Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 3 (of 4): Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology
February 24, 2010
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.”
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. Tranny-alert.com’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.
Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims
February 6, 2010
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
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:
…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.
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.
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.
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.
August 27, 2009
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 tranny-alert.com, 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.)
July 31, 2009
Recently I’ve heard a lot of trans people using the phrases “male bodied” and “male identified”, and been kind of thrown.
Most of the problems with “(fe)male bodied” would be pretty apparent from my post about “biological”, but I think that it’s worth discussing here specifically in its contrast to “(fe)male identified,” and “(wo)man identified.”
The problem with ____-identified is that it’s not just _____; what the hell is the point of saying “woman-identified-woman” unless a)you mean a political lesbian (the original meaning of the term) or b)not all women are “woman-identified” or not all who identify as women really are?
This is, I suspect, the exact opposite of what those who use the phrase intend to be conveying–which is, to be clear that they are legitimating the person’s identity, not using “male” and “female” coercively. But its use, like “gender identity” (“we can’t discriminate against trans women because, unlike other men, they have this weird internal identity as women that’s legally protected” as opposed to ‘the right to define one’s own gender is federally protected, and one cannot discriminate on the basis of the reasons underlying that definition’) reserves the unmodified term for other use, rather than using the unmodified term and clarifying if need be (for example, for advertising a woman-only space, ‘questioning the legitimacy of any participant’s womanhood and all other acts of gender policing are unacceptable in this space.’).
“(Fe)male bodied,” on the other hand, is used supposedly as a means of talking about a person without making a judgment on hir identity. But there are two problems: who does “male bodied” refer to, and how do we know?
It’s not always clear, when someone says “male bodied,” whether or not they mean to include me. As I wrote in Biological, it makes no sense to refer to me as “male bodied,” because
1)I identify & define my body as female
2)while some characteristics of my body would be read male under a coercive, “objective” scientific lens, others (e.g. hormone levels; softness, dryness, and depth of skin; breasts; fat distribution, the smell of my sweat) are pretty clearly female.
What “(fe)male bodied” does is try to avoid the messiness of respecting our identities and categorizing us solely that way and find an “objective” way of talking about people that you can use just by looking at them or by knowing their histories. But this Cartesian mind-body dualism is bunk–my body is still my body, and defining it was male or female is still defining me as male or female, and my body is not this thing that exists wholly separate from my mind, that cannot know or feel things or from which my sense of self can be divorced. My sex and my body are my self determination, don’t try to pry in with the crowbar of coercive language.
Part two is that not only do some people use the term to classify me as “male bodied” and others use it to classify me as “female bodied”–but that there’s a reason for this ambiguity. This “objective” “neutral” “real” body that they want to jump to just isn’t there. Some people mean chromosomes, some mean presence or absence of a penis (cunts don’t count y’all), some people mean hormone levels and how your body appears socially, some people just aren’t thinking about trans and intersex people’s bodies. But the assumption of using the phrase is that people will have half a clue of who you mean, which positions all bodies as belonging to pre-acknowledged sexed categories unambiguously and objectively. Regardless of what categories persons are placed in and how transphobic that placement is, by “empowering” the listener to do the placing, the term nullifies self-definition of sex/embodiment, and undermines resistance to the binary medical model for being trans.
So while I fully support all people speaking of their bodies as male and/or female (and/or other possibilities), don’t use “(fe)male bodied” as a category of people (based on body parts) as opposed to an individual’s self definition–even if you’re trans.
My body is my identity, my identity is my body. Don’t try to separate them, I went to a lot of effort to help them learn to play nice with each other.
January 8, 2009
I know I’ve been gone a long time, and I promised I’d post more in December. Oops. I suppose that was before the drama that made me go hide, though.
Anyways, here I’m continuing a post I made almost two months ago, “Tranny” and Subversivism: Re-reclaiming “Tranny” (or not) part 1.
In the first post, I mostly talked about the function of the so-called reclaimed usage of “tranny.” In this one I want to talk about the original. Well, not exactly the original–un-reclaimed, yes, but I want to get at the center by looking at the edges.
When you look directly at a slur, used at its intended target, its derogatory meaning isn’t that clear, unless you know it from other contexts. “Faggot” refers to a gay man, the n-word refers to a black person. But “faggot” means a lot more than ‘man attracted to men’–otherwise, it wouldn’t get applied to straight men. It takes concepts associated with a referent, and applies them to a different referent; to be specific, calling a man a fag is more about aberration, effeminacy, affront-to-god, promiscuity, & perversion than about him being “gay” or “bi” or “homosexual” in any objective sense. That is, an epithet becomes an insult by way of the concepts it invokes, not just who it’s about. In this way, “fag” has been reclaimed not by changing the referent, not by it meaning “gay” in some objective, neutral way, but by changing the valuation placed on the concepts–sexually liberated, gender variant, anti-assimilationist, & non-conformist, to use the language we might use.
To translate that into academic jargon:
The history of the term ‘queer is most symptomatic of this. From homophobic epithet designating and reinforcing the other’s social abjection to self-declared maker of community pride, ‘queer’ was reclaimed precisely according to the transformative mechanisms of camp in which what has been devalued in the original becomes overvalued in the repetition.
Prosser, Jay. “Judith Butler: Queer Feminism, Transgender, and the Transubstantiation of Sex,” in Stryker & Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge, 2006. 260. Also in Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: Body Narratives of Transsexuality.
Regardless of what you think about the word “overvalued”, the point is that language reclamation has to take the concepts a term starts with and either directly contradict them, or revalue/reinterpret them in a positive way. Any concepts left unaddressed will just bleed through into the new version. Certainly, it loses its power to heal and protect without that, given that there will still be people using it in its un-reclaimed form, drawing on those derogatory concepts through the word.
So, the question becomes, does the “reclaimed” use of “tranny” do this? If we were to want to *actually* reclaim “tranny”, how would a real reclamation differ from what’s happening now? What concepts would we have to contend with and confront?
Clearly, porn is a big one here. In that context, “tranny” refers to a trans woman, but as someone who isn’t a woman, or isn’t a “real” woman. As someone–or, something–that exists solely for straight cis men’s pleasure. As far as Craigslist is concerned, too. (What, you want a relationship? Sorry, head over to casual encounters, plz) That porn–and discourse that draws on that image of what a trans woman is–is incredibly objectifying and ungendering. And I mean objectifying in the sense of makes-you-feel-like-an-object.
But pr0n isn’t the only context the word is used in, even in its un-“reclaimed” form. Lucy of Catspaw writes:
Michael Seltzman wrote at the Huffington Post a column titled “Sarah Palin Naked” which starts off just as sexist and misogynistic as it sounds. In talking about wanting to have sex with Sarah Palin, because obviously that’s an appropriate thing for political discourse, he offers the following:
My wife is cool with this if I promise to “first wipe off Palin’s tranny makeup.” I married well.
Haha. I’m laughing so hard. A real comedian there, his wife. Transphobia is so funny. Especially when it’s also expressing lookism at the same time. Because I find it hard to believe that she’s complimenting Palin on her gender presentation. Instead, it’s fairly clear she expressing the stereotypical view that transwomen use makeup poorly. She’s calling into question Palin’s womanhood.
Down the same alley, we have a cis woman describing her five worst mistakes with makeup in a post called “The Nights I Looked Like a Tranny; My 5 Biggest Makeup Regrets. What’s even better? When a trans woman calls her out and tells her not to use “tranny”, another cis woman jumps in with the you-don’t-understand trope mentioned last time, using the fact that some trans people think the word tranny is ok to excuse blatant trans misogyny:
I also know transgendered people who DON’T take offense to it. As distasteful as it might be to you, it’s become a part of slang like “retarded,” or “gay.” Preaching really won’t change anything, because although it’s understood that the word might be deemed offensive by SOME, when used in certain contexts it’s clearly not meant to be negative.
Clearly not meant to be negative. Really.
Calling a cis woman trans is a pretty wide-ranging insult, turns out. Apparently, being transsexual means being ugly, slutty/a sex worker, and a bad dancer: “The only thing that’s certain is that Britney looked kinda Tranny, danced slower than the other dancers, and didn’t wear much. “That ain’t no comeback,” commented one friend of Jewcy. Well said.” See here also.
Another trait that get you labeled ‘tranny’ or trans (particularly with the s-word): being too aggressive/assertive– (Ann Coulter comes to mind, and Debbie Schlussel uses the s-word this way against WNBA players (in addition to appearance stuff discussed below).
But this is the article that takes the cake. (warning: potentially rage/depression inducing.) Apparently both Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar–Willow and Buffy, respectively, if you’re getting rusty with your Joss Whedon fandom–are trans. I wish. There’s also the usual trans-women-can’t-walk-in-high-heels/are over-dramatic bullshit. But what’s worse? Resisting sexual assault? You’re trans. Like anal sex? You’re trans.
If you reach for “her” you-know-what and “she” snatches your hand away, it’s probably because “her” package isn’t what you’d expect a lady to have “down there.” If they prefer backdoor sex after a bit of fellatio, as Sarah Michelle Gellar reportedly does, that’s another tip that your “girlfriend” might be a boyfriend.
Trans misogynistic stigma–which the article uses “tranny” to invoke (in reference to Hannigan)–is used to regulate female sexuality, on both sides of the prude/slut dichotomy. Later, the article claims that trans women are obsessed with hard cock & sex-right-now, again regulating (cis and trans) female sexuality. It’s also central to regulating appearance–your breasts can’t be too big or too small, your shoulders too wide, your feet too big, etc. (Hey trans misogynistic cis womyn: what’s that about how no one is free while others are oppressed?) The article abounds with speculation about which cis female celebs are “really” trans, so you can be sure not to sleep with one of us, zomg. Again, tranny = filthy perversion you can’t even touch–“If all else fails, tell “her” that “she” looks like your Uncle Marty or ask “her” if “she” forgot to shave. Tell “her” this even if “her” skin is the smoothest, sleekest, most satiny epidermis you’ve ever laid eyes (but never hands!) on, and “her” complexion puts even Marilyn Monroe’s to shame. “She” may scratch your eyes out, but, otherwise, “she’s” sure to leave you the hell alone.”
So, from all these references that aren’t really about trans women, we can gather the following picture of what “tranny” is supposed to represent: sexually polluted, perverted/slutty/sex-obsessed/promiscuous, ugly, bitchy, really-male, exist only for sex, fake, doing femininity wrong/badly/not feminine enough/hyperfeminine.
What, pray tell, does the “gender neutral” “reclaimed” version of “tranny” do to reclaim or reject these concepts? It gets some of them, ok. But it doesn’t hit the most common theme running throughout its use against cis women–doing femininity badly. It doesn’t even come close. For trans men, there’s some work on claiming being sexually desirable, but much of this work explicitly excludes trans women. What does this idea of “tranny” do to this idea that we are cis straight men’s sexual objects, to do with as they please and then throw away? What does this idea of “tranny” do about the conception of us as a sexual threat, as ritually impure and literally untouchable? It’s not just because we’re “freaks” (a concept it does reclaim, to its credit). The ‘reclaimed’ version, situated in anti-assimilationism, rejects the idea that we should have to be “real” men or women, which is good, and important, and a valuable thing to reclaim out of this word. But it leaves women open to trans panic, and by not specifically taking on hatred of femininity, it fails to serve us there, either–we’re still ‘fake’, because our femininity is still suspect, and our masculinity is “real” because masculinity is always real.
The “reclaimed” version of “tranny” only deals with transphobia as it affects trans men and FAAB genderqueers, and leaves the rest of us out in the cold. Many of the pejorative meanings laden in the first version of the term are still there, lurking, and when we hear the “reclaimed” version, we still hear those meanings because no one’s bothered to purge them. We’re still subject to those meanings, and we either have to kill the word or adopt it as a shield.
If you want to reclaim “tranny”–and I think that’s a valid position for trans female and/or feminine spectrum people to take–you have to contend with how the word actually acts, not just as a generic trans signifier. So if you try to reclaim “tranny” from its current “reclaimers” as well as the dominant culture, do it right this time. And tell me how you want to use it to reclaim it this way.
November 10, 2008
My jumping off point here is a conversation I took part in at Camp Trans 2007. I had, up until that point, been using the word “tranny” in its “reclaimed” sense, as a gender neutral signifier for trans people, with a connotation of rebellion, genderqueerness, and radical/”radical” politics. Specifically, my usage of it identified me with the subversivist, gender variant, queer/anarchist/punk scene in the West Bank & Seward neighborhoods in Minneapolis, and nationally with figures like Dean Spade, Leslie Fienberg, Patrick Califia–an identification that I used as a means of separating myself from what I perceived as a binary, medically-oriented, conservative, suburban, middle-aged, middle class, white trans women’s community, and such figures as Jennifer Finney Boylan and…well, I didn’t really know of any, other than an abstracted concatenation of the various other trans woman autobiography writers, and some horrid medical model contributions in anthologies and websites written in pink. Oh, dear god, pink? In a cursive font?
What I’m trying to make clear here is that rather than uniting the trans community under one banner (as it pretended to do), my and others’ “positive” use had just as much place in subversivism and trans misogyny as it did in “reclamation.” My political positioning, tied to my use of the term, was rooted in self-loathing. OMG pink indeed. I had even used it over other trans people’s–trans women’s–objections, and it was precisely through the intersection of subversivism and trans misogyny that I was able to do it–by constructing her as conservative, backward-, medical- & binary-thinking, I was able to push aside any concern about the specificities this term and pin her objection on a lack of understanding the concept of reclamation. In short, anyone–no, any woman–who wasn’t on board didn’t need to be listened to because they–she–could be immediately positioned as having bad politics. (A couple examples of this construction, not specifically about “tranny”: Califia’s treatment of Renee Richards in Sex Changes, as well as his selection of texts to analyze, large portions of Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and a few parts of Wilchins’s Read My Lips, Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” “It’s a Long Way to the Top: Hierarchies of Legitimacy in Trans Communities,” by Alaina Hardie in Trans/Forming Feminisms: Transfeminist Voices Speak Out (the book I love to hate on), Koyama’s “The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate” & “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” (the “interchanges” she lists on her website are bad too.) and “The Story So Far,” Thaniel Chase in Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others (Journal of Bisexuality, volume 3, n 3-4)) It’s worth noting that a lot of these pieces are by trans women, criticizing and denouncing other trans women. Some of these pieces, notably Hardie’s and Chase’s, construct trans women specifically in relation to trans men–that is, as inferior, politically as well as by gender. And these are just the articles by trans people–all the writing on the happily-now-defunct Questioning Transgender makes this construction as well.
This construction is powerful enough to override overwhelming evidence. First, obviously there’s the erasure of radical trans woman activists around the US (e.g. Diana Courvant, Michelle O’Brien, Angela Douglas as well as Wilchins, Bornstein, and Stone themselves; plus the discursive alienation of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson; none of this is counting the post Whipping Girl explosion), but I’m not going to go into that. When I’ve tried to tell non- trans woman* queer punks that I’m not already personal friends with to not to use “tranny” or “chicks with dicks”, they have frequently cast me into the position of politically-clueless-gender-binary-trans-woman and told me that I just didn’t understand the idea of language reclamation. In one case, I was dressed in genderfuck, gave both my names** with the instruction to alternate, said my pronoun was ‘ze,’ was publicly identifying as trans and as not-a-woman-trans-or-not, and was at a workshop on the intersections of kink and radical politics. It had to have taken five minutes or more to convince him that I wasn’t politically incompetent, and that I wasn’t just afraid of nonbinary gender and trying to pretend I wasn’t trans anymore, just a woman–that isn’t counting the making and discussing my point part. Seriously. The other time I remember well was after I had led chants in the Dyke March with Bash Back, and marched in the Radical Cheerleaders in protest of the Pride March. This person had called me her new best friend/favorite person, or somesuch, then not but a week later was treating me like I was clueless, stupid, kinkphobic, and sex-negative when I asked that she stop using “chicks with dicks” in one of the radical cheerleaders’ chants. She said specifically that she would use it, and the radical cheerleaders would continue to perform it, with no attention or consideration paid to my objections. There were no people I could identify as trans women there–a fact which they will certainly interpret as our conservatism, as opposed to their trans misogyny/subversivism.
I don’t think that the “reclaimed” sense of “tranny” can truly be isolated from that context of trans misogyny & subversivism within queer, trans, and punk communities, at least not for me, and I find it almost as offensive as the original. It’s still a signifier of non- trans woman/cis supremacy–just this time it’s non- trans woman queers, as opposed to cis men.
The conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this post was about how “tranny” has, as a derogatory and/or ungendering term, referred primarily-to-exclusively to trans women, yet the people doing the reclaiming were predominantly trans men and FAAB genderqueers. As Tobi writes over at No Designation,
The issue of reclaiming the term is further complicated, though. You see, while I have been discussing the impact the term has had on trans people, the reality is that it is trans women who have most directly targeted by it. Trans men have been comparably invisible is the sex and porn industries, and the trans men porn that exists today is almost exclusively produced by trans men. Yet a significant portion, arguably a majority, of the effort to reclaim the term has been made by trans men. Usually by trans men who are not familiar with the negative history of the term, let alone having been subjected to it’s sting themselves.
It is difficult to know what to think about that gender breakdown. When I run into a group of trans men who frequently use the term, I am not sure whether to thank them for creating community use of a new and positive meaning behind the term, or to criticize them for their insensitivity and lack of awareness of how the term might hold a lot of trauma for those of us who have been the direct targets of its use.
The people most affected by the term are not the people leading the charge, and in fact they frequently oppose it. Given that language reclamation is supposed to be about getting agency and self determination back from the broader culture, demanding the right to define oneself rather than be defined by others, I find this “reclamation” profoundly counter-productive, alienating, and oppressive. Furthermore, it’s part of keeping trans women out of “radical” spaces, by demanding they accept the use of a slur against them. Obviously, much of I’m talking about here is really about a trans misogynistic culture pervasive in these spaces–but I find a rejection of the word is a good entry point for education.
One might say that I’m reclaiming not-saying-tranny. I’m reclaiming being a trans woman*** through rejecting “tranny”, by rejecting “tranny” I can expose the trans misogyny inherent in its use and endemic in these spaces, and I can throw the characterization of un-radical right back in their faces, making them look at their own trans misogyny–their own bad politics. Because that stereotype is about them, not about us.
I think it’s important to look at some more of the derogatory contexts it’s used in, and more about the specificity of language reclamation through camp. But that’s going to have to wait for a second post.
*That is, people who are not trans women, rather than women who aren’t trans.
**Cedar is one, the other I don’t use on the blogosphere.
*** This is me formally coming out as a woman, again. Still use ze/hir for me until further notice, though.
October 21, 2008
With respect to my last post, Battybattybats writes:
But it is worth taking this further, because in much of the world to obtain basic rights and essential services as a transgender person that cis folk always enjoy one must be steralised.
It’s all well and good for those who choose to undergo procedures that render them sterile. Its their right to make that decision for themselves and everyone should support their right to do so. But to mandate it in exchange for basic rights and access to essential services is a human-rights abuse plain and simple.
If there is a genetic cause or factor involved in being Transgender then forced sterilisation is clear and direct biological Genocide.
It is Eugenics!
Transgender people do not automatically lose their reproductive rights! They may choose to waive them but should never be forced to waive them.
Those who do go through treatment that renders them sterile should be able to preserve reproductive material where possible and to use that later in life if they so choose. [though fine in the US, it can disqualify one for government document change elsewhere, notably Japan.–me]
Where there are state-based health systems these should provide for this service for those that are covered by them.(link)
In this context, but without the governmental authority, at least one US medical practitioner, Jamie Feldman, has made a hysterectomy a precondition for testosterone treatments for a trans man married to a cis man. (with WPATH’s approval–she operates out of the same building)
(you might also want to read Antiseptic Stings in reference to this whole mess.)
October 20, 2008
It’s a strong word. A frightening word. A word that seems far too terrible, far too extreme for what an especially transphobic journalist or filmmaker advocates–even when you consider the existence of multiple forms of genocide, cultural genocide as well as genocide based in mass murder. That seems far too extreme for describing actions of Dr Zucker, [cis] gay historians, [straight][cis] historians, previous gatekeepers in the medical establishment.
But when Zucker’s method of therapy is to isolate and terrorize, to create PTSD in response to gender-variant behavior in order to stop it, when he says that our way of life is so depraved that it’s preferable for us to end up alcoholic and self-injuring—
when Janice Raymond’s “solution” to transsexuality is to “morally mandate it out of existence“[emphasis mine]
when historians hide every shred of knowledge we have about our cultural ancestors,
when other historians find that knowledge and deliberately erase the gender aspects, appropriating those figures for their own, entirely apart from us–thereby cutting us off from our history and our ancestors,
when gender clinics made silence about our existence a condition for treatment, did everything they could to isolate us, kept us from talking to each other in a common language, kept us from finding each other, only treated those of us who will be in no way distinctively trans in appearance, action, or speech,
when doctors “treating” intersex children not only mutilated their genitals, but deliberately kept the knowledge of their intersexuality from them, taking great pains to ensure that intersex people would not reach out and find each other, their common ground, share their stories–
Amongst all that, how are we to take this:
I chose the title, “Sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation”. … Are we right to support sex change surgery, and is it right to apply a surgical solution to what I believe is a psychological problem? (link)
But a leading feminist campaigner claims that sex reassignment surgery is based on unscientific ideas – and could be doing more harm than good. (link)
To use Sarah Brown’s words, “her core message [is] that she wants to open a “dialogue” about why trans people shouldn’t be allowed medical transition.” And by nominating her for journalist of the year, Stonewall UK, at minimum, agrees to that ‘dialogue’.
I hope it’s clear that Bindel conflates SRS with medical transition as a whole (because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, surprise).
So let me translate this one step further:
She wants to wipe transsexual bodies from the face of the earth. She wants to make trans bodies cease to exist.
There’s a word for that.