1. A many-sided debate
It’s been almost two weeks since the publication of our open letter regarding Calpernia Addams and Andrea James, and I feel it’s had quite a useful impact. My goal in this was to present a loud, powerful, and broad-based protest against what would otherwise be unopposed transphobia by two women who are perceived as community “leaders”. And this chorus of opposition consists of none other than those most affected by this: trans women and transfeminine people ourselves.
I’m very pleased that this has helped to force a long-simmering and much-needed conversation about the continuing tensions between trans women, drag queens, and the cis people who mistakenly conflate these two groups. That conversation has since elicited a variety of reactions:
- RuPaul’s Drag Race agreed to discontinue using the word “shemale”, as previously featured in their “Female or Shemale” and “You’ve Got She-Mail” segments. RuPaul himself later made numerous references to George Orwell and Animal Farm.
- Andrea James suggested that her own attendance at the GLAAD Media Awards was more important than the dissenting views of hundreds of other trans women, promptly made friends with Cathy Brennan and praised her for “speaking up for what you believe in”, and then touted the number of Facebook likes received by an article defending the use of “tranny” and “shemale” by drag queens. (For reference, the number of signatories to our letter currently stands at 389 trans women. This is roughly 1 out of every 900 trans women living in the United States, and approximately the number of trans women you would expect to find in a city the size of Buffalo, New York – est. population 259,384. But I don’t believe it’s especially difficult to get thousands of likes from cis people who want to be told it’s okay to say “tranny”.)
- Calpernia Addams wrote an op-ed describing trans women who object to transmisogynist slurs as “conservative” and “producing nothing themselves”, while criticizing the word “cisgender” as “weaponized terminology”; she also bragged of her superior social media reach. (I should note that our letter’s signatories included politicians, attorneys, GLAAD board members, leaders of numerous trans organizations, veterans and active duty servicemembers, and authors of LGBT policies for the executive branch. I’d further add that Calpernia’s social reach isn’t much to brag about.)
- Former Drag Race contestant Alaska Thunderfuck produced a graphic video in which he appeared to shoot and kill a trans woman (caricatured as having a wig and mustache) for objecting to certain language used by drag queens. Andrea James called this “perfect”. While the Huffington Post initially publicized this video, they later took it down and acknowledged that it was “patently offensive to many people”. One trans man decided to stop writing for the Huffington Post due to their publication of the video.
2. The impact so far
If there had been any doubt that James, Addams, and many names connected to Drag Race are overtly hostile toward trans women who disagree with them, they seem to be doing their best to dispel any traces of that doubt. It was already difficult to believe that any of them truly had the interests of trans women at heart, and now it’s practically impossible.
Even as James herself seemed to take credit for reaching out to Drag Race and asking them to stop saying “shemale”, she didn’t seem particularly apologetic for attacking hundreds of trans women who sought the same thing, or for cozying up to Cathy Brennan (someone who has directly contacted trans women’s doctors and attempted to interfere with their medical treatment). And when a Drag Race contestant’s response to all this is a symbolic murder of trans women who simply dislike slurs such as “tranny”, it’s pretty clear that productive discourse isn’t what they’re going for.
I never had much hope that our letter would persuade James or Addams that they had acted inappropriately – this seemed unlikely. More than anything, I felt that this was a display for the benefit of others, primarily cis people. Cis-run major news outlets might choose to amplify the voices of one or two select trans women – I’m looking at you, Boing Boing – and in doing so, give their cis audiences the impression that these women can speak for all trans women. What they might not have realized is that beyond this handful of cis-approved big names, there are hundreds and hundreds of everyday trans women from all walks of life who find these particular individuals to be unrepresentative of their own views.
Trans women are far more numerous and diverse, more dignified and accomplished, than two “leaders” who are content to tell cis people that anti-trans slurs are really just some kind of meaningful and subversive artform. Inducing James, Addams, and Thunderfuck to escalate their aggressive prejudice to a point that almost anyone would find unacceptable, in contrast to our own humanizing and well-articulated objections, may have actually been the best thing we could’ve asked for.
3. Competing meanings of “transgender”
What did stand out among all this was a more nuanced critique by Will of Queereka, who examined the history and limits of the word “transgender”, and thankfully didn’t feel the need to express this via the visual metaphor of shooting anyone in the face. That’s definitely something I can appreciate after the past couple of weeks.
Will first explores one conception of “transgender” as a broader, umbrella-like term. He cites Susan Stryker’s definition of the word as more generally “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place”, as well as the National Center for Transgender Equality’s definition, “people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth”.
Working from these definitions, he notes that drag performers could potentially be considered transgender, and observes that drag and transness were historically not treated as distinct categories of identity. He contrasts this with a contemporary usage of “transgender” that’s more constrained:
Another view of “transgender”—and one that seems to be a historically recent narrowing of the broad umbrella term usage—is a person who lives their everyday lives as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. … Clearly drag queens are excluded from the category “transgender” in Jones’ usage due to the fact that most drag queens do not try to live out their daily lives presenting as women.
Finally, he frames these differing usages as a battlefield of the competing interests of assimilation or liberation, which he describes as follows:
In many ways, this divide reminds me of the same sorts of liberationist vs. assimilationist arguments in the gay and lesbian communities that were especially tense in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t help but think that some of the more outlandish responses (such as the person calling for the “delegitimizing” of drag on Zinnia Jones’ petition) have come from people who may be classified as assimilationist, or seeking to integrate trans* people into heteronormative society through normalization of “transgender.” And some of the responses from people like Our Lady J could be seen as more liberationist with their calls for unfettered freedom for people to identify however they wish and use language however they wish without regard to the potential harm caused by such language.
4. The umbrella that lets in the rain
I’ve never really been a fan of the so-called “transgender umbrella”, and I’ve had some pretty annoying experiences with it that have helped illuminate its shortcomings. Years ago, before I considered myself to be trans at all, I was often faced with people who watched my YouTube videos and assumed that I must be trans. At the time, I made sure to clarify that I didn’t see myself as trans – not because I felt there was anything bad about being seen as trans, or because I saw this as some kind of affront to my identity, but simply because I didn’t want others to think that I could speak for trans people.
Back then, I didn’t feel that my identity or my experiences were similar enough to trans people that I could legitimately speak as one of them, rather than just doing my best to advocate on their behalf. Clearly my situation has changed since then, but if it hadn’t, I would still hold that to be true. No, really – I used to talk about “passing” with no critical analysis, utilized cliché soundbites like “comfortable in their bodies”, and generally had an oversimplified, cis-like concept of transness rather than the kind of deep understanding that comes from experience. Yet after I explained that I didn’t regard myself as trans, something interesting (and obnoxious) happened: people started telling me I was wrong.
According to them, it was an undeniable fact that I was trans, by definition. Why? They explained that “transgender” is an umbrella term – and by their estimation, I fell under it because of the gendered aspects of my appearance relative to my assigned sex, and/or because I didn’t feel strongly about having any particular gender. I still didn’t feel like any of this was sufficient grounds to label me as trans, and when I looked into this umbrella definition, I realized that the gap between our respective notions of transness was even larger than I first thought.
What I found were many explanatory charts and infographics – predictably featuring an umbrella motif – of the same variety that Will linked in his post. These umbrella models included people whose identities or expressions are “not consistent with conventional standards for masculine or feminine behavior or appearance”, as well as “butch”, “femme”, “masculine women” and “feminine men”. All of these were defined as being “transgender”.
The inclusion of those descriptions really made me question the value of such an expansive definition. Masculine women, feminine men – masculine or feminine by what metric? Are butch, female-assigned, female-identifying lesbians now transgender? How do you define “butch”? Are women who wear pants transgender, too? Can people only be considered cisgender if they adhere to the 1950s-era stereotypical gender roles and presentations of their assigned sex, with anyone else falling outside of cisness even if they identify fully and exclusively with their assigned sex?
Obviously this definition was broad enough to include me even years before I thought of myself as trans. But could it actually mean anything useful? Someone just deciding to classify me as “transgender” did nothing to persuade me-of-2011 that my experiences were anything like those of people who considered themselves a gender other than the one expected of them, or lived as another gender in everyday life, or altered their bodies to reflect this.
At that time, I wouldn’t have been comfortable walking up to such a person and saying “hey, I’m transgender too!” It would have felt incredibly presumptuous, and I’d fully expect them to tell me that I know nothing about what being trans is like for them – because, back then, I didn’t. Switching labels around isn’t the same thing as actually changing the substance of what’s being referred to. Today, my own placement within all of this may have shifted, but my assessment of the situation has not. As it turns out, now that I’m rather firmly trans, I do indeed find it presumptuous and just plain inaccurate when people such as cisgender male drag queens are defined as “transgender” alongside someone like me.
Anyone is free to cobble together such umbrella definitions in whatever combinations they like, but that doesn’t mean these definitions will provide clarity rather than just more confusion. Insisting on clumping such disparate groups together, and referring to them with the same term, means emphasizing their similarities while also disregarding their differences. When those differences are substantial and relevant, and have widely varying implications for the everyday lives of these distinct groups, glossing over this can be a disservice to everyone – both the many groups who are now seen as fused into a single mass, and the people on the outside who are trying to understand who and what we are.
5. What is gender expression?
“Gender identity, expression or behavior”, as used by the National Center for Transgender Equality, is an ambiguous concept. A gender-related expression, such as dressing in drag for the purpose of a performance, is not necessarily the same as an expression of a person’s gender. Choosing to enact a gendered expression, especially when this is temporary and for entertainment, doesn’t mean that this expression actually reflects some facet of their gender. It may not be an instance of their gender expressing itself at all.
When Jared Leto played the transgender character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, or when Lee Pace played Calpernia Addams in Soldier’s Girl, these were certainly a kind of gender expression. But that doesn’t make this an expression of Jared Leto’s or Lee Pace’s gender. Identifying as female is not a part of Leto’s or Pace’s gender – they appear to identify as male, consistently and exclusively.
One might respond that they are actors, and that they represent a special case, as it is their job to play a variety of roles that do not at all reflect on who they are. I would agree with that, and I would further argue that this also encompasses cisgender male drag queens. They likewise devote themselves to playing a role, and regardless of the visibly gendered and exaggeratedly feminine aspects of that role, this does not necessarily mean that their gender must be anything other than male. Drag may be a “gender expression”, but that doesn’t make it an expression of that person’s gender.
I’ve had some experience with this general concept, although I’ve never been involved in any sort of drag culture or performance. When I was 9, I volunteered to be dressed up in a wig, makeup, and a girly shirt with balloons stuffed in it, because some organizers wanted this to be a part of a school pep rally. Sure, this was a gendered expression, but was it an expression of my own gender? I didn’t think so – afterward, I was content to go back to my regular outfit for the next decade or so. (I never really gave much thought to the subject of my gender until my 20s.)
Later, on YouTube, I’d sometimes wear a full-length red leather coat and feather boa for my videos – or for surprise interviews of Westboro protesters. Was that an expression of my gender? Not really, it was more of an expression of wanting to irritate homophobes and fundamentalists. Now that I’ve transitioned, I think I have a pretty good idea of how I express my gender as a woman – and it’s not like that.
Will does have a point when he notes that some trans women initially discover their gender through participation in drag. (To clarify, the reference to cis male drag queens in the open letter was not intended to imply that all drag queens are cis men, but only to specify those drag queens who are cis men.) My own creative explorations of gender expression certainly helped me learn more about myself, and cleared a path to my eventual decision to transition. But performing as a drag queen, and simply existing as a trans woman, are still very different things. For example, here’s a drag queen, Courtney Act from Drag Race, in and out of drag:
And here’s a trans woman, in and out of her everyday attire:
Can you think of any reasons why trans women might not want to be confused with drag queens?
6. This confusion is intentional, and harmful by design
If a cis person is told that drag queens are “transgender”, what are they going to think of me when I tell them I’m transgender? This is a situation where collapsing these very different phenomena into one word directly affects me in a way that’s more than just theoretical or philosophical. Will they take this as meaning that the entirety of my appearance is just an elaborate artifice – a fragile shell that falls away the moment my clothes come off? That, underneath, I’m still just another cis guy like Courtney Act?
This is a common misconception, and it’s been exploited by conservatives and other transphobes in their campaigns against basic nondiscrimination protections for trans women. Their strategy is to depict us as dangerous, predatory “men in dresses”.
- The Family Institute of Connecticut, in opposing one such bill, described trans women as “men that dress as women” and “men – sexually attracted to women (with all the aggression and physical strength of men)”.
- A Republican delegate in Maryland voiced her disapproval of a similar bill, saying “if you happen to see a guy in a dress in the restaurant bathroom, you’ll know the bill passed and that I voted NO!”
- Fox News reporter Todd Starnes has raised the spectre of “big burly men in dresses” using the women’s restroom.
- Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government previously protested a bill that they claimed would “allow cross-dressing but biological males in your daughter’s school locker room.”
- Activist Peter LaBarbera has likewise asked “whether federal female employees will be protected from transsexual men wearing dresses who demand to use ladies’ restrooms”.
- The Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council have used images of drag queens in their publications opposing hate crime and employment protections for trans people.
It’s a long-running trope that’s guaranteed to be trotted out whenever trans people might obtain some measure of legal protection. So does it really seem like such a good idea to go ahead and start using “transgender” to refer to people who actually are cis men in dresses?
And in the midst of all this, what stands out the most to me is that cis male drag queens are hardly affected by the politics of transphobia at all. They aren’t the ones confronted with the daily dilemma of which restroom is safest for them to use, if any. They don’t face the threat of possible arrest just for going to the public bathroom that aligns with their gender. They also don’t have to contend with the legal issues surrounding:
- Having our identifying documents updated to reflect our gender
- Having transition procedures covered by healthcare plans
- Being recognized and treated as our gender in schools
- Being recognized and treated as our gender in homeless and domestic violence shelters
- Being housed according to our gender in prisons
- Receiving necessary transition-related medical treatment in prisons
Drag queens and other cis people have the self-accorded luxury of trying to define drag queens into “transgender”, while they themselves never have to deal with the repercussions of this. They don’t have to worry about how to get an accurate ID that doesn’t out them, or if they’ll still get their hormones if they’re ever imprisoned, or whether they’ll be placed with the wrong gender in a homeless shelter.
They have nothing at stake here – and meanwhile, trans people are the ones who pay the price for cis male drag queens’ willing embrace of the toxic confusion sown by transphobes. If cis male drag queens are defined as “transgender” alongside us, then their experience of being “transgender” still bears very little resemblance to ours. And if this umbrella concept is promoted to cis people as the definition of “transgender”, then it becomes all the more understandable that they would question why actual men should be allowed to change the gender on their ID, or be placed with women in prisons, or use women’s restrooms.
7. Selling assimilation as “liberation”
So, what of Will’s contention that trans women who take issue with certain aspects of drag are “assimilationist” and “seeking to integrate trans* people into heteronormative society through normalization of ‘transgender’”, while those who’ve recently defended these elements of drag are “more liberationist with their calls for unfettered freedom for people to identify however they wish and use language however they wish without regard to the potential harm caused by such language”? I’d posit that this is almost perfectly backwards. There is nothing “liberationist” about harming trans women – and encouraging and participating in such harm serves as a way for cis male drag queens and certain trans women to gain acceptance and assimilate into a society where harming trans women is already normalized.
If drag is to be grouped under “transgender”, then it is perhaps the safest, most unchallenging and non-confrontational element of that so-called umbrella. Drag is prepackaged entertainment with no serious commitment required of anyone involved. Cis men put on an outfit for a time, and when they’re done, they continue to be cis men and go back to their everyday lives – this temporary engagement, this lighthearted dabbling in extravagant costumes, has done nothing to change who they actually are. Other cis people are free to stay away from these nightclub acts in a part of town that they already avoid anyway; at worst, they get the opportunity to have their once-a-year whinefest about how some kids might see a drag queen in a parade.
Trans people, on the other hand, are not just safe entertainment. We do challenge deeply-held notions of the supposed permanence and immutability of gender and physical sex – we’re living proof that these fundamental aspects of who you are can indeed change. And we’re not hidden away in some corner of a bar, where cis people can easily avoid us. No, we’re everywhere. Cis people aren’t likely to encounter a drag act at their workplace, at their school, or at the grocery store. But they will encounter us. Cis people can always choose whether they want to go see a drag show or not; we don’t offer them such a choice. We ask for more. For this, we’re treated like garbage: harassed and attacked just for going outside, fired from our jobs and immediately rejected by potential employers the moment they see us, denied even basic medical care, endlessly mocked in all media, and then depicted as rapists when we just need to use the bathroom.
Who, here, seems to be most assimilated into cis society? And who seems to be most in need of liberating? Assimilation implies changing who you are in an attempt to make yourself more palatable to society, and Will suggests that some trans people would go about this by cutting drag performers out of the transgender “umbrella”. But for that to make any sense as a strategy, it would have to be the case that trans people have more social acceptance than drag performers do – that, in isolation, we as trans people would clearly be recognized by cis people as the “good ones”. This is clearly not so; if anything, society broadly considers us to be far worse.
Does that mean it would be more effective for us to assimilate by consciously aligning ourselves with drag performers? No – because we’re not trying to assimilate in the first place. The very reason we face such violent, pervasive hostility from society is because we won’t change who we are. Instead, we ask society to change, to accept us, and to stop hurting us. What we ask for is liberation.
What does actual assimilationism look like? It looks like Andrea James. It looks like Calpernia Addams. It looks like Alaska Thunderfuck. In fact, it looks quite a bit like Will’s idea of “liberationists”. Liberation implies being freed from some previous constraint or hardship. But when has there ever been a widespread taboo against cis people saying “tranny”? Who had been preventing them from speculating about whether a woman is a “shemale” for all this time? It’s not as if cis people are being “liberated” into a new era where they can suddenly feel free to throw around transmisogynist slurs whenever they please. They already do this.
This is an existing norm, and James and Addams are doing their best to assimilate into cis society by defending this norm. Much of James’ “activism” for trans women has been dedicated to the goal of being invisible at any cost – literally. Now, she publicly attacks any trans women who object to the use of “tranny” and “shemale” by cis people. This is assimilation: she’s showing cis people that she can be just like them, that she’ll never ask too much of them, that she’ll never protest their transphobia, and indeed she’ll join them in tearing down any other trans women who dare to speak out.
Calpernia Addams enables, facilitates, and then defends stereotypical depictions of trans women in major films, telling cis people that this is totally okay. After that, she mocks any “nutty trans hacktivists who had been ‘triggered’ by the buzz generated when Jared Leto thanked me in his Oscars acceptance speech”. She frames herself as one of the “good ones”, someone who’s safe for cis people and will give her stamp of approval to how they treat trans women – and if it comes down to it, she’ll side with them against trans women who demand to be respected.
Alaska Thunderfuck, a cis male drag queen, made a “humorous” video of himself shooting a trans woman in the head for disagreeing with him. In doing so, he’s symbolically putting trans women back in our proper place, and affirming to cis people that he’s capable of just as much enthusiastic violence against trans women – especially outspoken trans women – as any other cis person. Andrea James endorses this.
When asking for respect gets us nothing but another cis man joking about murdering trans women, don’t try to tell me that I’m for assimilation and he’s for liberation. What kind of liberation is that? Were cis men not doing that already?
Addams, James, and the drag queens they’ve aligned with are acting in the most assimilationist fashion imaginable. They’re the ones misguidedly chasing acceptance by choosing to tolerate slurs, and joining the chorus of cis people who don’t want to be told to stop calling us “shemales”. They’re changing who they are to be more palatable to cis society, but to do so, they have to try and silence us as well. For the sake of this false acceptance, they are the ones trying to cut us away so they can pursue cis approval, unhindered by our inconvenient insistence on our own humanity.
But we are not assimilationist for simply wanting to go about our lives without being insulted, attacked, cast out, treated like rapists, and seen as “men in dresses”. For that, we need liberation.