Natalie Reed’s “Trans 101”

Who was Natalie Reed? She was a writer for Skepchick in late 2011, one of the earliest writers to introduce people in the skeptical/atheist blogosphere to trans thought. She also led Skepchick’s sister blog, Queereka (no longer online), and then blogged on FreethoughtBlogs until early 2013. She disavowed the atheist/skeptical community around that time–she was years ahead of the rest of us. Natalie Reed is in fact still active on Twitter, although I understand that she has some major tensions with her earlier writing.

I was a big fan of Natalie Reed for most of her brief, but prolific blogging career. It’s no secret that The Asexual Agenda, a group blog I launched in 2012, was inspired and modeled after Queereka. But I have to admit that I did not read a lot of Natalie’s later blogging, not because of any real disagreement, but simply because it was too long. I feel hypocritical making that complaint considering the length of my writing. And it’s unfortunate because “early” Natalie and “late” Natalie are somewhat at odds with each other, and I mostly just saw one side of that.

So I’d like to reflect on some “late” Natalie. Specifically, this is about the very last article she ever wrote for FreethoughtBlogs, titled “Trans 101“, dated March 2013.

A summary

“Trans 101” is not an introduction to trans issues, it’s more of an anti-introduction. The article is very long and rambly and horribly written for anyone who is new to trans issues. And the content of the article is not an explanation, but a critique of explanations.

It’s a personal narrative of how Natalie herself came to write trans 101 articles for Skepchick and FTB. She says she was very new to trans issues herself, and it was mostly a “right place, right time” situation. As she interacted with a broader range of trans activists, she began to deconstruct a lot of ideas taught in trans 101, and eventually regarded them with hostility.

Trans 101 pretends to a certain consensus among trans people–what frameworks they use, what issues they prioritize. And it does so in a context where the writers/speakers are people privileged enough to have time/energy/platforms, and most of the audience is made of cis people. In particular, Natalie complains about the simplified framework of “sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation” (a framework that the reader might be familiar with from the Genderbread Person).

Natalie Reed struggles with the impossible, yet necessary task of producing trans 101 that is simple enough to understand, and yet complex enough to avoid misunderstandings. And yet, for all the conflict in producing trans 101, she says it is not the central conflict of a trans writer–the central conflict is living out their lives.

For more details, you are welcome to read the whole article.

My thoughts

I occasionally write about trans stuff, but I’m cis, so my struggles with explaining “trans 101” are a bit different from Natalie’s. I know enough to question trans 101 frameworks. But what’s beyond those 101 frameworks, is critical engagement, critical engagement, as far as the eye can see. I can’t rely on some mythical trans consensus, I have to use my own discernment. But as a cis writer, my “critical engagement” with trans ideas is always suspect.

And I definitely suffer from biases. I’m very bad at conveying the urgency and severity of the oppression of trans people, because I don’t experience it and have no expertise in it.  Instead, I have a predilection for philosophy of language, of all things. I hope readers are already aware that being trans is super hard, and getting pronouns down hardly even begins to address their problems.

Natalie’s story resonates with me as the most visible ace blogger on FTB. I have a curated asexuality 101 page, but I emphatically do not want to do 101. I used to make ace 101 presentations, but I got most of that out of my system years before arriving here. My position in ace communities, is not really an outreach expert at all. Instead, I’m an older activist who yells at the kids doing outreach, telling them they’re doing it wrong, and back in my day, we were still wrong but in a different way, and why haven’t you learned the lessons of the past, or even read the thousands of words I wrote on the subject…

There are a lot of differences between Natalie’s experience and mine. For one thing, ace oppression just isn’t nearly as urgent and severe as trans oppression, so we can waste time navel-gazing without it becoming intensely awkward. It’s still a little awkward, but just a little.

Another difference is that I’m more at peace with simplifications. I’m fairly comfortable telling people that sexual orientation is a spectrum, and then telling them afterwards that it was never a spectrum, it’s more complicated than that.  My attitude is, are you doing quantum field theory? No? Then you’re already using countless layers of simplifications. That’s the joke behind my “Extremely Simple Model of Orientation“, which is way more complicated than any model of orientation really ought to be (and yet not complicated enough).

I think that as you go deeper you go into a topic, basic/simplified explanations actually become more necessary. If you’re going into uncharted territory, you have to get good at cobbling together new charts, and interpreting inadequate charts made by others. Just remember not to confuse the maps with the territory.


  1. says

    I hate doing Trans 101 as well. Of course that’s more than a little because Trans 101 has historically been, “We exist. Don’t kill us.”

    But it goes further than that. I have actual expertise, I’m not some random trans* person off the street merely speaking to personal experience. When I come in to do a training, that expertise is wasted if people don’t already know basic definitions that they could read on Wikipedia.

    I assume that it would be similar for you. If someone were to ask you to come in and do a training & you got there and they didn’t know their ace from an aro in the ground, then they’re wasting all the work and thought you’ve done to produce a body of knowledge, an analytical approach to understanding, and tools to communicate the experiences of whole communities.

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