Here’s hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues

Yesterday, multiple people alerted me to an event announcement by the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch about their participation in Toronto’s Annual Pride Parade. The announcement originally read:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun- and show our support for the trans community BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Transphobia is an insidious and often overlooked problem which effects thousands of Canadians. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

Note: You don’t HAVE to dress in drag or be gay to march in the parade- you just need to be awesome :)

Some hours later, it was revised to remove all mention of trans people or transphobia, reading:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

CFI Ontario executive director Jaimy Warner later issued a semi-apology/explanation on Facebook, reading in part:

I’d like to note that the intention of this event theme was never to mock. CFI has been working tirelessly with the LGBT community and the Ontario GSA Coalition over the past several months to get Bill 13 passed, we have a long track record of supporting LGBT rights and we’re very sensitive to in supporting issues of sexual/gender orientation. I admit that I could have worded the content better-it was not my intention to suggest drag and trans are the same (although ‘trans’ as in the transgender community does include drag performers and cross dressers) but to express that we don’t feel there is anything shameful or abnormal about cross dressing or playing with cultural gender norms. I can see how the juxtaposition of ‘drag’ and ‘trans’ could have easily been interpreted as offensive, and I have since removed that particular content from this event, the website and our newsletter.

That being said: we’ve marched in the parade for many years and I felt that it was time for CFI to really get into the spirit of things. Pride is fun, playful and expressive. We’re not donning a ‘gay costume’ we’re adopting a beloved aspect of LGBT culture as a visible sign of appreciation and acceptance (I completely agree that drag is an art). In another environment I can certainly see how ‘dressing in drag’ could quickly degrade into mockery- but this is not a frat house kegger nor are we a collection of close minded bigots. We’re a science educational charity marching in a Gay Pride Parade (with a professional drag queen helping us prepare, I should add) demonstrating we’re open minded and accepting.

A more substantial apology from Warner followed:

Please let me being by apologizing.

You’re right. My initial response was not an apology but a selfish attempt to explain the stance of my organization and our perspective. At the start of the planning phase for this event I spoke to a number of people in the LGBT community who thought this was a good idea-I thought it was a good idea- so it was easy for me to disregard the first negative responses I received here today. I fell victim to confirmation bias and ignored evidence that this may be a bad idea- this behaviour goes against the grain of what I stand for and I regret this truly. This event and my response to genuine concern has hurt, enraged and polarized people. This was a bad idea and I’m sorry so many people were hurt and made to feel excluded before I realized this.

CFI will not dress in drag.

I get the impression that CFI Ontario and its leadership still don’t quite understand what was wrong with this particular approach to showing solidarity with trans people. Really, I’m confused and taken aback that this could even happen in the first place without anyone at CFI Ontario or their contacts explaining why this is, to put it mildly, a bad idea. It seems some clarification may be in order.

Drag performers and trans people have a complex and sometimes openly hostile relationship, arising from their similarities, differences, and how mainstream society has (mis)categorized and regarded them. The definitions themselves are still unclear at times, and not always agreed upon. Warner states that the “transgender community” also includes drag performers and cross-dressers, but this is just one definition that many people don’t share or endorse. Yes, some people have advanced a “transgender umbrella” model that encompasses drag performers, cross-dressers, transvestites, genderqueer and non-binary people, transsexual people, and anyone whose identity or expression diverges from conventional gender roles. Others have pointed out that such a concept potentially includes any man or woman who doesn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles, presentations and behaviors, making the definition of “transgender” much broader than what was originally intended.

But regardless of how one defines what it means to be transgender, the mere fact that both drag performers and transsexual people have at times been considered “transgender” does not mean that performing drag is a meaningful, appropriate, or sensitive way to express solidarity with trans people. They may have been grouped together due to certain (extremely broad) similarities, but there are still a great many differences – including differences that are substantial enough to preclude the use of drag as a viable means of fighting transphobia.

Many people don’t constrain their understanding of “drag” to a certain established style of exaggerated performance, and instead use it to refer to any instance of what they perceive as cross-dressing – no matter how the person doing it identifies, whether they intended it as any sort of performance or recreational practice, or whether they even consider themselves to be cross-dressing. This last point is crucial: it’s extremely easy for people with little understanding of trans issues or gender identity to conflate trans people with cis (non-trans) drag performers or cross-dressers. In reality, they’re almost nothing alike.

Again, drag is a performance – a costume, an event, a temporary engagement for the purposes of entertainment. Being trans is none of these things. A trans person who dresses in accordance with their gender identity is simply wearing clothes that their culture has coded as representing the gender that they are, much like any cis person who does the same. A cis woman who wears clothing conventionally associated with women isn’t cross-dressing or doing drag. And neither is a trans woman. Trans people are not dressing “cross” to their gender, they are dressing as their gender. They are not wearing their clothes as some kind of costume, or to entertain anyone, or to put on a show. They are wearing the clothes they wear for the same mundane reasons that cis people wear the clothes they wear. Dressing in a way that reflects their gender is just as much of an everyday, non-noteworthy thing for trans people as it is for cis people.

Most trans people look nothing whatsoever like drag performers, a fact that’s rarely noticed and taken into account because trans people simply don’t stand out. Since people generally don’t have the opportunity to take note of all the trans people they don’t see as trans, those who have no (known) experience with trans people tend to derive their perception of us from people they do see and mistakenly identify as trans – like drag performers. Many trans people have come to resent drag itself for being a major source of harmful misconceptions about who we are and what we’re like. Some drag performers have only exacerbated this by frequently and unapologetically using anti-trans slurs despite not being transsexual themselves, or participating in advertisements with blatantly transphobic overtones and refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything wrong with this.

Whether drag in general is inherently problematic is a separate issue to be resolved, but there’s one thing I want to make very clear: Dressing in drag to “support” trans people is not acceptable, ever. It is perhaps one of the most unacceptable things I can imagine. It is so unacceptable that I struggle to find a suitably analogous situation to compare it to. If a cis man decided to don women’s clothing for the stated purpose of showing that he supports me as a trans woman, I would be deeply insulted by the near-total lack of comprehension and the implication that there is anything remotely similar about myself and that.

Drag queens are men in women’s clothes. Trans women are women in whatever they may be wearing. Linking drag to being trans, as CFI Ontario did, implies that we are somehow comparable to drag performers. By any relevant metric, we are not, but thoughtless ideas like this only reinforce what is perhaps the most common articulation of transphobia: that trans women, too, are just men in women’s clothes. While CFI Ontario probably didn’t mean to say that, they’ve certainly encouraged it. Such a denial of our identities is just as insulting as it would be to presume that a cis person’s gender is inauthentic and that you know their gender better than they do. It’s even more deeply wounding because of the price we pay for living in a way that’s consistent with who we are, a price measured in violence, discrimination, open ridicule, and the risk and indignity of being seen as less than human in our daily interactions with the rest of the world.

This is not something that happens because we’re in costume. It’s because we refuse to go through life wearing a costume that hides our true selves. Someone who performs in drag at a club or dresses up for Pride will have no understanding whatsoever of the unbearable pressure of ceaseless marginalization and constant fear, and for them to parallel themselves with us, even implicitly, only trivializes that brutal reality. It cannot possibly be a show of support, because all it shows is that they know nothing of our lives.

That’s what makes it so shocking for a CFI branch to propose something like this. I expect that as a skeptical and freethought group, they would comprehend what drag actually is before suggesting that their members dress in drag. I expect that they would understand who trans people really are before deciding how best to support us. I expect that they would do their research and recognize why the interaction of drag and trans issues in this context makes their idea utterly, shamefully inappropriate. Basically, I expect them to know what they’re talking about, before they talk about it. In this case, that did not happen. Given their claims of extensive collaboration with LGBT groups, it becomes even more incomprehensible that something like this could slip through the cracks.

While I’m glad to see that they eventually acknowledged that this was a mistake and eliminated the drag aspect of their event, it would have been better if this had never happened in the first place, and I’d like to know what CFI Ontario plans to do in order to prevent any similar errors in the future. Their desire to support us is admirable, but its implementation was badly mishandled here. If you really want to show your support, please do what we strive to do every day: Simply be yourself.