This is the final post. -N
The circumstances under which I first began blogging were very different than the circumstances under which I’m now leaving.
I began being invited to speak about trans and LGBTQ issues in a cis-dominated space. My role was, more or less explicitly, to simply be a trans voice in that space. The readership was cis, and didn’t understand much about those things.
And I was pretty new to all of it myself. I’d only been purposefully living as a woman for a few months.
So I focused in on the “basics” of transgenderism… what I believed it was, what I believed was important about it, how I believed our rights and identities and lives should be approached…. I tried to articulate the fundamentals of what set us apart and to address the fact of our mistreatment. I did it in a “trans 101” way, explaining a few basic terminologies and some easily grasped principles of etiquette, discussing a few of the more mainstream and visible political issues, that kind of thing. I did this because it’s what made sense, what fit the context and my (assumed) role within it… and because it was all I really knew about anything at the time.
A few months of experiences as a trans woman, and being read as such by a hostile society, are not substantial experiences. They don’t provide much to go on, and I was only maybe a year out from my initial confrontation with the discourse of gender variance… a year out from a time where I still spoke in terms like “natal female” or “GG”, where I was anxious about whether or not I’d be “passable”, where I would talk about “feminine features” as objective qualities and “girl mode” and “boy mode” as definitive categories of presentation. The evolution of my thinking to the point that it was aware of phenomena like cissexism and femmephobia and the difference between transphobia and trans-misogyny, the point that I understood the relationship between trans-misogyny and patriarchy and I’d come to be regarded as feminist (and arguably trans-feminist)… that process was mostly just all about reading.
I’d had minimal experiences, and minimal contact with other trans people. What contact I had had with them was with The Trans Community, the centralized, heirarchial and internally normative spaces that tend to be the only means of access, resources and information most people questioning, or not yet plugged into the wider discourse, have available. And the books I was reading were simply the ones that sell, the ones that are widely available and widely known, like Julia Serano and Kate Bornstein… authors who themselves benefited from affirming the concepts their audiences believed in or wanted to believe to at least the same degree that they challenged anything; authors who benefitted from being privileged within the standards, heirarchies and expectations of The Trans Community and who met the conventions established for what a trans advocate or community leader is supposed to be.
Consequently, the ideas of transgenderism, transsexuality and gender itself, even my feminism as a whole, wasn’t anything new. It was simply inherited. I just happened to be a trans woman in a specific place, at a specific time (trans news stories were very rapidly becoming increasingly prevalent in the news during 2011, and we were becoming an increasingly visible demographic), in a specific little niche (the skeptic community) who were, in that moment, increasingly concerned with questions of diversity and gender. And I was just articulate enough to be able to play the role of introducing this basic trans discourse into that specific context, through that specific lens of skepticism and critical thinking, with a pro-science slant. I knew just enough about the related science, and had just enough understanding of the principles of skepticism, to be able to apply it, and talk about feminism and trans issues in terms of how misogyny and cissexism are products of cultural bias, how things like “scientifically, biologically male” are not actually more substantiated by science than trans self-identification. I t was Trans 101 with only the small shift of ditching the cultural relativism and somewhat anti-science attitudes present in most trans advocacy in favour of an approach like: “science suggests sex is actually complex and multifaceted, chromosomes aren’t particularly relevant to the process of differentiation, and applying critical thought, critical self-reflection and skepticism to social issues like gender is a more useful application of those skills than talking about Bigfoot and UFOs all the time”.
It seemed specialized and niche, but it really wasn’t anything all that new. It was just presenting established, and fairly “safe”, ideas about gender diversity in a way that would work for a specific kind of cis readership, in a specific niche.
That wasn’t an entirely bad thing. It had a point. I was probably a valuable initial reference point for lots of cis people to first start “getting” trans stuff, to a certain extent, and one thing many trans readers responded to was having been very happy to see a trans woman writing in a context and space that wasn’t specifically trans or LGBTQ. When those are the only places we’re “allowed” to write or speak, like when trans people are invited to a feminist conference but are only positioned on the “trans issues” panel, that makes us much easier to ignore and erase, and it reinforces the perception that the world is segregated into “trans issues” and everything else, with us not having value to the latter. It’s also a great and powerful thing just to be reminded that being trans doesn’t mean that that has to define you. You can be trans AND a skeptic, AND an atheist, AND a geek, AND… well, anything else at all that’s important you.
Relatedly, a lot of trans readers responded positively to the fact that Queereka was an LGBTQ space in which a trans woman was actually in a leadership role, rather than simply being tacked on to fill out the acronym while ultimately having to work within the frameworks established by a more privileged cisgender queer (probably a gay man, maybe a lesbian).
But as said, a few months isn’t much experience, and I didn’t have much exposure to the real diversity of ideas within trans discourse, within feminism and within trans-feminism. My life moved forward, and with it I was constantly navigating aspects of life as a woman, as trans, as a trans woman… and as sober… that were new to me, and learning from them. And doing my writing, being a trans woman in a fairly public, visible and accessible role, that resulted in my connecting to more and more other trans writers, other trans-feminists… including trans-feminists who weren’t part of that narrow, privileged range that get the book-deals and show up on television, trans people who weren’t dominant within the centralized Trans Community, trans people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, many of them marginalized, trans people with different kinds of ways of articulating, experiencing or expressing their gender, trans people with different kinds of narratives, etc… most importantly, I was increasingly exposed to the broad, diverse and much less safe and normative ideas and perspectives and ways of thinking that this “underground” trans discourse and trans-feminism presented.
And my role as a writer meant I was constantly thinking these things through, questioning things, questioning myself, trying to reconcile various concepts and perspectives I was exposed to and trying to understand, viewing things in new ways as a consequence of how my ongoing experiences as a trans woman either confirmed or challenged my expectations and concepts, trying to negotiate all these things in relationship to one another, and incorporating it all into my work and into my ideas, post by post by post, and in the process questioning and deconstructing all the Trans 101 basics upon which my ideas of gender and feminism were initially founded. My thinking went through a process of growth, and my posts gradually shifted from being explanations of the basic idea of transgenderism and gender diversity to a cisgender audience from being marking posts in my development; and efforts to try to shift the general conversation about transgenderism and gender variance from simply repeatedly attempting to present those received, static basics towards instead reflecting and more widely disseminating the productive, dynamic, multi-faceted and evolving discourse of intersectional trans-feminism I’d been learning from.
As my thinking developed, my priorities shifted… instead of wanting to simply explain to primarily cis audiences what trans people are, what our experiences are like, why they shouldn’t treat us like shit, and how to treat us better, I wanted to be part of the trans-feminist discourse and try to redefine the entire frameworks of gender and feminism that had led to our explanations, and our fights against cissexism, to be necessary in the first place. I didn’t really feel like simply providing the oppressor class with a new set of vocabularies and concepts was going to be sufficient, and I began to regard the Trans 101 frameworks as themselves destructive.
Was it really all that beneficial to simply add a new set of terms or concepts for gender onto which people could apply assumptions and expectations? New categories of gender, new “roles”, new codified sets of behaviour and new codified sets of assumptions people could have about your history, identity, body and potential that people could misread, or misperceive you as, or misunderstand?
And those basic frameworks were themselves a product of a normavity. Yes, it was normavity internal to a marginalized category, but that didn’t really matter. All normativities are narrowed to a specific context. There’s pretty much no such thing as a GLOBAL normativity, except those incredibly few things which are related to, like, humanity itself, and are universally consistent to it. A specific system of privileges bred that idea of “what trans people are and want”, which was the same system of privileges that made that the concept of trans I was initially introduced to (and had to subsequently deconstruct), AND the same system of privileges that permitted me the role of introducing it to a specific cis audience.
The “basics” of trans issues weren’t simply perceived as such because they were the easier thing to understand. It was largely because it was what the trans people who had the luxury of defining trans issues wanted them to be seen as. The priorities that determined that set of things cis were supposed to understand about us, and ways they were supposed to regard us, were consistent with the priorities of the trans people in the best position to control the trans discourse and therefore control what the “consensus” presented to external parties would be (and, ultimately, what people who were questioning would be presented with when they first began to understand themselves as trans and research what that meant, what the information available on the top google results for “trans” would be, and what books about trans identity, trans politics, transitioning, trans families and trans-feminism would be available at Chapters… even which would be available at “LGBT” bookstores, which would be published at all, and which would be anywhere outside of fully democratized or anarchic means of distribution).
All the while, even those privileged to dictate the nature of the “fundamentals” of trans issues were being privileged by a cissexist system that othered them, obliged to frame those fundamentals in ways that would appeal to the audiences and readership giving them that privilege and platform, ultimately mesh with the cis-centric frames and perspectives through which those fundamentals were read, leave other social concerns like race, class, disability or nationality out of the picture, and have “trans issues” remain a separate concern from gender and heterosexuality and patriarchy as a whole, such that it could be segretated out from wider social issues (even gender, reproductive rights, medical autonomy, etc), and investigated or ignored at the discretion of the cis reader.
The Trans 101, as defined by the trans people privileged by a cis system to speak for the “consensus” of a trans community, constructed our existence and its consideration as a choice: the cis person could choose to read and care, and thereby be validated in their self-perception as an “ally” and/or good person who cares about the well-being of others or as a down-to-earth, common sense type who likes to look at things rationally without worrying too much about ultra-minority concerns.
In its entirety, the framework, by being about “what trans people are and want, and the vocabulary to discuss or address us”, as a separate category from an addressed cis audience, positioned apart from the realities of gender as a whole, which reflected on the reality of that cis readership. It left the choice in THEIR hands as to whether to take it or leave it, in relationship to this fundamentally separate identity and segregated category of humanity. It defined us, but defined us separate from rather than illustrative of the human experience of gender, and in so doing gave them new and “sensitive” vocabularies to distinguish us. The Trans 101, in educating cis people as to our existence and “wants”, reinforced our existence as a separate category of being, a separate category of experience, a separate vocabulary, and a separate set of concerns. All the while working within the essentialistic model of gender as primarily an issue of what you are and how you should be understood, all the while specializing us as a subject of study and understanding (who you can, sensitively, ask to explain their OWN existence rather than asking “experts” to explain their existence… but still, explanations at the forefront)… all the while placing as its centerpiece the cis choice to be “educated” and to “understand” in contrast to how this an extension of the shared experience of gender.
And alllowing only the narrow range of trans voices who articulated their experience within this framework as an essentialized and inherent Different Gender, and who kept this “fascinating” and “exotic” knowledge discrete from not only the cis experience but from all other intersectional social concern.
Consequently “gender identity” was central. Things were consistently framed in inevitably heirarchial spectrum models. It was essentialized as “brain sex” and “gender identity” ( allowing the approach of sex and gender identity to be firmly distinct, and cis people “being a sex” / trans people “having a gender identity”). It defined trans as something you are rather than a way you express yourself, way you live, way you are treated, and way you interpret experiences and feelings. It segregated the experience of “being” trans from all other experiences, however much they modify it: race, class, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc. It delineated specific and comprehensible linear narratives and tied that to the definitions of the identities themselves (male-to-female, female-to-male, pre-op, post-op, early transitioner, late transitioner). It segregated “transphobia” from the oppressions, marginalizations and violences that are intertwined with it, or that attend it, like misogyny, racism, homophobia, americo-centrism and ableism. And it allowed certain political priorities to be considered the needs or causes “of the trans community”- like insurance coverage, legal recognition of sex, media representation, transphobic feminism, bathroom access, human rights declarations- without regard to considerations that are of more immediate importance, with more brutal consequences, that matter to those groups that could not be segregated, in accordance with the normativities and dynamic of Other/Audience, as BASICS of trans issues simply because these happened to coincide with issues that weren’t “just” the concerns presented along with the terms and concepts of Trans 101: homelessness, addiction, HIV, fetishization, rape, sexual assault, violence, incarceration, survival sex work, pumping, medical access, resource hoarding, inequal dstribution of violence, shelter access, cross-cultural realities of “gatekeeping”, exclusion from rape-survivor resources, police bias and profiling, immigrant experiences of the legalities, medical co-morbidity, non-binary experiences of gender, the validity of semantic distinctions between gender variant categories, etc. etc. etc.
Were the Trans 101 vocabularies and concepts even improvements over the narrow models most cis people inherit from the normative, binarist, essentialist, patriarchal culture? Does it actually make anything better to have these models with which to other us, and narrow “trans issues” down to the concerns of those they privilege? Does it make shit worse? Does it simply give them a means to REGARD themselves as allies for having made that choice to be educated, within the game they set up for us to set up for them to pick ? And does it give them a means to simply help out the narrow range of trans people who frame those vocabularies in exchange for absolving them of the need to pay attention? With the most privileged trans people appeased by this system of “politely explain to them the basics/priorities” / ”now I’m educated and an ally!”, only the most marginalized and voiceless remain in trouble, who aren’t heard anyway. So: “problem solved!” for everyone in a position to say anything.
Which is, you know… fucked up?
But none of that changes the fact that different audiences exist in different contexts and are going to understanding things differently. I can’t just, like, pounce on a random cis dude on the street and start talking to him about engaging in an intersectional analysis and deconstruction of the cissexist, patriarchal and white-supremacist assumptions implicit to the medical pseudo-science of “facial feminization surgery”. Different contexts, different audiences and different goals demand different kinds of language and approaches, and the fact remains that sometimes you have to deal with “beginner” audiences who have never really considered gender variance, or ever considered it outside the narrow frame they inherited from our shared cissexist, hetero-oppositional patriarchy,
So what does it mean to attempt Trans 101, to attempt explaining trans-variance, in a cultural context in which the “basics” of that question, and the systems of what does and doesn’t get defined as “basic”, have been overwhelmingly a means of our own marginalization, a means of externally limiting the range of our own voice, and a means of reinforcing the kyrarchy and privilege internal to our community that keeps it centralized and dominated by specific groups? What does it even mean to attempt to explain a category of experience precisely defined by its own variance, to define something that only exists by virtue of human defiance of having this aspect of human experience defined?
Any kind of statement of “this is what trans is” would be inherently reductive, but reductive statements aren’t necessarily always destructive. The problem is when the reductive simplification presents itself as a sufficient response to the question.
Like… recently, myself and a number of other trans-feminists have been challenging some of the assumed “basics” of trans that boil down to presenitn the frameworks of “gender identity”, “gender presentation”, “sexual orientation” and “sex” being THE four basic variables that can articulate the full range of human sexual diversity. This is a silly, simplistic, harmful reduction that, when framed as four “spectrums” (with both “masculine / feminine” and intensity varying by degree), all too many people are willing to happily buy into as an enlightened ally’s model of gender/sex/sexuality. Some of the ways we’ve been deconstructing that is by returning to the work of various feminists in illustrating the degree to which gender is a socio-culturally defined and interpersonal performance, the problematic essentialism of “gender identity”, the lack of hard distinction between “gender identity” and gender presentation, the multiplicity of variables that define sex, the lack of hard distinction between a neurobiological sexual differentiation and an anatomical sexual differentiation, the degree to which self-conception of gender even in relationship to physiological sex is going to be conditioned by socio-cultural models of what a member of a given gender “ought” be, and the degree to which sexuality and “sexual orientation” is gendered, experienced through and in relation to the body, and modifies self-perception of gender.
It’s some complicated shit, and we’ve been doing the hard work of pointing out that these seductively simple “progressive” models ultimately just present a new set of essentialized roles and categories for people to be sexist, patriarchal or cissexist idiots about. Or from which to make assumptions about people, and goad them into meeting expectations. But it took like all of a few months since deconstructions of that model started working their way into the general trans-feminist discourse for NEW little diagrams to pop up in the trans-blogosphere outlining a small set of similar variables and “spectrums”, just now making slightly different distinctions, and making small little qualifications about how gender is socio-culturally conditioned.
That. Is. JAW-DROPPING.
There’s a fundamental tension there that illustrates a lot of the crisis of “Trans 101” and the difficult push-and-pull between deconstruction and simplifications meant for comprehension by a normative, mainstream audience: the tension between the need to explain to the normative, mainstream audience that “it’s more complicated than that”, in response to their received notions about gender, sex and sexuality, while providing them with new notions and models that aren’t “too complicated” to understand. So we end up creating simplifications of our own effort to assert that the experience of gender is complicated. We created little reductive diagrams, outlining a small set of generalized variables, to explain that little reductive diagrams, drawing assumptions about people’s bodies and experiences and identities out of a small set of generalized variables, aren’t adequate. You see the problem?
We can try to have the simplification be direction towards the diversity of experiences, and towards the immensity of the discourse itself, but to where do we direct them? We can’t simply say “shit’s complicated, lots of people are arguing about it”, and we can’t direct them towards specific starting points without them interpreting their understanding that there ARE such starting points, or their understanding that it’s important to acknowledge the diversity of experience and the diversity of the discourse, as being itself the “trans 101” and the basic education that’s required to regard themselves as “good allies” and move on.
We could direct them into specifically paying attention to one particular perspective on the discourse, but that would again face the problematic issues of which perspectives are positioned as the “beginner” or “entry” points and how that relates to privileges, heirarchies and normativities internal to the trans community (we can’t say one trans perspective is more “basic” or “preliminary” or “general” than another without normalizing it and marginalizing another). Even if for this purpose we were to mark a perspective that’s specifically coached in intersectionality, designed to be some kind of aggregation of the diversity of trans experiences, having listened to and coalesced that diversity of perspectives into a single description, that STILL wouldn’t work because it would all be filtered through the original perspective, frame, priorities and values of THAT perspective. And we could then maybe make an aggregation of the aggregations, but then we hit the same problem again, just one stop removed: who’s doing the aggregating, and in accordance with what priorities and values? It would just be some sort of infinite, recursive loop, where we always, ultimately, eventually come back to a person from a specific background and perspective with particular priorities and values interpreting things for an audience who themselves have a specific perspective and set of assumptions and biases.
Even if the simplification gestures towards the diversity and complexity of the issue, it still simplifies, still erases and is still destructive.
What makes this an especially poignant problem is the fact that trans experiences and identities are all about new vocabularies and new narratives. In so far as we’re to understand gender as a semiotic system or language, transgenderism is the deviation from standardized language of the dictionary towards new words and new meanings for things that couldn’t be articulated in the previous dialect. Language is so important to us: our pronouns, our names, our titles, our forms of address, the semiotics of fashion and grooming and presentation, what vocabulary we have available for saying what our experience and existence is and what can meaningfully give voice to it. As children we were assigned the words “boy” or “girl” and their attendant definitions and concepts, and along with them we were assigned specific narratives, specific projections of what our future lives would be. In the act of redefining our gender we challenge the initial assignment of the word (say, “boy”), we challenge our naming (say, “Edward”), we challenge the definition of the word and concept we use to articulate, express and assert our self in opposition to those that proved inadequate (say, “women are XX and have vaginas”), and we challenge the assumed narrative that had been assigned, expected and laid out for us (Edward is a boy, so he will be my son and he will wear ‘boy-clothes’ and like sports and have sex with girls and be a man and get a manly job and raise a family and…). In so far as gender is a semiotic system and language, and what attends our assignment isn’t simply a categorization but a modeled and pre-determined, expected narrative for our lives, the act of ‘transition’ is all about challenging language and meanings and narratives. We mean something new, outside the standardized definitions, and we carve out a new story.
Language isn’t a one-way street, however. It’s one thing to say a word, it’s another thing for it mean something. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to be read. It’s one thing to express something, another to have it understood. Or misunderstood. And so it is with gender. So long as we don’t have a vocabulary with which to speak, we don’t get heard, and so long as our genders remain illegible or incomprehensible to, or misread by, the people around us we remain invisible… at best, something or someone else is seen is our stead. Consequently, translating our existence remains a fundamental part of our existence being heard and seen… in terms of it’s existence as part of the cultural field of gender, a fundamental part of our being there at all. If no one had ever translated the concept of “woman” beyond a narrow set of assumptions and expectations about biology and experience, I wouldn’t be a woman at all… at least not ever seen or understood as such (which is all that word and concept really means to me; that I be seen and understood as a woman, so I’m able express everything what matters about myself through it).
Where does that leave the role of the trans advocate, the trans writer, the trans blogger? Those who try to articulate all this to the audiences that don’t understand? Are we translators, there to offer meaning to the gendered self-expression of those who fall outside the conventions of gender’s normative definitions? How do we offer that meaning, provide definition and a link of understanding, without hemming in and narrowing exactly the range of experiences and self-conceptions and identities and feelings and bodies and sexualities that we’re there to convey? How we do operate as a means to lend new meaning to the lexicon of gender without reinforcing that lexicon as an imposition upon human experience, undermining exactly the potentiality, the versatility and the diversity that ultimately is the only inherent and universal experience of gender variance? How do we translate that variance without simply adding more codified roles, expectations, diagnoses and pathologies to the set we already have?
We can’t undermine the entire system of gender. We can’t. Utopian gender-abolitionists believe this, but I don’t. I believe it’s inherent to us. We perceive sexual difference, in others or in ourselves, and we try to understand and express it. That doesn’t seem harmful to me, it just seems human. And over time we develop heuristics for it… ways to make it easier; if one aspect of sexual difference is usually consistent with another, we guess that when we encounter the one in a person we’ll encounter the other. And that’s not itself harmful either, just… simple.
But we also have social orders and kyrarchy. We also have patriarchy. And we have diversity of experience. Things get complicated. Human diversity is complicated. I don’t think I’d want it to be simple.
Maybe it’s an inherently broken thing to attempt to articulate the trans experience at all, let alone articulate it to an outside perspective. We ARE the glitches, the new meanings, the problems, the hiccups in the heuristic, the diversity, the variance. Maybe that’s all we need or should communicate about ourselves beyond ourselves: You don’t get it. You won’t get it. We’re something else. We don’t fit. And wherever or whenever we do just means your system still isn’t broad enough, and you still don’t get it.
But if that’s the case, then out genders are broken too. To speak, to have a voice… that only counts in so far as you’re heard and understood.
That’s bleak, though. I don’t like bleak. There has to be some kind of way to negotiate these things… in our experience, and those of us who, by luck or misfortune or effort or talent, ended up in the position of being “trans writers” and “trans advocates”. And for all of us, together, as the trans discourse itself. It can’t be the case that this process of understanding, questioning, deconstructing, rebuilding and understanding is pointless and ultimately chasing our own tails around the fact that what we are is a voice just on the periphery on comprehension. Because, we have moved forward. We do.
At least I moved forward. And can understand so much more, not just in ideas, but in the people I encounter, than I did when I first came to trans web forums asking if, after HRT, I’d be “passable” as a “genetic girl”. And if I can get from there to here, through the conversation, through being open to that seemingly endless cycle of new and broken ideas, then it can’t truly be alien to human experience to learn to read a language of illegibility, define a category of variance, or understand the experience of being outside understanding.
Is that weird little in-between space, hovering right between the need for comprehension and simplification, and the fact that those simplifications will always be misunderstandings and require complications… is that the battlefield? Is that where the meanings are negotiated? Is to be the trans writer to be right there in the position that counts the most in having our genders be understood, ensuring that they count?
No. Fuck no.
Where the battle is, where things matter, that’s in the individual lives. It’s in every single person who in contrast to everything they’ve been told about who and what they are, what that means, what defines it and restricts them to it… in defiance of every expectation that they were saddled with along with the M or F on their birth certificate, like what they’d wear and who they’d fuck and what they’d do for a living and what name they’d have and keep and how their bodies would develop and what they’d choose to do with their bodies… in declaring their own identity, their own body, and carving out a range of their own narratives-to-be… THAT’s where it is. That’s what counts. The fact that it happens at all is a living testament to everything about people that’s worth believing in. And it’s beautiful, every. fucking. time.
And it’s been my honour and privilege to just do my best to help it be noticed.