This is the third in a three four part series. See the first and second posts. I’ll link to the fourth here once it’s up.

My three part series just became a four part series, as I realized the issues raised in part two weren’t fully addressed, and raised other issues.

My primary contention in part two was that cis people know a lot more about trans people, our identities, and how we should be referred to than they think they do. I frame the significance of this point primarily in terms of accountability–that cis people who have enough privilege to not be in danger of being labeled systemically ignorant (a thread from part one) are let off the hook far too easily.

But there’s another point of significance for that same data: if cis people don’t know how much they know, could we call that lack of knowledge ignorance? What kinds of lack of knowledge count as ignorance (and what don’t), and what aspects of transphobia get erased as a consequence? What else do cis people not know that doesn’t count under the logic of ignorance?

The kind of lack of knowledge I’m alluding to in part two is not a lack of knowledge about trans people, our lives, our experiences, our issues, or the proper terminology–knowledge cis people have far more of than they’re willing to admit–but a lack of self knowledge.

Framed this way–as cis people’s inability to understand the way that they themselves think–part two brings a whole host of “ignorances” into view.

For me, the most infamous example of cis people failing to understand the way they themselves think is in the realm of what constitutes sex. If you ask a cis person to define what “biological” sex is, nine times out of ten they’ll cite genitalia or chromosomes. But this doesn’t conform to their actual behavior in daily life, at all. If cis people *actually* believed this, they’d be unable to tell what sex someone was unless they undressed or had a blood test. Quite the contrary, even transphobic, coercive sex attribution in everyday life is based on readily identifiable criteria completely different from those most frequently cited by cis people–namely, a person’s voice and face; body contours having a much smaller (but still appreciable) role.

Kessler and McKenna are invaluable here:

Physical genitals belong only to physical (genderless) bodies and consequently are not part of the social world. Attributed genitals are constructed out of our ways of envisioning gender and always exist in everyday interactions. Males have cultural penises and females have no cultural penises, even cardboard drawings wearing plastic pants. How else are we to understand the participants in the overlay study who claimed that the way to change a clothed male figure into a female was to “remove the penis,” or the child who sees a picture of a person in a suit and tie and says: “It’s a man because he has a pee-pee.”

Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. 154.

Furthermore, in their overlay study, in which male and female gender cues are added to otherwise gender neutral drawings of bodies (e.g. penis/vagina, body and/or facial hair, breasts/flat chest, wide/narrow hips, and hair length) K&M found that while the presence of a penis created near consensus in terms of gender attribution (96%), the presence of a vagina did not–more than one third of the naked figures with vaginas were seen as male by study participants (151). Yet I think you’d have a hard time finding a cis person who was aware of thinking that penis = male, but vagina != female. (This also has obvious implications for the different stakes that trans men and women have in getting naked; see 152.)

So, my point is, you have a bunch of cis people walking around attributing gender to other people and completely unaware of the process by which they actually do so, instead living in a fable that serves little purpose other than to undermine trans people’s understandings of ourselves as male, female, or otherwise. While cissexualist definitions of sex conveniently justify the oppression of trans people, they have remarkably poor descriptive power.

To take it to a (strange) personal anecdote, this summer in New York I was harassed by this guy yelling “that is a MAN” at me, at the top of his lungs. He seemed to be trying to impress his friends, but–interestingly–he got more disapproval than praise from them, and the way the situation played out several of them decided I was cis. That night or the following evening–I can’t remember which–the same guy rode a small bicycle up to me and the person I was visiting, and continued to harass me, though with less certainty. My friend talked back to him for me, and in the ensuing interchange, he was too distracted by the tasks of riding a bicycle and responding to her challenges to use the wrong pronoun–he used “her,” at the same time that he was calling me a man.

This also plays into another way that cis people fail to understand themselves–the belief that as soon as a trans person is read, the reader will then treat that person as a member of hir birth sex. This is perhaps most apparent in sexualized harassment of trans women–no one would come up to me and grab my breasts if he was actually treating me as a man, but this has happened to me on multiple occasions, including once where a straight cis guy then managed to use male pronouns about me and hit on me.’s sexualizing, objectifying discourse was directed at trans women for a reason. J Michael Bailey refers to trans women as men, yet sexualizes and objectifies us. Gender clinicians that have no respect for our identities will still dissect our presentation, appearance, and attractiveness in excruciating detail–and not do the same thing to trans men. While the fact that trans men’s incomes increase only very slightly as a result of transition is often explained as trans men being treated as women (and trans women having economic privilege), in the context of trans women’s incomes dropping by a third at transition, one has to consider it a matter of intersectionality and the interactions between trans status and male/female gender/sex, where we are treated as the sex we present as.

There is a level of cisnormativity below which one’s presentation as a woman or man becomes unrecognizable, and one is treated as one’s birth sex, albeit a potentially gender variant one. But what I see in my own life as someone who’s sufficiently cisnormative to be recognizable is that when I’m read or outed, sexism against me intensifies, instead of being ameliorated.

So why have so many cis feminists written books that depend for their coherence on the notion that they treat trans women as men?

My last example here is the listing of “sex” on drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification. If you asked the DMV why that category was on your DL, or the State Department why it was on your passport, I’m pretty sure you’d just get blank stares, and almost positive that they would position the policy as having nothing to do with trans people, that its unfortunate consequences for trans people are necessary but completely accidental. My guess is that there, and particularly among cis (or even trans!) laypeople, the common assumption would be that the use was driven by complete ignorance of the existence of trans people.

But consider why identification exists–to prevent people from impersonating someone else, faking an identity–and the links to transphobia become immediately obvious. The sex designation on ID wouldn’t exist if those giving the ID didn’t think it was important to prevent fraudulent claims to maleness or femaleness, a concern which is only relevant if they think that there are people who will attempt to fraudulently claim sexed identities–trans people. Now, granted, it also makes sense in the context of fearing someone crossdressing only for the purpose of committing a crime and not because of any internal sense of hir gender, but even that acknowledges that the *actual* reason for this practice is to protect against a trans and/or gender transgressive menace. I find it highly doubtful that many cis people would understand that as the motivation behind their drivers’ licenses having a “sex” category. In fact, the practice of including a sex on ID is justified by the supposed naturalness and immutability of sex–that is, the non-existence of the same trans people that the practice is designed to “protect” cissexuality from. In the process of producing government identification, trans people are first raised as a spectre to be warded against, and then immediately erased and denied.

What does it mean that cis people are that clueless about the motivations of their own actions, the motivations of the institutions to which they belong or on which they depend? Isn’t it kind of troubling to think of cis people as being fundamentally not-self-aware, or to think that trans people might better understand what a cis person is thinking than that cis person hirself?

This is a kind of ignorance that I find deeply unsettling, yet it’s not legible as ignorance, because it’s fundamentally about self-knowledge. And here’s where we get to sexist epistemology: the kinds of knowledge that to lack is called “ignorance” are more likely to be coded masculine–terminology, politics, etc–and are all public sphere, whereas cis people’s lack of knowledge coded feminine and private sphere–self-knowledge–is not. Thus, “ignorance”‘s epistemology–theory of knowledge–values masculine knowledge over feminine knowledge.

Self-knowledge cannot be taught in trans 101 workshops, nor can one ever completely deny accountability for a lack of it. It’s a much more arduous process to obtain self knowledge than to learn the “right terminology,” and the process is fundamentally one that has to be self-driven. In some ways, this understanding of what knowledge cis people lack is deeply dispiriting–while it takes the onus off trans people to educate cis people, it also implies that much of what cis people need to learn we *can’t* teach them or pressure them to learn, that they can only learn through a painful process of introspection few are motivated enough to attempt, and which it’s incredibly difficult (impossible?) to hold individuals accountable for whether or not they do. It’s also dispiriting in that if ending transphobia depends on skills that are devalued as feminine and are deliberately undermined by capitalism and advertising, it makes the project that much more daunting.

But I think it’s the reality we have to live with, and strategize in.

Up Next:

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims

This is the second in a three four part series. The first is available here and the third here. I’ll link to the fourth once it’s up.

So, last time I talked about the ways that using the concept of “ignorance” furthers racism, classism, colonialism, etc, and misdirects us away from the bigger issues. This time, I want to talk more about how the discourse of ignorance serves to let people off the hook once their transphobia has been called out.

Last time, we established that some people are culturally pre-defined (stereotyped) as ignorant, and others as knowledgeable. For those labeled “ignorant” with a broad brush, it’s a moral failing, a character flaw, a mark of deficiency, and a legitimation to dominate them–“backwards,” “illiterate,” “primitive,” “brutish,” “hillbilly,” “uncivilized,” etc. For them, then, using the concept of “ignorance” doesn’t get them off the hook, doesn’t forgive their actions, doesn’t make them seem OK, just bigoted. If their transphobia is rooted in “ignorance,” it becomes simply one more justification for marginalizing them.

However, for those defined as knowers and those one is otherwise unwilling to dismiss (e.g. family)–those who have no risk of being demonized as “ignorant and stupid”–the story is very different. Can you imagine the following being written about some “hick” who harassed you the other day, or the teenager who said “that’s a dude” about me last weekend?


…If I’m right, that’s an example of transignorance: The assumption that despite my statements, I am female because that’s what they always thought; and that therefore, I should feel the same toward my body as they do about theirs. Consider the ratio of folks whose sex and gender do/not match and it’s a reasonable assumption, just incorrect.

So while ignorance as a systemic trait is despicable, ignorance-in-this-one-area is A-OK, because it’s non-essential knowledge, knowledge you *couldn’t possibly expect everyone to have already, or find on their own*.

Obviously, this ties into it’s-your-job-to-educate-us. Which brings me to the absurd example that drove me to finally write these posts that have been bouncing around in my brain since before I even started this blog. As y’all may remember, I’m in a Women’s and Gender Studies graduate program. This term, I’ve related trans issues, and/or being trans, to the issues at hand almost every week. The very first week of class, I mentioned how I hated the discourse of non-binary gender that goes “man, woman, transgender” instead of “man/woman, cis/trans.” I was talking to a classmate about something outside of class, and when I mentioned something that said I was trans, she said “I thought you were a woman!”


Her justification? That she “didn’t know the discourse.” She told me that she was offended that I characterized her words as transphobic, because she wasn’t phobic, just didn’t know the lingo. She just didn’t know!


In an unrelated incident, I’d been working at [retail establishment] for five or six months. A co-worker in another department had gotten my pronoun right all this time, seen other people get my pronoun right all this time, and thought nothing of using “she” until, after five months he found out I was trans and called me “he” to a customer. When I confronted him? He ‘didn’t know what I wanted to be called.’ Riiiiiiight.

They both knew. And they both had the tools to find out, if they really didn’t know, if they’d wanted to. But see, once you’re in the position to not be labeled ignorant, “not knowing” trans things is perfectly innocent. It’s totally optional, because any hurt you inflict in the mean time a)isn’t important, and b)will be washed away by the magic of intent. Except it’s not innocent. I would actually go further than Queen Emily when she says

The one thing ignorance is not is innocent, it is about having the power not to know and not to care… and we simply can’t afford to be naive enough to think otherwise.

It’s actually the power to know and not care.

There’s a widespread trope that trans people are super rare and new, that most people have never heard of us and thus can’t know what to say. And of course, “[y]ou can’t blame people for not knowing about something that they might never have encountered.” But here’s the thing: they have.

I don’t care that you’ve never met a trans person before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a women’s studies course before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a trans 101–you can find out what we want to be called from the worst transphobic screeds and jokes. Making fun of trans people is a widespread cultural trope, it’s not something you’ve never heard of: (warning, transphobia abounds in this section. Skip past the quotes if you need to.)

Yes, there we go again, cis people making fun of the dumbed-down explanation we made for them as though it was the depth of our thought. “Woman trapped in a man’s body,” hur hur hur.

But you know what? You know that person who says that (to use language I *hate*) “identifies” as a woman. And you know that invalidating someone’s self-concept isn’t nice.

Even Paul Scott knows what we want to be called, and knows that he’s invalidating our identities–and even from him, you can figure it out:

“It’s a social values issue. If you are born a male, you should be known as a male. Same as with a female, she should be known as a female,” he said.

…He said his mandate would be in place even for those who had completely undergone sex reassignment surgeries.

“That’s who you are. You can have cosmetic surgery or reassignment surgery but you are still that gender,” he said.

The clear implication? That we disagree. There’s no other way this makes any sense. And as Zoe Brain notes in the comments on this article (scroll down)

Because he’s not just ignorant. It’s not that he hasn’t been told about intersex conditions. Comments have been made on his blog by biologists and medics – which he’s deleted so they don’t get seen. E-mails from scientists and educators on this area have been sent. He ignores them. He just needs a scapegoat to demonise, and this group is perfect for the job.

Or take this transphobic blog post:

Two decades ago, Chastity Bono, the daughter of Sonny and Cher, announced to the world that she was a lesbian. … But last week, she announced that she was no longer a lesbian, but a man and would undergo surgery to change her female parts to male parts.

…Apparently, Chastity’s gender confusion has confused her and now she realizes that she has been living a lie. She wasn’t really a lesbian, but a Sonny trapped in a Cher’s body. So, after a little plastic surgery, a shave, and a haircut, Chastity will no longer be Chastity the lesbian, but Chaz the artificial man. The gender “experts” tell us it is perfectly normal and that anyone who would question it is not normal but hateful, judgmental, and intolerant.

Could it be any more clear what Chaz wants to be called? Could it be any more clear that Richman, like Scott, is familiar with “the lingo”? And if right-wingers like these know what we want to be called, and if even five minutes listening to them will tell you what we want to be called, then you knew, too.

You may not know the ontology behind our claims to reality, you may not know what the word “ontology” means, you may not know our critique of the sex/gender distinction or of biology. But you know how we see ourselves, you know that implying we’re not really women/men is offensive, and thus that claiming to be more real (in any of the myriad ways that cis people do this) is offensive.1 At some point, almost all of you made a conscious choice to disrespect us. Misgendering and ungendering1 transsexual folks has nothing to do with terminology, and everything to do with expressing contempt towards us and superiority over us–no matter how strongly one denies it.

Since you’ve seen us ridiculed and objectified all over the place, and there’s easy internet access, you’ve had the prompt to go check on how to be respectful, and the means to do so. And clearly, my readers, you have chosen to do so, but I suspect that most of you, like me, and like the country at large, had a long history of acting dismissive and superior before you did so.

Trans education so often focuses on glossaries and definitions. A lot of cis people are hungry to know the right language, but they want it not because they don’t actually know the terms or couldn’t look them up quickly and painlessly, but because they want to be able to pass themselves off as not transphobic without doing any of the soul searching that would reveal their transphobia to them. They want to look not-transphobic, whether because it has social value or because it makes them feel better about themselves, or maybe even because they don’t want to hurt people/to be tolerant, but they have no desire to decenter themselves, lose their ontological privilege, and eradicate transphobia inside themselves and in society.

Framing the issue as ignorance has allowed cis people to ask for more glossaries, more definitions, more trans 101–and to silence challenge and accountability. It’s played along with privileged cis people’s delusions of innocence, it’s let them get away with their history of complicity, at the same time that it has justified their sense of superiority over other oppressed groups. It’s kept up the demand to “tell our stories,” and tell them depoliticized, it’s heaped cis people’s work onto trans people. And it condones cis people’s ongoing transphobic acts, even when they clearly knew better.

It’s time for a new frame.

Up Next:

Part 3: Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims

1: edit 3:30 CST.
EDIT 2-24-10 to account for addition of a fourth part to series.

This is the first in a three four part series. The second is here and the third here. When the fourth is posted and written, I’ll link it here.

“Ignorance.” It’s one of the most commonly cited “roots” of homophobia and transphobia*, and other “prejudices”/-isms/stigmas as well.

But what does it mean that this–“ending ‘ignorance'”–is our battle cry?

“Ignorance” calls up two images. The first image is of homophobia and transphobia, hate, bigotry, etc.–the one intentionally referenced by HRC, NGLTF, GLAAD, et al. OK. But what about the other image, or other part of the image, raised by the word–of the uneducated, elderly, rural or working class, poor, people of color or (to use the busted, racist and classist logic of the image) “white trash,” Fox-News watching Red-staters or people from the “third world” who need to be “civilized” (to, again, use the logic of the image).

Huh. What about that?

These are, of course, the people hegemonic liberal discourse teaches us to assume are homophobic, transphobic, racist, etc.–not health insurance executives, doctors, therapists, the police, Women’s Studies PhD’s, queer theorists, anthropologists, biologists, journalists, cis LGB folks, or (to be US-centric) policy wonks writing the REAL ID act, the FDA, the Social Security Administration, the State Department (in charge of passports), etc. Not the people with a lot of knowledge, education, and power. That is to say, not the people in charge, not the “good people,” not, oh say, you.

I’ll be honest–the people who transphobically harass me on the street are, by an overwhelming margin, young cis black men culturally pre-defined as “ignorant”. I’m not making that up, I can give you numbers if I have to. But the people who’ve harassed me at work, the people who’ve trans bashed me, and the people who’ve groped me (because I’m trans and female, not those who presume I’m cis) are all white (and cis) to a person–not all male, not all straight, of varied educational, class, and regional backgrounds, but all white (and that’s not representative of the demographics where I’ve worked). Any number of people from my educational institution have said highly transphobic shit to me or in my hearing–that is, all highly educated, socially pre-defined as knowledgeable, generally middle/upper class–and who does that is not strongly distributed by race, age, or whether they’re prof or student.** But the people who make the decisions and form the arguments that fuck with my life the most have a disproportionate amount of privilege, education, and power.

Targeting the ones that get culturally pre-defined as “ignorant” might be tempting, because their offenses are frequently the most highly visible, and (relatedly) least culturally sanctioned, but it’s those culturally pre-defined as “knowledgeable” that do me the most damage, and thus, through a privilege+power rubric, are most transphobic. Who’s worse, the most “ignorant” “redneck” (supposedly) embodying every awful anti-rural stereotype, or J Michael Bailey, who has a PhD and sits in the halls of knowledge?

So when we construe transphobia as about “ignorance,” not only have we engaged with classism, racism, and colonialism, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and let the worst offenders off the hook.

Up Next:
Part 2: How Could You Have Known? –You Already Did.

Part 3: Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims

*Interestingly, NCTE seems to mostly eschew the use of this word–a google site search turned up only 5 results, compared to 94 for HRC, 96 for NGLTF, and 46 from GLAAD. Good for them.

**My program is so overwhelmingly female that an accounting by gender is impossible; the majority of the comments come from (cis) women, but that’s who’s in the program.

EDIT 2-24-10 to account for addition of a fourth part to series.

So, I’m a little late to the party because I don’t keep up with celebrity news/gossip/whatever, or Miley Cyrus’s new music, but while procrastinating on my work I ran across yet another criticism of Miley Cyrus’s growing sexualization that made me think.

While she’s being compared to Britney and Lohan etc for going from innocent to sexual, it feels like it’s a more common thing than that–Alyson Hannigan goes from a desexualized Willow in seasons 1 & 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to American Pie , and Sarah Michelle Gellar goes from sexual-but-innocent Buffy to Cruel Intentions, and even more extreme, Billie Piper goes from Rose on Doctor Who to Secret Diary of a Callgirl…It seems like all the young women I know from “light” (as opposed to dark) TV shows go on to play their polar opposite immediately.

It seems like the discourse is all about Miley and whether she’s being inappropriate, liberated, or victimized, when it ought to be clear that there’s a larger pattern at work. … Wouldn’t it be more productive to think about the fetishization of ‘corrupting the virgin’? Miley’s kind of just a cog in the wheel, and it doesn’t really matter whether she’s doing it for herself or doing it because that’s what the biz wants. Whether she’s breaking free of a restrictive role or being forced into one (or both), our culture seems to have a fascination with this moment both positive and negative, that makes it impossible to see outside these polarized terms… It seems more productive to ask what cultural anxieties get played out in the endless analysis of her actions, to reflect upon the trope of “soiling the unsoiled” what the fetishization of this moment says about gender and sexuality with respect to the viewer. Aren’t these three responses–the protectionism of “she’s being exploited by the media!,” the slut-shaming (and protectionism) of “she’s being inappropriate, trashy, & a bad role-model!,” and the bribe of sexual power (that doesn’t live up to the hype) to women who sexualize themselves implicit in the presumption that she is claiming her sexual power–standard actions of Patriarchy? Don’t they all share in objectification by mass consumption of (obsession with) sexualized images (either erotically or to protest them)?

This round of criticism seems *especially* weird in that it misses the mark so badly. Her roundly condemned “pole dancing” is actually done within an explicit critique of how women’s dress is hyperscrutinized. She (sort of kind of I guess a little) pole danced performing her song “Party in the USA” at the Teen Choice Awards back in August. But these are the lyrics she sings as she gets to the pole & drops her hips and soon afterwards:

Get to the club in my taxi cab
Everybody’s looking at me now [the line on which she drops her hips]
Like “Who’s that chick that’s rockin’ kicks
She gotta be from out of town.”

So hard with my girls not around me
It’s definitely not a Nashville party
‘Cause all I see are stilettos
I guess I never got the memo

And she gets off the ice cream pole cart when she gets her confidence back because the song she likes comes on, she stops feeling so self-conscious and like she’s the subject of intense scrutiny. That is to say, being at the pole and hypersexualized is being portrayed as a position of weakness and vulnerability, not power–even though there were a bunch of men dancing below her (a clear critique of the previously mentioned ‘promise of sexual power’). Similarly, during the bridge section of the music video, she appears to be trapped on a swing in a birdcage–a pre-existing metaphor for being simultaneously trapped by and admired through through beauty and dress standards–and she is trapped there by women more scantily clad and thinner than her/the rest of the characters in the video (though they do join her in the confident section afterwards, Miley gets, literally, on solid ground, and when she’s still in the swing, the camera angle de-emphasizes the vulnerability/hypervisibility/precariousness of that position). And sure, you could say, it’s a mixed message–it’s weakness and vulnerability in the moment doing something she wants to be doing, that ought to be fun and then becomes fun, and her dress and movements are still sexualized during the part where she is feeling confident as well (but both less and differently so, sharper and with more implied confidence)–but that’s precisely the point. The song works because it captures both her confidence in and enjoyment of her own dress and sexualization, and the ways it can facilitate her marginalization and makes her hypervisible.

Way to miss the point, protectionists. Apart from some weird and off-putting nationalistic messages, it’s actually a pretty smart video/performance.

EDIT: Title change for clarity.
EDIT2: Lyrics correction. Teach me to use a lyrics site without double checking it.

Picture Frames

December 15, 2009

Last night I went to see Rebecca’s (yes that Rebecca) new show, Trans Form. I’d plug it if I could, but last night was the last night.

In response to a section in the piece about pre-transition photographs, I had a realization of a reframe about said pictures, but to get there I’m going to move to a criticism of the play (and almost all trans art) through Foucault’s concept of the ‘confessional’ (in an understandable way I PROMISE). So first I want to be clear that within the limitations of the genre she does really well. And she resists the confessional genre a couple times in a beautifully underplayed sarcastic lecture scene, and a series of questions taking her The Little Mermaid analogy farther than the movie does, asking the questions that the movie (and the confessional) fails to ask, going beyond the “happily ever after” that hides so much violence. I couldn’t do the Ariel/trans analogy justice, so I’m going to passive-aggressively encourage her to write about it, like so. 😛

So, the confessional. Invisibility discourse, as well as discourse about “ignorance” and “silence” and discourse about how We Just Need To Tell Our Stories And People Will Like Us all share this background assumption that the thing power does is it hides, it silences, it represses–it prevents things from coming to their natural state of being all happy and open and free. Foucault’s intervention is actually something I think most readers of this blog already get–that while power *does* do those things, it also creates an incitement to speak–for example, to tell your coming out story. Again. And again. And again. ….and again, ad infinitum. It structures what you can say and how what you say will be interpreted, and how you think about what it is that needs to be said.

LGBT autobiographical art has been pushed into a mold that goes about like this: I was little, I was different. I grew up, shit was hard, I hurt and I hurt and I hurt and maybe I had deviant sexual or gender habits and I was different and oh yeah I hurt a lot, and then I slowly realized the truth about myself and I came out and it was hard and scary and I was sure everyone was going to reject me and this or that person did and it was awful but this or that person affirmed their love for me no matter what and I came out and I was true to myself THE END HAPPILY EVER AFTER. One confesses one’s trials and hardship and self-hatred and how painful Denying Who You Really Are* is–and out comes a very personal, very moving piece of art that basically says that only our pre-coming-out/pre-transition experiences are important, and that transphobia and homophobia are all either a)internal stigma and fear or b)those nasty things that bigots do and not c)something everyone does and DEFINITELY not d)something that straight/cis people’s lives and senses of self are structured around and support. One confesses, one does not indict.

I avoid talking about gender dysphoria or gender dissonance. You’ve probably noticed. I don’t frame access to transition related medicine in how much it hurts to have your body not look or feel or move like you want it to, I frame it in terms of risk of violence, of economics, of freedom of movement, of control of the body, but *why* one wants to transition I leave out. I don’t frame being transsexual as being about identifying as a sex other than the one I was assigned at birth–it’s about the State, institutions of medicine, religion, Science-with-a-capital-S, etc undermining the way I (want to) live my life.

In Trans Form, Rebecca (since that’s how y’all know her, using her last name feels weird) talks about something I’ve heard a lot before, about the pain of seeing pre-transition photos of herself, contrasted with the desire to not hide one’s history. I myself have had a lot of angst about it–the only picture that I have of me and my girlfriend from high school I can’t bear to look at. We each got it in matching frames, and it’s sitting about three feet from me, still in its frame, face down–because I can neither get rid of it, nor look at it.**

Prior to yesterday, I thought, maybe there are things I can’t talk about because I refuse to talk about that pain of gender dissonance, because I refuse the confessional. Maybe there are limits.

And maybe there are. But not this time.

When cis people talk social constructionism, they want to figure out why we transition/why we’re trans and how *that* has been socially constructed, but why we experience being trans in the way we do–e.g. as painful–is ignored at best and generally naturalized. The story stops at happily ever after, and Prince Eric never beats Ariel or pressures her into having sex with him, suddenly having different genital equipment is never a problem for her, and nobody ever tells mermaid jokes on TV–because none of that needs explaining or analysis. But while trans people often fall into the trap of debating why, or otherwise biologizing transness, a social constructionism from a trans perspective asks: why the hell is looking at these pictures so goddamn hard? It starts from the assumption that more analysis is needed, and understands gender *dysphoria* as socially caused, not being trans. My brand of strict constructionism attempts to explain why that hurts so damn much without recourse to a naturalized gender dissonance–not because I’m sure it doesn’t exist, but because I hate the confessional, because I don’t want pity I want answers, because I think our lives can be better, and because pain is more likely to be oppression than deficiency. I can’t be all “Not gender dysphoria, gender euphoria! I love being trans!” because, well, that depends on the day–but I can focus on other things, on transphobia and how transphobia structures our understandings of ourselves and the pain we feel “internally.”

What I realized, when I heard about the photo albums, and the pictures on the walls of her parents’ house, was that these were the memorabilia of an occupation, held onto and commemorated by its collaborators (witting or unwitting). Yes they represent a historical “truth,” a “past” one does not want to “deny”–but so do guns and chains and whips and bombs, and you don’t see them in the family photographs. Well, not if you were on the receiving end, anyway.

In the logic of the confessional, all my past is my true past, attested to by photographs that I can either speak/display or hide/conceal. But this “truth” was caused–these pictures document oppression on my body, they are the memorials to transphobia’s impact on my life and in my skin, they are not only the memorials to that time when I was still forced into appearing male, but memorials to that coercion itself. What these happy-memory-photos evoke is not that walk in the park or my high school graduation, it’s the 21 years of my loved ones’ complicity, the eleven-or-so years of transphobia holding me so tightly in its grasp it re-wrote my face with the ink of testosterone. And it is precisely the medium of the photograph, that purports to tell the unmediated, timeless, “unavoidable,” “natural” truth, on which nothing has been written, that propagates that violence across time to the present day, that amplifies the memory of oppression. It is precisely how a camera takes a person and makes a static image, an object that can be reproduced, moved, or displayed without my knowledge or consent that reiterates cis power to determine my body, its appearance, its reproduction, and its movement, and puts it on display without my knowledge or consent.

So find some other way to remember me. You don’t have to get rid of them–I’m not getting rid of mine–but don’t put them anywhere you wouldn’t put a picture of a painful, violent, complicated-at-best memory. I’m done confessing the pain of those photos, and I’m done feeling ashamed and ambivalent of “not being radical enough to embrace my past”–now take them down.

*Sorry, I got hooked on TVTropes. I’m not linking you’ll get stuck there for weeks on end.
**Ironically, I apparently both look really uncomfortable in the picture and was uncomfortable in the moment it was taken, for reasons that said ex-girlfriend ascribes to gender stuff. (I have a harder time seeing or remembering.)

So, for those of you not following US rail politics, earlier this year the House passed its 2010 spending bill on transportation allocating 4 billion to high speed rail, but the Senate’s version is a measly 1.2 billion; capital improvements on already existing airports, on the other hand, are getting 3.5 billion in both bills. They’re working it out in committee now, and you should tell them to make sure high speed rail gets the four billion.

You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m posting about this. Yes, I’m an environmentalist, but that isn’t really the point. Yes, compared to a direct flight, 110-220mph rail would reduce total travel time (including public transit to and from the airport/station, and time spent at station/airport) dramatically not only on short trips like Chicago to Milwaukee or ≤400 mi trips like Chicago to St Louis (slightly shorter than a trip between Tokyo and Osaka) or Minneapolis, but even an 800 mile trip from Chicago to New York City would take a similar amount of time, and less money (and much more accessible for the large numbers of us that are poor). As with single-payer health insurance, I really doubt anyone who’s lived anywhere where high speed rail was prevalent needs selling on it.

But as important as environmental, economic, and convenience reasons are, trans folks (and undocumented immigrants) have a lot more at stake–specifically, airport “security.” Airports are not a good place to be trans, and they keep getting worse–with body scanners and mandatory gender reporting at flight booking on top of the ID checks, “randomized” pat down searches, and sexually harassing/invasive baggage inspection (e.g. putting the “inspected” tag around a dildo or packer, or confiscating sex toys/floggers/etc) that we’re already used to. Railway stations, on the other hand, have minimal-if-any such procedures putting trans people at risk. (what are you going to do, hijack a train? And do what with it? You can’t exactly fly to Damascus with it, let alone into the WTC.)

So, in the interests of a transportation future that’s not so awful for trans folks, and in fact better for everybody, go support rail.
Midwest High Speed Rail Association
US High Speed Rail Association
National Association of Railway Passengers

Trans Superpowers

September 25, 2009

It’s time to admit it: We have superpowers.

You heard me right. Trans people, simply by virtue of being trans, have superpowers. After all, there’s only one of us to every 200-500 cis people—or, according to the “official” statistics, every 20,000—yet we are solely responsible for upholding or destabilizing the gender binary. You realize that means each of us has the political strength of over 1000 cis people–maybe more like 40,000? Talk about superpowers! We can even turn an obscure three letter word into a weapon!

For another example, in women only space, trans women aren’t allowed in because our penises might make the space unsafe, might trigger people. Just our theoretical penises mind you—we don’t have to take our clothes off or even actually have penises, just lurking threat of our bodies makes the space totally triggering and unsafe. Think about it–a half a percentage of us, but we can make a space more triggering than 49% of cis men can! The power! At the same time, we’d dominate all the conversations, even the one’s we’re not in, but especially the ones where we’re outnumbered fifty to one! We are truly Amazons; forget about Spike or Buffy or Edward Cullen or the Centurions, even the mighty Glorificus would be quaking in her heels. Teetering, even.

Don’t forget, while we’re at it, we’re creating an empire and making cis women obsolete—in our spare time, since we spend most of it pursuing bizarre sex fantasies, or relentlessly pawing at straight men!

Think what we could accomplish, if we just went public and admitted it! Stop hiding our strength, stop pretending to be normal, stop disavowing what we we *all* have–men, women, and genderqueers–male privilege in its purest, most concentrated form, far more potent than cis men’s–and that’s just one of our powers. Why, if we just really put our heads together, we could pass ENDA in fifteen minutes and finish off universal health care in the rest of the hour, without even breaking a sweat! We really need to aim for the sky, like eradicating poverty and bringing about world peace!

Only you can stop forest fires, so save the whales.

I can’t count how many times trans men have complained of being “invisible,” or where they (or, admittedly, transphobic cis women) justified paying more or exclusive attention to trans men’s issues because of their “lack of visibility,” or implied that my “visibility” as a trans woman was a form of privilege.

But “(in)visibility” is an incoherent idea. One is not simply “visible” or “invisible” like Harry Potter putting on his cloak–invisibility cloaks don’t exist, some people can see you even if you are wearing one, and one is always standing on the other side of a wall/behind a tree relative to someone, and the near side of the wall/in front of the tree relative to someone else. What “invisibility” universally fails to ask is: to whom is one visible, and why? Under what circumstances, and in what light? Am I visible to the friend looking out hir window for a houseguest, through the binoculars of a peeping tom, or within the crosshairs of a sniper rifle? The concept “invisibility” implies that these things are all linearly correlated, so that as my chances of being harassed on the street go up, so do my chances of finding a partner who will know about and be sensitive to my issues and be a fierce advocate for me, and the fact that trans men don’t get murdered at anything approaching the same rate as trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers is something that will change as they get more spots on Oprah.*


These things are only weakly correlated:

  • Trans women are the targets of the large majority (though by no means all) of cis feminist transphobia, and almost all pathologizing/objectifying/fetishizing/misgendering/transphobic/non-feminist sociological, psychological, sexological, and anthropological research, while trans men and (conflatedly) FAAB genderqueers get the bulk of positive, sympathetic (though not necessarily trans-positive) feminist research (MAAB genderqueers, in this scheme, are subsumed into drag queens/crossdressers/trans women).

  • Trans women have the overwhelming edge on number of autobiographies–the surviving ones, for some weird reason, are all (with two mid-90’s trans-woman-bashing-smash-the-gender-binary exceptions) of the disempowered, desexualized, pity-me medical model variety, despite empowered trans woman writers of the period like Susan Stryker, Sandy Stone, and Angela Douglass (who did, in fact, write an unpublished autobiography) and several (also problematic) pornographic autobiographies no longer extant (see Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 198-202)–but trans men’s books have, on the whole, taken a much more empowered line, with sexuality discussed on their own terms in a non fetishizing way. As Serano writes in Whipping Girl, these were the only stories of trans women’s lives that were allowed to be told. (Some might say better something problematic than nothing, and while there’s limited truth to that up until sometime in the 1990s, there’s no room for argument in 2009.)

  • And though with Serano’s book there is a public and empowered voice for white trans women’s issues, and films such as Still Black attempt to broadcast the admittedly under-publicized lives, voices, and issues of trans men of color, our women of color’s self-advocacy has never or almost never been amplified by publishing or filmmaking institutions–yet trans women of color are all over self-published media (the blogosphere)–and murder reports and fetishizing/exploitative media articles, that almost universally omit their voices and ideas. (see my 2008 post about this phenomenon.) The closest thing to an exception would be Paris is Burning–and if you’ve read Butler and Prosser on the subject, you’ll likely agree that it’s not really an exception (though it is a highly enjoyable film).

To oversimplify: trans women are visible: as a sexual threat, as sex objects, as objects of derision and hate, and as objects of pity. Trans men are visible: as potential partners, as activists and revolutionaries, as an “invisible” group that deserves your advocacy, and (recently) as parents. The Thomas Beatie case is the exception that proves the rule–the unusually degrading media treatment that drew totally justified anger and analysis happened only in response to his pregnancy and open defiance of cisnormativity and transphobic eugenics, where that kind of media coverage is par for the course for trans women regardless of what they do, and doesn’t get that kind of attention, analysis, and anger simply because it is so common. And, you know, because fewer people and institutions care. That many trans men victim-blamed Beatie for this coverage and were angry about this making them “look bad” represents a tacit understanding that “visibility” isn’t inherently good or bad, but only good or bad relative to specific circumstances and situations.

Let’s dump “visibility”–and start thinking about to whom, as what, under what circumstances, when, why, to what end, and at what cost.

*(A bit of a tangent: Related is the idea that trans men pass better either a)because people don’t think about trans men or b)because testosterone is powerful, manly, and dominant while estrogen is submissive and weak, rather than being related to a)the ways in which masculinity is seen as natural and femininity as artificial and suspect (see Whipping Girl) and b)male as default (see Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach chapter 6 “Toward a Theory of Gender, also anthologized in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle, eds. See the overlay study in particular, which talks about how “male” gender cues count *much* more strongly toward gender attribution than “female” gender cues.)

EDIT 3:20 AM– General Note: For about half an hour after a post is first published, I’m revising it, generally without “edit” notations. I always intend it to be done before it’s published, but it never is/HTML doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, etc. The substance stays the same, (this time it was trying to get the spaces in between the bullet pointed paragraphs plus “to oversimplify”) but if you’re wondering “did something just change?” …it might have. After half an hour, though, I generally include a note. and my half hour’s up.


August 14, 2009

I know I’m a bit late to the party, but there’s this meme going around that “cis” is an insult and we shouldn’t use it.

I think it’s high time we admitted it: “Cis” IS an insult.

That’s right. Because by calling you cis, we’re calling you no better than a fucking tranny*, and THAT, my friends, is one of the worst insults we’ve got in US culture. We’re calling you no more real than us, and we’re not real. We’re calling you no more a woman than us, that you deserve no more respect than us, and in your eyes, that means, that means Ann Coulter jokes, that means it’s fine for the general public to post videos of your genitals all over the internet with big purple arrows and random fetishizing speculations, and fire you unless you show us photos of your genitals. It’s saying you can’t apply makeup. It’s insulting your penis size and your manhood. It’s saying that the only difference between us is that you think you’re better than us.

Hell yeah, it’s an insult. Well, that is, so long as you’re unwilling to give up on cis supremacy.

*Obviously, I mean this in the un-reclaimed, insulting sense of the word.

(Also, I’d like to note, that the OP claims that PHB commenters and bloggers would all stop calling trans people trans if we asked them to. I call BULLSHIT, there’s no way they would honor that, they’d make jokes about how ludicrous this request was.)

In response to Objectivity & Authenticity, my post about (fe)male bodied/identified, there was a lot of “yes you’re so right! Thank you!” and a lot of “Well, what do I use instead????”, not infrequently from the same people.

“What do I use instead” frustrates the hell out of me, and is the reason I try (not always succeeding) and writing my language posts on topics rather than terms. If you look at the Language Politics main page you’ll have an idea of what I was hoping to get to. Most of the time I hear this objection, it’s worse than it was here, but even so I was still pretty upset by it.

What you use instead? YOU DON’T.

You say what you mean. Which is never “fe/male bodied,” “bio[ ]boy,” or “GG,” almost never “XX chromosomed” or “born male” and only rarely “person with a penis/vulva”. As mentioned in both Objectivity and Authenticity AND Biological (please read before commenting if you haven’t already *cough* Jasper *cough*), using these terms (with some exceptions) represents a reluctance to give up an entitlement granted by cissexual supremacy–a categorization scheme that makes naming others easy and objecting to that naming impossible. This entitlement is granted to everyone, cis and trans alike–it’s just that trans and genderqueer people have more incentive to get it out of their heads than cissexual-cisgender people do, and we each have incentives to get different parts of it out. And you know? It’s seductive. It makes your life simpler and easier and your sentences shorter. And it’s violent.

There are some times when what you really mean is “person with a penis.” If you’re giving a workshop about CBT (link NSFW), that’s what you mean. It matters somewhat whether the bottom is a cis man, trans man, or trans woman, but realistically, you’re talking about manipulating tissue–bodies–NOT how those bodies are socially positioned or perceived–which is almost always what we’re REALLY talking about. You’re talking about a very specific part of the body, NOT the body as a whole, and that body may be cis, trans, and/or intersex; male, female, and/or other. However, in the vast majority of cases, centering the discussion on trans people’s genitals is a)objectifying and gross, b)reinscribing/strengthening the dominant transphobic categorization scheme, and c)not actually what you mean.

Language use is a practice, not a you-figured-it-out-now-you’re-done, and with this issue, you have to work at inspecting your own thoughts to see where transphobia’s invaded and how to fix it. So, I’m going to go through someone else’s thoughts-as-written-in-a-comment and go through the process with you. Even though I’m responding to some people individually, I hope that the larger point is illuminated through these examples, and the reason this is a post, not a comment, is clear. Here’s part of one comment:

I ID as (male) genderqueer. Testosterone has marked my body for everyone to see. Those markers are the reason why I am harassed and policed when I express femininity. My body marks me as ‘other’ in Queer and Trans spaces where 95% of the people were born with vaginas. The markers make me an ‘unsuitable’ dating partner for queer girls. Testosterone markers makes MTF discrimination so much more intense than for FTMs. These markers make crossdressing for me life threatening compared to a butch or a boi.
So in order to make this discrimination visible and to be able to talk about it and change it, I am searching for a word which indicates a testosterone-marked body. (emphasis mine)

You said it, Jasper, all I had to do was bold it–your body appears/is perceived as male, cissexually male even. Because everything you say here is about how you’re perceived, how you’re socially positioned based on how you look. You might want to say that you’re read as male. It’s not clear whether you identify your own body as male, but if you do, then that counts for some things, though if you want to distinguish your body from trans male bodies then you’ll have to call it cis male. It also sounds like you want to talk about how you’re socially positioned by others independent of how you look or identify–“generally read as” “generally treated as” “consistently positioned as” etc all work– because they’re what you mean.

What I italicized, though, is not only seriously gross and transphobic, not only having well-publicized and easily articulated less offensive alternatives (female assigned at birth/FAAB)–it’s also not what you mean. Even apart from the “have you conducted a survey?” aspect (a problem which FAAB shares), whether or not a percentage of people are “born with” a vagina isn’t the issue, the issue is that the (or a) presumed rule of belonging is ‘that you’re someone we would call (or would still call) a woman if weren’t being so hip-and-trans-friendly.’ What I mean to say here is that it’s NOT the attendees–who may or may not fit the body categories you ascribe to them–but about attitudes, presumptions, vibes, unspoken rules, legitimacy, etc. It sounds like what you mean is that only FAAB people are constructed as legitimate participants/the dominant construction of legitimate participants is that they are FAAB, or that to be seen as belonging, you have to enable and tolerate being perceived as a cis woman. (Because trans men have been known to avoid some of these spaces for these reasons, and trans women have been known to go stealth) But not being there OR in your head, I don’t know exactly what it is that you mean–which is another reason you should say what you mean and not use shorthand.

One part of “saying what you mean” is unpacking all the different things one might mean by “female bodied”, some of which are legit but not under that phrase, and others not:
b)having a vulva
c)having a [real] vulva
d)being perceived/read as/passing as/appearing female (e.g. on the street)
e)looking cisnormatively female / being able to pass as a cis woman (under x circumstances or under all circumstances)
f)living as a woman outside of queer settings
g)living as a woman as far as the State is concerned
h)when (not if, when) you absolutely have to choose “male” or “female”, choosing female.
i)[really a woman]
j)having the possibility of getting pregnant

None of those things map exactly onto identity OR onto each other, but in cis culture, these are all the same thing, and supposedly they’re all about bodies, which the majority aren’t.

I need to go to sleep, hope this all made sense and worked.