Why the Umbrella Failed
While writing “The Death of the ‘Transgender’ Umbrella,” it became necessary to clarify something in my own mind. The language is changing, yes, but the aspect of the word “transgender” that had especially changed was also the thing that seemed to make it most valuable: its use as an umbrella concept.
While it’s true that the specific words we use are ultimately irrelevant to how human rights protections are encoded in law, the way we’re framing our issues currently does in fact set us up for serious conflict between binary-identified and non-binary trans people when addressing issues of legal documentation and accommodation, and also spawns confusion and misunderstanding when the general public is faced with multiple narratives and tries to figure out how to parse them into a single entity. We need to recognize — and sooner rather than later — how couching transsexual and gender diverse issues under a single umbrella creates an expectation of a single narrative with a single solution to all associated challenges.
I doubt very much that people who embrace a trans umbrella of any sort ever intended to erase these differences — instead, the intent often was very much a spirit of “let’s accomplish everything together.” But umbrella thinking usually leads us down a path where we’re looking to one solution, one neat and tidy accommodation that will work for everyone. It also causes us to give the impression (intentional or not) that a single one-size-fits-all solution will work for transsexual and gender diverse people. Just like some of the things we struggle against, it too expects a certain amount of conformity. And this is where shedding a trans umbrella hurt most — acknowledging my own hypocrisy.
In my defense, this was largely because I wanted to believe that gathering under an umbrella didn’t have to mean erasure, and didn’t have to mean forcing a single narrative on everyone, provided we were all conscientious and diligent. But what I know about decolonialism tells me otherwise.
Imply / Infer
To me, the umbrella didn’t mean a single narrative. To those I interacted with, though, this was very much not the case, no matter how clearly I tried to communicate it. This was most evident when speaking on trans issues to general audiences or medical groups. What became most organic was to say a bit at the beginning on how diverse the trans community was, and then move on to specifically transsexual issues while trying to remain clear that the medical processes and needs were specific to transsexuals only. Invariably, the question period afterward was fraught with questions from people who were trying to resolve for themselves where non-binary trans people fit into that narrative.
I wanted to believe that unity didn’t have to mean erasure, but inevitably, I needed to recognize that’s what had been happening, once I started to reflect:
How are we to be identified in society? Are we to be accepted as men and women, or have a third-sex / third-gender designation? As long as we’re under a single name, society will look for a single solution and see us as a single entity, so there’s a serious risk of it becoming an either/or question, affecting identification, accommodation in gendered spaces, and to some degree how we interact with society overall.
We don’t get to frame the whole debate, but the way we frame it when we initiate it through lobbying, instruction and protest forms a foundation. Society’s understanding of trans people is growing and evolving, and with the “you can’t change your chromosomes” attitudes that are out there, it’s certainly a risk that as society becomes more trans-aware, non-binary gender markers could become the easy solution for legislators, seeming to appease both trans people and our opponents (because they always always always look for an easy way out). Except that a non-binary gender marker becomes a scarlet letter for many transitioned transsexuals. It also potentially becomes an easy way to exclude us from marriage in places without SSM.
We’re not consciously doing it, but this is how we’re presently initiating the discussion.
It was a particularly difficult article to write for a number of reasons, not the least of which were the facts that I am still personally comfortable with the term “transgender,” and that I still realize that there are issues that touch on most or all trans people, requiring a collective response. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is one such reminder that transphobia touches all of us. But points of mutual empathy should not be mistaken as evidence of sameness, and that is why the umbrella failed.
I’ve been interested in decolonial theory for awhile, although I look at it somewhat differently than most do. I won’t go into depth, but in simple terms decolonialism is about how various classes lay claim and ownership over each other and impose regulations, will and rules of conformity that run counter to other classes’ needs. It’s not a popular subject, since the language of communicating colonial struggles — words like “oppression” — tend to trigger immediate defensive reactions, and something I didn’t initially recognize as a proponent of a transgender umbrella was how I was slipping into that trap. In this argument, we had people clearly reacting to a perception of colonial annexation. The typical colonial response is to dismiss it as “all in their heads” or simply rationalizing it away as bigotry or reverse discrimination. I didn’t like the part I found myself playing.
One problem that decolonial theory has is that academia treats it as its own possession, as though it’s their noble responsibility to lead the unwashed masses to salvation, thus perpetuating colonialism yet again. This is something I’ve experienced plenty of myself, having had no shortage of people throughout my life to remind me that I’m not worthy enough to lick academia’s boots, or to decide that they’re a better authority than I am on who I am and what I need (it’s actually made academia quite triggering for me). In order for real decolonial change to happen, it needs to be something that’s recognized and understood by the public at large. When I bring it up here, it’s not to be aristocratic, but to simply engage the discussion on a community level.
Most often, decolonial theory is used as an examination of how a primary class governs others, but minorities do it to each other too. In this understanding of minority issues, privilege is not a you-have-it-or-you-don’t proposition, but rather an edge that we find ourselves on differing sides of in differing situations. So I see colonialism not as something that happens between nations but as something that happens among majority and various minority classes as each seeks personal power. Colonialism keeps getting perpetuated because it’s the only framework we’ve ever had with which to view society, and we expect that one collective group (whether democratic, economic class, ideological or characteristic in nature) is supposed to rule, and everyone else needs to be governed or to “get with the program.” And when the majority makes accommodations for various minorities, it’s often in a paternal, tokenistic way because its privilege blinds it to the deeply-rooted needs that the minorities have, and instead seeks easy and soft fixes. Which is why true beneficial change for a minority needs to be initiated and defined by the people in question themselves.
The whole point is that by looking at the struggles of minorities on a global scale, patterns emerge in how they self-define, seek personal power through the same colonizing behaviours they have struggled against, assert authority (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not), and often succumb to the idea of ownership rather than partnership. Decolonialism attempts to rethink this process, recognizing that either we’re truly committed to social justice, or we’re simply seeking to better one’s own class – if we do the latter, we inevitably perpetuate colonial thinking, however much or little we’ve been able to elevate ourselves.
If There Are Different Defining Characteristics, You Can’t Portray Sameness
And when you have a group or groups with unique and strongly defining characteristics (say, a medical process, identification issues that affect citizenship, accommodation concerns in the 24/7 day-to-day) grouped with ones who don’t share all or some of those characteristics, all the while claiming to speak with one voice, you have a situation that is absolutely rife with the potential for colonial conflict and attempts at possession.
Personally, I don’t think that transsexuals have been completely annexed by other gender diverse peoples (and yes, I realize that “gender diverse peoples” is itself an umbrella phrase, but am currently using it for now because it at least acknowledges diversity), nor gender diverse peoples completely annexed by transsexuals. In my local community, I see more danger of the latter happening. But by setting up an umbrella communal framework, we’ve created a colonial structure, and we’re now seeing the push-pull. It’s happening more often online because that is where our self-definition has been mostly taking place, and that is also where people feel most empowered and safe enough to speak about it.
It only escalates from here, unless we rethink how we’ve defined things. And we may not have had a conscious will to annex anyone — but the conviction that it is advantageous to present ourselves as a single whole is all the seduction we need to do so unwittingly.
The idea of an umbrella is that we can all stand under it — race, ability, sexual orientation, age, gender identity and/or expression — and that is why the idea is so seductive. It appeals to a sense of strength through unity. But an umbrella implies one people, one collective narrative and one solution, allowing colonial thinking to set in as we try to define a singular course of advocacy, thinking that anyone who doesn’t initially like it will one day thank us anyway.
We also often rationalize a transgender umbrella by equating it to a spectrum of gender expression. While some of the conflicts can be separated between binary and non-binary -identified people, we as individuals cannot always easily be sorted that way. Some gender diverse people feel a need to transition to a degree; some transsexuals don’t completely adopt one gender or the other for a myriad of reasons — this all seems to validate the idea of a spectrum, and maybe it does. But we can’t use this as a reason to ignore the potential for conflict along binary and non-binary lines. In fact, the impulse to see everyone as part of a whole has caused us to completely fail to understand how people at either end of the question can feel triggered or erased when someone else’s narrative becomes perceived as dominant.
Decolonialism is Not Simply Divorce
That said, if a “divorce” of transsexuals from gender diverse peoples were to take place, we still need to take care and be conscious of those who identify as both. Historically, it has always gone very seriously tragic when communities have jettisoned people who don’t fit narrow idealized definitions (gay men to effeminate gays, lesbians to “butch” dykes, racial communities to “halfbreeds,” women’s movements to transsexual women, transsexual men and sex workers, the middle class to the poor, gays and lesbians to bisexuals, and more — these did not all occur in exactly the same way, but all were nonetheless damaging). Folks in the in-between are often not the exception that challenges the rule, but rather situated where they experience compounded ostracism that perpetuates even more isolation and marginalization. Simply divorcing ourselves from each other doesn’t actually address colonial structures: it merely draws a new border and creates one more class to seek advantage over. If we are to claim a true decolonial approach, that will involve both defining ourselves as distinct, and working with people outside our own bubble for our collective empowerment… without assuming that a single solution is going to accomplish that.
Longer Than We Realize
The “don’t call me transgender” argument stems from peoples’ desire to distinguish themselves from the relatively recent but large proliferation of genderqueer and transgressive narratives. Those, in turn, stemmed from peoples’ desire to distinguish themselves from the medicalized and cliched “man in a woman’s body” -style narratives before them. We’ve been seeking to define ourselves the whole time, and that’s a necessary part of emerging as a movement. But because we’re trying to present ourselves to the world as part of a single whole, doing so affects the self-definition of others. This tug-of-war has been taking place for longer than we realize, and unless we reconsider why and how we’re trying to assert a oneness, this will only get more bitter. And it’s unnecessary: total sameness is not a prerequisite for undertaking activism as an allied whole, nor for empathizing with people who share some of our struggles.
We’re drawn to the idea of community as some kind of nebulous ideal where we all share kinship, as a kind of family. Many of us have sacrificed a lot in search of it, and perhaps we even need it. We’ve been emotionally buoyed or wrecked by interactions because of it. As romantic as the idea of community might be, there are obvious flaws with that logic — which is why The Community™ always seems to fail to live up to that promise. There are kindred spirits to be found, yes, but not everyone in our neighbourhood can be seen as one. Community can only ever be a loosely-knit coming together of diverse individuals who are unified only by the fact that they happen to live near each other and perhaps have some political needs in common.
Where Alliance Differs
We sometimes see the concepts of umbrella and alliance as interchangeable, but that is very much not the case. During the beginning of the “don’t call me transgender” argument years ago, I wondered at times if some of us were arguing about the same thing. But there are very clear yet subtle differences in thinking that go with each concept, whether we’ve intended them or not. Coming from an umbrella standpoint, we’re inviting people to “come over here and stand with me.” From an alliance standpoint, it’s a bit more of a realization that sometimes we need to stand with someone else too, and that sometimes requires stepping out of our own protective zone to do so — but also realizing that it’s needed. An alliance acknowledges that we’re not all going the same direction, that we can only speak to our own experiences, and that it’s not up to everyone to focus on us but rather agreeing to exchange support among people who don’t always need the same things. It also means realizing that our needs aren’t all the same, will sometimes conflict, and should probably be examined carefully before pushing solutions in order to minimize the harm we do to our allies.
That is, in an ideal version of alliance. No approach is perfect. Umbrella or alliance, both are vulnerable to paternalism, conflict, tokenism and betrayal. Alliances still need the ability to recognize when they’re seeking to define others and the will to change it. The primary reason for shifting from umbrella thinking to alliance between transsexual and gender diverse communities is to better recognize and empower the parties in question to voice their own perspectives and needs. It becomes easier to recognize when troubles occur, since the collaborating partners have been more empowered to speak. It’s a small difference that can mean everything.
And since umbrella thinking is the issue, many of these things will have implications for other advocacy structures. It’s also worth examining what this says about the “Queer Umbrella,” as well as how trans isn’t “in” or “out,” but still very reasonably allied (more on this in part 3 to follow).
So if it seems sometimes like I’m talking about platitudes, it’s because I am. The practical application is still entirely dependent on our commitment to achieving an ideal and equitable result.
LGB, People of Colour, Canada and Alliances
Many other communities have settled into alliance-based frameworks, even if they haven’t consciously done so or have later forgotten why. Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals probably have a clearer thread uniting them — sexual orientation — but still have a myriad of differences, distinctions and places in which there is outright conflict. For a gay man who is trying to communicate that his sexual orientation is innate and something he can’t just change through conscious choice or aversion therapies, for example, the very existence of bisexuals would at first seem to undermine him. We choose to ally, and if we listen, we start to understand what’s at the root of those conflicts and see where both can co-exist.
As someone who is Metis (that is, part Native American — enough that I witness and sometimes experience some of the marginalization of Aboriginal peoples but not enough that I could speak to all of it), I can find some kinship with people of colour. But at the same time, my experiences aren’t necessarily in line with the PoC narrative. Discussion of issues affecting people of colour sometimes slip into the trap of speaking about only one or two colours. If I were to voice my experiences while identified as a person of colour (I don’t, since I recognize that I’m largely seen as white), the first thing that would happen is that people would contest my right to identify that way; the second (assuming we get past that) is that they then try to find a way to fold my experiences back into the existing narrative. As with those who’ve advocated an umbrella community, I don’t believe this is necessarily intentional. But I’ve found it’s certainly more effective for me to communicate my relevant experiences as a Metis person, so that those experiences can be seen on their own merits and unencumbered by another narrative. At the same time, I’m perfectly happy to ally with people of colour and do whatever I can to advance their needs and inclusion as well. At that point, I’m more an ally than anything (hopefully a good ally), and inevitably need both my own language to describe my experiences, and a willingness to listen to others’.
We Need to Revisit This, But Without the Mutual Invalidation
If we were to look at how trans theory has evolved over the years, I’d bet we’d find that this is a discussion that we keep coming back to without realizing it, because umbrella thinking has started us on a circuitous path that keeps stirring up the same old unresolved conflicts, the same old unanswered questions about where colonial borders should be, the same questions of empowerment and disempowerment and the same resentments from erasure and betrayal, time and again. I’m as tired as anyone about identity politics. But inevitably it needs to be revisited, lest it continue to hamper our collective (and hopefully reasonably allied) movements for transsexual and gender diverse people.
Arriving at this conclusion, though, is not at all helped by the fact that there is clearly some invalidation taking place. Yes, some of the “don’t call me transgender” argument has stemmed from a few peoples’ impulses to dismiss anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow definition of post-operative transsexual as either fetishists or extremists. I won’t make excuses for people who have spouted those attitudes. But those who’ve responded have also in turn dismissed absolutely everyone who objects to umbrella thinking as a bigot. Both are destructive impulses we need to stop. Ironically it took being triggered in a big way by invalidation to open my eyes to just how ferociously we can sometimes respond to it, and just how unconsciously we can perpetuate it. The only thing that taking swipes at people does is to turn them off the idea of giving serious consideration to the point of view of the person taking the swipe.
The invalidation on both sides of the discussion has to stop now.
Next: Alliance… Why and How
This continues the thoughts from “The Death of the ‘Transgender’ Umbrella.” If you haven’t read that part and don’t believe that there is a conflict between binary and non-binary needs in transsexual and gender diverse advocacy, please read that part before reacting to this article.