The Death of the “Transgender” Umbrella
If you’ve traveled anywhere among trans or LGBT blogs in the past year or three, you’ve inevitably come across an ongoing battle over labels, and particularly “transgender” as an umbrella term. It seems to be a conflict without end, without middle ground and without compromise. And yet for discourse on human rights and enfranchisement for transsexual and transgender people to move forward at all, at some point that discussion needs to have some sort of resolution, and some thorough dissection of the argument will need to take place. Could an alliance-based approach be a solution? Or more accurately, could enough people on both sides of the argument be willing (that is, to not see their position as immovable) to seek an alliance-based approach for it to make a positive difference in the discourse?
I don’t know. But something that has become clear to me over the past while is that the language is changing. And I don’t have to like it, but I have to understand what that means.
I only speak for myself. In the end, it’s all I really can do anyway. I don’t speak for any trans-related community, don’t speak for The Bilerico Project or any of its other contributors, don’t speak for any other place I’ve posted or published writing, don’t speak for Alberta trans people — just me.
I say that because the international trans community is in a state of flux. As the community defines itself, we’re discovering just how diverse “trans” really is, and just how inadequate any one single definition is when it tries to cover everyone. A result of this is that in 2011, while the mainstream world is just starting to twig on to trans anything, trans and LGBT forums are finding nearly every conversation on trans issues, trans rights, gender studies and identity disintegrating into a debate about “transgender,” its use as an umbrella term, and whether there should even be an umbrella at all. It’s reached the point that it’s stalemated any and every other discussion. And ultimately, I realize that nothing some writer and blogger from Southern Alberta says is going to change that, but I can make my own declaration on the matter. And in that, I speak for myself.
Because our language for trans issues is changing.
Years ago, as I found community in the developing Internet (it took much longer to find any local community), I watched the language we used to communicate our experience change as we fumbled from flawed term to flawed term trying to figure out which word was a better fit. From Usenet newsgroups to UBB forums, contact sites to support message boards, the language metamorphosized. Back then, sometimes the banner was “transvestite” or the abbreviation TV (which I never liked, but it seemed to sometimes be the only option on trans-friendly discussion forums or contact sites), until the medical definition’s emphasis on clothing fetish became the predominant cultural meaning and consequently the word was no longer appropriate. Other times, the word was “transsexual,” but many felt that even though it was technically correct (that is, about physical sex), it too generated a public perception that gender identity was about sex (as an act or orientation) rather than about who we are. Some women even used the porn industry’s “shemale” for awhile, until it became obvious that the “she’s really male” undertone of that term was inappropriate. It was clumsy and it’s more than a little weird to look back on now, with people having once gathered at places called “Trannyweb” and the like, since those terms were often the only words we had. Terms like “GG” (which meant alternately “genetic girl” or “genuine girl”) weren’t any better in what they insinuated than the word “normal,” so they’ve gradually disappeared (although they regrettably pop up from time to time from people who’ve never heard of an alternative). Even in moments of our history that are looked back on as being classic — like in the songs “Lola” or “Walk On The Wild Side” — you’ll find things that were well-intentioned or fun at the time, but would be button-pushing now. Consequently, many of us gravitated to “transgender.” It seemed to have far less baggage — although we would later learn otherwise, since the person who coined it — Virginia Prince — had meant for the term to to be exclusionary too, applying only to non-transsexual crossdressers who were attracted to women.
In the past couple years, the “don’t call me transgender” rallying cry has gained in volume. It seems as if there’s always allegations of misrepresentation, annexation and invalidation at the mere suggestion of having anything at all in common with anyone who willingly wears the label “transgender.” The language is changing.
Looking Past Assumptions of Bias
I still (and probably will always) see some of this coming from bias. There are folks who believe that if transsexuals could divorce themselves from a “transgender” umbrella term and make the public at large see a black and white difference between them and other trans people, then finally we would be able to obtain human rights, respect, dignity, access to medical care and legal name changes, and more. Homophobia is sometimes in the mix too, with heterosexual-identified trans men and women resentful of being characterized as anything but straight. These are distinctions that a person certainly has a right to clarify, but when it’s accompanied by disavowal and outright disparagement of others, it becomes exclusionism, it’s throwing people under the bus, and it’s bigotry. And it’s clouded even more by the fact that many of the folks with this prejudice are entirely blind to it.
But separatism is not the only reason that the term “transgender” has become no longer viable, and it’s also not the motive of everyone who takes this position.
Some of the division has formed because of fears of being associated with radical ideas. Those who embrace a gender binary don’t always understand those who see various shades of gender. A March 2011 move by the Australian Human Rights Commission catalogued over 23 different genders, including “transgender, trans, transsexual, intersex, androgynous, agender, cross dresser, drag king, drag queen, genderfluid, genderqueer, intergender, neutrois, pansexual, pan-gendered, third gender, third sex, sistergirl and brotherboy.” I’m not even sure what a couple of those mean, myself (although I’m prepared to listen and respect). But not everyone is comfortable with ideas more radical than their own.
There is also some backlash coming from the literalist perspective, in the same way that other terms used to describe trans experience have evolved and changed. “Trans” means across, or indicates a transition of some sort. Technically, if someone transitions and obtains surgery, it is their sex that changes — not only have they not changed gender, but they’ve aligned everything else to it. There is also a difference in emphasis that we as individuals put on the terms “sex” and “gender” — driven by seeing our issue as a question of biology versus social construct, physical versus mental. But although sex and gender characteristically differ and can be in opposition — as happens with transsexuals — I doubt the two concepts can ever be completely decoupled.
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that a transsexual man or woman who reaches a point of relative “completion” (often seen as when surgery happens, but as far as I’m concerned not always requiring that) and slips into the gender binary is entitled to call themselves a man or woman, and should no longer be “required” to identify as trans in any way. Indeed, my own experience is that trans issues and memories fade as time passes, so it wouldn’t make sense to force anyone to continue to identify as transsexual, although that does rob us of role models and pioneers. Personally, I have no issue with those who do wish to leave “trans” anything behind, as long as (again), it’s not done so in a way that invalidates. Transsexual, transgender, trans… there is a serious problem if we start viewing these as rigid boxes that have no escape clauses — indeed, the whole concept of trans-anything is (at its core) about thinking outside the boxes.
Erasure and Crossed Purposes
As said, the characterizations above aren’t the only reasons that a case is being made that a “transgender” umbrella is no longer viable. We are remiss if we fail to look at some of them, because there are some reasonable issues to consider. Ironically, because of the level of anger and volume, the “don’t call me transgender” conflict unintentionally erases some of the very issues it attempts to raise.
One of these is the subject of erasure, and the idea that by including transsexuals under a “transgender” umbrella, transsexual-specific issues such as medical care, identification issues, legal status and surgery disappear into a fog of gender theory. And depending on where one lives, this may in fact be true. In my experiences in Alberta, Canada, though, if you say “transgender,” the general public thinks first of transsexuals (and usually specifically transsexual women), so from where I stand, it would seem more like we’re in danger of erasing everyone else.
There are also, at times, some very real conflicts between what transsexuals who are fully-identified as men or as women need and what people who identify as a third gender or third sex need. We’re seeing this especially in gendered spaces, where transsexuals simply need to be accommodated as the men and women they are and live as, while genderqueer, third-gender and/or third sex people might require independent acknowledgment. In 2010, for example, Australia’s norrie mAy-welby became the first person (possibly in the world) to be officially designated “gender not specified” — a designation that was sought at norrie’s initiative, but probably wouldn’t sit well with many other trans folk. In India, this also became clear with their 2011 Census, which was hailed as the first to have an option for trans-identified people:
“But while some like Sarita succumbed to family pressures, many others deliberately chose the `female’ option on the Census sheet, claiming that it was their real identity. They said, “For the last 15-20 years, we have been living like women and that is what we want to be known as and not `hijras'”.
Sometimes, these conflicts result in even larger groups of people having someone else’s will imposed upon them, such as in Unidos da Tujuca, a famous samba school in Brazil which went a step further:
“Moves by Brazilian samba schools to provide separate toilets for gay, lesbian and transgender people have divided the GLBT community in the country.
“… However the head of the Brazilian Government Program to End Homophobia has compared the move to racial segregation.”
It’s not hard to imagine what that kind of sudden “othering” feels like to people who’d already settled into everyday life without always having to be singled out.
There are also concerns at the medical level. Some fear that any alliance with non-operative trans people creates the impression that transition is optional, when the reality is that for those who require surgery, it is often an absolute need. The cost of surgery and the barriers that we encounter during medical transition are incredible, and obtaining insurance coverage similar to that available for any other legal medical procedure (short of abortion) is becoming almost impossible.
But that has a flip side: when there is emphasis on surgical intervention, this can also work to invalidate genderqueer people by implying they “just need to be fixed” somehow, as well as to push intersex people toward a surgical “correction” that they might not need.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s what makes any sort of alliance daunting.
Speaking For Myself
In the end, though, I can only provide part of the picture as to why it’s now largely felt that “transgender” is no longer viable. I don’t represent that position. I also can’t claim to represent a genderqueer side of the debate. I can speak only for myself.
My first major blog article was about transmisogyny within the community (although we didn’t really have a name for it at that time). Since then, I’ve listened to the reasoning, even if I’m still not inclined toward division. Regardless of the rhetoric, we do have a responsibility to consider any valid points that might be behind the fight, if we’re to grow as a community or communities.
Should There Be An Umbrella?
Like the language, I guess my thinking has changed on this somewhat. I still have no personal dislike for the term “transgender” and have said before that I don’t really care what the term is, just as long as there is some point where varying trans communities can meet on any shared issues, and shared healing during shared tragedies. And when it comes to human rights, I still strongly believe that if we work for the inclusion of gender identity / transsexuality in legislation and leave behind gender expression / transgender (or whatever term one prefers), then we have only accomplished half of what is needed, and have perpetuated exactly the same kind of abandonment that we once experienced — it is not a responsible or socially-conscious action. And I don’t believe the naysayers who claim that binary-identified transsexuals don’t need explicit human rights and already have adequate rights as men and women, since I’ve seen it happen time and again where we are redefined according to other peoples’ standards, regardless of how “complete” our transition and documentation may be. With every day’s newsfeeds come some new incident where any revelation of trans history has sparked discrimination.
Is there an umbrella? Well, if transsexuals are separate from “transgender,” then who does the latter term include? Crossdressers, genderqueer people, non-gender or dual-gender expressions, maybe a few people involved with drag (although many drag performers are otherwise cisgender / cissexual, and wouldn’t characterize themselves as trans)… if “transgender” today covers such a widely diverse range of people, then it can only possibly be an umbrella term. Whether there is an umbrella is not the issue, but rather whether or not transsexuals belong and/or are willing to stand under it.
But in the current argument, though, there is a tendency to see “transgender” as a depository for everyone who is trans in some way but non-transsexual. That doesn’t really work, either. If concerns about erasure and misrepresentation justify designating transsexuals as distinct and separate, then we have to consider whether an umbrella for “everyone else” does the same for anyone else trans. Given the number of times I’ve seen “genderqueer” conflated with “fetishist,” the “gay agenda” and more as though these are elements of some singular whole — even by trans people — I’d have to conclude that that’s indeed the case. At that point, “transgender” as an umbrella becomes an outmoded concept, and an alliance-based approach or total division are the only possible outcomes.
And in the end, where there are conflicts between what binary-identified people need and what third-sex or third-gender people need, if we can’t broach them as a “community” of trans people of every stripe and find some kind of equitable resolution, then how can we expect cisgender and cissexual legislators to figure it out? More likely, if we can’t devise something that makes sense within the social order and if we do get past society’s insistence on cisnormativity, then we’ll probably have one perspective thrust upon the other. And at that point, someone has become further disenfranchised, and we have failed them as a community or communities. Or betrayed them.
We Are Different, With A Few Sames Between Us.
The trans community is emerging, self-defining and shaping itself, and making the same mistakes that most disenfranchised groups do, including the creation of divisions. What is happening right now in trans culture is really nothing new to any emergent social movement. The need to self-define as a community causes us to self-define as people, and discover that while we sometimes have similar needs and aspects, we are not all the same. Inevitably, some are going to feel threatened by that, or react negatively to those perceived differences as we struggle to emerge from the margins.
And we are emerging from the margins. It’s just not always easy, not always perfect, and when we look back in hindsight, there will have been errors — and probably some of them will have been hurtful. It’s not always easy to see them when we’re standing in the middle of change. But we have to try to be diligent to avoid what we can foresee.
So “transgender” seems to have become the latest casualty in trans self-definition. At this point, I don’t see how I can proceed under the assumption of a single community, considering the division and rhetoric. At the same time, I’m still not prepared to leave anyone behind, let alone villainize them to make myself look better. If I have to jettison the terminology in order to keep involved with issues surrounding both gender identity and gender expression, then that’s fine. Because the language is obviously changing.
So what’s new here?
Some of this I’ve said before, and I’ve made no secret about walking away from discussions on labels and terminology over the past couple years because of the way they all inevitably turn into something like a shark feeding frenzy for everyone involved. My own language has changed to utilize “transsexual” for those specific needs and “trans” for shared issues because I simply got tired of being clubbed over the head about words. And I still believe that medical verification is neither some magical event that’s going to suddenly legitimize transsexuals in the eyes of transphobic people, nor is it clear whether there might also be a similar biological origin for other trans people. Nor should the biology-or-choice question even be the basis upon which which we decide who is “worthy” to be equal in the first place.
An Alliance-Based Approach
What’s different is that something needs to be jump-started now, so we can move beyond this. Because we desperately need to move beyond this. And if that means divorcing transsexual from transgender, and if that means asserting that we need to forge an alliance in which each party at least tries to respect the other (even if we don’t understand each other) and work toward our mutual enfranchisement, then it’s past time to propose that that is what we need to do.
Part of this will require us to stop making assumptions about everyone else and start listening to how they define who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. Which means to stop assuming that everyone who isn’t exactly like us should be dismissed as “not real.” And means to stop assuming that third-sex or third-gender identification is any less valid than binary identification or that accommodation of both is irreconcilable.
And if the “transgender” umbrella has to die, then so be it. But if we’re negotiating a separation of terms, then it’s important to define the borders in such a way that both can co-exist and seek solutions to the problems of legal accommodation, conflicting identification and anything else that we come into conflict on.
I fully expect that after this post I’ll have offended absolutely everyone on either side of the question, and be accused on the one hand of having spinelessly acquiesced to separatism, and on the other be told I’m still drinking the Borg kool-aid. So be it. For me, the issue is done and past relevance. Semantics aren’t going to help someone find a doctor, devise a workplace policy with their employer, or find a shelter. So to me, the labels are barely a sliver of what is important in order to achieve positive change where it matters.
And in that, I suppose, I can only speak for myself.
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)