All Things to All People: Some Brief Notes on Solidarity and Free Speech

Pictured: the idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.
The idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.

If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything:  living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.

If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.

But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.

Free Speech: From Posturing to Substance

Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.

He has archived Burchill’s piece for the world to see, so readers can judge for themselves, but it is a curious choice—to say the very least—to use an article that was almost entirely vapid schoolyard bullying and name-calling as some kind of heroic exemplar of courageous speech. He takes this to a laughable pinnacle by comparing Burchill’s screed to The Observer’s opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal, now widely regarded by historians as the last gasp of the British Empire. Clearly these were equal acts of great courage.

Yet, if one refuses Young’s attempts to cut their intellectual brake lines, it’s plain to see that Burchill’s article was no Watergate, no “Pentagon Papers.” To compare Burchill’s privileged tantrum to great acts of journalism is offensive to the profession (and if one wants to read incisive feminist journalism, I cannot recommend Ms. Magazine more strongly—their investigations into the plague of rape in the US Military, and the anti-abortion lobby’s links to terrorism are, alone, reminders of what truly courageous pens might write).

Instead of asking substantive questions about Burchill’s writing, Young thoughtlessly defends it without any regard for its content, nor any attempt to engage with it meaningfully. This is profoundly anti-democratic. We do not, in a truly free society, throw our hands up in childlike awe and say “Oooh, there are so many ideas out there, that’s nice!”—ideally, we engage with them, we debate, and we argue; we consider them on their merits, weigh them, and are fully allowed to find them woefully wanting.

Pictured: Something exactly like Julie Burchill's Observer article.
According to Toby Young, the Observer’s willingness to oppose this historical event is the moral equivalent to publishing Julie Burchill’s piece. As you can see, they’re exactly the same thing.

That is precisely what trans women, our loved ones, and allies did with Julie Burchill’s codswollop. And it is here that we come to what else is so utterly pernicious about Young’s unthinking editorialising: he has completely misrepresented and lied about the motivations of Burchill’s critics. Many of us, myself included, did not want the Observer article taken down. What we wanted was to be heard, and to counter the spreading of hate. Some of us wanted Burchill to apologise, and some wanted the piece taken down, yes, but I’d not say the latter was a widespread, agreed-upon, much promoted goal. It is certainly fair to say that few of us are mourning the piece’s loss. It is no Vindication of the Rights of Woman (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is it Candide. It was gutter trash of the lowest order, and even if you don’t give a toss about transphobia, one would have to concede it was tenth-rate writing. Its deletion from the Observer’s website is no loss to anyone.

And yet, while Mr. Young may think himself a dutiful democrat for preserving and republishing the piece, he might be surprised that he was beaten to the punch by many of the same trans activists he was attacking. Most of us had a problem with the article being used as “link bait” for the Observer, driving up their ad costs with every click. This shock and awe tactic is, tragically, a commonplace in online news websites. Many of us, who wanted to preserve the public record of Burchill’s hate, have reposted the piece elsewhere—both to ensure that it was not flushed down the memory hole, and to ensure that people could read and judge for themselves, while denying The Observer profit-from-hate. If Mr. Young had bothered to talk to any of those faceless and nameless activists he decries, he might have seen that our motivation was not to punish “political incorrectness” but to add to the discourse, with the urgency that hate speech always demands.

That is democracy.

Speech Acts

It is also worth remembering that if one wishes to defend free speech, one must know what they are defending and why. More of those nattering specifics that tend to deflate gassy rhetoric, yes.

Speech does something. That is why it’s so powerful, cherished, and defended as a fundamental right. But like any right, it can be abused, used to the detriment of others, and cause great harm. Citizenship, by contrast, is the craft of using rights and liberties to further the cause of freedom. Burchill’s piece, on the other hand, was both puerile and dangerous in the most vulgar way. Words like hers are hurled along with glass bottles at trans women fleeing for their lives from angry, hateful cisgender men. Ideas like hers fuel housing discrimination, see trans people excommunicated from their families, usher us with sibilant urgings to suicide, and are deployed by people who need to justify violence against trans people.

Burchill’s words and ideas, to the extent they have any substance at all, are simply the anima of hatred; hatred that revokes trans women’s rights. It sees our free speech muzzled, lest we be attacked for naming our experience and concerns. It sees our right to life snuffed out and declared conditional—less important than a privileged journalist’s right to lose her intellectual lunch in a national newspaper. It sees our right to free movement drastically curtailed, our right to healthcare passively but firmly denied.

None of this has a whit to do with “being offended.” It has everything to do with survival.

Our speaking up—as feminists, LGBTQ activists, and concerned citizens—was an attempt to ensure that Burchill’s article, which ended with an unambiguous threat and was essentially one long piece telling us to “shut up” (where was Mr. Young then?), did not have its intended silencing effect. If Mr. Young seeks enemies of free speech, instead of rudely stereotyping trans women he might well simply look in the mirror.

Solidarity and the “Real Issues”

Only a briefer note is necessary to deal with the odious counterpart to Young’s Left-baiting, and that is Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s snide suggestion that we are a single issue group devoted to a myopic cause at the expense of wider solidarity. Never mind that this exact argument has been used against feminists since the 19th Century and is a common silencing tactic.

I am proud to work for an organisation that is devoted to precisely the kind of solidarity that Burchill so disingenuously “defended.” The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is concerned with those wider economic issues that structurally oppress so many in our society—the austerity and cuts crusades now being trumpeted from Whitehall to Washington. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fight the manifestations of that malignancy as they particularly affect low income trans people of colour, and do so in solidarity with organisations and nonprofits serving different communities. Our goal is to not only provide our clients with basic legal needs and representation, but also to help them join activist communities of their fellows, educating them about often opaque and esoteric rights they may have (in the social services system, for instance), and enjoining them to take part in discourse, education, protests, and the fight for justice.

This is not done through an artificial focus on trans issues, as if they can they be neatly and discretely parcelled away from all others, but through recognising that whatever “trans issues” are, they are made up of class politics, immigration politics, racial inequality, social-structural sexism, a culture of policing and incarceration, and so on. These are inseparable from each other, and necessarily inform our response to the issues of our time.

It was one of many reasons that I found Moore and Burchill’s claims to be both divisive and fatuous. So many trans people learn the true meaning of solidarity the hard way, and many of us who are feminists and rights activists are part of organisations that—far from being ‘single issue distractions’—are deeply embedded in broader struggles against austerity, sexism, racism, and the ever widening wealth gap in the West; others fight with a tighter focus on neo-colonialism and foreign policy. But we are all immensely concerned with the battle for wider, meaningful liberty, and it is nothing more than a hateful lie to suggest that we are not, simply because we have the audacity to defend ourselves when attacked so viciously by name.

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.

I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylised schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

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.”

Continue reading “I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality”

In Faith, I do not Know Thee by Thy Name

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.

Continue reading “In Faith, I do not Know Thee by Thy Name”

Fatal Error

What human beings see when they behold something like this has remarkable consequences for the other humans in their lives.

It is, by now, a cliché to suggest that transgender people of most any stripe are somehow acting contrarily to nature. This has numerous ideological expressions. On the political right we hear this from conservative Christians and “men’s rights activists,” from science we hear this from any number of would-be psychiatric colonists of our experiences, and from the left we hear this from any number of groups including a certain clique of radical feminists.

What I have found interesting is that these types of feminists– the Julie Bindel set, essentially– come from a school of feminist thought that placed a good deal of primacy on the sacred, natural body; hence their obsession with SRS and the like. I am always reminded of my father (Goddess knows he was no feminist in the slightest) angrily asking me if I was saying that God had made a mistake. Clearly I was challenging Him by saying I was “born wrong” (or something like that). The whole theoretical construct relies on a welter of cis projections and is not based on anything I’ve said, naturally[1]. But the framing of this clique of feminists is much the same: substitute Nature for God. This simple gesture is at the heart of much leftist and science-based oppression, the generative nucleus of all that is right and good is simply shifted from an all powerful white male divine to an all powerful Natural Order/Balanced Ecosystem that we cannot challenge.

It is exactly the same ideological manoeuvre that feminists rightly opposed in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. A move that allowed the scientists to pooh pooh the religious by telling them there was no God who ordained everything… while preserving the Ur textual explanation for the inexorability of white cis male supremacy in a new form, this time ‘scientific.’ For eco-feminists, there was less emphasis on science as they understood what was going on with the then-ascendant sociobiological explanation for gender. But they simply reinvested a kind of mysticism into Nature. And thus people like Sheila Jeffreys would ask me “So are you saying Nature was wrong?”

What is tacitly ignored in all of this is the fact that humans, by default, act contrarily to nature. Virtually nothing we have done as a species, as a civilisation, has been purely natural. It never fails to make me smirk when I hear arguments about the virtues of naturalism from someone wearing glasses. Such arguments almost invariably are arguments for the preservation, in part or in whole, of the status quo. The “balance of nature” or the “will of God” always just so happens to demand that our present arrangements of power and hegemony, on one particular subject or on all subjects, are pre-ordained and foolish to fight. The set of conservative transphobes on the political right require a vision of a male/female caste system that is ineluctable, easily maintained, and lifelong that can ground itself in the perfectly constructed male/female body. The transphobes of the left, many with roots in various ecological movements, assert that nature has created a perfect body that any changes to (changes that are not sanctioned by dominant ideology, at any rate) are unnatural, aberrant, deviant, and ‘mutilation.’

What is lurking behind all of this is the anthropomorphising of the generative nucleus in each system: God or Nature. The intelligent design movement of the Christian Right in the West provides us with the clearest expression of this notion: God is a designer, a divine watchmaker, whose intelligence is used to carry out His intent in the world and thus all of nature has a sentience-ordained purpose; acting contrarily to that purpose is objectively ‘wrong.’ Since God can be conceptualised as a person, this is easier to swallow if you give yourself over entirely to the religious fervour that enables belief in a literal divine figure, lounging on a cloud somewhere in the heavens. With Nature it is much more clearly a metaphor that has spun wildly out of control. Nature, many transphobic scientists and radical feminists say, has intent as well. We can discern this intent scientifically and politically, and then measure deviance from that standard as an objective metric of ‘wrongness.’ To act contrary to the intent of nature is thus empirically, scientifically, wrong. Politics is removed from the equation, and this analysis is presented to the masses as a neutral, ineluctable truth. One which just so happens to say that the current order of white cis male power is natural and inevitable.

It is interesting to think about why certain cis radical feminists have participated in this discourse, one constructed on a theoretical paradigm that has suggested that women are intrinsically inferior to men.

This is the discourse that radical feminist transphobes are accessing when they deny trans people any semblance of personhood based on how we supposedly challenge the natural order. It uses exactly the same logic, relies on the same Archimedean Point of an all powerful, unchanging divine nature that does not err, and can be easily manipulated to come to conclusions about women that are antithetical to feminism. The ‘perfect body’ of womanhood suggested by some cis radical feminists bears a strange resemblance to the alabaster angel who bears children for the fatherland. To define women solely on the basis of our fertility is not only a losing game, but one that reinforces a central ideological pillar of patriarchy: that we really can be bound by our supposedly universal ability and desire to give birth. Since this is “natural” there can be nothing wrong with it. It is objective, neutral, ahistorical, and apolitical.

Feminists, perhaps better than anyone else, know why that is bullshit and what that imports into our highly political culture. It is precisely my own radical feminism, very specifically, that has given me the strength to confront and push back against these oppressive ideas. It is my feminism which helps me feel, in good conscience, that I am right to oppose any notion that subsumes our shared humanity beneath the weight of an abstract ideal.

The reality that human beings must confront is simple: Nature has no intent. It is not conscious, it is not intelligent or otherwise self-aware. It does not think, it does not plan, it does not design. Nature, as such, is a constantly evolving, changing, messy, illogical riot of constant evolution and adaptation that has no discernable “intent” in the sense humans understand that word. As a woman, my inability to bear children does not define me; to phrase this differently, my inability to bear children has not spared me the ravages of patriarchy. Cis men treat me as a woman, with all the negativity that implies. My lack of a uterus does not insulate me from that. The meaning of “woman” in our society is not synonymous with the meaning of “womb.”

We’re making a very tragic mistake if we think so.

To talk of nature is to talk of something that changes, that evolves. We all know this on some level: not a single one of us looks or is shaped much like we were when we were born. Nature is not a static thing held in perpetual equilibrium. Like the human beings that arose from it, nature changes constantly. Nature is change. To say that what we were born with is intrinsically good, and any alterations thereto are intrinsically bad has nothing to do with nature. It is an ideology. It is, in a word, politics. The world is one that evolves and that blossoms: human life at its best, at its freest, is a life of blossoming, a life constantly in motion whose ultimate course is one of many winding roads and hairpin turns.

To whatever extent it can be determined that evolution has a ‘plan’ or some preconceived order (metaphorically speaking, of course) we as humans, by our very nature (real nature, in this case), are under no obligation or compulsion to follow that plan. One of the things that defines us as a species is our ability to discern evolution and think about it; that awareness is part of how we then step outside of evolution, at least in part, and decide with our own self-awareness what directions we may take.

Women are not ‘intended’ for anything, and certainly not by dint of birth. In my own case, as a woman, as a trans person, as a human being, did God make a mistake? Yes, absolutely. The God conjured by humans, by men in particular, did indeed make a mistake. Because the God is not in the sky, He is invested in every doctor, every clergyman, every teacher and parent, who ever tried to force me to be someone I did not wish to be. It would be more accurate to say that they failed.

But to put it another way, if one believes in Deity of some kind, or a Creator, the best way of imagining it is this (and this applies very much to the Naturalists as well). No, God/Nature did not make any sort of mistake; but we ever fallible human beings have a lot of mistaken assumptions about what we have been given to work with.[2]


[1] I’ve never claimed to be “born wrong” and have long since abandoned any notion of being “born in the wrong body.” The very idea that being trans is the correcting of a mistake is made necessary by a society that imposes definitions on us that are inherently limiting, binding, and always against our will. In a just society, my evolution as a gendered being would have been unremarkable and like any other.

[2] I can’t take credit for this. A discussion with the ever brilliant little light yielded this idea from her and I thought it a brilliant, spiritual and social resolution to what I have always considered a deeply flawed question.

Raiders of the Lost Etiology

Braaaaaaaaaaiiiins.

One of the rather fun things about being trans is that you live in a world where doctors poke and prod you hoping to find deep answers about why you exist- deep, award-winning, and powerful answers that will at last enable them to explain what the hell is up with us; because it’s not like we’re authorities on our own lives or anything.

To set the snark aside, I’m of course talking about the endless quest to find an etiology- or medical explanation of origin- for trans existence, a recent example of which can be found here. It is a particularly transfixing matter that seems to occupy the place of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth in the eyes of our medical masters. A Lost Ark of the Covenant with which to at last claim final dominion over us. The ultimate Holy Grail being a “trans test” whereby folks in white coats will be able to objectively prove that someone is trans.

Yet like all the foregoing it is a myth, a legend. There is not likely to be any one coherent, purely biological/neurological explanation for our existence. The drive to research the matter is not inherently evil, mind, but the resources being dedicated to it come into question when studies of this sort appear to be to the exclusion of more directly beneficial research, like longitudinal studies on the long-term effects of hormone treatment on trans people.

Recent studies have been justified by asserting that they will benefit young trans people with early identification of trans-ness. But let us be as honest and realistic as possible for a moment, shall we? What would make things easier on young trans kids is not an MRI scan or some kind of trans test. It would be a world where having a trans child would not be a terrible thing, where bullying of children who defied gender norms would be frowned upon and actively discouraged, where parents raised their children to accept a multitude of gendered possibilities. A “trans test” would not even be a stopgap measure to help young trans people.

When I first came out to my father I naively waved studies in his face that spoke of this thing called “Gender Identity Disorder.” But his first reaction to me was not to say that my gender was valid. It was to say that since it was a ‘disorder’ there must be a ‘cure’- you know, one to make me into a boy again, like he wanted.

Transgender does not need a medical etiology in order to be accepted morally. The entire issue is a massive red herring that deflects a necessary moral and philosophical argument into whether or not we objectively exist by the standards of a game we are rigged to lose. We are already on the backfoot because we live in a world where our voices do not count, we merely concede more ground when we suggest that narrow, incomplete studies that reveal- at best- a small piece of the puzzle should speak for us.

The critical moral argument that we must never lose sight of is whether it is okay to discriminate against someone because there isn’t a biological explanation for their existence. For most any situation, the answer is a resounding “no” among decent people. We do not say that people of faith bring discrimination upon themselves because they ‘chose’ to be a part of a given religion, and when people do say this, they are rightly derided for being assholes. We do not get sidetracked into asinine arguments about how some people are born Jewish and have Jew brains and, y’know, they just can’t help it and that’s why we should be ‘tolerant.’

No, actually. You should avoid bigotry because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Continue reading “Raiders of the Lost Etiology”

Ignorance and Want

Trigger Warning for explicit discussion of rape and its attendant traumas.

Rape culture is an institution, to be certain; one whose powerful manifestations and expressions are found in all too many quarters of our society and whose influence is wide as it is deep. But like any social phenomenon one is well advised to take a magnifying glass to the small drops of mortar that bind together the brick wall of this institution. In reading a thread on a popular website about rape, a woman, who has since deleted her account due to the shaming she endured, stepped forward to make passionate arguments against rape apologism. Eventually she would describe her own experience. I do not have her permission to republish her story, so I will only quote a powerful line from her post that speaks to a general experience:

Have you ever been raped? Do you know what it feels like to be turned into someone else’s object? The worst is how filthy you’ll feel after. You just want to be clean. You want to die, you want to be alone and scream in utter agony. You want to be skinned alive because that’s the only way to get the filth off of your skin and out of you. Despite all this, you’re brave enough to make your way to the police station. You’re alone, you don’t want your friends to see you like this. You’ve got cold cum congealing on your inner thigh and bruises on your neck and wrists. You feel disgusting. You are at the lowest point you’ve ever been.

This began a powerful piece that told the story of her experience levelling an accusation against her rapist, a young man who- in a rather shocking and thoroughly unexpected turn of events- was so popular that the police officer she spoke to warned her off pressing charges lest she “ruin his life.” Popular, well-liked and talented men, after all, do not rape. Their victims, meanwhile, are silenced and shamed into invisibility and forced into finding a way to negotiate with their pain on their own terms as best they can.

Their lives are forever changed while their rapist walks free, unaccounted for, and nowhere near as scarred as his victim. We rightly heap scorn on the people who rape: I myself spared no kind language for the rapist of my friend in last night’s article, calling him a bastard. No words in our tongue are too unkind for him and his ilk. But rape culture is not just about the people who rape. It’s about the vast networks of social support that underlie those incidents of rape, that condemn rape when ‘the perfect rapist’ rapes ‘the perfect victim’ but otherwise excuse, deny, encourage and otherwise call into existence the circumstances that make rape inevitable. To illustrate one manifestation of this that will be the subject of today’s piece, let me quote to you one man’s response to this woman’s moving story on that same site:

One bigoted small-town police officer can’t be representative of the entire society. and there are hotlines and such, etc.

I really hope nobody thinks, “wow, Internet people really don’t take rape seriously. I shouldn’t even try to report it.”

That’s it. That’s all he could muster in response to a lengthy and detailed story of pain. As I read this, blinking, I wondered at whether or not he was moved but could not bring himself to say so. I wondered if he was like Ebeneezer Scrooge, beholding the metaphorical urchins of Ignorance and Want and haunted by his past tirades of “are there no prisons!? Are there no workhouses!?”

“Are there no hotlines and such?” is about the only way I could read that dismissive post, a small effort to banish from this man’s sight the horrible thing that had just manifested itself before him- the ugliness and sheer horror of rape, spoken with certainty by an eloquent survivor. Shocked as surely as Scrooge was shocked when the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed those urchins, shocked by being confronted with the underside of a society that he prefers to ignore and yet has to exist in order for him to enjoy the comforts and privileges he does. This woman dared to show him and all he could do was ask “Are there no hotlines?”

He asks this because he will not face up to the terrible truth that this bigoted small town police officer is a very common character in the narratives of rape survivors. Their dismissals, their bigotry, their scorn and heartlessness are enabled by people thinking that surely most police officers and people in general would be incapable of this. Bigotry is an evil contained only in a few bad individuals, after all.

Are there no hotlines?

This woman bares her soul and she finds only a feeble response that all but mocks how a survivor might feel on stumbling onto the all too copious and common words of pitiable fools on the Internet. They’re “Internet people”- which means they aren’t real, right? They aren’t part of our society, they do not socialise within it, they do not vote or otherwise have an impact on their social worlds. They are merely “Internet people” and if a rape survivor finds herself triggered or wounded, reminded of the shame and the filth that is made to cling to her when one of these “Internet people” pours misogynist scorn upon those who dare to survive and dare to say they have been raped… well she’s just being silly, isn’t she?

After all, are there no hotlines?

To pick up that phone as your hand shakes, as you find yourself struggling to not take up a knife instead of a mobile, is an exercise in will whose difficulty is hard to quantify. To do this means something critical that this man completely elided: you have to admit that you were raped and that you belong to the class of people these hotlines were designed for. Admitting that takes some people months, even years. Admitting it makes you part of that shamed class of people, opening yourself up to incessant second guessing by everyone around you, even those who may call themselves feminist will eventually be guilty of doing this to someone. Far easier, one thinks, to pretend one was not raped in the hopes that the pain will go away. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because one does not heal by giving a patriarchal society the silence it begs for.

Are there no hotlines?

This also says nothing of the fact the resources that do exist for rape survivors are not distributed equally. As Sady Doyle has pointed out, RAINN, one of the largest anti-rape organisations in the United States, supports organisations that deny assistance to transsexual and transgender women. To be trans in this society is to court shame already, you grow up being told none too subtly that your identity makes you a freak, unworthy of life. To add being raped to this is beyond unbearable, it is a pain that these foregoing words do a poor job of describing but that I have seen first hand in my own life through those I love most. The anguish that comes with admitting you’ve been raped is already hard. Doing so when your rape was framed by your rapist as gleeful transphobia is even harder. You know right away that even if you live in some supposed oasis that white cis progressives adore, like Portland, Toronto, New York, or San Francisco, that you will deal with police officers who will automatically assume the worst of you, who think you’re a lunatic just for being trans, and that your rape was just desserts for being such a freak.

But after all, are there no hotlines?

Are there no laws?

Are there no crisis centres?

On and on the echoes can go, and it is quite clear, as it was in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge that the pitiable questions that queried about ‘some resource’ were a feeble effort at ignoring social responsibility and the enormity of the great crisis before him that his wealth was, in part, responsible for. The existence of rape culture is everyone’s responsibility. Through feeble gestures like that of the gentleman whose words I’ve mocked throughout this piece we try to deflect responsibility, whether we are women or men, cis or trans, we may find ourselves doing this. Let the hotlines take care of the poor victims, let the law take care of the evil people who rape. Just like a nice and neat Law & Order: SVU episode the drama is over at an appointed time, the TV set is switched off, and we go on with our lives. Any time a thought of the want and ignorance in the rape culture of our society intrudes upon our minds we can simply hum to ourselves:

Well, are there no hotlines?

Lest We Forget

There are ample things to be said about such a day as this. For me the Day of Remembrance is about remembering the lives of those we have lost as they would want to be remembered, as the people they truly were, not as the lie that cis media repeats ad nauseam. I have wondered aloud if journalists go to a special school where they learn how best to utterly trash and defame dead trans women. The rather unpleasant spectacle created by the British press- both populist and ‘higher class’- surrounding the death of Sonia Burgess is just one all too contemporary example of the kind of slander that becomes so bad many have described it as a second death. Yet deaths like hers are often the ones that get the most attention; as the list on any number of TDOR websites will tell you, those we lose are often from groups less likely to be mentioned in the papers under any circumstances. The unremembered women on the front lines of sex work, impoverished women in Latin America just trying to get by, the poorest of the poor right here in my hometown. They too must be remembered, for their passing is often completely unmarked.

TDOR has been, for me, a time to remember who these people- the crushing majority of whom were women- really were. Their true names, their true lives, they way they lived, and what they lived for. So often, here at the nadir of cissexist hatred in our society, that same society avails itself of the opportunity to broadcast to all who will listen lies compounded by lies about the lives and identities of the now dead trans woman who is now utterly unable to speak for herself; the media takes this opportunity to tell us a tale of men in dresses and of female names in scare quotes, a sirensong of salacious goings on, whispers of sex work, a dramatic narrative of deception and “surprise”, and the curtain falling on the pinnacle of the final act, another nameless woman dead and waiting for the cameras. For the media, that is who we are- a lovely little piece of the puzzle that fits neatly into a story they have already written, about a life they care next to nothing about.

Thus it is that we insistently dare to remember, dare to call our lost and fallen siblings by their real names, and today is a day where we dare to thumb kyriarchy, dare to call the patriarchal press the profound virtuoso liar and cheat that it is, and dare to survive, dare to remember both our own courage, and our worth.

There are some who say that this day is too sombre, sad, and depressing. There is a lot that is worth celebrating about our existence, they say. Life as well as death. Joy as well as pain and loss. Some of these same people say that it’s even a whiff of internalised transphobia that makes this commemoration of death “our holiday” rather than something more festive. To this I say the following: due to the foregoing I have said about how we are so often not remembered, or explicitly and intentionally misremembered, this day is a necessary bearing of witness. It is a necessary reminder of the need to protect our identities and the truth of our lives, and to protect the memory of those who have been lost. The near total disgrace and erasure we experience on death, a death so often at the hands of another, is something that is almost completely unique to this community. A day devoted to a community and ally based remembrance of the truth then becomes necessary and powerful.

For me, there is a rich and potent joy to womanhood, to trans-ness, and to the journey that I will always be on. The people I have met, and the experiences I have had are treasures I would trade for nothing else on the Goddess’ green earth. Those joys I know are the product of me living a life where I am true to myself at last. Thus we had best remember that truth for those who are no longer with us.

Let every other day of the year be the grand, insistent, defiant, radical and oh-so-beautiful celebration of our lives. But today we must remember.

Because, as is unfortunately true about so much else in this community, if we do not- who will?

_________________________________

P.S. The slug off to the far left is playing Amazing Grace, in case you were wondering what a bagpipe was doing in that picture. ::winks::

An Open Letter to Kate Bornstein

Dear Auntie Kate, (can I call you that?)

I have had more than a few reservations about your gender theory for quite a while now but have held my tongue for a variety of reasons. Yet as I read through your latest op-ed in Out magazine, The Trouble With Tranny, I was profoundly troubled. I came to a point where I realised I just couldn’t stay silent any more because of the venues in which you’re promoting a certain kind of theory that is, perhaps despite your good intentions, very transphobic. If I haven’t already lost you, allow me to explain.

You begin the article with fond reminiscences about your time with Doris Fish, a prominent drag queen, whose views regarding trans women you characterise in the following way:

“I was afraid of her raw sexuality, but bowled over by her courage. Doris was amused by my quest to become a real woman.” (Emphasis mine)

 

“Like me in the late ’80s in San Francisco, the majority of MTF transsexuals just wanted to live their lives as closely as possible to whatever their notion was of “a real woman.” They considered drag queens beneath them. The drag queens were amused by the MTFs pursuing the dream of real woman.”

Let me be the first to say that the disparaging of crossdressers and drag queens on the part of transsexual people is, yes, quite morally wrong and represents internalised transphobia. It evokes that hierarchy of legitimacy that too many people of all backgrounds buy into in order to buttress their stability and position in a world that is built on domination. Yes, it’s wrong. I am not more legitimate than a crossdresser, no DQs do not make me “look bad” and I call out any person who claims such. The problem lies with a society that will not learn about us and lumps us all together as one blob of freakish bad, and not with any individual member of our diverse community.

All of this said, I get the distinct sense that you feel more ‘enlightened’ and ‘evolved’ now and agree with Doris Fish in her ‘amusement.’

Auntie Katie, let me reveal to you a bit of truth here. Willing to listen? Good:

I did not transition to be a “real woman”- that’s a useless concept, and a fairly sexist/transphobic one. I transitioned to be a woman, my kind of woman, the kind of woman I want to be, and that involves expressing myself as I am, as a whole person, in ways that break gender stereotypes as much as ‘caters’ to them. I’m not alone in this. A lot of trans women out there feel exactly the same way, and as we’ve unlearned our internalised transphobia and misogyny we are becoming all the more proud to be unique types of women, not archetypes of women. This leads rather nicely into my next point to you. You say the following:

“Years earlier, when I went through my gender change from male to female, I glided through life under the commonly accepted assumption: I was finally a real woman! That worked for me until I ran into a group of politically smart lesbians who told me that I wasn’t allowed to co-opt the word “woman.” Woman was not a family word that included me. My answer to this exclusion was to call myself a gender outlaw: I wasn’t a man, I wasn’t a woman.”

Here you’re making exactly the same, utterly fallacious mistake that too many “meanies” (as you might call them) make. Your experience was thus and so, therefore we all must be such.

Here is a bit more truth- I know, work with, and study the work of politically smart cis lesbians and queer women who would utterly balk at the idea that a trans woman “co-opts” the term “woman.” They are increasingly part of mainstream feminism, from the street to academe, they and their trans sisters would without a moment’s hesitation label such thinking outdated and transphobic. Why? Because how exactly are you going to break apart patriarchal gender norms if you cede “man” and “woman” to biologically essentialist definitions? If you say it’s not possible for someone assigned male at birth to truly be a woman, you’re not being a gender outlaw, you’re being  gender riot police. I don’t think you’d look very good in a black helmet and gas mask, Kate, so I invite you to reconsider your stance on these issues for the benefit of us all.

Because right now, you’re not helping by delegitimising people’s identities. By making womanhood more diverse, trans women are also in the vanguard of disrupting normative notions of womanhood and in case you were not aware, Kate, feminists do internalise gender norms as well; it’s what makes it so easy to take biological-essentialism for granted, as you yourself appear to do.

There is no question that you’re absolutely correct that it’s important to name yourself outside of known and common terminology if you so choose. It takes courage and a lot of perseverance to do this, and I am proud to call those people my siblings in struggle. We’re in this together. So why do you forget that, Kate? It is not my business to say your gender is illegitimate, and snarkily quote people who have no idea what it’s like to have your experience comment on it and pass it off as wisdom. How would you feel if I said with a whiff of smugness that I knew a trans woman activist who was amused by people “pretending” they could be something other than male or female? You’d feel hurt, marginalised perhaps, misunderstood and used. You might feel like they were stepping on you and your well-lived life in order to score cheap political points.

So, think on that. I do not have to attack or undermine people whose identities go beyond male/female. Why must you insist on attacking your trans brothers and sisters? We are not your enemies and we are not the ones who are holding you or The Cause™ back.

You say the following near the end of your article:

“Labels aren’t all that bad when they’re used consciously, but a major downside of using labels to describe an identity — even the labels we wear proudly as badges of courage — is that labels set up us-versus-them scenarios. The next generation of gender outlaws is seeking to dismantle us-versus-them. As a people, none of us deserves to hear the words “You’re not welcome here,” or “You’re not good enough,” or “You’re not real.” My Goddess, we just have to stop saying that to each other, all of us whose identity somehow hinges on gender or sexuality. We have to stop beating up on each other. The Sydney drag queens and transsexuals knew that when they came up with the word tranny to encourage mutual respect.”

You are telling me, Kate, that I am not real, good enough, or even welcome because of my gender, and you condescendingly tell me and many of my sisters that our feelings about the word “tranny”- which are very complex- are invalid. By the Goddess I believe in, yes we do indeed need to stop saying such things to each other, but I have never told you that you’re not real. More power to you in your gender. Fact is, though, I’m an outlaw too; just ask the people who don’t accept my gender for what it is (like yourself), or the politicians who seek to legislate against us as perverts, or the media personalities who liken us to Ewoks and the like.

What a “real woman” is, that’s something that’s determined by the lived experience of every woman on the planet- including trans women- and that’s a set that “diverse” can’t describe, whose vivid difference is a chromatic wonder that words have but the poorest power to illustrate. I never sought to be “real” except in the sense that I wanted to be the real me, who just happened to be a certain kind of woman. One who is now part of that limitless mosaic. I work with plenty of people who identify as men or women, or something else altogether  who have made it part of their life’s mission to work on making the world a better place for all of us, no matter what your gender is.

But with that project comes a need for respect that we all recognise. The word “tranny” is something that, yes, does belong to the community of trans women and male crossdressers/DQs that it is most often used to describe. Do we all agree on its use? Hell no. But many of us respect boundaries, many of us know it’s still a loaded term whose meaning is variable. Whatever its origins, where I’ve seen it used in the discourse is by cis people who are out to wound us. Some of us reclaim it for sure, but it is our word.

“Saying that FTMs can’t call themselves trannies eerily echoes the 1980s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word woman to identify myself, and the 1990s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word dyke.”

Then, if I may be so bold, why do you agree with those people exactly? Because that’s what one gets upon reading this article. There are trans men themselves who have explained quite clearly why it’s uncouth for trans men to use the term “tranny”– because it’s not really theirs to reclaim any more than it’s the place of suburban white kids to reclaim the N-word. Reclamation is a site of power that comes from inverting and taking back a word that’s been specifically used to harm you. That’s what gives certain people ownership of certain terms.

To quote Asher Bauer at some length on this subject:

So I hear the T word from supposed allies. And of course, one can always hear it from haters. But I also hear it from other trans people, particularly other trans men. And that pisses me off.

Look, as a self-identified fag, I am all about reclaimed language. Taking a brutal slur and wearing it like a badge of honor is an act of tremendous power. I absolutely encourage all those who have been burned by the T word in the past to go ahead and brand themselves with it if they desire. So no, it’s not reclaimed hate-words that I have a problem with. My problem is with some of the people who think they have a right to the word ‘tranny’ at all.

Let’s clear one thing up right now: while “tranny” is undoubtedly a transphobic slur, it has not been applied to all trans people equally. As I have said before in this column, it is a word that has been primarily used against trans women, drag queens, and other male-assigned people who present in female or feminine ways. It is just not used in an equivalent way against trans male types.

He understands the need for respecting specific circumstances, you should be able to as well. Tranny can, in a certain sense, be a family word of sorts. But please respect people who are part of that family and ask not to be called that in something as broad and general as a call for submissions that you want to be inclusive. There’s a welter of words to use: trans*, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, genderfuck, and so on. The idea of “summarising it all” under the word “tranny” is both silly and ignorant of history. It’s as absurd as calling all gender non-conforming people “fags” as a super-heading, or “dykes”. It ignores a history that says ‘this word has been used to describe a particular group.’

Yet despite going on at length about how and why you and Mr. Bear have a right to the word “tranny” that my own lived experience and that of my sisters cannot inform or critique, you then say:

“It’s time to reclaim more than names. It’s time to reclaim the moral high ground.”

You do not reclaim the moral high ground by:

  • Defining away peoples’ identities.
  • Pooh poohing them when they tell you to please be a bit more respectful.
  • Quoting people who don’t belong to their experience-group as authorities on their lives (Doris Fish and your patriarchal lesbian friends).
  • Saying we need to name ourselves and then attacking people who do precisely that.

This is a running theme in a lot of your writing, and it is unfortunate; it erases and it hurts. Here’s your “tribal grandchild” saying to you very plainly, beseeching: stop hurting me, Aunty.

Please.

Sincerely,

Quinnae Moongazer/Nuclear Unicorn

A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is accomplished in the following ways:

Continue reading “A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory”