Transbigotry?

When I was about three or four years old – enough to be talking but not enough to be in kindergarten – my mother carried me through the lineup to the tellers at the bank. I had never seen a person of colour, and so I’d been awed to see a tall fellow with that “purple”-deep colour of skin. I turned to my mother and said, “oh, mom, I’d never let myself get that dirty.”

My embarassed mother kindly explained that some people are simply born with darker skin, and that ended my experience of personally-felt racial bigotry. A few years later, I learned from a close friend I’d made from Trinidad that skin colours sometimes come with cultural differences. It never occurred to me that any one skin colour or culture was any better than any other.

But I did also learn quickly that others didn’t necessarily share that same blissful innocence. As much as it clearly puzzled me when people expressed their contempt for my friend, it was certainly apparent to me that their contempt was very real. Even in Canada, where hatred was nowhere near as entrenched as it was further south, racism thrived.

I’ve also experienced it from the receiving side, twofold, one from the perspective of being Métis, in a culture where Natives are largely despised. In this situation, shame is taught implicitly, where it is intimated that a person should take refuge in their French last name, or resort to referring to their nationality as “mongrel” rather than identifying themselves as Métis. While I have since learned to be proud of my culture and now mourn not having been able to learn more of the traditions associated with it, it was still a painful experience hiding and pretending that nothing was amiss.

My other experience of bigotry came from being transgender. Even though it took me several decades to finally transition, the feelings were always there, and every crass joke that people made about men in dresses or every condemnation of “those perverts” served to drive me further into hiding, further into shame and further into the nightly suffocated struggle that almost culminated in suicide many times.

So if we learn so intimately how painful it is from the side of the victim, why is bigotry so easily foisted around in our own community?

Every so often, someone turns up the tune, “I’m Not a Fucking Drag Queen,” popularized by the movie, Better Than Chocolate. When I’d first heard it, the song was cute for about the first minute that it took before I started wondering exactly what was wrong about being a drag queen and why we should despise being associated with them. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with defining oneself and pointing out when assumptions made about transsexuals based on the behaviours of others are fallacious, but I fail to see why it needs to be done at someone else’s expense. And yet, there is an enormous rift between many of the transgender communities where this self-defining takes on darker overtones: transsexuals trying to differentiate themselves from crossdressers and drag performers, crossdressers who feel that people who would undergo surgery to change their bodies are extremists and delusional, drag performers who embrace being gay and who feel that their compatriots should just wise up and do the same… there’s an ongoing factionalism that in many communities continues to drive wedges between us.

It does not stop there. At the grassroots level, our communities often ostracize people because they choose to be non-operative (because it isn’t consistent with the “one true way” medical model), or because they have spent some time in the sex trade, or because they play in the leather community (even when they display a healthy differentiation between fantasy and reality, and are clearly transgender in the latter). FTMs and MTFs sometimes feel that they have too many different needs to belong in the same support groups, and intersex people often balk at any association at all with anything transgender, some of whom have never experienced dysphoria and might have been lucky enough to be assigned the right gender at birth. It’s not unusual to see homophobia rear its ugly head when debates flare up between those who work with the local GLB folks (I mean the ones who seriously try to be supportive, not proven nemeses like the Human Rights Commission a.k.a. HRC) and those who call anyone who does so a “traitor.…” And then there’s the support meetings I’ve sat through where people complain about or tell unflattering jokes about “Pakis.” Or the “drunken Indians” comments said with no care that someone in the room is Métis.

If one had any doubts:

“… Susan has said all along that she’s not like other transgender people. She feels uncomfortable even looking at some, ‘like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.’” – The St. Petersburg Times, about Susan
Stanton.

I’ll dispense with my take on Susan Stanton quickly. Although I object to her comments, I do see her as a creator of her own misery. Where she complains that “the transgender groups boo me,” and that her transition is a somewhat solitary one, this is a path that she carves for herself. When she had decided to become an activist, she failed to educate herself in the diversity of the community and the many needs it has, and in so doing she dropped the ball. By surrounding herself with people who are telling her that “Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,” she’s succumbed to their rhetoric, rather than giving serious thought to the matter. A neophyte to transadvocacy, she has no idea how thoroughly and deeply the history of betrayal from her friends, the HRC, runs. But she will find out, when the next betrayal comes along and leaves her hanging in the wind. And when that happens, I see no need for hard feelings enduring from her novice mistakes, provided she becomes willing to see and admit where she was wrong. From my perspective, the personal maligning ends there.

As much as her comment angers me, though, I think it’s important that the subject has been brought up, because this is not just about Susan Stanton. This attitude persists far beyond this one incident.

“… like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.”

This isn’t an altogether unusual complaint, in my experience. I’ve seen the aversion that people have to transwomen who’ve been harder-ravaged by testosterone, with heavy brows, deep voices, large statures, strong jawbones, recessive hairlines, wide shoulders…. “How can you be comfortable being seen in a store with her?” I’ve been asked. “I’d be terrified, and have to make myself as scarce as possible….”

Sorry folks, but not all of these things can be corrected with cosmetic surgery. And those things that can are often so costly that they become inaccessible to much of the community. We don’t all face the same challenges. For some of us, transition will be a lifelong process, and stealth is not a realistic objective. Should rights and protections then be only available to those who are “passable,” based on some unknown subjective scale? While conscientious and active advocates know better, I think our community would be surprised at some of the grassroots answers to that question. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on how often the “men in dresses” attitude is used as justification for shunning crossdressers, some of whom are transsexual at heart but held back by life circumstances (children, spouses, careers) and others of whom are dual-identified and need to alternately express both genders with the same intensity that we need to live one.

Please also understand that I don’t claim this bigotry to be endemic of the entire community, which can be an invaluable source of support and friendship. But it does exist in pockets, and where it does exist, it drives people away from the support they need, and likewise drives away those who would be happy (or at least willing) to provide it.

“’But I don’t blame the human rights groups from separating the transgender people from the protected groups. Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,’ Susan says. Transgender people need to be able to prove they’re still viable workers — especially in the mainstream.”

Until there is protection in place to occasionally discourage employers from firing workers just for being trans, it will continue to be a complicated and sometimes monumental task to carve a successful career, and will continue to happen only so long as a person can remain “passably” stealth and not draw attention… or cause the right-wing fearmongers out there to panic and pick up their torches. And as long as successful transgender people are not free to draw attention, no one will take notice of their accomplishments and associate them with transgender individuals, and this “proving” that is being touted will never take place. Is the world ready for a transgender city manager? In the rest of society, the answer to that would depend solely on personal job qualifications – apparently, we’re to be patronized into believing that we’re not ready for that, yet. And the wonderful thing about the Barney Frank trumpet-that-there-isn’t-enough-support-of-transgender-rights approach is that the louder and more frequent they get on the subject, the more they will convince the legislators who might have once voted for transgender rights.

There is a reason that society associates transgender people with “shemale” porn, bank robberies, unemployment and marginal lifestyles. If you’re not lucky enough to be deemed suitably “passable,” it can be difficult to secure the lowest of jobs – whatever the qualifications. With the difficulties sometimes just in landing a minimum wage job at McDonald’s, coupled with the costs of hormones and surgeries needed just to arrive at a point of peace with oneself, frankly, the sex trade is unfortunately one of the most viable solutions. This will not change until a signal – one with some legal clout – is sent out into the professional world that it is no longer acceptable to exclude transgender people from more viable career paths.

And the transgender community will not be helping itself in pushing forward for these kinds of needs as long as it is still wrapped up in exclusion, distaste and division, and creating environments in which advocacy continues to eat its own. Often, I’ve heard people trumpet that Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and others who threw the first stones that touched off the Stonewall Riots and the gay liberation movement were transgender, in protest of the gay community’s past history of excluding us from the bargaining table. And far too often, I’ve heard (sometimes in the same breath!) derision of drag artists, sex trade workers and anyone else deemed to create a “negative impression” of the transgender community. But at the time of Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson et al were drag queens and prostitutes. Sometimes, I think that the only thing that has changed since Stonewall is that gradually some of our community have managed to escape the ranks of the disenfranchised, and are trying to distance themselves from them. Once again, there is a repeat of the cycle of jettisoning the less fortunate – financially, physically or both – and some of us seem to have no qualms about doing to them what was done previously to us (and for exactly the same reasoning).

From time to time, it’s good to remember what inclusion really means, and embrace the consequences. As far as the move toward exclusion, I’ll have no part of it. I’d never let myself get that dirty.

  1. I saw this posted on Bilerico but I wanted to comment here.
    I have to say that out of all the posts, blogs and op-eds on ENDA, HRC and Susan Stanton, this is by far the best I have read!
    You not only hit the nail on the head but you drive it home.
    Thanks for writing this and for giving this old man a lot to think about!
    The more I think I know, the more I have to learn.

    • Shari Miller
    • January 19th, 2008

    I, too, saw this on the Bilerico Project newsletter, and have followed very closely the events since last September. I agree with Ethan’s comment that this is the best and most well-reasoned article to date on this subject. You are to be highly commended for writing it. I hope it gets the widest possible dissemination.

    Thank you, Mercedes, for writing this.

  2. Out of all the post I have seen this is the best one ever and this has to be the best one to explain the trans bigotry. I too have experience trans bigotry because being intersex I’m more easily explained and understood than the trans community and that trans have lashed out at anyone who doesn’t agree to them.

    • Shari Miller
    • January 20th, 2008

    I believe that the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta each year is headed in the right direction. They are very inclusive, although some of the individual attendees are prone to being judgemental about their brothers and sisters. Unity is the answer, folks. How do we get there? Any ideas?

    • dentedbluemercedes
    • January 21st, 2008

    “Unity is the answer, folks. How do we get there? Any ideas?”

    I don’t know that there is an answer to that — certainly not an easy one. The only thing I can recommend is to push to get enough education out there, in our own community, to start changing some minds. When I first wrote this article, I didn’t think that it would make much difference, but I’m hearing a lot of comments otherwise. Hopefully it’s one step, and one that other transfolk will also be willing to take.

    • xrk9854
    • January 22nd, 2008

    You make a lot of false assumptions. Like everybody under the “transgender” umbrella are related. Umm NO! The “transgender” umbrella is an artificial construct of cisgendered researchers. They were to lazy to define all of us so they just stuck us all under this one label for THEIR convenience. So strife between the various groups is to be EXPECTED.

    Next, Susan Stanton is a woman early in transition. A highly publicized, under the microscope transition. That’s a lot of pressure and I think it just got to her a she just popped. In truth many of us have said the same things she did early on in our own transitions. I know I did. But we all learn and grow during transition. We mature and become better people. I am sure that Susan will eventually look back and say “Oops!”. Cut her a lot of slack. She didn’t ask to be publicly outed and deal with a lot of the crap she has.

    • Cathryn Platine
    • January 24th, 2008

    As someone who has experienced first hand the bigotry of the transgendered towards the transsexed and intersexed I could not disagree with your conclusion more.

    There is not trans community, not one that holds the claimed umbrella. There is no respect for differences, there is no support. When a groups says “we aren’t part of your community” and their very identity is denied to claim they are what is going on is a total lack of respect. A group that demands the right of self definition should not be among the first to take that from others but that is exactly what goes on. “Unity” and “inclusion” sound wonderful as words but we they come at the cost of the core of someone else’s right to self define and right of association it’s just yet another example of force, brute force and the very manner in which this “unity” and “inclusion” is pressed demonstrates it. I tried for years to promote the idea that an actual community based on mutual respect of differences was possible starting with a simple change to transgendered and transsexual as the name of the community. I was threatened, banned, outed, insulted and libeled for my trouble. I worked for years towards civil rights for all within a greater transgender AND transsexual community……I was driven out. The real bigotry is those who deny others their very identity and insist they have the right to define them instead.

    • Jillian
    • January 29th, 2008

    Nice piece of writing, Mercedes. I’m just starting to look over your blog and began with this thread. There’s bigotry in all walks of life. The only way we can overcome it is to keep raising awareness. We shall overcome . . .

    Jillian

  3. One good thing that came out of HRC was a presentation at one of the conferences was some good numbers, just how many of us are there.
    When I do presentations to classes I explain the transgender spectrum as, transgender is the umbrella term that takes in the whole community, comprising approximately 13.5 million individuals 5% of the population in the US which is subdivided into 80% cross dresser, 20% transgenderists and transsexual. The transsexual identification is further subdivided divided into non-op, pre-op and post-op, the latter being 4%. Of the transgender community.
    This gives perspective on the relative voice with in our community.

    • Jillian
    • May 9th, 2008

    Another interesting piece, Mercedes. It all proves one thing: transgender people are just like everyone else when it comes to differentiating and discriminating.

    Males, be they transgsender or not, have a right to wear dresses, just as women have the right to wear pants. There’s no question of being passable or not.

    Jillian

    • Noah
    • June 4th, 2011

    As somebody has ia also Métis and trans-identified intersexed, I have to say I know where you’re coming from on all counts.

    I think it’s true what you say that the desire to separate oneself from other flavours of trans- stems from wanting to disassociate oneself from perceived negative impressions. It’s a fear-based drive to snuggle up as close as possible to “mainstream” society in an overly inflated desire to “pass”. It’s almost as if these people believe that by saying, “I’m not like those weirdos”, that the door will magically open for them and they will be totally accepted. Instead, all that’s happening is that by dividing ourselves we’re only making it easier for them to keep us in our quiet little boxes and ignore our needs and our rights.

    • Noah
    • June 4th, 2011

    I actually read that article first which led me to this one, but thanks for linking all the same. There is, of course, more to it. Personal identity comes into it somewhere, gender politics, and a lot of other things. I mean, personally I don’t identify as “queer” in any way, and I’m not out to deconstruct the notion of gender (though it’s being done, and I think it should be done); I’m comfortable where I am. I have definite ideas about who I am and who I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to throw everybody else under the bus when we face some of the same social issues. I was over-generalizing, but what I was talking about in my comment (I wasn’t very clear – sorry) is the mindset of a certain group of people who feel that any kind of association with the LGBT community (whatever they believe that T stands for) somehow cheapens their unique experience of being trans, however they’re defining it. There’s a small amount of truth in this, maybe, just by virtue of the fact that a lot of people – and even some LGBT people – don’t understand that being trans is not a matter of sexual orientation, ie. we aren’t gays/lesbians “in denial” or sexual deviants (that was my favourite label that got stuck to me). But the answer here, I think, should be education, not repudiation. Dialogue, not discrimination.

    • JCF
    • June 5th, 2011

    When I was coming to consciousness 15 years ago (after 30 years of deep denial and repression), the umbrella term “Transgender” was a lifeline to me. Along w/ the phrase “FTM spectrum“, it gave me FREEDOM to work out what I was—differently-gendered than assigned—w/o the pressure of claiming one *specific* label (or diagnosis).

    While I’ve since settled on genderqueer (and in certain communities “trans-butch”), it’s painful to me to hear that this umbrella “Transgender” is being taken away, or abandoned.

    While I have not had any transitional surgeries (and probably won’t, largely due to financial constraints) and self-medicate through hormone precursors, I’ve never considered fully-as-possible-transitioning transexuals to be “other” from me (much less my rival or enemy!). It hurts when LGBs like HRC throw me under the bus: why would it hurt any less if transexuals do so?

    If some transexuals don’t want to be called “transgender”, that’s fine—but I feel certain that’s not true of all transexuals: don’t they get a voice?

    In a perfect world, we could all claim our unique, individual identities, and coalition-building isn’t necessary, because we’d each, as individuals, get what we want.

    But in THIS world, we still NEED to join together as ID’d by those who hate us: God only knows, I could get beaten up by somebody calling me a fag, a dyke, a shemale, a tranny, or a “What Is It?!” Ergo, I must organize under the banner “LGBT”. Word to the wise.

  1. January 20th, 2008
  2. January 21st, 2008
  3. January 25th, 2008
  4. January 30th, 2008

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