The Trans Community is not a healthy thing.
I’ve taken to capitalizing it as such, because there isn’t, exactly, one single monolithic trans community. There are many, many trans communities, some as small as just circles of friends who happen to share that particular aspect of gender together. But The Trans Community is something else. The Trans Community is the dominant culture that has emerged from the shared identity “trans”. It is the support groups, the published memoirs available at big-box bookstores, the “how-to” websites that pop up when someone young and confused first googles what “getting a sex change” actually entails, the most prominent web forums, the most visible branches of trans activism, the vocal “leaders” who are consulted and interviewed by the mainstream media, the organizations to which people are referred by their doctors for help and information when first exploring medical transition, the organizations to which doctors are referred for information, the people who put together Transgender Day of Remembrance events, the consultants for Hollywood, the people who issue the press releases that state how “the trans community” feels about any given issue, the people who control the publishing, the websites, the organizations, the media, the books, who control the information and discourse, the people who, more or less, get to define what “trans” means for the mainstream culture, the people who get to speak for us, collectively… and all of us caught up in this, and our relationship to it. That’s The Trans Community.
And it’s a broken thing.
Few trans women I know have positive recollections of support groups, and of their early experiences being around other trans women. It’s sickeningly common for trans women to be told what about their bodies and faces and presentation they need to “fix”… and what the price tag is going to be. It’s common for trans women to claim a disturbing sense of proprietary to other trans women’s bodies, up to and including acts of sexual assault, such as feeling another’s breasts without consent as some kind of act of “comparson” (“That’s not sexual assault! We’re all girls here!”). It’s common for trans women to say incredibly cruel and undermining things about one another’s appearance, typically under the pretense of “passing advice”. It’s common for trans women to police who does and doesn’t count as “really” a woman, all the way up to actively barring some people from being able to access groups, meetings, supports and resources if they don’t fit whatever their arbitrary criteria (usually only exactly the amount of tolerance required to accept their own gender as legitimate, nothing more) happen to be. The standards within the trans community of who is “really” a woman, what constitutes beauty and femininity and “passing”, who “should” be permitted access and resources, who doesn’t threaten the “safety” of their “safe space”, and for whom gatekeeping and denial of medical treatment is “understandable” or “justified”, are far more often than not heavily intertwined with ableist, racist, homophobic, classist, and indeed cissexist normativities and concepts of gender and identity.
And to be brutally honest, this is only scratching the surface of how much toxicity, kyrarchy, oppression and internalized cissexism and transphobia flourishes within The Trans Community, and even amongst the basic relationships that exist between trans women, and trans people in a general sense (I’ll restrict this post to trans women and AMAB trans for the sake of brevity and personal familiarity with the topic, but trans men and AFAB trans are absolutely not exempt from the toxicity I’m describing, and many of the most prominent and intense kinds of internal sexism, oppression, kyrarchy and cissexism within The Trans Community occur in regards to the relative privileging of trans men and other AFAB trans at the expense of trans women and AMAB trans, as well as their complicity in the trans-misogyny of the broader Queer Community). This is also to say nothing of the most extreme fringe examples of oppressive, kyrarchal behaviour by trans people, such as those who rally under the banner of “Harry Benjamin Syndrome“. Nor to say anything of the actual acts of violence committed towards trans women at the hands of other trans people. Nor to say anything of “Call Out Culture”, doxxing, the tumblr “let’s send death threats to Laci Green” type of so-called trans-feminists, the misogynistic attacks against rad-fems, the exploitations of trans women of colour and violence towards them, the overarching ableism common to trans discourse and “remove gender dysphoria from the DSM!” petitions, the prevalence of overt MRA sympathies and beliefs amongst trans women, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.
To put it short, amongst being overtly participants in a variety of other forms of oppression (and being a reminder of the sadly all-too-obvious truth that experiencing oppression along one axis won’t make you any less likely to be oppressive along another), trans people are often the front-line agents of cissexism and the structures that police trans genders: what we can be, what we can do with our bodies, what that means, what is or is not “legitimate” or “acceptable” or “real”, who is permitted access to what resources (medical or otherwise) and who is not, and what the conditions are for access or perceived legitimacy. This, more often than representatives of our rights and our realities and our humanity, is what The Trans Community functions as.
It’s a broken thing.
These issues need to be addressed. And increasingly, they have been. A lot of trans-feminist voices are emerging that are directly challenging the assumptions, biases and heirarchies of The Community, trying to give voice back to those erased by The Narrative, trying to find ways to broaden who is able to access needed resources, and working on countless other fronts for the sake of improving our internal communities and relationships. This is a long and challenging fight, but it’s painfully necessary, and ours will never be a trans movement worth having if we don’t deal with this. We also are uniquely poised to learn from the mistakes and failures of movements that have come before us, like the Gay Rights movement, which ultimately collapsed to a near total focus on the priorities of middle-class or wealthy white, urban, “first world” gay men, alongside an implosion of its activism to the point that the only issues that seemed to count were marriage equality and DADT (in other words: the right to have your relationship privileged above other relationships by God and The State, and the right to participate in the military-industrial and colonial enterprises). It’s very clear that the position of trans people in the wider cultural landscape is changing rapidly, and us trans people with the awful/wonderful luck of occupying this moment have an ethical and political responsibility to ensure that it isn’t only the most privileged and most “normal” amongst us who benefit.
There’s a lot about this conversation that’s potentially dangerous, however. A lot of mistakes that can be made even in the process of attempting to curtail our mistakes. As our cultural position shifts, so too does the degree of attention paid to us and what we’re saying about ourselves. That outside perspective is never going to be a nuanced one. By nature, it will come to the easiest and simplest explanations for what it’s seeing amongst such a “foreign” and “other” community, and more so, the explanations that are most comfortable, that assign it the least responsibility and guilt. If the cis world ends up observing a trans community that principally speaks of gender-policing, gatekeeping and the limitation of access to resources as being acts of oppression trans people perpetrate on other trans people, they will come to the conclusion that these are exclusively trans problems. That trans people have only trans people to blame for all their dischord and strife. That if only trans people got their act together, then everything would be fine. That trans people have to sort their own shit out first. That kinda thing.
It’s far too easy, far too comforting, far too absolving a conclusion for it not to inevitably become a problem.
But the oppression that trans people experience, even when enacted through trans people ourselves and through “our” organizations and communities, still lies at the feet of cis people. It is cissexism, and the systemic privileging of cis people, cis genders, cis lives, cis perspectives, cis experiences and cis bodies over trans ones, that is still the progenitor of these oppressions (at least where they’re not a product of other axises of privilege/oppression intersecting with trans-ness, such as in a white trans person still being white and still having white privilege and white biases, or an able-bodied trans person still being able-bodied and having able-bodied privileges and biases). The responsibility for cissexism, internalized or not, still lies with cis people and their institutions and assumptions.
The Trans Community does not exist in a vacuum. It did not emerge fully formed out of nowhere. It exists in relationship to the society that exists around it, which is in turn a society directly hostile to that which is trans. The support groups emerge from other organizations, cis-controlled. The resources that are guarded and conditionally, selectively provided are scarce, and that scarcity in turn feeds the feelings amongst trans people that they need to be guarded and doled out carefully. There is a dangling fear surrounding all “official” trans organizations, that almost universally exist in some relationship to cis organizations or by the grace of cis dollars, that at any moment the funding could be cut, the groups and meetings shut down, the resources no longer accessible to anyone. Long before any trans person is turned away for not being the “right” kind of trans, someone was told that those were the “rules”. Rules that exist alongside a fear of enforcement. Although it all interplays with intersectional bias and other kinds of social and cultural anxieties, some obvious, some nuanced, the trans agents of limited-access are still largely acting out of fear that access or funding or resources may be revoked entirely, or that they will lose their own access… or simply in fear of scarcity. A scarcity that is manufactured at the higher level of cis-controlled institutions, and perpetuated by the attitude amongst larger, cis-privileging systems that trans needs are a relatively minor, unimportant concern. An afterthought. Long before any trans woman bars another from access to the informed consent clinic, there was a cis person deciding how much funding that clinic was going to get, and what the “purpose” of that money was.
These same patterns occur outside of official organizations, and in the immediate relationships that exist between trans women. Long before any trans woman doles out insulting “passing advice”, conditioned by narrow and racially-coded standards of beauty and womanhood, she herself was taught that passing is paramount and that those are the standards by which it is judged. Maybe it was a trans woman that taught her, and maybe a trans woman that taught that trans woman, but it was in extremely recent history that “passing” was a condition of access to medicine and surgery. A condition directly enforced by cis people. Long before any trans woman gropes another’s chest and excuses it by claiming “we’re all girls here!”, she was taught some absurd, misogynistic and patriarchal vision of how women relate to one another, how women’s bodies are to be treated, and what aspects of a woman’s body determine her worth. She would likely have been taught this by cis men. Long before any trans woman makes a statement about who is “really” a woman, she subjected herself to shame predicated on the belief that she herself wasn’t “real”. Long before any trans woman polices someone else’s gender, she had her own gender policed. Long before any trans woman hates another, she was taught to hate herself. In every action of oppression, transphobia, cissexism, trans-misogyny or patriarchy by a trans person, we are seeing, refracted, an oppression conducted by cis-patriarchy first.
That doesn’t excuse individual accountability for individual actions. I am not making a plea in defense of the horrid actions of trans people to one another, nor would I say that these issues aren’t very real and very much necessary to address, with intensity and unforgiving honesty. But neither should we excuse the systemic cissexism, done by cis people for cis people’s benefit, that produces this. We need to look at these oppressions as part of the systemic pattern, and not allow accountability to be shrugged off the primary oppressor onto those oppressed who’ve internalized it.
It’s also important to recognize that the formalized systems of cissexism, and its enforcement, are still in place. Gatekeeping re: medical access is still enforced. The messages most trans people receive are not feminist or trans-positive messages. Cis people are still limiting access, even amongst those trans people privileged enough to make it past the forward-guard gender police of The Trans Community itself. Until we address the manufactured scarcity, we can’t convince people to stop hoarding.
We also need those resources to be there. Many trans people, especially those very early in the process of living trans lives and attempting to access treatment, are in desperate need of information, doctors, support groups, counselors, informed-consent clinics, books, concepts, language, terminologies, etc. Everything that defines The Trans Community. Those of us who are no longer in that position can often forget just how essential the structures that define The Trans Community, however toxic and broken they may be, are. We can’t indiscriminately attack the established Trans Community lest we risk collapsing what few resources DO exist… and risk lives in the process. Vancouver’s drop-in support group was nearly shut down entirely as a result of local trans people raising their concerns about it (the drop-in support group, however flawed, has on numerous occasions been the one thing that kept many struggling trans people from taking their own lives, the one piece of openly available help and information that could be easily, directly accessed), and Vancouver Coastal Health’s Transgender Health Program was in risk of having its funding and charter revoked when its committee of community members (who were meant to serve not only as a means for the community to voice their needs but also as an oversight committee to ensure accountability) raised serious concerns about missing money, a lack of transparency in the budget and internal conduct, and the overall way the program was being managed by its current (cis) manager. Because the resources are ultimately under cis control, only “tentatively” granted to us out of the “generosity” of larger cis institutions, they can threaten to pull the plug entirely whenever we begin to vocalize our concerns about the manner in which those resources are offered. And they can let accountability roll downhill to the trans people at the direct, street level rather than rest where it belongs, with the cis institutions that didn’t give them a genuine chance to succeed in meeting the needs of trans people. All trans people.
This structure by which cis institutions have all the power but their trans subordinates have all the accountability creates a very dangerous and precarious position, and makes it incredibly dangerous to structure our critique of The Trans Community as a critique of trans people, of how trans people manage whatever resources we’ve been “allowed” to have by cis society. Incredibly dangerous to engage this discourse without constant attention to the wider pattern, the stakes, and who is actually responsible. Dangerous to engage this discourse in such a way that cis insitutions, and cis patriarchy in a broader sense, can say that the problems faced by trans people are self-generated. That trans oppression is a trans problem.
It’s a cis problem. It’s always been a cis problem. No matter what face it happens to be wearing.