Reading Julia Serano

A few people around FtB have linked to this article by Julia Serano about the BS that happens when transgender children are discussed in media. It’s very long and thoughtful. This paragraph jumped out at me (the bolding is mine):

Because cisgender people cannot relate to gender dysphoria (having not experienced it personally), and often refuse to take trans people’s gendered experiences seriously (because they view us as illegitimate and suspect as a result of transphobia), they will sometimes invent ulterior motives or condescending theories to explain our desire to transition — e.g., that we transition to try to “fit in” (as straight, as gender-normative), or to obtain male privilege, or because we’re sexual deviants, or because we are confused/clueless/gullible and thus easily swayed by nefarious ideologies (e.g., patriarchy, medical institutions, transgender agendas). I’ve heard many other concocted reasons (and I debunk many of them in Whipping Girl), but what they all share in common is that they 1) dismiss the legitimacy of our gender identities and experiences with dysphoria, and 2) discount the severity of the transphobia we face (which allows them to depict us as making frivolous/reckless/thoughtless life choices rather than serious well-considered ones).”

I describe myself some places as “mostly cis,” because I have no problem with conducting most of my life as a cisgender person.  I don’t have gender dysphoria at all.  Sometimes I am bothered by people reinforcing cisheteronomativity – consciously or otherwise, but that’s a moral objection and emotional only insofar as I care about the harm it can cause to the disadvantaged binary gender (women) and people with dysphoria.  I don’t feel like I’m personally boxed in or wounded by perceptions and expectations of my presentation, any more than the average cis person.

So as a mostly cis person, no, I do not relate to gender dysphoria.  I am way more educated on the topic than the average person, through the necessity of helping a transgender person I care about deal with their difficulties.  But no amount of education is the same as actual experience of a situation.  I can see the pain and learn what to do to avoid causing it, and try to coach others to avoid causing it. But I can’t understand it.

I can learn a lot about gender dysphoria, but fundamentally, I cannot imagine it at all.  There are a lot of metaphors floating around to try and help cisgender people understand it, but none have ever worked for me.  One question asked: How would you feel if people did not recognize your gender, or expected things of you based on a wrong perception of it?  My answer?  I’ve been misgendered, back when I was a skinny long-haired youth, and it didn’t bother me at all.  If everyone around me perceived me as a woman forever, I can’t imagine being bothered by anything about that other than the misogyny.

So some specific thoughts this calls to mind, things I have considered in the past that Serano’s article reminded me of:

  • This lack of gender dysphoria is actually something that makes me queer, in a sense, because I don’t identify with any gender personally – my assigned one or otherwise.
  • Which makes me wonder how many raving transphobes are actually inviso-queers like myself: people who don’t actually identify with a gender.  If you can’t imagine dysphoria for this reason, and you’ve got the right fundie asshole background, it might make sense to bargle at the trans people about it.
  • I’m also reminded of when I was less sensitive to the transgender people in my life because I couldn’t understand / relate to gender dysphoria and hadn’t been educated yet, and I am saddened with regret.
  • Much like the way men are largely immune to noticing the pervasive misogyny of our society, cis (and mostly cis) people are immune to noticing all but the most egregious forms of transphobia and gender policing.  Since I started tying to look out for and defend the trans people I know, I notice this shit constantly, and I never did before.
  • I mention gender policing because it is a ridiculously common way our society harms trans people without even noticing they exist.  You have to be aware of trans people to be properly transphobic, but you don’t have to be aware of them to cause them harm.  All you have to do is tell people shitty truisms about guys do this, girls do that.  Oh of course the guy did this, girl did that because that is the way it is.  Biology, I tell ya.  Adam and Eve.  Vervet monkeys with pink berries.  Choose your toxic horseshit, and insist on telling the people around you the reasons they are forever doomed to live it.

Anyhow, the point: Don’t try to over-apply your own experience, trust people about their own. What you’ve known of the world, what you’ve lived, is not all universal human truth.


  1. Siobhan says

    *cackles with glee*

    Another convert! The homosexual agenda proceeds apace!!

    *lightning, whinnying horses*

  2. Great American Satan says

    What’s that sound? Hm… Better go back to my regular everyday normal business of voting and influencing people, without any implanted suggestions overriding my morals.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    If everyone around me perceived me as a woman forever, I can’t imagine being bothered by anything about that other than the misogyny.

    It might also cause a Crying Game moment for one or another disappointed lesbian.

  4. Siobhan says

    In all seriousness, I think there is a component to the dialogue on gender diversity that is missing: The strength or importance of an identification.

    More broadly we understand that we all conceive of ourselves in multiple identities, and that those identities are placed in a hierarchy by us. For instance, I identify as an atheist, but the importance of that label sinks pretty low on my list because I am not routinely prosecuted for it (unlike my identities as a woman, trans woman, queer woman, kinky woman, etc). I can’t relate to antitheists because I’ve seen assholes anywhere and everywhere say and do awful shit, so the notion of purging religion from public consciousness seems an incomplete solution to the actual problem of ignorant, authoritarian assholes.

    Similarly, people whose gender is not a high priority on their list might be indifferent to misgendering, as you explain in your post. Whereas I will quickly and unapologetically correct anyone who misgenders me, you and some others I’ve met (who aren’t all comfortable standing under the trans umbrella) don’t particularly care. That would suggest to me the difference is the placement of gender in our identity hierarchies. Just as you can’t relate to gender dysphoria, there’s no way on Earth I could relate to gender indifference.

    Unlike authoritarian assholes though, I’m not particularly interested in telling you you can’t be gender indifferent, nor will I twist myself into a pretzel to conceive of your identity hierarchy as some kind of existential threat to mine. “Don’t worry about it” seems to be the Utilitarian suggestion here. Tell the gender crits–it might help their blood pressure.

  5. Great American Satan says

    Siobhan – Excellent addition to my post. Sometimes comment sections are better than the original articles.

    Pierce – I’m sure you’re cool but please don’t mention The Crying Game in my comments. If one is gonna have a cis-dude play a trans-woman (one shouldn’t), Jaye Davidson did an amazing job. But that performance deserved a movie that was less objectifying and exploitative. And Neil Jordan hasn’t improved. In 2009’s Breakfast on Pluto, again we see a cis-dude playing a trans-woman where that’s treated as the fulcrum of her universe and something for the audience of presumed cis gendertourists to “aww” about.

    Even the wikipedia page on Neil Jordan includes a fucking terrible line about The Crying Game: “The Crying Game made complicated, likable characters out of an IRA volunteer and a transgender woman.” That’s true, transgender women are as inherently unlikable as militant nationalists aren’t they? X_X

    Plus you’ve recast every transphobic joke from my childhood in a way that hits me slightly less offensive, but only slightly so.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    G.A.S. @ # 5 – I wasn’t saying TCG was a good movie, just that its most famous scene fits one possibility from your hypothetical scenario.

  7. Great American Satan says

    I know what you were saying which is what I was saying in the last part, “you’ve recast every transphobic joke from my childhood in a way that hits me slightly less offensive, but only slightly so.” The humor of your response is predicated on the lolz at someone being shocked by an unexpected genital configuration, which is the foundation of a lot of more blatantly transphobic jokes, and possibly triggering to trans women who have been accused of trying to “deceive” people. Especially by TERFy lesbians, as it happens.

  8. mcbender says

    I find the phenomenon you describe of people who “don’t unidentify with any gender” a quite interesting one, and think you might be right that it makes it difficult for some people to comprehend dysphoria. I describe myself as “mostly-cis male” for the same reason; I’ve encountered the term agender as well, which I sometimes flirt with using but makes me uncomfortable because I think it proves too much (we still inhabit gendered society no matter how we identify, and despite not “feeling” particularly male I still e.g. dress in ways that code male).

    I remember this idea being discussed a fair amount last year during l’affaire Ophelia Benson, so you may well be right that it is a mindset that often leaves people prone to transphobic thinking. (For instance, if I don’t force myself to think otherwise, I tend to default to thinking gender is something that is done to people, imposed on them externally by culture. I know people have an internal sense of gender because they tell me so, but not having that myself it’s hard to imagine what it feels like.)

    At the same time, I also often wonder if “feeling agender” is a manifestation of cishet male privilege. People who are cishet male are not necessarily made aware of their gender in the way women and gender-nonconforming people are, by dint of being the dominant group and taken as default. So I find myself wondering if saying “I don’t feel like I have a gender, but I’m still put in gendered categories” is something I’m privileged to be able to do because society isn’t constantly reminding me I’m lesser for it. It might be part of, or a result of, cis-male socialisation instead of a phenomenon in its own right. (Though I’ve also met cis women who claim to feel this way, and cis men who feel strongly gendered, so it can’t be exclusively so.)

    I’m not sure if I have a point to make here, except that I agree with you that this category exists, might be larger than we think. and might explain why some people have a difficult time understanding gender dysphoria.

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