scarcely a coincidence that Western people who bleat loudly about savage brown men in the Global South who “oppress their women” then turn around and defend egregious sexism in their own countries. But it is always an interesting exercise to find just where the linkages appear. It came to my attention that John Derbyshire, a man who writes for that great pillar of social justice The National Review Online, had this to say about not just the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, but the very idea of sexual harassment:
Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like “racial discrimination“? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live?
Kurt Schlichter, who works on these cases, spills the beans in America’s Newspaper of Record this morning.
“When you consider that, more than a decade ago, Herman Cain settled some unspecified sexual-harassment claims, you also need to consider that the only things you need to file a lawsuit are the filing fee and a printer. Facts are optional.”
There has never in the history of the world been a people better mannered and less inclined to insulting acts of prejudice than today’s Americans, yet we’re supposed to believe that the nation is seething with “harassment” and “discrimination,” women being groped in every business office and crosses burning on every lawn. For Heaven’s sake. Aren’t there any grown-ups around?
I might very well ask him the same question; if there’s an adult in the room at NRO, it isn’t Mr. Derbyshire. One scarcely knows where to begin really. An upper class white cisgender hetero man thinks Americans are legendarily disinclined to acts of prejudice? News at 11.
What’s interesting for me, however, is sketching out how ideas this especially odious are not just isolated monads floating in nothingness. According to Lynn Conway:
In his writings, Derbyshire for some reason often returns to an issue that seems to particularly haunt him: the existence of gay males and “effeminate men”. We’ve included examples of his writings on these topics below, in which you can sense the particular and peculiar focus of his horror about homosexuality, namely that some people enjoy “being penetrated”, and his perception of the degradation and humiliation such penetration involves, notwithstanding that “Women expect a certain amount of penetration as coming with the territory of femaleness … ” (J. Derbyshire, The Houston Review, April 25, 2001).
And now, of course, for the coup de grace, a quote from a certain book review Derbyshire wrote for the National Review (courtesy of Andrea James):
Part Three is the book’s most difficult section, because it deals with the rarest and most puzzling aspect of male effeminacy: According to Bailey, less than one man in 12,000 is transsexual, a condition defined simply by “the desire to become a member of the opposite sex,” whether or not that desire has led to actual surgery. The striking finding here is that there are two quite distinct types of men who wish they were women, distinguished by the choice of erotic object. On the one hand there are “homosexual transsexuals,” who desire masculine men—heterosexual men, for preference—and who dress and behave like women to attract them. And then there is the “autogynephilic transsexual,” a man whose erotic attention is fixed on the idea of himself as a woman.
The strangeness of this latter type is captured nicely in the title of Bailey’s chapter on them: “Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies.” An autogynephile is essentially a heterosexual man whose object of desire is an imaginary feminine creature which happens to be himself… or herself, depending on how you look at it. Such a person was usually not effeminate as a child, has likely been married, and does not show typically homosexual preferences in career or entertainment choices. The historian and travel writer Jan (formerly James) Morris, to judge from her autobiographical book Conundrum, belongs to this category. The consummation of sexual desire presents obvious difficulties for the autogynephile. Indeed, it is occasionally fatal: Around 100 American men die every year from “autoerotic asphyxia,” which seems to arise from a conjunction of masochism and autogynephilia—the two conditions are related in some way not well understood.
All of these types—girlish boys, male homosexuals, transsexuals of both types—are of course human beings, who, like the rest of us, must play the best game they can with the cards Nature has dealt them. No decent person would wish to inflict on them any more unhappiness than their mismatched bodies and psyches have already burdened them with. At the same time, there is circumstantial evidence that complete acceptance and equality for all sexual orientations may have antisocial consequences, so that the obloquy aimed at sexual variance by every society prior to our own may have had some stronger foundation than mere blind prejudice. Male homosexuality, in particular, seems to possess some quality of being intrinsically subversive when let loose in long-established institutions, especially male dominated ones. The courts of at least two English kings offer support to this thesis, as does the postwar British Secret Service, and more recently the Roman Catholic priesthood. I should like to see some adventurous sociologist research these outward aspects with as much diligence and humanity as Michael Bailey has applied to his study of the inward ones.
Derbyshire, J. “Lost in the Male.” National Review, June 30, 2003. pp. 51-52.
You can go to Andrea James’ webpage on Derbyshire to read her pleasurably scathing response and some other interesting quotes from “the Derb.”
The little games of Six Degrees of Political Separation one can play with patriarchy are very interesting. To recap, John Derbyshire is a man who thinks sexual harassment is the legal equivalent of the tooth fairy, and who is also best mates with J. Michael Bailey whose deeply transmisogynist and unethical ‘research’ The Man Who Would be Queen is a prime example of modern cissexist pseudoscience, is also quite scared of men taking it up the chutney. When one tilts her angle of vision just so, just a few degrees off the horizon of patriarchy, one starts to see all of these things as connected. Derbyshire does not believe these things in isolation from one another, they are part of a fabric, a framework. One notion leads into the other, one idea reinforces the other. This is patriarchy as a belief system.
Who We Really Are
It seems almost obvious to belabour this point and yet I feel it bears repeating; we do not often see recognition of the fact that transphobic cis men are almost always misogynists of some flavour as well (often as not, a fairly strong flavour). There is a powerful connection between the hatred of all women generally and the hatred of trans women specifically. Men like Derbyshire, who at this point I definitely would not trust to be alone in a room with me, in a very broad sense understand what most transphobic men understand: we are women.
That’s a rather paradoxical statement to make, considering that it is almost fundamental to the definition of transphobia that it constitute an unwillingness to recognise a person’s gender. What makes men like Derbyshire transphobic is that they see women like me as “men,” right? Yes and no. We occupy the cultural space we do for a reason. Cis men who laugh off sexual harassment as so much whinging about misconstrued compliments are transmisogynist men as well, and they hate us because we are women. When they talk about crazy women making false accusations they are talking about us as well. They are trying to make our world smaller as well. The protest of their transphobia, the assault on our gender, the mad rush to undermine us, pathologise us, erase us, or vilify us is, like most masculinist protest, premised on deep seated insecurity. They do interpellate us as women; they just don’t want to.
Transphobic feminists operate on a somewhat different level. For them it is very vital to constantly assert we are men. For your run of the mill, average cis male transphobe, the stakes are different. In a bizarre way, they see what that vocal minority of transphobic feminists do not see: that we are a fundamental threat to how most people in our society understand gender, and that if we are possible, anything might be possible in the realm of gender. It is no longer so comfortably fixed in the immutable essence of finely crafted genes with a thousand millennium pedigree. They cannot help but to see us as women, to see us as occupying that same dangerous, violently contested space that cis women occupy. They cannot help but fight with us to try and keep us there.
Who Are they Trying to Convince?
It seems almost absurd to take an idea to my readership so simple that it forms a bedrock assumption to the epistemology of most regular readers of this space, I’m sure: that trans women are women. But in most mainstream writing on the subject, be it on Huffington Post or The New York Times or O Magazine, that is actually not a proposition that is carried through to its logical conclusions. One of the reasons that I have taken the Herman Cain allegations so seriously, and the aggressive co-opting of anti-racist rhetoric by white conservatives so seriously, is because these things are very much about my experiences and my social location as a woman of colour in this country. Too often we see trans people put into segregated boxes of exoticised and discrete unitary “Experience” that more or less fully elides our lived reality in a given gender.
I have something to say about being a woman, without qualifiers, in America. Many of us do, and many of us do feel as personally attacked as many cis women might when a powerful man tells a major media outlet that women with a grievance should “think twice” before coming forward. Trans women are so hated by cis men in part because we are women. Even as they aggressively insist that we are actually male, be it through hateful words spoken in arguments, debates, or violence and rape, or published work in an academic journal, they are saying that just as much for their benefit if not more. They fixate on us because we are women, and that scares them to death.
Cisgender men tell themselves many rather twisted stories about why we transition, most reading like some pulp horror novel dashed with awkwardly inserted sci-fi elements. Perhaps it’s that we hate men so much that we “castrate” ourselves or that we’re men who drank the wrong estrogen-infested water one day and suddenly wanted to be girls, or perhaps that we were just regular ol’ guys who just woke up one sunny day and decided to transition. However they construct it, it frightens them deeply. It frightens them deeply because we are women. We’d not be much of a threat if we weren’t. There would not be this widespread cis het male moral panic about trans women “deceiving” them into fucking us if we were not women.
Their constant protests that we are men fall into the same realm of that clichéd therapist’s question: “Who are you trying to convince, me or you?” They must cling to that idea that we are men, even as a whirlpool of doubt draws their every thought of us into gendered oblivion.
And in the final analysis it makes sense that a man like Derbyshire, who views trans women as an idle curiosity, fit for colonisation, analysis, and study by a white cis male friend of his, also sees women as endlessly touchable and endlessly lying. The only way the truth can be found is if trustworthy white cis men like J. Michael Bailey cage us and study us. What would we do if we had our druthers on? Why, we might start filing golddigging sexual harassment claims when Mr. Derbyshire is being a perfect gentleman, only seeking to regale us with his thoughts on the deep (and I do mean deep) meaning of penetration ten times after we asked him to stop…
In summation, cisgender men have a profound obsession with trans women, and specifically what we do with our penises. Many cis men wince and get nervous at the thought of a trans woman having SRS, and I ask you to consider the relation between this and Tucker Carlson saying that he involuntarily crosses his legs every time he sees Hillary Clinton on television.
The bedrock truth of the matter is this: transmisogynist cis men hate us because we are strong women… and that scares the living daylights out of them.
Not long ago I attended a conference at New York City’s Hunter College commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings where Professor Hill, in damning detail, publicly testified to her experience at the hands of now-Justice Thomas which included sustained sexual harassment. Her courage caused open discussion of sexual harassment to burst violently onto the national scene, unapologetically breaking the silence felt by millions of women who had been shamed, threatened, and cajoled into pretending what had happened to them was business as usual. The conference sought to honour Professor Hill and featured a variety of speakers, activists old and new, commentators, reporters, academics and friends who all offered their perspective on the matter. It was elucidating and, to turn that blessed cliché, empowering.
The volunteers at the university all wore T-shirts that read “I Believe Anita Hill.” It was a powerful and dangerous message,as much now as it was then: to suggest that one accepts a woman’s reality as real.
It is a cosmic irony that just a little over two weeks after this conference, one which at first felt like it was summoning up something confined to the misty history of the early 1990s, I should discover that Politico posted a special report about how Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain had sexual harassment allegations levelled at him by at least two women some fifteen years ago.
It is as if I attended a special seminar on handling emergency situations and then, practically upon leaving, I find myself having to use all of the tools given to me therein with the utmost urgency. Within the last 48 hours events in the commentariat have spiralled out of control and old revenants that haunt American politics now shriek with window-shattering violence. Clarence Thomas’ sins have been resurrected, countless commentators on the right have resumed bashing Anita Hill, the words ‘hi-tech lynching’ took less than a day to appear at the very cusp of the breaking news froth (on the BBC, no less), and a cavalcade of racism and racist appropriations have gushed forth from the mouths of every white talking head within shouting distance of a satellite link-up.
Yet what is of special interest to me, and what prompted me to say something, are the particulars of what a well-known white conservative woman has been saying about this scandal:
Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, called the claims “another high-tech lynching”, saying liberals couldn’t stand strong black conservatives.
She has quite a lot to say about Clarence Thomas, up to and including her beliefs about where accusations like this originate from:
“If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these uptight white feminists,”
I’ve just returned from the washroom and after careful examination I have concluded I’m not white. But, moving on:
“Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” she said, speaking of Democrats. (Source.)
I could just end the article right here as this, in some ways, can say everything that needs to be said about how white conservatives have handled this latest issue with Herman Cain. But much more should be said.
When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.
One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realise it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.
A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.
Rated M for Misconception
Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:
“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.
It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.
So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.
VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?
All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”
In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.
What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.
I.- Setting Information Free(?)
It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.
To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.
The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.
A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.
But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:
My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.
In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.
Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.