So by placing this here, I’m guaranteeing that it will be missed by many, but again I have to say some things that feel inappropriate as a comment (lest they take up too much space) and also might risk being lost on the internet if I ever wanted to track them down again at a later date. So here we are, making an OP out of molehill, again.
The need to say these things arises out of a thread over on Pharyngula. It’s this one, if you couldn’t guess. While PZ’s OP is fine and most of the discussion is as well, a few things crashed together destructively. I think this is important to tackle because it is an example of how people who think of themselves as allies can get called out for good reasons, but the imprecision of everyday language makes it hard for anyone to get past the fact of calling out to actually learn any lessons from it. Trans folk may think that people aren’t honestly trying to be on their side (because, frankly, we’ve seen a lot of bad faith arguments and it can be hard to tell the difference between “bad faith deployment of misinformation” and “good faith repetition of misinformation”) when, yes, they are trying. People working to be allies may simply not understand the lessons on offer and conclude that some is – wait for it – being hysterical. They may even quit listening. And this too is not entirely outrageous since merely being trans doesn’t guarantee that one is a good or even reasonable source of information. Being trans doesn’t prevent someone from saying stupid shit about being trans or about cissexism.
But in this case there is a problem (or two), and a huge one (or two), with things embedded in the comments of Ilyris & daulnay, and I think this needs discussion.
Let’s start with llyris:
I wonder if some of the increase in trans and intersex expression is not so much a fundamental problem within a person, but a problem with how they intersect with society. This isnt an argument against trans though, because if that’s what makes you feel comfortable and happy then go for it. It’s an argument for greater acceptance of diversity of behaviour and greater examination of gender assumptions.
To someone who has been engaged in trans advocacy for any significant length of time, this comes across as mere platitude. It seems wise to the people for whom such thinking is new, but it’s old thinking. Imagine a child pushing an egg under the water in a measuring cup and realizing that the difference between the number of milliliters of volume indicated by the waterline before adding the egg and the number indicated after adding the egg could be used to find the volume of the egg.
It actually **is** a neat idea. And if you’re an 8 year old who hits upon this by yourself, without help, your literal eureka moment will feel wonderful. You’ll feel smart. You’ll feel happy. There’s a satisfaction with learning something new about the world and further satisfaction for having accomplished all on your own.
But without diminishing what that moment means to such a child, the world isn’t going to be excited about that moment because been there, done that, got the toga.
The problem here isn’t so much that llyris is wrong. It’s that to those of us who have struggled intensely with these questions for years it comes across as juvenile, as facile. We who come out as trans already know that there’s a difference between gendered expectations, gendered presentations, gender identities and sexed body parts. In deciding that we are (or are probably) trans, we mark the beginning of an important phase of exploration as much as we mark the end of another. If we haven’t explicitly wrestled with the questions before coming out as trans, then certainly after we come out as trans we must ask ourselves, “What does this mean for the name or names we wish to use, and will we use different ones in different contexts? Temporarily or permanently? What about pronouns? Should we call ourselves men? Or women? What about hormones? If we take them, what outcome do we seek? If we don’t, what do we give up? Should we have surgeries? Which ones? Why? How will that affect both how we can live and how we might want to live?
Inevitably some of these questions are about changing how we relate to ourselves, and some are about changing how we relate to others, though obviously our selves are intertwined with our contexts. Llyris suggests that some people coming out today might include some people who “intersect with society” in ways that living as non-trans makes intolerable but whose problems within themselves do not make living as non-trans intolerable.
These are always complicated decisions. Even if problems “within ourselves” do not make living as non-trans intolerable, that doesn’t mean that there are no internal issues. Many of us who would identify the problems as more-contextual-than-internal still are ultimately persuaded to come out as trans (here I’m including non-binary, though I know for some purposes they should be separated) because we feel dishonest in the way that we are interacting with society. Sure, there’s nothing purely internal that might cause us to feel a “problem”, but neither is this a simplistic external-only problem. We cannot be simplified that way.
So of course out of the hundreds of thousands of trans people and non-binary people who have come out over the last decades some of them fit the more-external-than-internal categorization here proposed. But as delighted as non-trans people might be to come to an insight like this on their own, they very frequently miss the point that our own internal lives are not yours to mine. Llyris almost gets it when adding
This isnt an argument against trans though, because if that’s what makes you feel comfortable and happy then go for it.
But even with this addition we can’t help but notice that llyris is categorizing trans & non-binary people according to why we came out and this is, to put it bluntly, none of llyris’s fucking business.
Nor is this an academic objection. I am not asserting that there is an abstract principle against experiential colonization that, being broken, forms the fundamental objection to what llyris has said. Anti-trans jackasses have been categorizing us as to whether we have “good reasons” or “bad reasons” to come out as trans for longer than I’ve been alive. And as a result we ended up with a warped system of “gender clinics” who made it their business to make sure that medical care was restricted to people who – in the judgement of clinicians – wanted medical care for the right reasons. Similar restrictions have been placed on things like changing passports or drivers licenses or professional licenses or even names. Employers have fired people and justified on the basis that they thought if the person coming out was really, authentically trans that would have been fine, but the employer didn’t believe that they were coming out for really, authentically trans reasons. And at the risk of making this sound personal, my father disowned me and has had no further contact with me because he didn’t think my resons for coming out were really-realzies reasons. According to his deep understanding of trans experience, of course.
In short, non-trans people categorizing trans people based on their reasons for coming out has been the source of incalculable pain and misery. It might be exciting to non-trans people to realize that, hey, while offering people the chances and resources to change themselves, changing society, too, might actually help some folks. But trans and non-binary people got there long ago. We aren’t only changing ourselves; we are also changing society, and for the better.
So when someone enters a thread full of trans people discussing trans oppression to categorize trans people according to their reasons for coming out and then share their personal revelation, it can come across as a child running through a chemistry lab full tilt and with scissors to tell a group of grad students having a chat at the front of the room that OMG, I CAN MEASURE THE VOLUME OF AN EGG!
Yes. We get it. You can measure the volume of an egg, but would you please not run recklessly with scissors through a chem lab? Because if you break something not only might you get hurt, but also it won’t be you stuck in the lab cleaning up the toxic results all night to prevent your carelessness from hurting all the people who live their lives in the chem lab, which is not, by and large, the 6-year olds.
Later llyris comments:
What I am saying is sometimes it’s not the wrong body, but the underlying assumptions of what a woman or a man fundamentally is. That in a way trans is the path of least resistance, not because it’s easy (I’m sure it isn’t) but because it doesn’t challenge those most structural fundamental assumptions about the world. To reject that is to go right back to basics and say ‘what makes a woman a woman?’ Even progressives seem to end up at a helpless sort of ‘someone who feels they are’.
Because llyris is unskilled in discussing aspects of gender as discrete concepts (something for which no one should fault llyris as our society actively discourages careful and critical investigation of gender), we don’t get to see clarified which assumptions llyris might mean, or even which category of assumptions. But we can see that this is somewhat clumsily and incompletely distinguished from sexed aspects of bodies from a quote just prior:
That people who know you see you as not quite really female despite them also seeing your body as completely female.
So the interpretation that most naturally flows from llyris’ somewhat ambiguous writing is,
What I am saying is that sometimes it’s not one’s relationship to ones own sexed body parts, but there relationship of one’s behavior to the behaviors expected from a woman or a man because of stereotypes. In these cases, coming out as trans might be a path of great resistance, but nonetheless the least resistance of available options, because a person who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a woman can come out as a man, and then the stereotypes fit and do not need to be challenged. To reject the possibility of transitioning to a gender role that fits one’s gendered behavior is to go to the root of stereotyping entirely and ask, “Is a woman who violates every stereotype of womanhood still a woman?” Yet we don’t seem to have a clear answer to this question, because even the progressive response to the question, “Who is a woman?” is merely, “someone who says that they are”.
I may or may not be understanding llyris perfectly, but since part of my purpose here is to expose the problems in how communication happened in that other thread, it really doesn’t matter. This is a realistic (even generous!) interpretation of llyris’ words, and this interpretation or something like it was most likely affecting how people responded. If I’m wrong about interpretation, then llyris needs to write more clearly and then we can critique the new statements, but we can still critique the current statements as made according to the message that they actually communicated (as opposed to an opaque message that llyris intended to communicate but did not).
The problem with llyris’ message here is that it is ultimately one of victim blaming. No one comes out as trans, having done the necessary work that entails, thinking that after transition they will violate no gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are traps and no one can meet them all. In US culture, fundamental stereotypes dictate that a man must dominate yet protect. A woman must be a virginal, pure mother of her husband’s children (already a contradiction), while also dutifully satisfying his sexual desires.
The idea that people transition to get access to the right stereotype is a myth. And it’s one promulgated by cis people. Remember the gender clinics? To gain access to medical care one had to prove that one would be stereotype compliant after receiving that medical care. “Proof” was judged by clinicians who had determined for themselves what the right reasons for coming out and/or seeking medical care might be. As a result – and this is well documented – trans people who wanted medical care for their own, complicated reasons learned the story doctors wanted to hear from previous gender clinic patients and dutifully repeated it, a massive lie though it was, because gaining access to medical care was more important to them than being honest with selfish, sexist pricks who arrogated to themselves the right to decide how trans people would live.
Participating in those gender clinics further required keeping up appearances through the process: telling a rehearsed coming out story was not enough. FtM folks would be required to wear suits & ties and cut their hair short. MtF folks would be required to wear makeup and frocks, tittering their way through cleaning kitchens and gossiping with girlfriends.
Society, of course, recognized the people running the gender clinics as the experts on trans lives, far more so than trans people themselves. So these clinicians would write books and give televised interviews informing the entire world that trans people only felt themselves to be trans because they compulsively engaged in behavior that consistently violated the stereotypes for one gender but conformed to the stereotypes of another. And then, lo and behold, the people that they required to conform to stereotypes conformed to stereotypes!
Meanwhile, of course, we trans people were actively colluding to subvert these abusive gender clinics and end requirements for conforming to stereotypes and for telling only certain coming out stories.
So when llyris speaks of people who come out as trans so as to conform to stereotype because it’s easier than publicly breaking stereotypes, llyris is (almost certainly all-unknowing) repeating the lies created by cis people who hated trans people so much that they forced us to lie in order to gain access to medical care.
Imagine the scandal if trans people controlled drivers licenses in this country and demanded that people prove they really identified in some nebulous, internal way with a particular gender role before these trans tyrants would put anything other than an “x” in the old “sex” box – renamed “gender” by our new trans overlords, of course. Would some cis people explain their reasoning through reference to stereotypes? Of course. Would their inability to articulate their sense of self without reference to the categories given to them in the language that they speak indicate that they don’t actually identify with any particular gender role? Of course not.
This brings us to yet another problem: even without forcing by gender clinics, some trans people, post transition, will largely conform to the stereotypes enforced upon the gender role society assigns them post transition. But some won’t. Most don’t. And of course if you change “largely” to “strictly”, none do, because as we’ve discussed, stereotypes are constructed so that none possibly could. But no one, certainly not llyris, ever asks, do a greater percentage of trans people conform to stereotypes for their reassigned role than the percentage of cis people who conform to their (once) assigned role?
Ultimately, then, llyris relies on myths that were purposely spread by people who thought trans people should not have control over the basic facts of their lives, over things as fundamental as one’s own name, and then falls back on some nebulous number of largely gender-conforming trans people who – demographically speaking – are guaranteed to exist to speculate that there might be some problem with the reasons some people come out as trans.
Sure. Someone might come out as trans in an elaborate attempt to commit murder. That would be a bad reason. But murder is already against the law, and if anyone arrogates to themselves the right to judge another person’s decision to come out as trans or non-binary or not to come out as trans or non-binary, what society “gains” is merely more gender policing. We have empirical reasons to believe that doesn’t work out well.
So of course people who have thought about these issues and are aware of these facts are already going to respond negatively to llyris’ writing. But it does, unfortunately, get worse. Remember that last bit of the above quote:
Even progressives seem to end up at a helpless sort of ‘someone who feels they are’.
This is, in fact, a significant part of the solution to the stereotype trap llyris decries. This makes conformance irrelevant. People can choose not to come out and conform. People can choose not to come out and not conform or even rebel. People can choose to come out and conform. People can choose to come out and not conform, even rebel. In this formulation stereotypes no longer have any power to determine whether someone is a “good” woman or man, or even a woman or man at all.
Earlier llyris wanted a “fundamental” challenge to others’ judging one’s own gender and gender authenticity. But here llyris communicates dissatisfaction with just such a fundamental challenge – labeling it “helpless” without ever appearing to comprehend how this is an active strategy that attacks the root structure of gender policing.
If one was inclined to be dissatisfied with llyris’ writing before then, one will certainly be dissatisfied with this strange rejection of radical action with at least some potential for universal liberation.
Having gone on quite long enough, I’ll put in a break here, with part two picking up with daulnay’s contributions.
John Morales says
Lengthy but cogent, thorough, and very informative.
Rob Grigjanis says
Thanks for that, CD.
I’m glad we have people like Crip Dyke (along with people like Julia Serano, Kate Bornstein, Brynn Tannehill, etc.) to read this stuff and figure out what it says and how and why it’s wrong or just missing the point. Just getting through my life and dealing with my own issues, both gender-related and not, takes pretty much all my energy and brainpower. Most of the stuff in that thread at Pharyngula doesn’t seem to relate to my own life and experience, so I get lost. They’re like those “proofs” that 1 = 0: I have the gut feeling that they’re wrong, but I get lost when trying to figure out exactly why.
One thing is that although I only recently started understanding myself as “trans,” I’ve been aware of the things about myself and the society I’m stuck living in that led to me to that understanding at least since I was six (50+ years ago.) Most of my life has been about figuring out how to live that, on the one hand, wasn’t too painfully contrary to my nature, and on the other hand didn’t get me too much misery from society for being too “weird” (or even illegal.) A trade-off of miseries.
At some point, I became aware of “transgender”, but it was always presented as male people who’d felt compelled to run around telling everyone they were really women/girls and acting stereotypically “feminine” to the point that they belonged on Jerry Springer, if not a circus sideshow, and that wasn’t me. None of what people said resonated with me, and anyway, I’d been called “queer” and “freak” enough in my life already, so the last thing I wanted was to invite more of that kind of abuse.. It wasn’t until I read Zinnia Jones’ blog post that I was able to connect the word “trans” with my own experience. And that it seemed to offer a way to live that was both possible and more suited to my nature.
So, in a way, yes, seeing all these people come out as trans gave me the idea that I might be trans. So it might look like it was me jumping on a fad. But my motivations for wanting to dated back to the days of Christine Jorgensen.
As for the debate as to whether I’m “really a woman,” I can’t be bothered any more. I came to realize that it’s not a question of fact, it’s a question of political posture: do you think trans people should be allowed to live their lives in peace or don’t you? PZ’s “former friend” made it clear years ago that her answer was “absolutely not.” Everything she writes about it — or about feminism, for that matter — is simply her “absolutely not” dressed up in all kinds of obfuscation and lies. Just like all the stuff that Republicans and right-wing “religious” folks and self-styled defenders of the family and (White Southern) Womanhood are doing.
As for “reinforcing gender stereotypes,” I didn’t transition to become someone else’s idea of “woman,” I transitioned to become me Some of the stuff that is considered stereotypically “feminine” I do because I like it, some because it makes my interactions with the cis world easier, and a lot of it I don’t do. Ya know, just like the cis women I know. (Who could have imagined it?!)
Thank you for this article.
I honestly cannot fathom how someone can look at the current state of the world and conclude in good faith that cis GNC people are treated better than mostly-gender-conforming cis people. And yet, that is exactly the belief someone would need to have in order to argue in good faith that people transition to fit in with gender stereotypes.
I don’t have any personal experience in this area, and would probably just put my foot in my mouth if I made any comment other than, “thank you”. It’s informative, will require me to do some thinking about it, and reminds me again that I should be listening more often then I speak.
Another thank you CD. I really value your ability to analyse and clearly express the results of your analysis, it is a rarer skill than one might hope, and truly useful in educating, certainly me, but I think also many others. It must also get exhausting when you are going over something that is old hat to you, so again thank you for the time you put in to help others understand.
Another thanks. This stuff does help.
Some fucking empathy. It’s all I’m asking for. Some margin for error.
I mostly lurk and I think I can finally put a finger on why:
1.) I’m a mess.
2.) This place can be vicious and extremely unwelcoming.
Having to constantly fend off assholes will drain a person, no matter how tough you are. Electric Monk seemed exasperated. Not happy to have to defend herself in a place she probably didn’t expect it. And rightfully so. People kept needling her about minor bullshit, IMO.
I feel like people were approaching the entire discussion from massively different frames of reference. For some it was deeply personal, for others a… quaint hypothetical.
My appeal to the latter type: Maybe consider that putting your feelings aside is easy for you, but not for others. And that being smart and right all the time? Not nearly as important as being a decent person. Try to engage with more than just the words. Try to consider the person that produced them. Doesn’t mean you should put on kid-gloves, but maybe put a filter on SOME of your “neat” ideas because it can verge on gas-lighting.
I’d go a little further: the idea that who I am — or, more to the point, who I am going to be allowed to be — is a topic for intellectual debate at all, that our existence needs to be justified, just feels so invalidating.
I suppose we need allies, but in a way, I have a harder time with the allies who engage in these debates than with the ATRs (as a Radical Feminist, I’m glad to see an acronym that doesn’t imply that people like OB and C. Brennan are feminists.) It kind of feels like that engaging in the ATRs’ debate at all legitimizes questioning my right to exist. I’m probably being unfair, I suppose.
To get an idea what it feels like, imagine you’re in an airplane or train, somewhere where you can’t just walk away, and the people around you are having an argument about whether or not you should be killed and tossed off the train/plane/whatever.
This isn’t to say the allies are wrong to defend us. But there are a lot of times when I just can’t make myself read the threads at all, let alone follow the “arguments,” and I have to go off somewhere and find something to take my mind off of it. (Dissociation is your friend….)
Electric Monk says
Pretty much nail on the head there. I was exhausted from several hours and something like 30 comments on other forums penned in defense of trans identity and rights. I wasn’t expecting to have to do that on Pharyngula, too, of all places. “Exasperation” definitely applies. And while I very easily could have had my “gain” turned up too high and been oversensitive in my response – I’m still not entirely sure on that one – I don’t think I was horribly in the wrong overall in being upset. I could very likely have read closer and exercised the principle of charity more, though.
You paint a terrifying picture. Terrifying, because I can imagine it happening just about anywhere in the world, right now.
Glad you’re still around. And your “gain” is tuned just right, IMO.
Sorry for the late response. I’m a chicken-shit poster. I deposit my thoughts, then bail. It’s a bad habit.