Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill

Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.
Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.

It is altogether fitting that on a day when my own father yelled at me for being a feminist, and got angry at me for introducing my brother to novels by women, about women, that I should come across Julie Burchill raging against “shemales” in the Guardian. It was very much in the spirit of an evening where I was told to my face that I’d do more good for feminism if I’d “been a man” and not a woman; it was a day where I had to listen to a man witheringly declaim literature about “women’s stuff,” and a day where I was attacked for my anger and verve in defending our right to write and speak as women.

So in that spirit, I shall continue to write, and to speak.

I shall continue to write in spite of having been threatened with rape, in spite of having been told that I’m a “shemale feminazi with too much sand in her fake vagina,” in spite of having been called every misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic slur in the book many times over, and in spite of having been accused of “man-hating, race-baiting, white-hating,” and the utterly unreal crime of “misandry.” In spite of being called too loud, too shrill, too whiny, too sexist (against men, of course), and “heterophobic.” In spite of being told I should avoid graduate school unless I had a “rich boyfriend.” In spite of all that, I speak.

The path I’ve walked is littered with those fell arrows, spread behind me like a sinister field of bent and blackened straw. So when I see something like this:

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”

I can only shake my head. Not so much at the transmisogyny that runs through Burchill’s article like streaks of blood, but at the failure of empathy and sisterhood such a paragraph entails. After everything I’ve put up with hearing in my life, after all the sexual harassment and moments where I’ve feared for my life and safety—moments any woman, trans or cis[1], would know all too well—after everything I’ve listed above, Burchill still sees trans women as so inscrutably and ineluctably ‘other’ that we are incapable of even being on the same side of the great political divide. It seems impossible, in Burchill’s world, that I exist—as a woman and a radical feminist—because I can only ever be a “shim” in a “bad wig” and a dress. More than anything else, I think, what saddens me are the profound and abiding consequences of failing to see trans women as women, and as sisters in struggle.

Our Old Friend “Authenticity”

Throughout the piece, she excoriates trans activists (most of whom are likely feminists, and many of whom may also be cisgender) for essentially being overeducated toffs who do not know the meaning of suffering, depravation, and struggle. “To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege.”

I’m not British. But I am a Puerto Rican American who both grew up in and still lives in “the ghetto” and my struggle with class in this country is as much a part of my life, my experience, and my activism as gender and its manifold vicissitudes. Further, it is still a matter of routine for feminists in general to be slapped by accusations of overeducation and ivory tower moralising: jeremiads against “the sanctimonious women’s studies set” are a staple of populist editorialising these days and have been for a generation now. I have not the slightest quarrel with Burchill’s working class background– to hate her for that would be to hate myself. I’m merely baffled at the fact that she antagonises women like me for speaking by suggesting that our attempts to get an education are a bad thing.

It never fails to surprise me to see women like Burchill and Bindel resort to the tics of patriarchs when defending their own bigotries, just as it surprises me to hear her extol her working class roots while mocking “wretched inner city kids” in another breath, rolling a horrifically complex social problem and the people who live it into a neatly poor analogy that insults with stunning economy but does nothing useful.

Indeed, going beyond the misogyny, classism, and transmisogyny that is this article’s raison d’etre[2] I would say that what is most disturbing about it is how stunningly and embarrassingly petty it is. It is more or less in the same category as a bullish op-ed by a cis male misogynist that was 50% “bitch, cunt, whore, slapper, slag, cow” and 50% bad clam jokes. Genitals and transphobic insults are the vast bulk of this article. The rest is comprised of invidious distinctions, such as the disgusting attempt to assert that trans feminists are opposed to Julie Bindel’s properly feminist work, and not just her transphobia, or to claim that trans women think their issues are the most important at all times.

The final dollop of a column centimetre that remains is, perhaps, her sole argument: that her friend, Suzanne Moore, should not have been called out for transphobia because she was doing something much more important with her article—the noble work of criticising the Coalition government’s oppressive and often misogynist social policies. But this is a weak argument, no more acceptable than a male socialist seeking forbearance for a rape joke used in an editorial about saving the NHS. Important work does not justify prejudice, even as a “joking” aside. Least of all prejudicial articles where women are objectified and find their appearances to be the subject of uncouth navel-gazing (see: all the remarks about wigs, dresses, cocks, etc.).

An Ironically Missed Opportunity

What is especially irritating about all of this is that feminists have the tools to understand why all of this is problematic: why “it’s just a joke” is not an excuse, why slurs are hate speech, why and how language constructs prejudicial realities (just as “mankind” biases us to thinking of men as more human than women, calling trans women “men” biases us to discriminating against them), and so on. Feminists, more than most people, have the tools to understand all of this.

But what troubles me even more is the attempt to put feminists on one side and trans women on the other. As if trans women cannot be feminists, or as if cis feminists could not be deeply troubled by the implications of Burchill’s piece. This is what is most potentially destructive here: the neat, artificial distinction that keeps trans women away from that great sisterhood of feminism, and from the healing and empowerment it can engender. And for what? For the sake of a cheap thrill in the Guardian?

Oddly enough, the innocuous subtitle of her article is “It’s never a good idea for those who feel oppressed to start bullying others in turn,” a point I fully agree with. We do have a problem with “call-out culture” in our feminist and queer communities, we do have a problem with unchecked egos and with activist-cum-academic aesthetics becoming more important than material results. There is a real, meaningful discussion to be had about whether the Tumblr-isation of activism has been a wholly good thing, or whether it breeds reflexive semantic policing at the expense of necessary work.

But Burchill forewent that entirely, instead launching into an article where she failed to take her own advice and did so with an ineloquent flamboyance that betrayed little besides prejudice and lack of self-awareness. Instead of possibly seeing trans women as sisters and allies in both forming a more perfect activist culture and in fighting patriarchy, she—who by her own admission knows nothing of the trans community save through Julie Bindel and this recent episode with Ms. Moore—simply writes an article groaning under the weight of its slurs and insults.

That saddens me more than anything else. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sisterhood Unbroken

The other sad thing is, I completely get why she’s doing this. From her perspective, trans women are not women. We’re overeducated fops who are whinging about getting our feelings hurt and throwing male privilege around, so far as she is concerned. She could not be more violently wrong, but that fundamental belief animates everything else she says. I would like to think that if she actually, sincerely knew us—that if she were the godmother of some of our daughters as well—she might think very differently, and that she might be confronted with the mountains of empirical evidence that we’re really not so different from her.

She might see that, in the spirited words of Eowyn, I am no man. That her words have profoundly deleterious effects for very real (not imagined) women.

But what also troubles me is that she suggests that women should prove that they can be hurt by patriarchy by showing how they have. Why? Why must I strip off and reveal my scars to prove myself? Why must I revisit traumas to satisfy her and earn my place? Why must I always return to those places and times where I felt death gather around me in order to prove that I “know the meaning of suffering”?

My feminism is defined by what I do—by what I write, by what I orate, by what organisations I work for, by the research I do, by how I confront a patriarchal world and try to change it. It is not defined by my many wounds. Neither, for that matter, is my womanhood.

To be honest, I do not want Burchill to apologise. I do not dream of apologies. Rather, I wish Burchill could see what I see. That she could see the indefatigable sisterhood of women, trans and cis, working side by side to shatter each other’s chains, that she could see my friends and loved ones who I keep in mind every working day. I wish she could see, through their eyes, why words like hers can feel so profoundly dehumanising.

I wish that she could see the evil that trans women have had to face—the same violent deaths that befall too many women in our world—the same objectification, rape culture, risk, and quotidian hatreds, and see how it can shatter us in our fragile moments of being all too human, while also seeing how we manage to rise above it at our very best. I wish she could see us as the very human women that feminism has always striven to empower and render visible in a sightlessly woman-hating world.

I wish she could see me.

In that moment, I’d like to think, we could be sisters.


[1] It should go without saying that in an article which Burchill seemed to assemble from a transphobia Bingo sheet, she—in a particularly bizarre aside—treated the word ‘cis’ as an insult of some kind, and in a cunning rhetorical move decided to call us trannies as a result—because after all, that would be the mature and erudite thing to do. Perhaps she thinks the word “heterosexual” is an insult, too, that merits a rejoinder of “faggot”?

[2] Wait, I’m a poor Puerto Rican trans girl, maybe I shouldn’t use hoity toity phrases so I can prove I’m totally authentic? Oh crap, I use international English spelling too!

My Transsexual Menace: A Response to Riki Wilchins

An adorbs green dinosaur.  Courtesy of sweetclipart.com
This dinosaur might be transgender. I can’t tell, however, because she looks too normative.

If I were to give a measured reaction to Riki Wilchins now infamous “Transgender Dinosaurs” editorial in The Advocate, it would amount to this: it is yet another example of hierarchal inversion where we assign a moral-political value to genders and then exile the ones we disapprove of. The kind of visibility Wilchins writes about is based on a trendy ethic that suggests if you aren’t visibly out of the mainstream, then you’re The Man, and part of The Problem. This, however, neglects the fact that ‘standing out’ in that way carried unacceptable risks for most trans women, historically. It also ignores, from a moral perspective, that if we attach moral value only to accoutrement—or suggest that the latter is indispensable to moral behaviour—then we are creating an exclusionary, even bankrupt political ethic that is based simply on what is fashionable, not what is politically necessary.

We begin with this quote which, in a way, neatly sums up everything that is wrong with Wilchins’ ideas:

“Never having passed as female as I’d grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary…”

A revolution is about a substantive change in material relations of power and ruling; it is about making the world less violent, less oppressive, more equitable and just. It is not about whatever Wilchins is suggesting is revolutionary here, which seems to be little more than “women should dress and look the way I want them to look” and “trans people should express their gender in the way I want them to.” Do I even have to say something to the effect of “As a feminist, I think that’s sickening”?

But Wilchins’ transmisogyny goes beyond that. The entire story, an efficient distillation of radical transphobia, pivots around a woman with no voice, a girl that Wilchins renders a mute doll in order to make her trendsetting point that trans girls and women are now insufficiently transgressive, beginning immediately with the kind of objectification that characterises most mainstream media coverage of those same women. Continue reading “My Transsexual Menace: A Response to Riki Wilchins”

Belated Nuclear Unicorn Presidential Endorsement

I haven’t written much about mainstream politics here since that’s done to death in a variety of outlets all over the place– from private blogs to every news agency the world over, the US Presidential election has enough people saying almost everything under the sun about it. But a few nights ago I was moved to comment on the matter via Facebook; at length. I felt I’d be remiss if I did not, with some editing and additions, republish those thoughts since they speak to an often ignored debate on electoral politics. On the political left there is intense discussion about the value of the presidency and voting, and whether radical change can truly come through morally compromised candidates. What follows is a qualified discussion of the stakes, and why I stuck with this president. The first section was composed on election night. The second was composed early the next morning.

 

Why I Voted for President Obama

My choice this year should surprise no one. The reasons should be clear. The purpose obvious. Obama’s has not been a perfect presidency, and it was stained before its time by profound moral failure– Guantanamo, drone warfare, illegal arrests here in the US. But the reality, and the choice, we face is this: we will get all of the above with a Romney administration, and with none of the benefits of the current government.

I will vote, not for the lesser of two evils, but for the government that secures healthcare for all Americans and begins the long and difficult road to full-insurance, for a president that supports women’s right to choose– and has a holistic vision of bodily autonomy, for a government that passed legislation requiring health insurers to take trans people on board, for a government that fought tooth and nail for increased Pell Grants, for a government that allowed me to change my passport to reflect my gender, for a government that rolled back elements of the draconian REAL ID programme and made life that much more liveable for trans workers, for a government that supports an inclusive ENDA,  for a government that changed INS policy to allow trans immigrants to more easily change gender markers on their IDs, for a vice president who called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” for the president whose first signed bill was a gender pay equity act, for a president who puts women with progressive views on the Supreme Court.

This endorsement should not be construed to view the victims of American foreign policy as an acceptable margin of error. On their backs, and with their blood, was Obama’s posturing in the third debate made possible- and that is a moral crime that must give us pause. We must never, ever be silent about this administrations failings here and abroad. However we vote tomorrow, that ballot is a beginning and not an end. A vote for Obama will not solve our woes. Every single issue that I mentioned above came to the bright lights of federal politics because of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears of honoured foremothers who fought and died for that recognition. My vote honours their sacrifice with one small vigil– but it is our life’s work that truly carries on their legacy, and that work neither begins nor ends at the polls tomorrow.

For us, Obama’s triumphs and failures are part of a complex web to navigate. I’ve found my way, and I begrudge no one who finds Jill Stein preferable. But I also implore you to reconsider the role of government in this. Keeping Obama in office is an exercise in harm reduction. We will keep fighting as activists one way or another. But we do still have a president to elect– and the choice is clear. Which ever man wins on Tuesday, we will still see drone planes terrorising people abroad, and that is a towering tragedy of this election. But Obama can be worked with– and the domestic stakes are too high to give the race to a man who will not only continue an aggressive foreign policy, but also retrench terror here at home. I will not allow that to happen.

Thus it is that I do not vote for the lesser of two evils, but see myself as voting affirmatively for the immense good this administration has done.

For all the people here that I have met through my work these last couple of years, it would not have been possible had this administration’s policy changes not enabled me to get travel ID that matched my gender. Loved ones abroad would have been much harder to visit if the Obama/Clinton State Department didn’t give me the opportunity to cross the border with dignity. In turn, this has bettered my ability to do radical work and support the organisation I work for. It is this small but potent facilitation effect that Obama’s iterative policy changes have had.

It is up to us to use these opportunities and continue the hard work of making real change happen in our communities– and a vote for this president does not undermine or compromise with that. The rights that my sisters and I have won these last four years will not be crushed beneath the weight of cynicism nor snarky leftist memes about the ‘lesser of two evils.’ I see no contradiction between my work and my impending vote.

In refuting the idea that there is a contradiction between electoral participation and radical black feminism, C. Riley Snorton and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan persuasively argue the following:

  1. We do not need to agree with everything a political candidate espouses to cast a vote in her favor. Voting is not an unequivocal endorsement—of a particular candidate or of the systems that structure our participation as “citizens.”
  2. Voting is participating in a process that allows us to select figures with whom we would prefer to engage.  That is to say, voting allows us to have some say in the parameters of future political struggle.  It lets us decide with whom we want to struggle. And struggle we must.
  3. Voting is not an end, or even a means to an end. Black feminist politics are far more expansive than electoral politics. They’ve had to be. Black feminist politics are what allows us— as young black queer and trans feminists—to fight to have liveable lives, to cherish our own survival and delight in the miracles of making it to the next year, day, hour. Voting does not interrupt our black feminist politics any more than it vanquishes the myriad structural and sociohistorical inequities that make those politics necessary.

I would argue that this is a good rejoinder to all cynical radicals on the question of voting and mainstream political participation.

 

The Morning After

In his victory speech President Obama echoed an idea I’ve long championed: that the exercise of citizenship does not end at the voting booth. Who do you think President Obama was talking to when he said that? There are many issues that matter to us as individuals, especially on the left where we have given voice to the voiceless for generations, where we have counted the last to be counted. There’s so much more work to be done– on voting rights, on incarceration, on trans rights, on immigration, on foreign policy. That’s where we come in over these next four years.

It is us, the new radicals who must carry the torch and do the hard work. As I said, tonight is a beginning, and not and end.

But it is also not an hour for despondency. Wall Street did not win tonight, any more than war crimes or terrorism. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must remember that the ‘lesser of two evils’ is not only a tired line devoid of content and meaning, but an aphorism that surely brings a smile to the faces of lobbyists, corporate plunderers, the far right, avaricious elites and so on. Why? Because when we give up on this process, the great levers of institutional power that are this state do not go away. When we cynically concede to the idea of the lesser of two evils we concede a field that our foremothers fought and died for the right to occupy. Yes, occupy. Occupy your government, and your electoral process.

When we withdraw from electoral politics and we grouse about there being only two evils from which to choose, that suits the suits just fine. They’re happy for you to think that. They want you to go away, and leave the politicos entirely in their hands, leave the process entirely in their hands. Cynicism is their friend. Why do you think it’s so popular? Why is anti-politician rhetoric so mainstream that Leno and Letterman bathe in it nightly? It hardly seems radical when “politicians are all selfish, lying egomaniacs” is practically a consensus view. Even the Tea Party is premised on this ‘politics of anti-politics.’ Thus it is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the real radical politics is whatever cuts through the pea soup haze of cynicism that cedes the colonnaded political realm to apparatchiks who will fulfil every dark prophecy made about politics.

When this president appointed a Latina from the Bronx– like me– to our Supreme Court, that was a proud hour for us that political abstinence would have denied us. Amid the arcane shadow theatre of Supreme Court politics, that moment has always stayed with me. Just as my joy at the appointment of Amanda Simpson was a watershed moment for trans women– it seemed not a little strange that for all the professed radicalism of the queer left, a feminine trans woman made it in the Commerce Department, while it can still be a struggle to see any trans women at queer events or in Gender Studies Departments across the nation.

For that reason and others, I find radical mockery of ‘inclusion’ to be harder than ever to take seriously. It remains the same arrogance that saw Judith Butler mock Venus Xtravaganza (from the pages of an academic tome read primarily by the educated middle class) for her seemingly bourgeois aspirations; this curiously hypocritical politics of perfection that has come to define certain sectors of radicalism is also at the heart of some of its anti-Obama sentiment.

And so we come to Election Night– my mother, for whom I fight, and to whom I’ve dedicated so much of my work, was crying tears of joy. She took my hand and squeezed tight, thanking me for the days and weeks I spent reassuring her that the president was going to win. Is she a dupe? She, who’d given up on voting for decades but went back to the polls in 2008 with genuine hope that four long, hard years, have yet to snuff out? She whose current interest in feminism and LGBT activism has been fuelled by the innervation of the Obama years? She does not castigate my more radical work but wholly encourages it. And she is a proud Obama voter.

I voted because I must; I voted in part because there are people trying to stop us, and with good reason. “Us” refers to a whole swathe of people: transgender people, people of colour, women, queer folk. Even from the narrowly circumscribed field of choices in this election, our likely choice frightens many of our political enemies. I still believe in our political process, and I still believe that activism must march with it, as well as lead it. I refuse to give that up.

A Troublesome Occurrence: Postmodern Investments in Trans Women

[11:59] john: so u r a natural woman?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Like the song?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Because I like to think so.

~Activist Sarah Brown having a bit of fun with a “tranny chaser”

 

As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.

It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.

In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :

“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.

The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”

The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.

Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.

None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.

Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s”  meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.

Therefore they mean nothing.

Continue reading “A Troublesome Occurrence: Postmodern Investments in Trans Women”

Sisterhood in Silence

Political questions- those nagging spectres both august and utterly debauched- linger and haunt if you take up the charge to be a citizen. Not just a citizen of a given country in some formalistic, legal sense, but a citizen in the sense of being a self-conscious member of a society (preferably without borders) with a sense of obligation to others. The tests of this political citizenship are always dictated to you by those bedevilling questions.

One question that I’ve run from, that I have leapt breathlessly through intellectual halls of mirrors to avoid is this one that I will now stare in its smiling face:

Am I Breanna Manning?

Global Comment editor, theologian, and trans activist Emily Manuel recently spoke to the media silence and leftist silence around the fact that “Bradley Manning” may very well be Breanna, a trans woman that the US Government arrested before she had a chance to transition and claim her identity more publicly.

Silence is a sinful little thing.

Its threadbare cloak promises protection and even seems to provide precious warmth against the ill winds of oppression. We hope that by keeping our heads down, staying mum, and conscientiously parroting the conventional wisdom of our age that we will secure that most precious commodity of transgender life: peace. I use “we” very forcibly here, this is an article in which I fully implicate myself for the silence I describe here. I cannot plead ignorance, like many in this community I knew about the leaked IM conversation between Manning and Adrian Lamo that has since become the ur text of Manning’s transgender identity in its public incarnation. I knew and said nothing.

Why did I do it? The answer, as I calculated with a coldness that frightened even myself, lies in the fact that if Manning becomes publicly understood as a trans woman, she will be the most famous trans woman in a generation. Perhaps ever. Outshining even the objectified stars of Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, or Jan Morris. But her fame will be for having been branded “T” for Traitor, and in a militarised nation like the United States that is not a scarlet letter one wears lightly. When combined with the oppressive weight of how stereotypes work at their most depressingly basic level (“If one’s like that, they’re all like that!”) there is no way the Manning case ends well for trans women.

Ms. Manuel is right that it is not “bloody likely” that the left will come riding to our rescue, gallant knights in trendily ironic armour ready to stand at our sides. We will be, in all probability, sold out.

At the vicious intersection of ableism and cissexism, we as trans people find ourselves under constant suspicion that we are “crazy”—that our genders are a mark of “madness” and uncivilisation. In an ableist society, this is to be marked for death. The transphobia merely juices it against us in particular, as the class of trans persons. We sit now on the precipice of this subtle, pervasive hatred exploding orgiastically on cable news.

And we are woefully unable to fend off such an assault, particularly if the strike is made through the vector of Breanna Manning, the “Traitor” and the one who “made America vulnerable to terrorists” or somesuch. Lies, of course, but who will defend a trans woman accused of these highest of crimes in the American state?

In the end, we have to.

The risk to us is tremendous. The silence we share on this issue seems protective. Maybe if we’re lucky, we seem to think, we can get through this trial without it becoming a public issue, Manning gets locked up for life, this goes away, and we’ve dodged a battleship-grade munitions projectile.

It is a temptation. But I would not trust to this hope, any more than I would trust to the hope of our hipster knights saving us.

Emily Manuel’s article was a castigation to the cisgender majority on the left who might be peevish at best about accepting a trans woman as their hero who stuck it to the Man.

But there is the lingering question of that great “we” I mentioned at the start of this piece. We trans women. Will we accept Breanna Manning as a hero? Will we accept her at all? Or will we disown her in the hopes that this blood sacrifice will appease the lords of patriarchy for another while?

This does seem, after all, a relatively hopeless fight. We’d be up against cissexism channelled through that realm where democracy as discourse dies a terrible death: cable news. We’d be up against Fox News, the New York Post, the Big Three, and MSNBC all taking potshots. Can you see it now? A “balanced” panel of experts filling rolling news airtime by debating whether or not we are human beings; a Sean Hannity “documentary” about transgender deception; J. Michael Bailey being wheeled out as an expert; editorials in major newspapers that politely cluck their teeth at our plight while saying in the end maybe we shouldn’t be allowed near anything important. To say nothing of personal ramifications: we may be fired, beaten, harassed more than we already are.

It can seem hopeless.

But we should meet them nonetheless.

What those of us who, like myself, have hesitated must face up to is that we do not have the luxury of choosing battles like this, not truly. They choose us—and as regrettable as this function of our disadvantage may be, we only harm ourselves by shying away from it. Manning is getting a lot of much needed support, yes. But her sisters should stand by her and acknowledge her as a sister. If for no other reason than to lend that much needed, precious gift that it stretches the limits of our poor power to give: to tell Breanna that her understanding of her reality is real.

To tell her that she is not only a hero, but one we will embrace as a woman, as a sister.

It may well all come to nothing, but we will be the better for trying. Facing down impossible odds, staring down barrel of society’s collective gun, it is what we as trans women do so well: it is a condition of our simply being. If any of you have strength to lend to Manning, give her that iota in the form of recognition.

It is tempting to enshroud myself in silence, but if there is one great truth transition taught me it is that silence will not save me, nor any of my siblings in struggle. It will not make this go away. Ending my silence will not, concomitantly, utter a word of power that brings hellfire upon all trans people. Ending my silence will deny cisgender men in power the right to bind me in this particular way.

So, how do I resolve the vexatious question that urged the penning of this article? In the end, there is no morass or thicket of complex issues, no great philosophical lodestones to be delicately weighed against one another. There is just one simple moral question and I resolve it thusly:

I am Breanna Manning.

The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much

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.

The Revolution Will not Be Puppetmastered

By now word of the great Gay Girl in Damascus hoax has spread throughout the western world and the blogosphere, becoming a much ballyhooed object of derision, snickering, finger wagging, tut tutting and all the rest. For those of you not in the know, here’s Color Lines’ Akiba Solomon’s deft summary of recent events— it precedes an analysis I highly recommend:

On February 19th, shortly before Syria’s Arab Spring uprisings began, an American-born Syrian lesbian named Amina Abdullah Araf launched “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Araf had been posting comments and debating Middle Eastern politics online for years, but created her own space at the urging of Paula Brooks, co-founder of the news site “Lez Get Real.”

Araf’s blog featured her erotic poetry and her coming-out story—risky material since homosexuality is illegal in Syria. She also spread news of the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors, prompting Time.com to call her “an honest and reflective voice of the revolution.” In late April, Araf claimed that Syrian security forces visited her father’s home and accused her of “conspiring against the state,” “urging armed uprising,” and “working with foreign elements.” Subsequent posts found Araf “going underground,” although she was still able to “encourage other women in Syria to be more upfront” via an email interview with cbsnews.com. Last week, a cousin posted a dramatic account of Araf’s abduction by three armed men. Like the rest of “Gay Girl in Damascus,” that entry is now unavailable to the public.

Because they’re human beings, members of the LBGT and progressive blogesphere took to Twitter, Facebook and petition sites demanding information and protection for Araf. Days later, the blogger’s “Catfish”-style caper unraveled due to skeptical tweets from an NPR reporter; news of fake photos on Araf’s Facebook page; and an unnerving interview with a Montreal woman “Araf” had seduced via Facebook. On Sunday, The Washington Post revealed “Araf” to be Tom MacMaster, a white 40-year-old from Virginia who was raised a Mennonite and attends a graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.

At this point, MacMaster should have just said, “I’ve come down with a terrible case of white, male privilege. Please medicate me.”

Let me explain this very plainly: As a trans, queer woman of colour who writes authoritatively about her experiences I am very directly affected by the aspersions cast by this hoax. My words have power only if you believe them.

Now, this is hardly to claim that this little plague of white cis het guys in women costumes are the sole cause of all doubt and derision cast on those of us women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, PWD who speak out and speak loudly as we testify to our truths. That is certainly not the case. But they play so very deftly into the hands of that rash of men who say that there are no women on the Internet and that everyone claiming to be is really some creepy neckbearded guy in his mum’s basement. It gives a very powerful excuse to people who want to ignore us, erase us, marginalise us further, and another reason for them to simply shut down their minds whenever they read words of power from those the mainstream media almost never listens to.

In impersonating women of colour and queer women, the two fools behind Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real have done immeasurable damage with their high profile ‘outings.’ When so many of us out there are not listened to, are not given interviews with Time Magazine and CBS News to tell our stories in our own voices, what these two men have done is given every reason to news corporations to be even more gunshy about taking sources seriously if they do not come through the “proper channels.” It was likely as not a battle for some reporters to get their bosses to seriously accept ‘Amina’ as a credible interview subject, for instance. Now it will be an impossible battle when a real woman of colour has something to say to the mainstream press.

Continue reading “The Revolution Will not Be Puppetmastered”

Trendy as a Tote Bag: Part II

Times are very hard, to be sure, and as I am now working in the fundraising department of a radical transgender rights oriented organisation I’m seeing yet another dimension to the endless Great Recession unfolding before me. Simultaneously, what I am constantly astonished by is how people in the most economically disadvantaged communities always manage to find a penny here and a penny there to help their sisters, brothers, and siblings in need. We’re out there looking out for each other and that never fails to give me hope.

It sounds a tad bit cheesy, yes, but for all of my snarky sarcasm and the like, I’ve always put a lot of stock in that gift from Pandora’s Box. It’s a precious resource in the trans community. So, what am I waxing all poetic about and what not? Well, this time around I’d like to solicit you all to fundraise for a charity near and dear to my heart– so much so that I’m actually working for them. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organisation for low income trans people of colour, has radical aims that dovetail with the themes I often speak of on this blog. It is hard to imagine a better organisation for me to devote my time and energy to. Indeed, it’s part of why I’ve been a tadbit too busy to write these days. But it is the Goddess’s work and it feels decidedly good.

On that note, this is our latest fundraising project:

I’ve been pretty busy helping with the organising and the fundraising that an event like this requires but for the moment I’ve been given a pet project and if any of my readers are interested in doing a spot of good then you can hop on over to Indie GoGo and check out our online fundraiser leading up to this gala. Please feel free to contribute, but if you don’t want to or are unable to, then I encourage you to pass the link along to any friends, colleagues, allies, and so on who may be interested. With initiatives like this every dollar helps.

My work here has been, in no small measure, interesting and a crash course in many things. But it has, above all, been a beautiful insight into the community that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have forged and of which I am proud to be a part. I’m not the kind of woman who is easily persuaded into advocacy and I would have never offered my blog as a place to help our fundraising efforts if I couldn’t say the word “our” with confidence apropos SRLP; if I didn’t feel a sense of ownership, a sense of community, I’d have never mentioned my blog. But I did so eagerly because SRLP isn’t just where I work. It’s a workplace where I can be out as a trans woman without the slightest second thought, and it’s a place where all of the markers of isolating distinction and discrimination do not count against you. A place where I could seek support from everyone on staff when I experienced a transphobic incident a couple of weeks ago.

In sum, I do believe in SRLP and what they do; they practise what they preach and I love them to bits. They are that rarest of organisations that will make my usually cold onyx heart melt and go all mooshy.

This is one of only a few nonprofit organisations that reflects the radical vision I have; radically gender equal and positive, feminist/anti-patriarchal, and as much as possible a non-hierarchical organisation that constantly militates against forces compelling them to sell out. As much as possible, I can say with confidence having seen things from the inside, we really do try to ensure that the trans community has ownership of this non profit and that we are never beholden to the powerful or the “great and good.” Small donations from (yes I’m using the PBS phrase here) people like you make that radical goal possible.

Okay I’m done being all sappy. If y’all are generous I may throw a slug comic up here soon when I get home. Thanks in advance.

~Quinnae

Body of the Law: Trans Bodies in Cis Law (Adventures in Transgender Studies, Part II)

As I engaged in the ritual striptease meant to appease the airline gods at Denver International Airport, standing at the bin that I had claimed as my own with an advert I paid no attention to staring at me from its bottom, a TSA agent walked up to me. I was depositing my grey blazer in the bin, my belt soon to follow, and I grew nervous, my throat tightening as it often does on security lines.

But all that the blue uniformed man did was smile at me and say “Good morning to ya, ma’am.”

At that moment I knew, as if a disembodied computer voice had said in my head “Conditional Cissexual Privilege Activated” that I was safe. For now. I escorted my belongings, the worn leather boots that could theoretically contain a bomb, the belt that could theoretically contain a trigger mechanism. Or cocaine. My handbag full of feminist literature (now there’s something explosive). That was when motion caught my eye and I saw something ominously towering over the old fashioned metal detector. The rounded slate grey hulk of an x-ray machine scanning men and women in a surrendering position, arms held unthreateningly high above their heads. I swallowed thickly wondering if the jig was up, if I would at last have to face transphobia at the airport, if I would have to sit in a room listening to impertinent questions about what was in my knickers.

As I approached the metal detector and drew nearer to the x-ray machine I felt cold and uncomfortable, as if I were approaching some tainted evil artefact from one of my fantasy games. The dread relic of a tyrannical lord. All prose of a purple hue aside, however, I came to realise that the scanner was only for people who rang the metal detector inexplicably. Thank Goddess I decided against those nipple piercings.

As I glided beneath the metal detector’s auspices I escaped the intensified gaze of the guards when the machine didn’t go off. I was waved past and sent to collect my freshly x-rayed belongings.

When people, from activists to academics, assert that the personal is political it is an injunction to reflect on the wider meaning of quotidian events such as this one. It is a call to recognise the event not as an isolated monad among multitudes, but linked to others by a web of societal relations that can ensnare us all (or liberate us). I knew that day as I submitted myself for screening that I was coming up against the great legal fiction of gender that exists in this country, the fact that the timid bulge an x-ray scanner might have revealed were I subject to it would have marked me as a deviant, a potential terrorist with plastic explosives in her knickers, or just someone to be publicly humiliated otherwise. The fiction that sustains the meaning which licenses such behaviour is the patchwork quilt of laws in the US that defines gender.

It is always with such things as this in mind that I read transgender legal scholarship. As dispassionate and ‘objective’ as I try to peruse the readings on law and trans people, I find again and again that I am simply unable to divorce my lived, and embodied reality from that reading. A while ago I simply decided I should stop trying to distance myself; this was my life, after all. What cis privilege refers to is precisely the fact that the above scene I described is something a cis person almost never has to deal with concerning airport security. Or anything else in their day to day life. The definition of cis privilege is precisely that one can live a life where their gender is legally recognised as being beyond reproach.

Continue reading “Body of the Law: Trans Bodies in Cis Law (Adventures in Transgender Studies, Part II)”

Subjectifying Trans People: Explorations in Transgender Studies, Part I

What follows is a modified and edited version of my thoughts on two recent readings that I did for my Transgender Studies course. I was responding to a chapter from Viviane K. Namaste’s book Invisible Lives that critiqued queer theory-based transphobia, and to an article by Judith Butler entitled Undiagnosing Gender.  The editing was not extensive, just some minor edits for clarity since this article began as an email written in one draft, and removal of names and personal references. Regular readers of this blog may recognise some familiar themes, such as my almost requisite praise of Anne Fausto-Sterling and talk of ‘dynamic history.’ Usually I wouldn’t belabour that, but this was written for an audience less familiar with my writing, so bear with me! These admittedly lengthy musings were well received by both my advising  professor and my colleague in this independent study.

Viviane K. Namaste:

Her Tragic Misreadings chapter from Invisible Lives is a brilliant analysis of how trans people are often misunderstood in postmodern queer theory. It’s a brief overview, sometimes all too brief, and perhaps vulnerable to criticism because of that. But the points she makes are well defined, sharp, and poignant. Last semester when I critiqued Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and her take on Venus Xtravaganza, it was this book I was reading, which you may well recall. Namaste makes an excellent point by bringing to light the fact that, as she says, “Here is the point: Venus was killed because she was a transsexual prostitute.” This is a matter she raises very bluntly in response to the fact that Butler seems to elide that point entirely, and more specifically Venus Xtravaganza’s trans subjectivity. In attempting to assert that her death represented a “tragic misreading of the social map of power” Butler seems to suggest that Venus Xtravaganza’s death was the result of her pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle.

I disagree with that vehemently.

Naturally I also disagree with Butler’s assertion that transsexual people only offer an “uncritical miming of the hegemonic [sex/gender system].” In the entirety of Bodies That Matter’s treatment of Venus Xtravaganza, what emerges is a rather callous effort to misuse the material that Jennie Livingston recorded of Venus Xtravaganza to support a particularly cissexist reading of trans people. There can be no question that Xtravaganza wanted a nice house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a “washer and dryer” as she said during interviews, but this has to be understood in the context of growing up in abject poverty and having very few vectors along which to cultivate dreams of a better life. It is particularly unreasonable for a white cis woman with an upper class education to cast aspersions on such desires. I don’t think Xtravaganza misread anything. She knew the risks, she knew the unlikelihood of her long term dreams coming true, but she did what she needed to in order to get by in a world where no one would even claim her body after she’d been murdered.

It is in this vein that I also agree with her critiques of other writers like Marjorie Garber and Carole-Anne Tyler. The issue with Garber as Namaste paints it is that she uses simulacra of transvestism that continually make reference to the transgression of gender boundaries, but does not seem to really dwell too much on the actual lived experiences of people who may be crossdressers; in my view, regardless of the intentions that inhere to her discipline’s epistemology, this is a fatal flaw that dooms her analysis to having an all too limited purview. Namaste is eminently and resolutely sociological when she critiques Garber and Butler by insisting that they do not examine the “material, discursive, and institutional locations” that TS/TG/CD people occupy. The title of her book, Invisible Lives, is her fundamental point: the quotidian lives of trans people, the whys and wherefores of what we do, and the experience (a concept so foundational to women’s and gender studies) of everyday life is completely ignored. This is central to Namaste’s entire work and it is the absence of such from a lot of Butlerian theory that annoys her.

It can be said that Namaste is missing the point of what Butler and other postmodern theorists are trying to do, but I disagree with that for one reason: even if Butler and those like her are being headily theoretical on purpose to discuss that miasma of social construction that is greater than the sum of its parts… the practical and day to day effects of that kind of theorising are what truly miss any kind of postmodern point. To wit, Butler’s theorising that transsexual people ‘uncritically mime’ dominant gender is an old idea that is still used to oppress trans people and actually obviates complex understandings of how everyone reinforces gender in one way or another, whether they are cis or trans; or gay, queer, bi, or het. It leads to the academic fetishising of trans people who are held to a double standard. It is categorically unpostmodern to do so and it actually reifies ontologically strict categories that should be anathema to postmodern theorists (i.e. to say that all people from this constructed category are thus and so seems to go against everything postmodernism and poststructuralism are trying to do).

From here Namaste pivots to a larger critique of postmodern and queer theory and the ability of either to adequately theorise the transsexual or transgender person. The cure to the academic fetishisation is, of course, to provide a detailed analysis of everyday life for trans people, which is a significant reason that it’s important to do so academically.

What I disagree with is her sweeping dismissal of queer theory’s usefulness, but given the time at which she was writing (2000) I think she could be forgiven for seeing an academic monolith in the version of queer theory that dominated the academy when she was writing this in the late 1990s. Nevertheless she is correct when she says: “Critics in Queer Theory habitually fail to consider that their selection of texts is a social process that embodies the production of knowledge and discourses on sexual and gendered objects. In this manner, queer theory is blind to its own institutional workings.” What she goes on to say about what queer theory connotes as “inside” and “outside” (heterosexuality and homosexuality respectively) is also very apt and it leads into a point I have made many, many times over on this subject:

There is no outside to gender. We are all part of the productive power structure that creates gendered meanings in one way or another. It is unethical to suggest that trans people reinforce gender norms without critically interrogating how you yourself reinforce those norms and how other cis people might also be doing so. This is not the first academic quest to search for an “outside” that just so happens to include the academics penning these ideas. For a lengthier and more brutal analysis of the Quest for Outside as I call it, you can see my blog post on the matter here.

It does not work like that. Seriously.

Namaste’s critiques are, ironically, vividly illuminated by Judith Butler’s Undiagnosing Gender. My thoughts on it below are in some ways an expansion of both what I have said here and Namaste’s thinking on how to approach social analysis of trans lives.

Judith Butler, Undiagnosing Gender:

This piece from Professor Butler represents, I think, a profound evolution in her thinking that takes a completely different view of transsexual and transgender people than she seemed to in the early 1990s, and it was with this ‘era’ of her work that Viviane K. Namaste was so critically engaged. In Undiagnosing Gender, however, there seems to be a change in Butler’s perspective that responds to Namaste’s criticism. In writing this piece about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis she begins by asking straightforwardly:

“To understand the differences between these two views [broadly, pro- and anti- diagnosis] we have to ask how the diagnosis is actually lived. What does it mean to live with it?”

With that simple framing, Butler takes a rather different road than she did in Bodies That Matter, or even in Gender Trouble and it gives her a rather authoritative tone as she explores this particular issue. I feel that she sketches out rather expertly the two broad scatters of views that surround the issue of GID: those who want to keep the diagnosis to ensure medical access to transition for trans people, and those who oppose it because it stigmatises trans people and permanently relegates them to a second order of humanity.

Continue reading “Subjectifying Trans People: Explorations in Transgender Studies, Part I”