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Jan 19 2013

Discourse And Intersectionality

Here’s the thing: nothing I write is original.

A few weeks ago, someone wrote to me on twitter asking about my failure to recognize the prior work of Monica Maldonado on the subject of radical-feminism’s relationship to trans-misogynistic violence, in my Complicity Vs. Cause post. My initial reaction was defensive. I felt like I was being accused of plagiarising a colleague and friend, and of being unaware of the way my privilege affects the degree of recognition and praise I receive for ideas that are often ignored, or reacted to with hostility, when expressed by trans women of colour, or trans-feminists who don’t class-pass, and “sound smart”, the way I do. Additionally, I had made no secret on my twitter of the intense debt the evolution of my trans-feminism and ideas owes to my friends and colleagues, many of whom are trans women of colour, non-binary trans people, or otherwise in a position of less privilege, and less mainstream “palatability”, than myself. And consequently don’t receive nearly as much recognition and respect as they deserve, in contrast to myself.

But being aware of those issues of privilege doesn’t absolve me of accountability or responsibility in relation to them, and having been explicit about how much I owe to my friends and colleagues on my twitter (which is a big jumbly mess of whatever pops into my head whenever) is not the same thing as overtly and purposefully owning up to that here, in my “official” writing. I did fuck-up.

Maybe there’s been some subconscious vanity going on. Maybe on some level, I knew that I’d be jeopardizing the recognition I receive for my writing if I directly acknowledged the manner in which my ideas develop. Maybe I, like everyone, was allowing myself to buy into the idea of the solitary intellectual, generating Great Ideas out of nowhere with which they change the world. And worse, maybe I was allowing myself to play along a little bit with the trans community’s dangerous reliance upon Community Leaders and Role Models.

All of which is in direct contradiction not only of my actual process, but what I believe trans-feminist discourse needs. What intersectional feminism needs. My collaborative, discursive process of trans-feminism isn’t chosen because I’m lazy, or leaning upon the ideas of greater minds (my friends and colleagues aren’t Solitary Intellectual Geniuses either…we share with and learn from eachother). It’s chosen because I feel it’s what trans-feminism needs to be. At least if it’s to be healthy and intersectional in nature.

We all have privileges, each and every one of us, and as we all know, privilege comes with blinders. It takes consistent, and difficult, effort to work around that, and learn to see in your blind-spots. No single isolated voice can ever be a fully “intersectional” voice, except perhaps in awareness of that individuals intersecting oppressions. But no one can exist at the intersectional of all oppressions. This makes isolation an inherently limiting factor in the effort to build an intersectional feminist discourse.

One of the only reliable means of working around the blind-spots we each carry, that limit our capacity to understand the full breadth of any social issue, is to depend on and listen to people for whom it isn’t a blind spot, people we can count on to see in those corners for us. I can’t fully understand all the nuances of what it means to be a person of colour in North America, and I can’t fully understand what it means to live with a visible disability, and I can’t fully understand the lived experiences and unique perspectives of people involved in sex work. But I can listen to the people who do, who’s experiences allow them full understanding of those issues, and I can allow their perspectives to inform my own. Just as, in turn, my own experiences can inform those who have blind spots regarding womanhood, transsexuality, addiction, poverty, Canada, rural upbringings, etc. By sharing perspectives, and listening to one another, we develop a much broader view, patching together our individual viewpoints in a panaramic, meaningful, intersectional perspective.

This becomes very important when speaking of trans experiences. While it’s already an inherently problematic (and inaccurate) thing to talk about Universal Narratives of, say, womanhood, or disability, or race, or any other shared facet of a set of lives, the idea of expected, and assumed, narrative or history is an overwhelming force in the discourse of gender variance, with serious consequences for those involved. This has a complex history, with origins, perhaps, in the narrative we were expected to recite in order to receive treatment under strict gatekeeping, but continues to thrive in the insistence upon Telling Our Stories, the genre of The Trans Memoir and its recurrent memes, the concept that particular histories (like “I always knew“, or “I knew as a child, before having any sexual agency“) have more currency in regards to the validity of one’s gender, our insistence upon a linear experience of gender (encoded into our language and terminology of self-expression itself), the erasure and mistreatment of backgrounds that fall outside the standardize Trans Narrative, and the degree to which one matches that narrative reflecting the degree to which one is given visibility and voice (which, again, touches upon the privileges I have in regards to my ability to be heard and recognized over friends of mine).

Yet beyond that problem of dominant narrative in regards to trans experience, and the need to dismantle it (aggressively, if need be!), the shear diversity of trans lives and experiences demands consideration of a multiplicity of voices, and therefore demands a discursive, conversational model of trans-feminism.

While all trans and gender-variant people experience oppression, and all those oppressions relate, the precise nature of their experiences, genders, bodies, and histories conditions the form that oppression takes, and the conditions that produce those forms are frequently mutually exclusive. For instance, trans men and trans women depend on one another, need to learn from and inform one another, to be able to grasp anything close to a view of the experiences and oppression of “trans people”, and need to act in concert in order to address those oppressions and inform the cis public. The same is true of those with binary identities and those with non-binary identities needing to converse and share and work together, of people whose bodies were normatively sexed prior to transition and those whose bodies were not, those who had linear “transitions” and those who didn’t, those who transitioned at various ages, those with conditional cis privilege (who are consistently read as cis) and those who do not (and those in various positions between), those who live in stealth, those who are fully “out”, and those navigating more varied and contextual approaches to disclosure, those who have access to coverage for medical treatments and those who do not, trans people who come from various class backgrounds, trans people who come from various ethnic backgrounds, trans people who are involved in sex work, trans people in the military, trans people in academia, trans people in the tech industry, trans celebrities and public figures, trans people with disabilities, trans people who are unemployed or homeless, trans people with addictions, trans people with children, trans people who were married, trans people of varying sexual and romantic orientations, and so on and so on and so on.

Very few of those are as simple as just being an intersecting axis of oppression. How sexual orientation, for instance, operates in relation to being trans isn’t as simple as stacking “gay” on top of “trans”. Being trans modifies the experience of being queer, and it’s attendant oppressions, just as being queer modifies the experience of being trans. And many of these things, while seeming to be a case of “one side having it better”, is often far more complex. Conditional cis privilege, for instance, does not put someone in the position of total exemption from transphobia, and indeed exposes one to certain specific risks; trans-misogynistic violence, for instance, is heavily intertwined with the concept of the “deceptive transexual”, and that feeling of having been “deceived” is dependent on having first read the target as cis. Consequently, we’re not looking at a range of issues that can be understood as simply “Transphobia + Another Issue”. We’re looking at different transphobias and different cissexisms and different trans-misogynies and different manifestations thereof.

Absolutely NO single trans person can speak for that immense diversity of experience.

I’ve often said, especially to cis people who discovered me by proximity to the Skeptic and Atheist communities, that if I’m the only trans-feminist you’re reading, then you don’t understand trans-feminism or trans issues. I meant that. I really really meant that. I can speak about a lot of things, but I cannot, by definition, speak to the actual range of gender diversity. No one can. The only way to understand trans is to understand it from as many angles and experiences as possible. Which is an effort I make as best I can.

My writing is informed by that. My hope is that being open to a wide variety of other experiences, and learning from them, makes me a better feminist, better advocate, and better human being. But it wouldn’t matter. No matter how much I listen to others and am informed by them, I’ll only ever be one data point in a vast chain of trans experiences and trans perspectives.

This is one of the reasons I have so many fears about the way that The Trans Community selects specific idols and Leaders, and invests them with so much power to speak for us as a whole. Firstly, the Trans Community doing that selecting are already those so privileged to speak for the community (through dollars, through publishing, through visibility, etc.), and the people who get selected are drawn from a narrow pool of broad acceptability and narrow range of histories, opinions and politics that fit with what The Trans Community want to hear and what they want cis people to see of us. After that many iterations of paring-down the breadth and diversity of what “transgender” is, you end up with just a tiny sliver of us positioned to represent a whole that no individual is able to represent.

Julia Serano, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Kate Bornstein and Mara Kiesling are not The Trans Community. No matter how well-intentioned, they never could be.

What we need to be is a discourse. A communication, a range of voices interacting and sharing and learning and challenging and pushing and driving forward, with compassion, working together. What we need is for the full diversity of trans lives, and it alone, to stand up to represent and speak for the full diversity of trans lives.

And I’m a part of such a discourse. Everything I’ve ever wrote has had my friends and colleagues in it. Everything I’ve ever wrote is a product of them and their minds and insights as it is my own. And I don’t want to hide that.

A conversation is exponentially more powerful than a solitary voice.

Now go read some other trans-feminists. ;)

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. 1
    Dyssonance

    This is well done, and quite self aware, and I, for one, am glad to see it.

    As one of those who woke up one day and found her multi-racial, interdisciplinary self such a leader, I can say that it also bring s with it a certain degree of privilege that is not enjoyable, especially when you’ve had to deal with the absence of various sorts for most of your life.

    None of us derives our knowledge from the mountain. We are not Guru’s that require a trek to learn from, and this is why I say that the primary currency of the Trans Community is knowledge.

    I am just as subject to defensiveness and ego attacks as the people who have been on the receiving end of my often bittersweet tongue. Which means I am not better than they are, I am merely different.

    You do really well, Natalie. Don’t lose yourself like I did for too long. Keep your voice yours, not that of the community, and in doing so you will find that you have a stronger voice that represents more people than you would otherwise.

  2. 2
    Susanna Astarte

    Hello Natalie! So happy to have found your blog it’s very well-written and sharp!
    I’m also very sorry you’ll only be writing til March. Sigh- but we must all carry on.
    I’ve posted a few articles of yours on my Trans Friendly Feminist Group on Facebook.
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for what you have written is insightful and very helpful.
    In sisterhood-Susanna/Henry

  3. 3
    anothersara

    Yes, you are right. I should read/listen to more trans-feminists.

    The issues you raise make me think about the asexual-spectrum communities. One thing I like about them is that a central narrative has not emerged there like it has in some other sexuality-identity groups. However, I also see signs of a nascent central narrative emerging (for example, David Jay is the poster boy for asexuality), and I also see some aces impliying that some aspects of their experience are universal for all aces when, in fact, they are not.

    Fortunately, some people are aware of the danger of a central narrative emerging, and are pushing against it (for example, I think this post is great: https://pianycist.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/carnival-of-aces-november/ ) and one of the things which inspired me to start blogging about asexuality is that, while my experience as an asexual has a lot in common with many other asexuals’ experiences, there are also some aspects which I have never seen anybody else ever describe. I want to put descriptions of those aspects out there.

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