Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘transphobia’

Slurs – What they are not

If you look it up, a common-sense definition of a slur is simply an insulting remark, that might also harm someone’s reputation. This is over-simplistic, in that it doesn’t consider power dynamics. Often when we talk of slurs we’re talking about language used by those with power (which can mean being socially normalised, not demographically vulnerable to systemic forms of discrimination) to bash those without, in a hateful way associated with some kind of disenfranchised group. I would say minority group, though importantly women of course  experience all kinds of misogynistic language despite the size of the demographic (spoiler: because patriarchy). Most people can recognise and be suitably disgusted by a wide range of slurs, particularly racial ones. There’s also the conversations constantly happening within marginalised groups around the politics of reclaiming previously weaponised words as a form of empowerment – slutwalks, self-defining fags and dykes, and the now quite longstanding world of queer. But due to the (sometimes faltering, and certainly incomplete) progress that has been made through decades of social processes whereby more and more people get switched on to how language is used being something that matters, legitimate processes of challenging oppressive language have been levied as a rhetorical shield against being criticised, or even described.

I would argue there are two particular terms in relation to transgender people in particular that ignorant or prejudiced individuals like to claim are slurs or pejorative – cisgender, and TERF. Cisgender, or cis for short, comes from the latin meaning ‘on this side’ (whilst ‘trans’ means ‘on the other side’). It is a value-neutral descriptor for individuals whose gender identities align with how their gender was assigned at birth. TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and describes people (usually women) who profess a feminist identity but do not consider transgender women to be ‘real’ women.

Cisgender exists in order to de-position the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as always being about people who are not trans (notice how trans men and trans women are always indicated by the prefix, but most of the time cis men and cis women are ‘just’ men and women?). When we say man, or woman, we don’t have any information about whether an individual is cis or trans, but for as long as cisness is positioned as the ‘default’, trans status is positioned as ‘not normal’, rather than minority. Transness is implicitly excluded from being ‘real’ men or women for as long as those words on their own don’t include a universal appreciation of the possibility and reality of transness.  This isn’t to say that cis people can’t and don’t experience tensions, discrimination, or negative feelings because of enforced gender roles. But they do benefit from being viewed as real, constant, stable, and never having to convince or confess to others what their gender is, because it’s taken at face value. Cis people broadly benefit from being ‘the default’, and from cultural practices of ascribing gender to people based on what we see, and this often being taken as ‘more real’ than what an individual has to say about themselves.

People who don’t like these words existing often try to claim that they’re slurs in order to delegitimise their usage. Because of the fact that oppressed individuals may sometimes, in understandable frustration at experiences of inequality express their anger through disparaging the oppressive groups. Compare TERF to say, racist, or homophobe. These are words that are used to describe people with a particular set of (discriminatory) beliefs, or who engage in discriminatory practices. In those cases, people called homophobes and racists tend to respond by going ‘no I’m not! (I have a friend who is gay!)’ – yet fascinatingly TERFs don’t say that they don’t think that trans women aren’t women, but that… it’s offensive to say they are? In more extremely hateful individuals one does see people defiantly, proudly proclaiming themselves as racist, homophobic, transphobic – because they believe it is right to be so. Those who don’t believe it is right to be so but don’t recognise the problems with their actions are now the bigger problem.

People can try to shut down descriptors which shake their ignorant worldviews. TERFs see themselves as ‘feminists’, men and women critical of ‘cis’ see themselves as ‘just men and women’ (I’ve never seen a trans person have a problem or make a critique of the word cisgender, which probably has a lot to do with experiences of having their genders systematically delegitimised).

It is a Machiavellian, political move to utilise narratives of oppression resistance in order to reject descriptive labels that function to make a minority less Othered (in the case of cis) or to describe a set of beliefs unambiguously, making it easier to see their failings (such as TERF). One can see it in other domains – take the descriptor of ‘Blairite’ – because support for the political ideology of Tony Blair has been criticised heavily, proponents try to silence their critics through tone policing and claiming those labeling them are being offensive.

The bottom line – it’s important not to confuse people being pissed off with a group of people described by a word, and the word itself having a disparaging meaning.

 

 

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Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – transphobia in feminism

Every August since 1976, a music festival has taken place near Hart, in Michigan. This festival is organised, built, staffed, and attended exclusively by women, and over the years has grown in size. It now receives a turn-out of thousands of women each year.

(Brief aside): The festival uses the word ‘Womyn’ rather than ‘Woman’ in order to reflect the feminist idea of female independence from patriarchal language structures. That ‘man’ is still used as an indefinite pronoun (eg. ‘It’s one small step for man’), alternative spellings such as womyn, wimmin, wom!n, etc., both highlight and resist reference to women from a male baseline or norm.

Sadly, due to the way the festival is run, what could be an empowering event for all women is actively discriminatory. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – excluding women who were DMAB (designated male at birth).

How do the organizers of the festival justify this? Below I tackle some of the most common arguments I found for the trans woman excluding policy.

Photograph by James Cridland

1. ‘Trans women don’t grow up being read by people as girls, and so don’t have an embodied experience of the patriarchy in the same way as womyn-born-womyn.’

One woman’s experience of oppression is never going to be the same as that of another woman, I think we can agree. Everyone’s life experiences are unique, and there is no clear, unifying ‘female experience’. The closest thing one could reasonably claim to be shared by all women is the possession of a female gender identity – which trans women have. Many trans women indeed have declared that they have felt their gender identities in this way for their entire lives, though I think it’s important to note that one’s gender identity isn’t made ‘less legitimate’ through being questioned by oneself at any particular time (would a cis woman be any less of a woman if she has questioned her gender identity at any point in her life?). Women of colour, disabled women, and other groups besides will experience ‘being women’ in different yet entirely valid ways to the white, upper-middle class, cis, educated narratives that dominated much of the discourse of second wave feminism from whence such a philosophy originates.

Also, many trans women do have much direct experience of sexism and patriarchy, through being read as cis women by those around them. Based on the arguments above, this should not be read to imply that a more normative, ‘feminine’ appearance is to be viewed as a more legitimate form of woman. Trans women often face horrendous barriers to being taken seriously as women, which involves interplay between patriarchy and cissexism. This cannot be meaningfully separated out, and thus there is serious room for the argument that all trans women have an acute embodied experience of the patriarchy.

2. ‘Trans women have experience of male privilege.’

So do trans men, and yet they are welcome at the MWMF. Oh yes. These are individuals who identify as men, present as men, are men, and are afforded male privilege, yet still have access to the festival. This not only makes the claim of the festival being for ‘womyn-born womyn’ downright false (at best, it’s for ‘womyn-designated anyone’) but also firmly undermines the arguments put forward in points 4 and 5.

Experience of a particular type of privilege isn’t someone’s fault, it is simply something to be born in mind. A white womyn should bear in mind her race privilege. Able-bodied/minded womyn should be aware of their privilege compared to disabled womyn. If a person was not always (seen as) disabled, does that make them ‘less disabled’? No. This is an imperfect comparison, and is purely illustrative – certainly one cannot simplistically claim that how a person has been viewed by others strips them of the legitimacy of their identity. This is to erase their identity, using one’s own privilege to do so. Does the genital configuration of one womyn give her the right to claim womyn who are different to her are not womyn? No. And indeed, doing so is the very definition of ‘cis privilege’ – where sex designated at birth is presumed more legitimate than that which is identified, and lived.

3. ‘Oppressed people have the right to make their own safe spaces in the way they wish, without explanation.’

Well, that depends on where you are and what you’re doing. For example the extreme-right wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic UK political party the BNP was forced to change its constitution to accept people of colour. This was an obvious example of a group discriminating (illegally) against racial minorities. Whilst MWMF may not have breached Michigan or US law, this is still an example of a privileged majority (cis women) excluding a marginalized minority. The fact that cis women experience marginalization and discrimination doesn’t justify their performance of oppression in the name of safe space creation. The argument rests on viewing trans women as not being ‘real’ women. The very existence of the identity category ‘womyn-born-womyn’ makes the political statement that there are womyn who weren’t ‘born womyn’, and that they are therefore ‘other’. This ‘othering’ sets up a false dichotomy, that there are two distinct categories, those ‘born womyn’ and those not, and that your validity as a womyn is decided based on which category you fall into. I have written about the flaws with attempts to define identity based on biology here.

Lisa Vogel, the founder of MWMF has said this about the festival:

Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist.

Except this draws a false parallel… unless you refuse to accept trans women as being women at all. It’s more like supporting a women of colour space that decides that women of colour with one white parent don’t count, because their appearance and experience may be different. Attempting to say ‘oh you are a woman, but you don’t fulfill this sub-definition we’ve created for inclusion in our space’ fundamentally discriminates against a minority, rather than providing a safe space from a majority, or oppressive influence.

4. ‘Many womyn-born-womyn have been the victims of sexual assault and rape at the hands of men. These women may feel threatened by the presence of trans women.’

This argument could implicitly rest one any of several potential meanings. One interpretation may be ‘these women may feel threatened by trans women who possess penises and are capable of penetrative rape, or cause triggering  simply through the presence of the organ’. At MWMF, phallic sex toys are visibly for sale, and there are workshops pertaining to much sexual activity, ranging from masturbation to fisting. As has already been mentioned, trans men are allow allowed to be present who not only may possess a penis but may also present entirely unambiguously as male. What this therefore says is that trans men are not a sexual threat in terms of their ‘maleness’, but that trans women are. This erases the legitimacy of both group’s gender identities – trans men are ‘other’ from cis men by this understanding.

This claim could imply that a cis woman’s discomfort is more valid than a trans woman’s right to be recognised. This would sound utterly unacceptable if presented in terms of race – ‘a white woman who has received abuse at the hands of a black woman may feel threatened by the presence of black women’ is not a reasonable argument for the exclusion of black women, and that’s without the fact that one is implying that trans woman = man = rape.

Is the implication that one can ‘spot’ a trans woman through their appearance, which could be ‘male and threatening’? I’ll let the images below cover this one.

            

Jenna Talakova, and Buck Angel. Guess which one would be allowed entry to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? Hint: it’s not the woman. How the festival actually establishes the men they allow entrance are trans, I have no idea. Also to my knowledge, neither Jenna nor Buck have ever had any association with MWMF, and this point is purely illustrative.

Note: I’d like to reiterate that appearance is not a good justification for legitimizing or erasing a person’s gender identity. The images of the people above who experience and exhibit being female and being male in visually normative ways simply help to highlight the absurdity of the classification system used by the organizers of the festival.

The account of Alice Kalafarski tells of a trans woman’s experience at MWMF, highlighting how upsetting and offensive WBW arguments really are – and can be read here.

5. ‘Allowing trans women to enter would allow men to put on dresses and claim a female gender identity and enter the space.’

Men already enter the space. This is apparently okay though, simply because they were designated female at birth. Accommodation is also (rightly) made for male children, so long as they’re 10 years old or younger. Crucially though, this argument rests upon a ‘slippery slope’ based logic (or lack thereof). This is the assertion that:

If we allow A to happen, then B will happen too! Therefore, A should not happen.

This does not address the issue at hand, but derails the voice for trans women to be recognized as much as cis women by shifting attention to a hypothetical claim with no basis for concern.

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As Alice Kalafarski’s account details, MWMF does seem to form strong, laudable policies regarding acceptance and awareness of race and ability. That there are apparently plenty of people who attend the festival and make a point of sporting ‘Trans Women Belong Here’ T-shirts and buttons doesn’t seem to have changed the situation, and in my eyes only problematises the sincerity of a trans ally who will declare a disgust with policy and yet still willingly engage with it. I will leave you with a powerful quote from the ever-eloquent Julia Serano:

My female identity is regularly reduced to a “debate” by non-trans queer women who would rather spend a week with their friends in Michigan than examining their own cissexual privilege. What’s even more disappointing to me is that there are a lot of FTM spectrum people out there who do the very same thing. They hypocritically expect their friends, families and co-workers to respect their male- or genderqueer-identities for 51 weeks out of the year, then for that one week at MWMF they take advantage of cissexual privilege (which presumes that one’s “birth sex” is more legitimate than one’s identified and lived sex) in order to enter women-only space. Their insistence on “having it both ways” marginalizes me as a trans woman: it delgitimizes my female identity in both the lesbian and the transgender communities of which I am a part.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Why trigger warnings are essential…

Tumblr is fun. I’m still rather new to it all, but one aspect I’ve enjoyed is the ability to search by topic, using tags – and then scrolling through a whole bunch of often relevant and interesting subject matter.

I did this for ‘LGBT’ and one of the things that came up (*trigger warning* – attempted rape) was this.

In case you were not comfortable reading this but would like some context, behind the link is a short, personal account of a sixteen year old gay guy and his visceral description of nearly being raped but being rescued by some drag queens. The tone sets up a horrific situation whilst then expressing gratitude for the awesome ‘guardian angel’ ladies.

I had no problem with this story being posted. But I did and do have a problem with the fact that it went up with no trigger warning at all.

Here is a good explanation of what a trigger warning is.

I wrote a small message to the person who posted the piece, and received a quick reply. Below is what was said:

Me:

Hey – saw your post about the 16 year old’s experience and the saviour drag queens. Any possibility of a trigger warning being put on it? Due to some of my own life experiences it was pretty distressing to read. Thanks 🙂

Them:

I’m sorry it was distressing for you. I had considered putting a warning on it, but ultimately decided not to because I want people to read it and I’m afraid a warning will deter people from reading it, which ultimately defeats the purpose of me posting and now having re-posted it. Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

So again, I’m sorry if you were offended, but I hope you understand my reasons for not going ahead with a warning. 🙂 (boldness added by GenderBen)

Okay… No. No no no no. Trigger warnings are there in order to protect the well-being of those people who need them. If a person is deterred from reading something because they have been informed of the content and see that it could be harmful to their well-being, this is a good thing. Whilst personally my reaction was relatively small from being disturbed from the post, it is vital to think about someone who has perhaps survived a sexual assault may feel on reading such a piece. Distress, depression, self-harm, and even attempted suicide are all very real possible outcomes from an individual being triggered. Such people are not the target audience. Wanting more people to read what one has posted ranks below people’s welfare in importance.

Also, for some people, whether a person feels like they are in an emotional place where they can comfortably read something or not be very time dependent. It may be the case that a survivor wishes to read something, but that ‘now is not a good time’. Trigger warnings act as a basic courtesy, which grants people agency. Often a clear title or subtitle can do this job, if an article is entirely or has a large focus on a distressing issue (for those who didn’t follow the link to the original post, this particular instance had no title).

A good way to think about trigger warnings is like when on TV you might see ‘this program contains strobe effects’ – a warning required to prevent triggering for people with types of epilepsy. Not having the warning there would be irresponsible, as the content can damage the individual’s health. The only difference here is the type of potential damage.

Unfortunately, the very reasons that it’s likely distressing you are the same reasons it’s compelling to read.

Hopefully without coming across as snarky, I think it’s fair to say that unless I take the time to personally discuss it with someone, they can’t know why something like this is distressing to me, or anyone else for that matter. Making assumptions is not so great.

It may sometimes be easy to think “I don’t see how this could possibly be triggering” – you don’t need to. A little reading around and/or empathy shows the importance of trigger warnings on a wide range of issues for a wide range of people. In the grand scheme of things, not much of the huge amount of stuff that is created and posted every day needs trigger warnings, but if it’s to do with rape or sexual assault, medical conditions and description, eating disorders, racism, homophobia, transphobia/cissexism, and ableism – then it quite likely does. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here is a whole community blog dedicated to education and awareness about trigger warnings!

The only other point I’d like to address in the response I received – I wasn’t offended, and I’m not really sure where this interpretation came from. The original post itself certainly isn’t offensive to me. This post/response is born from the importance of putting safeguards in place to avoid harm to people.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”  and cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being transsexual as opposed to transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including The Crying GameAce Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film  possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

When reporters write on transgender – common and subtle problems

The subject of this week’s post was inspired when a couple of friends contacted me separately to bring a particular news article to my attention. To each of you – thanks for your interest! And for making choosing a topic for this post that much easier.

The article to which I was directed was published on the 11th December on the website of The Boston Globe Metro, and can be found here.

But before we get onto that, let’s talk about today’s topic title more generally. For the longest time, it was basically impossible to find mention of trans people in mainstream media. It was a topic that made people uncomfortable. People didn’t generally want to hear about ‘that sort of thing’, either finding it irrelevant, uncomfortable, morally outraging, or any combination of these things. Without going off on a massive tangent on this background of LGBT in media, things are slowly changing and finding pieces of mainstream journalism looking at transgender issues is no longer like finding a four leaf clover by the light of a blue moon. However, the problem with more people taking notice is that more people can – to paraphrase Hugh Laurie’s Prince George from Blackadder III – be absolute arseheads.

Aside: Why did society start having a problem with men wearing wigs and make-up anyway?

Many, many incredibly shitty things have been written about trans people. A (perhaps) surprising amount of this has come from feminist and gay/lesbian sources, with (simplistically speaking) some of the former considering trans men to be ‘traitors’ to womanhood, and trans women are ‘just men invading female spaces’. I wish I was exaggerating. A particularly infamous piece of damaging refuse can be found in the form of the 1979 book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which contains this charming quotation:

All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves … Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

In a similar vein, the lesbian feminist journalist Julie Bindel has written some really horrible stuff about transgender people. She was nominated for Stonewall’s 2008 ‘journalist of the year’ award, not exactly a great message sent out from this huge LGB charity (note the absence of the ‘T’).

This offensive horror was printed with Bindel’s 2004 article (linked to above) in ‘The Guardian Weekend’, 21st January 2004. The gist of the article argues that transwomen are not real women, and their experiences as women are invalid. The badge reads ‘I’m a girl’. 

So yeah, this stuff is pretty unequivocally offensive – but you could easily be forgiven for asking how this relates to the original link to the news story ‘Led by the child who simply knew’, at the top of the page. I’d like to add, that in writing this piece, I conferred with a few trans and non-binary friends, to see what they thought of this article. I did this because of my cis-privilege. Having this doesn’t make me a bad person, but it is undeniably there, and important to bear in mind when I’m talking about transgender experiences. If I simply bust out a load of opinionated stuff on such issues without ever actually discussing it with someone it affects directly, I would be in danger of speaking for a minority group I cannot claim membership of, and in fact risk silencing that group despite my intentions. So yeah. Obviously the people I spoke to could only talk for themselves, but at least I can say I haven’t made sweeping and unchecked assumptions about how this article may be received.

The problems here are less loaded with malice. More comparable to the accidental but nevertheless cringeworthy racist comments that elderly grandparents can sometimes pop out with. It’s not okay, but to some extent we can understand why it happens, due to lack of a certain specific bit of education. To borrow a term from the (fabulous) writer Julia Serano, the original article engages in oppositional sexism, which Serano defines as:

[T]he belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.

Right from the start, we catch phrases like “Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.” – would he be less so if he didn’t? In the case of his twin, Nicole, is her being female only justified through the presentation of stereotypical feminine behaviour and traits?

It’s not wrong to talk about Nicole’s experiences. If she likes pink, and mermaids, and Barbies, that’s great! But it’s important to not imply that this is what makes her female identity ‘real’. Little boys can like these things too, and not be any ‘less’, even if some people might argue otherwise.

See, Barbie can be fun for some boys too…

It’s also problematic that the name Nicole was given at birth is repeatedly used, and that she is referred to as ‘he’ repeatedly. As a baby and small child, she clearly wasn’t in a position to understand or communicate any gender identity. So why now her personal identity is clear, are inaccuracies of the past referred to? Gender identity isn’t immutable, but to frame the experience as ‘he’ was a boy who ‘became’ a girl implies both choice, and that being defined as ‘boy’ was the natural state of affairs – creating a hierarchy whereby genitals trumps identity. Not good!

The old cliché of “a girl in a boy’s body” is also touted. What is it that makes a body that of a boys? Lack of breasts? Oh hang on, little girls don’t have them. How about the other physiological markers? I’ve already talked about how this doesn’t really get one anywhere. Nicole identifies as a girl. Therefore, she has a girl’s body. Even if people ‘know what you’re talking about’, it’s potentially rather offensive to call a transwoman ‘biologically male’, or vice versa.

The article does do a valuable thing in providing some insight into the experiences of a trans girl and her family. The quotations from her parents about the experience help make the story relatable to people for whom this is totally alien territory. Whatsmore, Nicole’s self expression wasn’t smoothed down to being textbook-feminine:

“I would say my brother got lucky with me. Because we grew up with only boy neighbors, I developed a liking to shoot-’em-up and military video games,’’ she says. “I could have come out a lot girlier.’

It is important to recognise that the breadth of experience amongst trans people, just like cis people, is immense. Not everyone ‘knows’ from such a young age like Nicole, and that’s okay. Not everyone detests the bodies they were born with and want surgery, and that’s okay too. There aren’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ valid experiences of transgenderism. Unfortunately, breadth of experience isn’t something the mainstream media seems to have represented well just yet. There’s only a certain degree to which papers are prepared to challenge their majority readership. This article seems to me to be more sincere than simply a voyeuristic look at an atypical child, but could also be vastly improved upon with just a certain specific bit of education.

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