One of the most lovely aspects of the internet, one of those that has most consistently lived up to the somewhat utopian visions the medium’s emergence promised, has been its capacity to offer a highly democratic, highly populist form of media, information exchange, communication and community.
In a recent “tranchat” (a twitter-based discussion that occurs each Sunday), the topic came up of the tension in feminism between theory or academia, and “real life” issues, everyday praxis, the street level experiences that feminism suggests the capacity to speak to, of, about. It occurred to me, though, that this tension seems much less prevalent and noticeable concerning trans-feminism. Trans-feminism has, thus far, not been a product of academia, nor is it even really practiced there… at least not in any form even remotely resembling the trans-feminism which I’m involved in and accustomed to. Trans voices are not exactly welcomed and embraced within academia, and the experiences of trans people in that milieu, students and faculty alike, are markedly different than those expressing or embodying other queer identities (totes not in a good way, either). Rather than us being the speakers in academia, we are the objects of study. Rather than theorists, we’re something the theorists struggle to explain.
Like other activist movements built from minorities (or ideological minorities) that had previously been scattered, isolated from one another in circumstantial diaspora, with very little access to information, community, publication, media, connection or infrastructure with which to organize, trans-feminism has been overwhelmingly a product of the internet. The internet in general has had an immense influence on trans people and our capacity to even exist, turning what had once been something often impossibly remote and difficult to understand, with intense limitations on who could or could not access the resources to make into a reality, into something that is far far more of a genuine, tangible possibility for those who need it. But beyond simply making our lives so much more livable, and our needs so much more attainable, and our identities and experiences so much more comprehensible, it is has also given us the capacity to find one another, communicate, and organize.
This was the spirit and media in which trans-feminism was born… isolated individuals who had been intensely marginalized from the dominant media and narratives reaching out to one another through the means that were available. It has not been something handed down from “community leaders” to “the people”, but instead something that emerged collectively. In this sense, it feels like those theory / praxis, academia / “real life” tensions aren’t as important for us. Or at least, that we have the opportunity to avoid them becoming important or meaningful. If we do this right, those tensions shouldn’t have to exist, shouldn’t have to feel at all relevant or worth talking about. If we do this right, we will always be a discourse that emerged from and between the people it speaks of, not ever having to position academics, theorists, experts or leaders to speak on our behalf. It’s a pretty awesome thing.
Of course, none of this has been perfectly democratic. Privilege, class, who does or does not get paid attention to or taken seriously, who is able to be the loudest and command the most attention, who draws in relative “status” from external structures and media… all of those things affect the discourse. It would be a gigantic mistake to think that simply because we aren’t an inherently academic discourse and movement, or a discourse and movement that hasn’t yet taken on a heirarchial structure, that we’re somehow immune to falling into any of that. We need to be critical and careful. We need to own up to our faults.
But what we do have is an opportunity to be something non-heirarchial, non-stratified, discursive, conversational, intersectional, populist, accessible… we have the capacity to hold those as qualities to nurture, values to protect, rather than symptoms of not being a “serious” movement and discourse, barriers to the attainment of status and legitimacy. We’re young, and we haven’t made too many mistakes yet. The problems we presently have haven’t yet become entrenched. It’s lovely, and exciting, and worth fighting to make the most of.
And more than simply an opportunity to pursue a conversational, accessible structure for its own sake, it seems like an essential quality for trans-feminism, and for a broader Fourth Wave, to pursue and cherish in order to be able to live up to the underlying spirit, values and goals of feminism itself.
Gender, and gender variance, is an inherently multi-faceted thing. It spans an intensely broad and varied range of experiences, intersecting with all other aspects of identity. No single vantage point can possibly provide an accurate perception of the entire landscape. We’ve seen, over and over again, the kinds of mistakes that emerge from those of particular perspectives attempting to speak to issues they don’t have direct experience with. We can try, yes, and we probably should try. And it’s impossible to meaningfully speak about any aspect of gender or its related socio-cultural and political dynamics without addressing the experiences of other sides of those dynamics and intersectional issues, or at the very least meaningfully taking them into consideration, which puts each of us who would try to address these issues in the difficult position of needing to periodically address issues we can’t fully understand, and the difficult position of having to walk into territory where we know we’ll get lost, stumble, make mistakes… and walk into it anyway.
But in maintaining a conversational, open-ended, accessible approach, where a multiplicity of voices are able to enter the field, with as few barriers as possible to being heard and listened to, then we can minimize the harm of those inherent limitations. Human beings are biased. We always come from particular subjective vantage points. When speaking of human concerns, social concerns, it’s very difficult to minimize the influence of that subjectivity. And ultimately, it will lead us to making mistakes. But in maintaining a diversity of voices, from a broad range of perspectives and vantage points, we can ensure that, at least, we’re not all making the same mistakes over and over. Instead, we each make different mistakes, but from the conversation as a whole, from the aggregated, shared voice of a Fourth Wave, speaking from as many facets of gender’s staggering complexity as possible, we can begin to discern something meaningful. A truer picture of what’s going on.
From no single vantage point can the entire landscape be observed. But by sharing our observations, and doing everything we can to ensure that no perspective is excluded from our conversation, we may be able to draw up a decent map.
The value of this kind of approach becomes especially apparently when considering, even in the limited context of trans-feminism, how certain experiences of gender, and related perspectives, are mutually exclusive. The experiences and perspectives of both binary-identified and non-binary-identified trans people are essential to take into consideration when trying to understand trans issues. Likewise, AMAB and AFAB people, and people who didn’t receive a binary assignment at all. People who developed female anatomies, male anatomies, and intersexed anatomies. People who transitioned “early” and people who transitioned “late” (ever notice how no one is ever described as an “on time” transitioner?). The experiences of those who are visibly gender variant, and those wh have conditional cis privilege. People with differing levels of ability, and different kinds of disability… mobility, sensory, visible and invisible. People from all kinds of different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. Etc.
No single trans person, even those who exist at the intersections of multiple axes of discrimination, oppression and marginalization, can possibly speak to or even understand the full range of gender variant experiences. To have a trans-feminism that is genuine in its desire to give voice to gender variance, it needs to be genuine in its efforts to voice that variance in all its diversity. And that means any genuine trans-feminism, any trans-feminism that is not simply about voicing the concerns or needs of particular segments of the community (such as those with “typical” narratives… an impossibly narrow ideal that few, if any, of us ever truly live), demands a multiplicity of voices. A conversational approach.
As it’s demanded of me to be able to speak to intersectional concerns when speaking of trans issues, I need to go forward with the knowledge that, as said, I’m going to stumble and make mistakes. But in maintaining a conversational approach, and doing my best to listen to and rely on voices, perspectives and experiences other than my own, I can at least put my trust in others to catch those mistakes, and in their own efforts compensate for them. We work together, and lend each other the ability to see what is lost in our own blind-spots.
If all this is true of trans-feminism, it is by nature also true of any feminism that is genuine in its desire to speak to the socio-cultural and political dynamics of gender. What is demanded of trans-feminism in lending voice to the full range of gender variance is inherently also demanded of any feminism that purports to speak to gender itself (gender variance, naturally, therein included)… rather than simply speaking to the needs, concerns or priorities of particular classes of women or the particular agendas of certain particularly vocal or powerful branches of feminism.
But not only is this conversational approach necessary in light of the inability to address gender variance without taking into consideration diverse and often mutually exclusive backgrounds and perspectives, but also, for fairly obvious reasons, becomes ever more true when attempting to meet the demands of speaking to gender in a broader sense. Yeah, there’s no universal trans narrative. But there’s no universal cis narrative either. No universal narrative of women. No universal narrative of men. No universal narrative of gender. No universal gender at all.
Gender is a broad term we use to speak of something that, as it manifests in our actual lives, experiences and, yes, society and politics, is ultimately intensely individual and personal, even when political, and affected and mediated by almost everything else about the individual (just as it affects and mediates those other aspects in turn). It is virtually impossible to make sweeping declarations about the nature or experience of gender, and how it manifests, even when speaking of socio-cultural dynamics… those dynamics, as they actually manifest, will always diverge from our abstract model of them when they bump up against that individuality, and the intersectional aspects of that individual’s identity and social position. It is also virtually impossible to speak of gender in a manner that is disconnected from those intersections. We can’t isolate gender as a singular topic, removed from how it ends up being experienced or manifested. When we do, we construct models that may be elegant and consistent and perhaps reflect some platonic abstraction of gender, but likely will have very little to say about what people are actually living and dealing with. And what people are actually living and dealing with is, at least for me, what actually matters, what is worth addressing through feminism.
In that sense, we can’t allow feminism to be guided by the distinct and singular voices of experts and theory. It must instead be guided by a collective dialogue if it is to be able to address the diverse realities of gender as it is lived and, often, suffered.
Much could also be said about the dangers of structuring a movement around “idols” and leaders. The trans community has lost a great deal, and been dragged into a lot of harmful myths and ideologies and misrepresentations and internal heirarchies, by the mistake of misplaced, excessive trust in “community leaders” who represent and are capable of speaking to the interests of only a small segment of the community they were falsely positioned as representing collectively (and sometimes eventually coming to only represent their own individual agendas). But this seems like a secondary concern to me. The dangers of cults-of-personality, and leaders-on-pedestals, are either made inevitable or harmless depending on how we structure our discourse. If we focus on a conversational, democratic, accessible structure, based on a guiding principle of listening to one another and allowing each other the space to speak, there will be considerably less opportunity for those with the most privilege, access, resources and ego to monopolize the discourse and guide it towards their particular interests, and in the event that such monopolizations do occur, attention would, by principle, be diverted towards whomever wasn’t being heard or represented.
For a Fourth Wave to meaningfully move past the limitations and failures of previous feminisms, we need to be willing to give up the top-down structures of conventional academic discourse and conventional media and publication. While there may be a superficial loss of “status”, “legitimacy” and “respect” in deliberately moving away from those structures to the more chaotic and dirty worlds of conversational, accessible media, what’s earned is the capacity to speak far more meaningfully to what we are living and struggling with, and a capacity to construct a feminism that is not limited to benefiting only those who already have enough privilege and power to access those “legitimate” media and systems. And really, who is conferring the “status” earned through publication? Who are we trying to have “respect” us? And what systems might be perpetuated by continuing to behave as though we require their respect, and their permission?
Conversational, accessible approaches offer not only the ability to create a more genuine and meaningful feminism, but they also offer the capacity to speak on our own terms. To decide for ourselves that we have the right to speak., and to decide for ourselves who deserves to be heard.
Which is not just those with an impressive resume and publication history. Which is, rather, all of us.