You know, I’m sick of all this “umbrella term” nonsense. Why should I be associated with a bunch of freaks like drag queens, “butch trans dykes” and non-op transgenders? I’m a real transsexual, a real woman. I fought hard in order to be able to be accepted as a woman, and having a bunch of people who aren’t even interested in getting surgery, or wearing skirts, or doing guys, going ahead and jumping into our “community” and making us look bad is just undoing all of what us real transsexuals, who are really women, fought to attain. I’m sorry, but male means penis and female means vagina. You just need to accept that. It’s common sense. Yes, there are women like me who are born trapped in men’s bodies, who get surgery to have vaginas and therefore become women, but you can’t just say “I’m a woman” and have your “self-identification” magically make your penis no longer a penis. It’s crazy and ridiculous, and you make us women who were simply born with a physical defect and sought to have it corrected look crazy and ridiculous too. I don’t care what you transgenderists want to do with your weird perverted fetishes and such, but don’t go dragging us real women who are really transsexual down with you. I’m femme, androphilic, binary-identified and transsexual, so I count, and you don’t. I have Harry Benjamin Syndrome.
April Fool’s! That’s today, right?
No? I missed it?
Anyway, yeah, this is the kind of thing one actually does, sadly, come across in the trans community way more often than is (personally) comfortable. For all we’ve been through, trans people are not necessarily above falling into the same binary or hierarchical attitudes about gender common to our culture, nor does finding oneself on the receiving end of cissexism necessarily cause someone to immediately divest themselves of all the cisnormative ideas that have been drilled into them over the course of their lives. Deciding to transition doesn’t magically or instantly cause someone to let go of things like gender binarism, genital essentialism, misogyny, transphobia, the confusion of gender expression and role with gender identity, heteronormativity and heterosexism, the idea of sexuality and gender having a deterministic relationship to one another, the idea that gender and sex have a deterministic relationship to one another, or the one million and one ways that any given concept, object, characteristic or behaviour is gendered one way or the other.
And as a friend of mine once put it, “most people are only exactly as tolerant as is required to accept themselves.”
Not everyone has the strength and confidence to assert for themselves the validity of their identity in a culture that is overtly hostile to it. So when you have certain models or structures within that culture that offer some semblance of conditional external validation (no matter how absurdly high that bar has been set), people are going to build their sense of worth upon how close they get to meeting those conditions.
And the conditions themselves, the structures, the cissexism itself will often be internalized in accordance with the usual “system justification” things… the ways that people will have a sort of psychological predisposition towards wanting to believe that the status quo is just and decent, that things are okay the way they are. It’s difficult, psychologically, to perceive the system one is living in as unfair and flawed, and immensely difficult to believe that, whether good or bad, one’s position in life is undeserved. It’s only when the status quo is compromising other psychological needs like the importance of self-worth that it starts becoming “easier” to oppose the system than rationalize justifications for it, and in this instance, as said, the system is often providing us a means of finding a semblance of conditional self-worth without having to question its framework.
Given all these factors… how hard it is to immediately ditch a lifetime’s worth of cultural gender-baggage, how difficult it is for anyone to learn to extend their sense of tolerance and acceptance beyond themselves and their immediate circle, how immensely hostile our culture is to trans identities, system justification, and how validation is held as a perpetual carrot on a stick leading us to conform to social expectations of gender, be invisible, be non-threatening, and make as little of a fuss as possible… there will of course be trans people who’ll seek their validation through the cis-supremacist systems that invalidated them in the first place, building up their gender’s worth and “realness” in contrast to those of other not-so-”real” trans people, who “make them look bad”.
It becomes an especially tempting possibility for trans women who are “passable”, femme, androphilic, post-op, who transitioned early, who fit the imposed and expected narrative, and who were able to more or less effortlessly work through the gatekeeping system. When that system assures you your gender is valid, that contrasts you as one of the “good” ones, that supports you and provides you care, while most of the culture is attacking your identity, would you have the confidence, compassion and self-determination to question the gatekeeping system? Even if accepting it means throwing those trans people who don’t fit the narrative under the bus?
One of the most insidious aspects of gatekeeping is the way that it demands we play along. We have to smile and nod and jump through all the hoops and not dare openly question the process from within lest we risk having our application (for hormones or surgery) declined. Which is a risk that I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unwilling to take, even if it means we have to play along with a process we vehemently oppose. We have to dress up as “gendered” as we can, and make ourselves sound totally, completely certain in a binary identification, play up everything about ourselves that fits the cultural role of the identified sex and play down absolutely everything that doesn’t, or that might be non-binary or “off”. And like any process where you have to behave as though you believe in its validity, some people inevitably start actually believing in its validity. Especially given everything I mentioned above. Especially especially when the system is rewarding you. It’s hard to be critical of the letter-grade system when you’re getting straight As, much like it’s hard to question your religion when you’re naturally disposed towards the behaviours it describes as righteous.
So we end up with trans people who the system says are “the good ones” believing that they’re the good ones. We have trans people basing the idea that they’re “real” women or “real” men on a contrast to lesbians or non-ops or tomboys or late transitioners or genderqueers, and whose sense of worth becomes dependent on maintaining the cissexist hierarchies that granted them their privileged station. They become the capos and Quislings of the trans community, passing on information to the guards of the gender prison in exchange for an extra cookie on their lunch tray.
The name that has gradually come to be associated with this aspect of the trans community is “Harry Benjamin Syndrome”. The idea here is that these “real transsexuals” are suffering from a particular unique medical condition, the titular HBS (named for one of the pioneering medical practitioners in the field of transgender care). The idea is that HBS is a sort of intersex condition in which the brain is more or less literally the one sex while the body is the other, and that HRT and SRS are the appropriate medical treatments for the physical “birth defect” of having been born with the inappropriately sexed body. Implicit in this is the idea that non-binary gender identities, or the dysphoria experienced by non-ops, or late transitioners, or gay trans people, or whatever, is merely psychological in nature, or at least of a profoundly different etiology, and that it’s damaging to associate these transgender people or “pseudo-transsexuals” with the “true transsexual” suffering from HBS. The idea of these other identities being “lesser”, or simply divorced from their own, is often reinforced by leaning on various cis sexologist’s (usually highly dubious) theories of transgenderism, such as autogynephilia.
So long as we’re making up silly medical conditions to account for minor variations in a socio-cultural category (derived from a loose cluster of related etiologies of gender), how about “Harry Benjamin Syndrome Syndrome”, a psychosocial disorder born from a dependence on external validation of one’s variant gender identity and marked by the denigration of alternately variant identities as inferior to one’s own, therefore artificially inflating the sense of one’s own identity as meaningful within the current assumptions of the culture? Sound good?
I think it’s not necessarily a problematic thing to interrogate the various more or less pronounced differences that occur across distinct types of gender variance, and I think it often is important to not blur the distinctions or confuse particular types of transgenderism with others. I, for instance, become livid when uninformed cis folk make the mistake of thinking drag queen, transvestite, cross-dresser and transsexual are all the same thing, or simply different points on a spectrum. And I find that I don’t really have anything meaningful in common with drag queens or cross-dressers. I’ve often been asked advice from the latter and found myself at a loss for anything substantive to say, and I’ve repeatedly been infuriated by the former’s insistence on often speaking for the transsexual community in the media on matters that pertain to us but not them, such as the relative offensiveness of the word “tranny” or the Libra tampon ad. It’s important, in advancing our understanding of gender, to be able to discuss these distinctions, nuances and subtleties, to think about what they mean, and to disseminate that discourse beyond the boundaries of our own community and into how our culture as a whole understands and interprets gender.
But, where the problem with HBS lies is not simply marking distinctions but in creating hierarchies from them, and suggesting that political coalitions are a bad idea on the basis that the “upper” strata of the hierarchy will only be hindered in their push for acceptance (in accordance with externally imposed standards) by cooperation with the “lower” strata. What makes it especially creepy is that we see this happening on other levels of the queer community, too. The exact same argument is brought forth by LGB people as a reason to drop the T from the acronym, to not bother fighting for trans rights, reaching out to trans people, accommodating trans needs, discussing how trans people are impacted by any given issue, or using trans rights as nothing more than a bargaining chip in politics free to be discarded as a “compromise” to attain greater rights for LGBs, etc.
Concepts such as “The Transgender Community” or “LGBT”/”The Queer Community” are not meant to be overarching ideas of who and what we are. It isn’t meant to blur distinctions. The Transgender Umbrella doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge that cross-dresser is different from transsexual is different from drag queen is different from genderqueer, no more than using “Queer” is to imagine that gay men and trans women are the same thing. These are political coalitions.
You see, we may understand those nuances and differences. We know the difference between intersex and genderqueer, cross-dressing and drag, trans man and butch lesbian… but the haters don’t. They don’t really care. They see a big icky rabble of icky queers and they want us gone, no matter how exactly we differ from their heteronormative, cisnormative expectations.
Such political coalitions are useful and meaningful not on the basis of shared identity or shared etiology of identity, but on the basis of shared oppression. Queer, loosely speaking, means “differs from cultural expectations of gender and/or sexuality”. It’s useful to band together and cooperate on that basis because differing from such cultural expectations results in a similar form of oppression (the sexually-based oppression in fact often operating as a subset of gender-based oppression- It isn’t taboo to suck cock, it’s taboo for a man to suck cock). Transgender, similarly, means only to significantly differ from cultural expectations of gender expression, gender identity, or (arguably) physical sex. We cooperate because we all, “HBS” and non-op alike, are oppressed on that basis.
These kinds of internecine divisions, hoping to somehow move forward in cultural acceptance by ridding yourselves of the unseemly lower classes of whatever, do absolutely nothing for progress. What they do is reinforce the scaffolding on which the oppression was based (for instance, the idea that certain kinds of gender are more valid or “real” than others). Whatever extra cookie you may get on your tray when lunch is served in the prison, you’re still stuck in that prison, still dependent on the guards, and will remain so until we cooperate effectively and build a tunnel. We won’t be free until we are no longer dependent on someone or something else, like a contrived medical diagnosis, to say our gender is real and valid and worth asserting. We won’t be free until all of us have the ability to provide our own validation. Until we stop asking “am I a woman?” and start shouting “I am a woman!”
Which is why our movement needs to place that as our priority. Self-definition. Self-validation.
Then there won’t be any need to weigh your identity against any other. No need for sacrifice when you’ve gotten rid of the god you sought to appease.