Decolonizing Trans As Allies
I’ve mentioned alliance when dissecting the problems with umbrella thinking in transsexual and gender diverse activism, in “The Death of the ‘Transgender’ Umbrella” and “Why The Umbrella Failed.” It’s easy to pull something apart — the more challenging question now becomes: how do we do activism if not as a single umbrella community? Why do transsexual and gender diverse peoples ally, and how do we ally? Or should we ally at all?
For the moment, I’m speaking specifically about the rifts between transsexual and gender diverse groups, although many of the same principles apply to LGBT activism as well. Personally, I’m in favour of building communities and building alliances — but ones that are not fraught with the structural framing issues or conformity requirements that umbrella activism is susceptible to. I don’t expect everyone to be on board with that, and that’s fine — but there are excellent reasons to seriously consider it.
This assumes that you’ve read parts one and two, and recognize how conflict, erasure and conflated narratives cause strife between transsexual and gender diverse communities. In part one, I provided examples of where the drive for third-gender designations on identification led to othering of transsexuals via India’s 2011 census, and where drives for third-gender washrooms potentially leads to segregated facilities, such as what happened for all LGBT people at a samba school in Brazil (albeit caused at least as much by “bathroom bill” -style rhetoric as third-gender washroom lobbying that our communities sometimes do). There is an additional example, this time where where it’s quite possible that genderqueer and all other (non-transsexual) gender diverse people are excluded from protections, in legal wording that was enacted as law in Connecticut this June:
“Gender identity or expression” means a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth, which gender-related identity can be shown by providing evidence including, but not limited to, medical history, care or treatment of the gender-related identity, consistent and uniform assertion of the gender-related identity or any other evidence that the gender-related identity is sincerely held, part of a person’s core identity or not being asserted for an improper purpose. “
“Gender expression” appears to have been defined with medical transition and gender identity diagnosis as a requirement. For all the points we voiced during the HRC / United ENDA debates about gender expression also protecting cissexual “butch” women and “effeminate” men, that benefit is completely lost if we promote this kind of definition.
There are some distinctions to note: this terminology invites documentation rather than requiring it. Also, the “evidence” is not limited to those listed — a utility bill sent to ones address might suffice, depending on court interpretation. But because of linking (unless some form of clarification is made later) gender expression has been interwoven with transition between sexes, in law. That needs to be a discussion all its own, and I won’t be able to do it justice here. But unfortunately, we have another tangible example that single-name, single-issue framing when speaking to legislators, lobbyists and organizers has left open a possibility of people being defined out of human rights. And evidence that it’s urgent for us to reassess how we’re doing transsexual and gender diverse activism, before the mistake is repeated.
And while not all gender expressions are ones that we might be comfortable with being out there, we have to remember the human rights principle that all individuals need to be regarded according to their individual actions, behaviour, merits and faults, rather than their belonging (or perception of belonging) to a characteristically-defined group.
Without allying in such a way that all parties affected can have a clear voice in shaping the discussion, there continues to be a danger that transsexual and / or gender diverse people will be erased, abandoned or even harmed by what we are doing.
“Transsexual and Gender Diverse People”
I’ve used the phrase “Transsexual and Gender Diverse” in this discussion. I consider “gender diverse” a temporary designation, since I’m quite comfortable in the binary, and shouldn’t be the person defining someone else. I also realize that any umbrella term is likely to be flawed, although I’ve tried to acknowledge diversity. And it’s clunky. I’m open to something better. Maybe gender diverse people — whether genderqueer, crossdressing, agender or otherwise — will prefer to retain “transgender.” That’s not my call to make.
I’m probably stating the obvious here, but for the sake of clarity, when I use that phrase for issues that both share, I’m denoting a visible difference in narrative and needs between:
- Physical transition between sexes (usually with binary identification), and
- Expression of gender that varies from societal expectations, for many different possible reasons (typically not with a medical or life-change track)
We know that both kinds of paths exist and that the people who follow them need to do so, in order to be true to themselves.
I do sometimes use “trans” to keep discussions from being clunky, but using two designations where possible to ensure greater visibility and distinction. “Trans” alone is still vulnerable to umbrella thinking.
Denoting Separate Characteristics, Not Invalidating People
It’s important to note that I’m talking about dividing characteristics, and not people. People can be both. I’m not talking about divorce and repudiation of anyone who doesn’t fit certain preconceptions — that is not decolonialism, but rather the creation of new borders and hierarchies.
The whole concept of human rights, for example, is that everyone needs to be treated according to their individual merits and actions, and not be prejudged based on a real or perceived membership in any particular class. If we truly believe in the concept of human rights, then we believe in human rights for all. If we seek to make exceptions, then we aren’t seeking human rights, we’re seeking special rights, which is oppression. We don’t put into place protections for disability and then seek to exempt mental disabilities simply because what we believe about this-or-that condition intimidates us.
Not Just the Same-Old Same-Old
If alliance is to be something significantly different from umbrella activism, then it’s not likely to follow exactly the same rules. We can’t just change the name and proceed exactly as we did before. Being that I’m not the “Supreme Dictator,” I can’t dictate what those rules should be. I can suggest what I think would make sense — but again, I speak only for myself.
The question now becomes “why ally?” and that has been an ongoing debate in trans and LGB(T) circles. Because we’re thinking in terms of umbrellas, we look for “sames” that unite us — the nature of homophobia and transphobia, the general public’s perception of us, gender expression and societal expectations, areas of overlap — and then we face challenges to that by people who focus on the differences. When we’re arguing this, we’re still thinking in terms of forming colonies and mapping their borders.
Why ally? Well, for social justice purists, the answer is usually simply “because there’s a need,” or “because it’s the right thing to do.” But becoming involved with everything that has a need is obviously going to drive people to burn themselves out. So ultimately, we need to be somewhat selective and limit this to “because there’s a need and because I can.”
Why: Being on the Same Page for Clarity
For those coming from positions of lesser power — or in this case, when both are in positions of equally reduced power — the answer to that question is also often in part, “so we can be heard.” Without a presence in a dialogue, one is unable to shape it. So we seek to be involved with movements that are active in issues that directly and sometimes indirectly affect us, or have the potential to define us in the public arena.
The latter is important, because from a pragmatic point of view, transsexual and gender diverse communities have already been so closely linked that each will probably shape the other for years to come whether they intend to or not — unless both can be on the same page about clearly presenting multiple communities, with multiple sets of issues and needs.
But most often, the answer to that question comes down to ones willingness and/or ability to empathize. For many of us, those umbrella “sames” we mentioned give us a reason to care, and help us understand another’s issues to a greater or lesser degree. Not everyone agrees with those “sames,” so trying to force those points of empathy that appeal to you on someone else is a cornering argument, and inevitably will get a cornered response. We care — or we don’t — on our own terms. But if we don’t, we can’t play the victim when others view us in the same manner.
Likewise, if we have a common “same,” it doesn’t give us a right to speak on behalf of everyone with that commonality (and that’s something that thinking in terms of an umbrella sometimes seduces us into doing), but it does give us ample reason to speak our own perspective, listen (and parse), and find a middle ground if it’s needed.
There is sometimes also a responsibility. For us to protest how a group or society at large disenfranchises or had previously disenfranchised us, we take on a responsibility to not perpetuate that same marginalization on others. This means being involved enough to understand the perspective of people we might be affecting through our movement, or at least honestly seeking ways to minimize any harms we might cause them. Alliance is a process of oppressed classes abandoning many of the internal struggles that cause them to further oppress each other, and look for a path by which they all can progress.
And if we do ally, then there is something that becomes admittedly more difficult than they were when we were expecting people to simply get under our umbrella: building mutual solidarity. This is more difficult because we can no longer simply assume that our vision is right for everybody. And this is more rewarding because it provides a check and balance to ensure that we are seeking out the voices of others, instead of just our own. We cannot presume to change a “father knows best” social structure by adopting our own “father knows best” perspective.
The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor — when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce. — Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
“Divide and Conquer” is not the point. Transsexual narratives do not need to trump gender diverse perspectives. Gender diverse understandings do not need to be predominant over transsexual ones. We do not each have to rule The Other, in order to be heard. By separating characteristics in naming, we make clear that we’re defining multiple identities.
This will mean reassessing views to see that others’ experiences can be different from our own, and equally valid. This means being conscious of language used to judge or invalidate others. This means putting aside words and phrases like “lifestyle choice,” “elitist,” “fetishist,” and “bigot,” and listening to how others describe themselves. And there might even be times when one such word is called for with an individual, but keep it clear that you’re not accusing everyone on the opposite side of the binary divide of the same thing. We can communicate without generalizing about a person based on their membership in a perceived group. That is, in fact prejudice, and we all have them — but we don’t need to keep brandishing them. Instead, we need to listen to what people say about themselves. Keep personal issues separate from the dialogue on characteristics. We cannot define for someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean.
I haven’t delved into it as much as I should have, but invalidation is not simply limited to those terms. There are times that umbrella activists takes up the opinion that “you can never become completely male or female” (chromosomes, skeleton, or some other reason — despite the fact that gender diverse people are often well aware that these things were never infallible in nature in the first place). In doing this, they invalidate transsexuals and people of transsexual history. Most times, this comes about through one of those cornering arguments on why people should get involved, rather than leaving that up to being a question of empathy. Invalidation of transsexuals as men and women is often why we/they are triggered, and why people likewise respond with invalidation. It doesn’t excuse that response, but it is a large part of why it happens.
Which leads to a related principle: according respect. Every functioning relationship must have that. The idea that “respect must be earned” harkens to the idea that someone needs to meet your prerequisites. Instead, each individual needs to start out being respected, unless their individual deeds warrant a change to that. And if / when someone does something that merits disrespect, it should not then be extended to everyone else who shares a characteristic with that person.
Respect needs to be a part of the equation, but it has to be a kind of respect that doesn’t imply a need for conformity and conversion. (Which I don’t think was what most people were consciously asking, but it was still what the umbrella implied)
How: Realize That Nothing Happens in a Vacuum
By defining ourselves narrowly, we are turning away more than we realize. There was an excellent post by hepshiba at DailyKos about people of colour and feminist organizations:
… What I had planned for my meeting with the white women of [feminist organization. I've left off the name because we don't have the context of the full article here] was a set of introductions, and an initial discussion of what, in their opinion, a truly diverse organization would look and feel like. As I expected, their views were universally that a diverse [organization] would be just like the current [organization], except there would be more women of color attending events and volunteering for the organization. Their focus was on “attracting” more women of color. I urged them to shift the focus in two separate directions:
Question 1: ”How do women of color stand to benefit by joining the current [organization]?”
Question 2: ”Can you see anything about the current structure of [organization] that might serve as an impediment to attracting women of color.”
Answers to Question 1 were clustered around the belief that [organization] helped “all women” and that a woman of color’s interests were also served by the work of the organization because “they’re women too.” No one on the board suggested that the category of “women” was not universal, and that communities of women (or women from different communities) might have different needs, and different opinions on how to achieve those needs. There was a distinct air, in some of the comments, that women of color should be “grateful” that organizations like [organization] were fighting for “their” interests, and that the failure of women of color to join [organization] was a kind of ingratitude.
Answers to Question 2 were a bit more interesting. Some suggested that [organization] events were not held in black or Hispanic neighborhoods, that public transportation in the city was terrible for people who needed to travel from those neighborhoods, and that perhaps the hours of meetings were not convenient. Others attempted to argue that [organization] placed no impediments in the way, but that women of color “were just not interested” in participating — the flaw was in them and not in the organization. The President of [organization] seemed to be in the latter camp. She mentioned, repeatedly, that they did have women of color on the Board, and that Jeannie (the African American board member) had no problems participating.
After that part of the discussion ended, I suggested that they not think about race in isolation, but also include the dimension of class. Is it easier to be a contributing member of [organization] if you are upper- or comfortably middle-class? Is it harder to attend events if you are a working mother? What class of women were [organization] events attracting? Were they serving poor women as well as they were serving everyone else? I asked them to take notes and return with their observations…
The point on including additional dimensions (i.e. class) rather than looking at single-characteristics is particularly revealing. I’d hazard a guess that our communities as we currently perceive them are fissured by more than transsexual versus gender diverse. Involvement in communities is affected by ability or disability, family circumstances, age, economic status and employment. The differences are profound, and the consequences of not seeing and not listening to them are that our communities are defined by narrower visions than we realize. The umbrella never really did cover all as well as we wanted to believe. Just like “LGBT,” transsexual and gender diverse advocacy only ever functioned well when it did so as an alliance of perspectives.
How: Revisit How We Frame Our Struggles
“Transgender” as an umbrella implies that we are one issue, with one solution. We’ve seen now that that isn’t the case.
In Canada, when we were lobbying for Bill C-389, activists approached the debate differently. This was at the insistence of someone who I’ve sometimes disagreed with, but I’ll give her credit for seeing this before I did. From the outset, the bill was framed to address protections for both gender identity and gender expression (not “gender identity / expression”), for “transsexual and transgender” people. And it was thus easier to clarify that there were two sets of needs, and why. It made some discussions much clearer in focus.
Having an umbrella made it easier for medical professionals, legislators, media, employers and the public at large to engage with transsexual and other trans people, and find reasons to care about the issues faced by them. One concern raised was that by changing how we frame things, we’ll be destroying everything we might have accomplished and starting over. This is not the case. But we need to reassess and refine our message to make it clearer and more comprehensive. “Gay” doesn’t adequately cover lesbians and bisexuals — we can’t expect any one word to adequately do the same for all trans people.
This does affect how we approach questions affecting overlapping communities. This comes up when we say things like “intersex is a trans issue.” That implies ownership, and is obviously wrong. There are certainly areas of overlap and reasons to empathize and ally. In the case of intersex, there may even be forthcoming science to bolster that. But alliance is the better solution, done by empowering intersex people to speak to what they’ve experienced, and also educating ourselves by listening so that in those moments that intersex perspectives are not available, then (and only then) we can fill the void (with caveats that make clear that we’re not the final authority). It also means being conscious of those areas where transsexual and / or gender diverse activism can actually harm intersex people.
Are Transsexual and Gender Diverse Issues LGB(T) Issues?
As within, so without. Lesbian and gay advocacy functions as alliance, and periodically, it happens that one speaks for the other and gets called on it. But because bisexual, transsexual and gender diverse groups don’t have the same visible numbers and the same number of overlaps, they’ve often been likewise victim to umbrella thinking, and it has caused deep rifts and bitterness. Which is a road I hope transsexual and gender diverse activists can commit themselves to avoiding.
This is a loaded issue, and one I’m not going to be able to do justice to here. I’ll expand upon it at a later date. Some of my thoughts are probably obvious, but I want to reiterate that what I want to see is the building of communities and building of alliances. This is not a clarion call for further rifts.
How: Mutually Empower
Which leads to the next logical step: if colonization is the problem, then the antithesis is to empower. This means providing opportunities for diverse voices to speak, acknowledging clear distinctions and recognizing that there isn’t a single solution to trans struggles. There are in fact more than simply two voices (“transsexual” and “gender diverse”) that need to be represented, too — for example, I as a transsexual woman cannot claim to speak for transsexual men. As capable people become active and available, invite them into the levels of advocacy that shape the movement. This is both true without and within our own movements.
Any organization aiming to undertake transsexual and gender diverse advocacy does need to invite available, capable and willing trans people to be at the forefront of that, and understand that they need to have a place in shaping the script. Because all too often, when you advocate for people without involving them in directly framing the discussion and without a deep understanding of the range of their experiences, this can happen:
A rift has emerged among advocates for Australia’s sex and gender minorities, with the peak intersex advocacy group Organisation Intersex International (OII) Australia refusing to participate in the first national sex and gender diverse people’s rally on May 12.
OII Australia president Gina Wilson said the rally had misrepresented intersex needs by applying its demands to all “intersex, sex and/or gender diverse (ISGD) people,” when some did not apply to intersex people and, if applied to them, could be detrimental…
How: Preemptive Resolution
We can’t simply attempt to make the gains that are within our reach now and let the conflicts that later arise sort themselves out. We need to consciously drill down to find where our conflicts are, and shape what we’re asking accordingly, to ensure that the gains we attain now will not harm others later. Some of those conflicts we’ll need to examine include:
- Clarity on when accommodations in gendered spaces is needed and when third-gender accommodation is appropriate,
- Clarity on the existence of two or more narratives when lobbying legislators or addressing the public,
- Clarity on when identification as men and women is needed and when third-gender identification is appropriate
Can we advocate for transsexuals’ integration into a binary world and for non-binary spaces at the same time? I’d think it should be easier and make more sense to the public from an allied “transsexual and gender non-conforming” position and language than otherwise. This is where an alliance makes far greater sense than an umbrella.
In envisioning an alliance, I’m not picturing simply changing a word, although the clarity of giving name to multiple communities is a part of that improvement. But there also needs to be a wholesale rethinking of how we take ownership — often without realizing it — and voice one narrative without making it clear that one narrative does not represent the whole. Anything less than a commitment to clarity is half-hearted at best.
Words are absolutely important. When “transgender” was used as an umbrella term, it was meant to be a union of purpose, not a union of narratives or an intent to erase. The trouble is, the latter still happened regardless of what we intended, by the faulty language we’d adopted. That language has to evolve in a meaningful way.
At the same time, though,”The Community™” needs to be seen as communities, neighbourhoods of people who don’t always need exactly the same things that we do, and to whom we should do no harm — or better, when there is the opportunity, with whom we should work together. And if we do choose to build those alliances, then it will sometimes mean standing up for things that don’t directly affect us sometimes. Because that’s what alliance is.
I’m not expecting to win over hardliners on polar opposites of the “don’t call me transgender” debate. When people simply outright refuse to respect anyone who doesn’t fit the narrowest interpretation of an outdated clinical diagnosis that was written by (and continues to be written by) John Money disciples who still try to divide transsexuals by their sexual orientation, or insist that potentially trans kids can be cured by aversion therapy, that is not something that will ever build alliance or empower. And likewise when someone has had their eyes opened to how single-naming erases, annexes and ignores some critical differences in need trajectory that are destined to conflict, and then still insists that complaints are solely bigotry and otherwise substanceless, that is likewise a presumption of governance that is unwilling to question itself and change to avoid errors before they lead to further harm. Most of us are further toward the middle, and it is those people who I see as best able to start building the alliances in their friendships, homes, support groups, communities, social networks, cities, organizations, states and provinces that I’m referring to.
An alliance is a compromise, but a compromise on an equal footing, entered into with conscience.
It’s Time For Me to Shut Up Now
Thank you to everyone who read through some really long and sometimes pontificating posts. In the end, this series needs to be a conversation starter, and not an ender.
Thanks to April and Jill who offered suggestions to the drafts, and also to the many commenters who have also visibly shaped how this series has evolved. It should probably be noted that of the many who have commented on the threads, it has been a small few who hung around to the end to invalidate people — the rest, I see, are looking to move forward. I see that as positive.
Antonia did this previously, but at that time, it’s likely that people didn’t really see the extent of the distinction between umbrella activism and alliance, or umbrella thinking as a form of colonialism that needed to be taken off the table. It’s my turn to shut up on the subject for awhile, and turn direction over to readers, whether here or on your blogs or Facebook or anywhere else:
- Should we seek to create an association of all transsexual and gender diverse organizations that would allow communication among the many groups now in existence?
- What would you envision an alliance or alliances to look like?
- Should there even be an alliance?
- If so, what are you prepared to do to forge those alliances?
- How do you feel about doing so, without the sameness that an umbrella implied?
- What do you require from others to be able to ally with them?
There is a reason that the last question was placed last. In alliances, that question can’t be your first and only concern.
Which is why they can be difficult. Better isn’t always easier. But I believe it’s where we need to go, in order to avert growing stalemate and division.
Crossposted to The Bilerico Project