As communities rise from the margins, they undergo a process of introspection, microscopic self-examination and self-definition. It’s a process of healing, throwing off the ill-fitting definitions that had been imposed previously by a majority that didn’t experience and most often didn’t understand what it was building a box around. It’s a process of finding pride in oneself and one’s identity. It’s an important and necessary step in emerging and finding one’s strength and will. It is this process that the trans community (or communities?) is evolving through.
But history shows that when left to happen without agreed-upon parameters, this newfound freedom to self-define has a tendency to exclude and marginalize others that share some fundamental common purposes. I’ll try not to belabour the point as it’s been made many times before, but it seems to need regular repeating, so I’ll do so and move forward to (I think) a more substantial solution.
As the gay community became able to articulate their issues as ones of sexual orientation, it facilitated the ejection of trans issues of gender identity and expression (sometimes along with people who were branded feminine or drag), which they tended to feel were irrelevant or even embarrassing — decades later, it has become clearer that LGB people are inevitably as much stereotyped by gender expectations in society as orientation issues, even if those expectations are sometimes a fallacy.
As lesbians who did not fall under the “butch/femme” motif felt comfortable enough to come out and define themselves, they ejected those who they felt perpetuated “bad stereotypes” of who they were. Years later, there has come to be acknowledgment that this had only served to injure an integral part of that community — a part that was often integral to the early years of lesbian emergence.
As feminism came into its own and defined itself, it ejected sex workers, transwomen, housewives and more who didn’t fit the emerging definitions of the modern woman (to be fair, there are various branches of feminism, and not all succumbed to this). Today, it’s increasingly understood that each have valuable insights into the ongoing dialogue of womanhood, even if they aren’t always completely representative of the whole.
Self-definition is important up to but not including the point where it seeks to define others by comparison. Emergent communities have often made this mistake and caused years of bitterness and resentment as a result. And in most cases, they have been seriously wrong in crossing that line.
The problem arises when a community or a part within a community sees an opportunity to rise above its marginalization and concludes that it is prudent to distance itself from its potential allies to do so. Historically, racial groups in North America demonstrated this visibly. German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scottish and other European heritages weren’t always considered “white” (or more accurately, “us”) by the standards of early immigrants, but as society evolved and appeared prepared to accept these nationalities at the price of mostly assimilating into English-derived culture, many happily embraced it at the expense of other marginalized cultures and races. Among African-Americans too, “skin privilege” allowed whiter-looking people or those of mixed heritage to rise from the lowest levels of discrimination to partial authority, with the compromise being the reinforcement of marginalization of black people. Today, white-looking Natives, Hispanics, Jews and mixed heritage people still often enjoy “passing privilege” and have the option to say nothing when confronted with prejudices about people of similar background — which some do, sometimes even participating (offhand, I am reminded of a local white supremacist who is said to be of Métis background).
In other words, as each – gay, lesbian, feminist, ethnic European, or white-appearing – found the opportunity to say to mainstream society that “we’re just like you; we’re non-threatening” through new self-definition, they (and by this I mean general majorities, not necessarily overwhelmingly) tended to give in to the human tendency to take the path of least resistance, and left behind or even injured brothers, sisters, allies or kin.
Today, the trans community (or for phraseology that some are more comfortable with, the collision of transsexual and transgender populations) provides an intricate microcosm in which one can see the evolution of minorities, the struggle against oppressions, the quests to assimilate. The emergent divisions are exacerbated by diversity, views on stealth, the embrace or rejection of sex-negative mores, existing and evolving medical frameworks from outside trans spheres, and the fomenting of resentment between the elapsed time between the genesis of trans activism in the late 1960s and the development of real, substantive progress in the late 1990s (later in Canada).
Part of the battleground has been over the word “transgender” itself, over its appropriateness as an umbrella term or whether there should even BE an umbrella term at all. The word was invented to describe exclusively crossdressers who were attracted to women, and reviled transsexuals or androphiles (people attracted to men), so it came into this world with some baggage in the first place. Others fear that by using an umbrella term, the unique needs of sub-communities such as transsexuals are erased – although my experience (perhaps unique to the region I live in?) has tended to be that transsexual issues and identities have been at the forefront of trans activism and sometimes threatened to erase other trans identities.
[Either way, I’ll be clear: I don’t give a f@&# what the word is, as long as there’s somewhere we can all meet for coffee once in awhile and talk about things that are of mutual importance.]
One development has been the emergence of genderqueer as a movement, an embrace of either dual-gendered, non-gendered, mixed-sex or third-sex identity. Genderqueer warrior conceptualization has invited an influx of people – mostly younger and progressive-minded, occasionally trend-seeking – who don’t feel that they really fit into the socially-constructed boxes of “male” or “female” and seek a new category. Gender deconstruction derives significantly from a relatively recent evolution of feminist thought.
Another has been the development of Harry Benjamin Syndrome (HBS), Woman Born Transsexual (WBT), Classic Transsexual and other forms of transsexual-only philosophy. I’m not the best person to describe the nuances that separate them. These tend to embrace a belief in duality of gender, the current medicalized structure of transsexual treatment and the emergent and increasing scientific discoveries demonstrating a strong likelihood of a biological origin of transsexuality. And if this were the sole framework of HBS / WBT / Classic thought, I’d be quick to support – unfortunately, many of the people driving this branch of self-definition, however, have made it a central point to deride and vilify other trans identities.
With transsexual-only philosophy deriving from a physiological focus and genderqueer thought from dissection of social constructs, two of the three factors of human behaviour (biology, socialization and choice), they have a tendency to be fundamentally in opposition to each other by dismissing the other’s fundamental principles. Self-definition is important up to but not including the point where it seeks to define others by comparison, and each has sought to elevate at the other’s expense to some degree. HBS / WBT / Classic thinkers have had a habit of ejecting moderates who are willing to embrace a “transgender” umbrella, with genderqueer people happy to take in the refugees, but both have a capacity for betrayal in those times that they insist on discounting the other. HBS / WBT / Classic writing has had a particular habit of taking genderqueer thought and painting it onto other trans segments – crossdressers, non-operative transsexuals – sometimes exploiting the same shock value that transphobes have taken advantage of for centuries.
I don’t believe that either are wrong at their foundations, but each risks repeating the mistakes of the past when they seek to define others and deny the validity of lives and experiences which may be different but no less real.
Although I may seem to pick on HBS / WBT / Classic thought more (in part because my experience of some of the more hardline people has been quite negative), I certainly know that the problem is not one-sided. In fact, stripped of any practice of criticizing others’ experiences or identities, it’s probably where I’d find myself most at home (though I do not seek to). During the GRS delisting controversy, I was confronted by one genderqueer person who insisted that surgery is a “cop-out,” that blurring all gender lines was the key to human harmony and that surgery could never make one whole.
“Gender Reassignment Surgery is not even on the radar of my issues,” my combatant told me. “I hope you never get your surgery relisted. That money should go to real medical problems.”
Taking a hardline view from any direction is equally capable of alienating real lives and real experiences.
In a recent interview, Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’ Brien laid bare some of his own trans experience:
“All my life, I’ve been fighting, torn in two and battling – never belonging, actually. Never being male. Or female. Wondering if I was born transgender? Did it happen in the womb? That might have made it easier. I don’t know. Or was it psychological? I’d been going to therapy, treating what I was as though it was some kind of illness – getting more and more depressed, wondering, ‘could I be cured?’ I went mad, really. My marriage was going down the tubes and I just lost it. Lost it. Lost it…”
This seemed to me to drive home the reality of what is often the most denigrated part of the trans community, crossdressers (although I don’t know if this is how O’Brien identifies). In the past, I’ve offered advice and support in many online trans communities and various local groups, transsexual, crossdresser, mixed and more. Something that is to me universal among all of them is a struggle with confusion from being outside societal expectations, a struggle that is inevitably only resolved by following one’s heart to self-realization. Although the realizations may vary, the “realness” of identity is just as genuine.
In order to find commonality and learn the valid lessons that each of our realities can illuminate, we must learn to respect other identities, and not fall back on philosophical means to invalidate each other. I’m going to pick on HBS / WBT / Classic thought here, though this trait is not exclusive to one philosophy.
The Quest for Biological Legitimacy
Now, I have to admit, I’ve been as interested as anyone in the ongoing studies in brain sex, genetics, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and other biological factors that have been increasingly linked to transsexualism. I’ve pointed to them to demonstrate publicly that our identities are not just “all in our heads,” although I also have to admit I’m a bit more of a barstool scientist (which is to say, not a scientist at all), and don’t always grok the nuances of the research myself. I’ve followed them with some fascination at the intricacies of how 3-variable combinations of biology + socialization + choice produce seemingly infinite numbers of perspectives, and ridiculed the far right for asserting that we “choose our lifestyles.” I’ve pointed out to people who look at the data and say it legitimizes transsexuals and denigrates other trans identities that the latter tend not to be in the studies at all, so it really says nothing about them.
Yet something that bothers me (and isn’t mentioned much in the quest for biological legitimacy) is that clear proof of a biological origin would not only fail to convince our detractors, it is also not the holy grail it’s made to be.
We’ve been learning that socialization only accounts for a part peoples’ essence (a crucial part, but a part nonetheless), so the power of biology should not be underestimated. Bipolar disorder appears to have a biological component; so does autism (and studies linking transsexualism with Asperger’s Syndrome matches a great deal of what I’ve seen in our community too). Biological causation only proves that we exist — it does not impart anything positive or negative on our condition, certainly not beyond the stigmas or empathies that society chooses to surrender to any condition.
The illusion of validity based on biology derives from earlier thinking, and keeps getting thrown at us by religious groups and far-right conservatives, who contend that trans anything (and GLBT anything) is a choice which can be overcome by changing one’s mind. We know from our own experiences and sometimes lifetimes of trying to change our minds that we haven’t chosen our identities and orientations, and that there is something more intrinsic that we cannot put our fingers on that makes us who we are. Religion in particular has to push this belief, because if a god created homosexuals and trans people, then that completely undermines the ability to create villains of us — and Machiavellian religious leaders understand that the most effective way to consolidate people under their wings is to create villains for them to abhor and oppose.
So we play the opposite response: “it’s genetic.” Well, maybe it is, but both arguments completely overlook the fact that neither chosen lifestyles nor biologically-driven identities of themselves validate or disqualify value in a human being, a scenario reflected in our communities’ definition of self.
Moreover, we might not exactly be comfortable with the implication of imparting all things biologically-connected with legitimacy. Imagine a finding in which pedophilia is shown have some genetic trigger. Certainly many predators of this and other sorts find behavioural change to be difficult or impossible, and describe a compulsion they feel is beyond their control, so it’s not unthinkable that there could be an intrinsic component. But such a discovery should never be used to legitimize the molestation of children.
So biological causation only proves that we exist. We cannot depend on it for rights or to change hearts and minds. We cannot rely on it to find pride in our lives. It’s fascinating, marginally validating, but it does not provide the standard against which we measure ourselves as humans.
The intent of modern law in western society is to extend full and equal rights to everyone, up to but not including where those rights negatively impact the rights of others (note I said intent — application becomes far different). This potentially creates a measure of a person based on respect for safety, responsibility, consent, respect and identity. Yes, I’ve phrased those according to terminology I’ve learned while welcomed among BDSM folks, perhaps there are other terminologies, but I do see these points as being objective, quantifiable but independently impartial increments of measure. I’ve not said “moral,” because of the way that word is abused in as many different ways as there are belief systems. I do believe that the intent of law provides us with the simplest, most equitable way of co-existence. Now if only it were actualized, by authorities, judiciaries and citizens alike.
Defining to Inclusion
Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that defining to exclusion — while probably a natural impulse for emerging communities — is a flawed and potentially injurious approach.
Certainly, there are times we need to differentiate ourselves. I’ve seen it happen in medical care where we will sometimes have physicians who are willing to see trans patients under the belief that we’re simply gay or lesbian, and then a trans woman shows up with her girlfriend — the reaction can often be “wha? If you like women, why did you want to be one? I don’t get it…” and a withdrawal occurs. So when addressing medical professionals, for example, I do find it necessary to explain how gender identity is different from sexual orientation.
Invariably, in diversity training, part of what I communicate becomes: “we’re not gay necessarily… but it shouldn’t matter if we were; we’re not sex workers necessarily… but it shouldn’t matter if we were…” and so on. Which is a very clunky way of going about things, yet still necessary to maintain context and perspective.
From our perspectives at this point in time, we have many opportunities to grow and learn without repeating the mistakes that other communities have made. As troubled as transsexual and transgender communities are by the “mental illness” stigma, our experiences should give us keen insight on how other high-function communities are similarly tarnished — people with Asperger’s or Bipolar Disorder for example (or even the disabled in general). As tuned in to double-standards as we are by violating a gender binary, we should be able to see past other dichotomies — such as when a predominately white culture that gets protectionist with regards to immigration turns around to Aboriginal populations and says, “it’s our place now, get with the program.” Being shunned, marginalized and pushed into a framework of shame and fear, we should be able to develop empathy for other marginalized and shamed populations. By being pushed toward subsistence or poverty, we should be attuned to how classism relentlessly divides and punishes the poor. By being classified with sexual minorities from asexuals to BDSM practitioners, we should be able to clearly see how responsible, consensual and respectful practices get warped into terrifying myths that they are not, all driven by society’s fear and manipulation of attitudes pertaining to the simple, human biological drive of sex. Yes, the particulars may be different… but the more we look, the more we see opportunities to build connections, to link with allies.
Majorities (and we’re not just talking about white as an inherent trait here, it just happens that in our society, the majority tends to be white) that are blind to their privilege and how it negatively affects others have unconsciously tended to use minority definitions to divide them into subclasses — colonies — in order to manage them. These divisions often turn people against each other, rather than the oppression that they struggle against. By playing that game and defining to exclusion, we perpetuate that same framework that allows others to be marginalized.
Defining to inclusion is different, and requires that context and perspective. We as trans populations need to be able to find our place in the world, and willingly share it with populations that have some inevitable overlap. We need to first respect, then learn about and communicate with those beside us. Instead of playing along with the rules of marginalization, disadvantaged communities need to come together and redefine the game.
It’s the only way to truly end the cycle of “better than” and othering that forces communities to repeatedly and defensively self-define to exclusion on their own solitary paths to acceptance. We need to take care to base our definitions on responsible, mutually-respectful foundations, and avoid taking the various parts of the elephant we’ve blindly discovered for the whole. It is my wish that our loose coalition of trans (or whatever name we want to gather under) identities can learn from the past and show the future how self-definition should be done.
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)