Tag Archives: feminism

The Ultimate Transgender FAQ for Allies

transgender FAQ

What does “transgender” mean?

The term “transgender” has no universally agreed upon definition but most academics define it to mean “anyone who has a gender different from the gender they were assigned at birth”. For example, a trans girl might have been thought to be a “boy” at birth but her gender is actually that of a girl.

There is debate within the trans community about how broad the trans umbrella is. Some want to include gender-nonconforming people, crossdressers, drag queens/kings and basically anyone who does not ascribe to stereotypical gender stereotypes in their expression. Other trans people want to restrict the term “transgender” specifically to those who have dysphoria about their body and seek out medical/surgical treatment. I write more about whether dysphoria is necessary for being trans here.

But despite there not being consensus on how broad the umbrella is, the academic definition of “different gender than gender assigned at birth” works for almost all instances. Notice how this definition does not imply, e.g., a trans man was “born a girl”. It was a false assignment based on a preliminary examination of superficial morphological features. With that said, I have written about whether gender identity is solidified during a “critical window” at ~5 years old like many theorists speculate or whether gender identity can change over a lifespan.

 

What is the difference between sex and gender?

“Sex” usually refers to biological/physiological characteristics of the body (“male” vs “female” vs “intersex”, etc.) whereas gender typically refers to a broader social-cultural phenomena involving expectations about social role, behavior, expression, power dynamics, processes of identification, public spaces (e.g. the “women’s bathroom”), signs, markers, and other normative significations of gendered difference.But “sex” is also ambiguous between multiple different sex concepts.

Harry Benjamin, critical to the history of trans healthcare, famously wrote:

“Here are some of the kinds of sex I have in mind: chromosomal, genetic, anatomical, legal, gonadal, germinal, endocrine (hormonal), psychological and also the social sex, usually based on the sex of rearing.” (1966, The Transsexual Phenomenon)

All these different sex concepts can vary independently in any given individual.

Some gender theorists, however, have argued that the sex/gender distinction breaks down and they are too intermingled to be conceptually disentangled. I have written about the problems with the sex/gender distinction before.

transgender

What is the difference between “transgender” and “transsexual”?

When the term “transgender” was first coined it was defined in contrast to “transsexual”. “Transsexual” was a more limited term, specifically referring only to those trans people who seek out medical assistance via hormones, surgery, etc.

“Transsexualism” was coined in the late 1940s and early 1950s by doctors David O. Cauldwell (a psychiatrist) and Harry Benjamin (endocrinologist). In the 1960s, “most roads let to Benjamin” (How Sex Changed, Joanne Meyerowitz, p. 133). He treated thousands of trans patients and defined the norms through which trans people spoke to their therapists and doctors, essentially creating the script of the modern gatekeeping system.

“Transgender” was originally meant to be more encompassing, including transvestites (aka “crossdressers”), gender benders, and anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary.

Many people feel that “transsexual” is offensive and reductionist, and perhaps it is outdated sociologically, but a good number of trans people strongly identify with the term and so I would caution anyone against making universal statements about whether the term should or shouldn’t be used.

But nowaways, “transgender” is the preferred term of choice for most trans people, often shorted to “trans”.

What does “cisgender” mean?

The term “cisgender” comes from the Latin prefix “cis”, meaning “on this side of”, which is the opposite of “trans”, meaning “across from” or “on the other side of”.

Basically, if you are cisgender you are not trans i.e. you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. For example, a cis man is a man that was identified as a boy at birth, raised as a boy, and feels totally comfortable with his manhood to the point where he might not have even questioned it nor formed an explicit identity as a man, his identity would be akin to a fish not noticing the water surrounding it: it’s just an omnipresent facet of his reality.

But many cis men do think about their manhood and masculinity and make conscious efforts to solidify that identity through culturally sanctioned rituals. Moreover, many cultures have explicit rites of passage that mark the entrance into the “adult” gender of manhood.

Furthermore, the question can be complicated because the line is fuzzy: “comfort” with your assigned gender comes in degrees and some cis people might be uncomfortable with a lot of aspects of their gender role but maybe still like their body or maybe have questioned their gender a bit but still feel mostly comfortable with their assigned gender. It can get complicated. Needless to say the cis vs. trans distinction is not super sharp because gender stuff is a complex and messy.

How is sexual orientation different from gender identity?

Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to. Gender identity refers to your identification/comfort with a gender such as “man” or “woman”. These two things can vary independently.

For example, a trans woman might identify as a woman but be attracted to other women (lesbian). Or a trans man might identify as a man but be attracted to more than one gender (bisexual/pansexual).

Many people falsely assume that, e.g., trans women are just “really gay” men and thus all “true trans women” are attracted to men. But about a third of trans women are only interested in other women. The rest is split between those attracted to men and those attracted to more than one gender.

Furthermore, many trans people are on the asexual/aromantic spectrum. Asexual typically means having a persistent lack of sexual attraction towards any gender. And this is different from to question of romance e.g. someone might be interested in sex with men but only wants romantic relationships with women. Aromantic would be someone who doesn’t experience any romantic attraction.

And there are many more sub-categories and distinctions to be made here. For resources on asexuality, see:

Fantastic resource on asexuality

transgender pronouns

Names and Pronouns: how do I use them?

Some general guidelines are:

  • Always use the name and pronouns that are explicitly requested. If you know someone uses she/her pronouns, then use them. If you know someone uses, they/them pronouns, use them, even if you know you’ll mess up frequently or if it feels “weird”.
  • When referring to the past, still use currently preferred pronouns. For example, if talking about a trans woman named Samantha, you might say “Before Samanatha transitioned, back in high school, she used to be on the men’s track team.”
  • If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, find a way to gently ask e.g. “Hey, do you mind if I ask, what are your pronouns? Oh, awesome, thank you! I didn’t want to assume.” If you can’t ask, then use gender neutral pronouns when possible.
  • Often we just assume people’s pronouns based on stereotypes i.e. if someone “looks” like a man they must be a man. But challenge yourself on this because it’s not always true. Avoid honorics like “sir” or “ma’am” unless absolutely necessary.
  • If you mess up on someone’s pronouns, don’t make a big deal about it. Correct yourself without fanfare and move on. Don’t pause and comment or say “sorry”. Just correctly yourself and proceed with what you were going to say.

What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity refers to how you identify (“man”, “woman”, or something else) and gender expression refers to how you express your gender through clothes, hairstyle, accessories, mannerisms, makeup, etc.

Although the terms “femme” and “masc” have their origins in the lesbian community, some people now use them to describe positions within the space of the feminine/masculine spectrum of gender expression:

futch scale

What is “genderqueer” and “nonbinary”?

Nonbinary means anyone who identifies outside the traditional man/woman binary. For example, someone might:

  • Identify as neither man nor woman
  • Identify as both a man and a woman
  • Identify outside the spectrum entirely
  • Identify as different genders at different times (genderfluid)
  • Identify as lacking all gendered identification characteristics (“agender”)
  • Identify their gender through the perspective of their race identity (“My gender is black”)
  • Identify as having a queer/nonnormative gender that escapes normal categories (“genderqueer”)

 

All these definitions are framed in terms of identity-language, but many trans people prefer to talk about just their genders e.g. a trans woman doesn’t “identify” as a woman she is a woman. So, with nonbinary, instead of “identify as neither man nor woman” we could say “their gender is neither that of a man or a woman”.

But personally, I think that if trans people have a gender identity than on the same grounds so do cis people-the difference is that cis people identify with the gender that was given to them at birth. But both cis people and trans people have the same basic cognitive architecture involved in processing information related to sex and gender; they just arrive at much different conclusions.

And here, “identify” doesn’t necessarily have to mean a conscious process (although I think some aspects of identity are formed at the conscious level) – it can refer to unconscious processing about both our sexed bodies and the norms/rules/systems of gender that forms the basis upon which we come to understand ourselves in gendered terms.

Many nonbinary people think of themselves as being a “sub-category” of trans, but some don’t: they see their nonbinary identity as not being reducible to typical categories of transness.

For more information on nonbinary identities, see:

Further resources about nonbinary people

What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is the feeling of deep discomfort with aspects of your assigned gender. Often this focuses on body parts: for example, a trans woman might hate her penis and wish for a vagina, a trans man might hate his breasts and wish for a flat chest. This can apply to almost any body part that is sexually dimorphic: height, size, muscularity, facial hair, hair, handsize, adam’s apple, voice, feet size, ribcage, shoulders, vascularity, facial shape, browbridge, jawline, etc., etc.

But gender dysphoria can also apply to social phenomena: feeling discomfort with how you are perceived by society, your social role, which pronouns people use for you, how you are included in different gendered spaces, and the normative enforcement of gendered expression, etc.

For example, someone can feel dysphoria for not being able to express themselves and then later come to feel dysphoria about their body. Or someone’s dysphoria might focus exclusively on their body and not on gender expression. Or someone could be focused more on the dysphoria surrounding restrictions in gender expression and very little if any bodily dysphoria (though there is debate about this).

Is being transgender a mental disorder?

This is a complicated question. We can distinguish between gender dysphoria as a debilitating (but treatable) condition vs the mere fact of identifying as a different gender than your assigned gender (being trans). Arguably, being trans in and of itself is not pathological but if your dysphoria is bad enough it can lead to anxiety, depression, dysfunction, suicidal thoughts, etc., etc. For more on this, see this post I wrote on the so-called “truscum” debate.

surgery

Do all transgender people want surgery?

Simply put: no. Many do. But not all. Some only want some of the surgeries but not others. Some are happy with just hormones. Some actually don’t want any hormones or surgery. Some cannot have surgery or take HRT because of medical conditions but of course they’re still trans. Some cannot afford it. Some would get it if they could press a magic button but don’t want to go through the ordeal of major, risky surgery.

What is the difference between “transgender” and “intersex?”

This is a complicated question. Typically intersex refers to a condition where one has sexual characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. For example, an otherwise female-appearing person who has a vagina but also male gonad inside of her.

It’s complicated because some trans people have argued that being trans is a kind of neurological intersex condition where there is a mismatch between the sex of their brain and their body. But other theorists argue that the concept of brain sex is sketchy.

Traditionally, intersex was distinguished from being trans in terms of it being a condition of the soma (body) whereas being trans was a psychiatric (mental) condition. But this assumes a mind/body dualism that is problematic.

Drag queen

How is being gender non-conforming different from being transgender?

Gender non-conforming (GNC) means that you have a gender expression that differs from the norms of society e.g. a man who wears makeup, or a woman who shaves her head. Drag queens are good examples of GNC men (although some drag queens do identify as trans or nonbinary).

Arguably, there must be a distinction between being trans and being GNC because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of a GNC cis woman. So therefore, GNC people cannot be part of the trans umbrella otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have a category of a butch cis woman.

What does medical transition involve?

Medical transition can involve a lot of things.

For trans-masculine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Testosterone therapy
  • Top surgery to remove breasts
  • Bottom surgery can often be broken into two broad categories:
    • Metoidioplasty: creates a penis from the enlarged clitoral growth of T-therapy
    • Phalloplasty: creates a penis from skin tissue.

For trans-feminine folks medical transition can involve:

  • Blocking testosterone
  • Estrogen therapy
  • Bottom surgery can involve:
    • Orchiectomy: removal of testes
    • Vaginoplasty: inverting the penis to create a vagina
  • Facial feminization surgery
  • Vocal feminization surgery
  • Vocal therapy
  • Breast augmentation

What are the causes of being trans?

This is still a fairly new field of empirical research. Being trans cannot as of yet be diagnosed like some medical pathologies such as cancer or the flu using empirical tools of measurements. There is some preliminary evidence of correlating biological factors but causation is incredibly hard to conclusively establish in humans for complex traits like being trans. So, in a nutshell, no one really knows the true cause(s) of being trans. Furthermore, trans people are a highly varied population and there might be multiple, overlapping, causes that interact strongly with the environmental context making the extrapolation of causality to single biological factors very complicated.

For a summary of some of the research on the biology of trans identities, see:

Harvard team summarizes evidence on biological foundations of gender

For a literature review of the biological foundations of trans identity, see:

Saraswat, A., Weinand, J., & Safer, J. (2015). Evidence supporting the biologic nature of gender identity. Endocrine Practice21(2), 199-204.

Is being transgender a modern fad?

No. Trans people have always been a part of human history.

Sex/gender expression was much more varied in some ancient cultures and traditions.

Arguably the notion of a gender binary where there are only two genders/sexes and two corresponding gender roles  is a historical construct. Other societies have historically recognized a polymorphous number of gender/gender roles not limited to two dimorphic biological categories (male vs. female).

A white man, describing the Crow Nation of North America, observed:

“Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!” (quoted in Trans Warriors, Leslie Feinberg, p. 22)

Writing in 1724, French missionary Joseph Francois Lafitau observed of Two-Spirit people that they were revered:

“They believe they are honored…they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order” (Trans Warrior, p. 23)

Hijra in India are India’s social category for trans feminine individuals who have long played an important social function in their society, presiding over many different important social events and making their living this way. Young hijra are brought into the fold by elders in the community and taught how to perform the social rituals.

American journalists reported on “sex changes” as early as the 1930s.

In the 1800s the concept of “inversion” was used to lump together all kinds of gender and sex variance.  If you were male but “inverted” to show the traits of a female then you were considered mentally deviant. The problem with “inversion” theories from a modern perspective is they conflated sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

In summary, it’s clear that gender diverse people have always existed.

Do transgender people face discrimination?

Yes. Trans people face discrimination in many areas of life including:

  • bullying at schools
  • discrimination at work (not being hired, being fired after transition, harassment)
  • housing discrimination, denied access to shelter, resources
  • discrimination stemming from not having proper governmental ID matching sex & gender
  • discrimination in healthcare getting access to medical care, both for transition purposes and just general healthcare
  • targeted by law enforcement (especially for being black and trans and femme)
  • harassment on the street, from strangers, friends, or family
  • stares, laughter, ridicule, hatred and trolling on the internet, death threats
  • violence
  • murder

For more information, see:

Wikipedia page on Transgender Equality

LGBT girl

As an ally, how can I be supportive of transgender people?

Work on your own transphobia. Do you have a hard time seeing non-passing trans women as women? Ask yourself why. Critically interrogate your own assumptions about gender inherited from a cis-sexist society.

Respect pronouns. Always.

Call out transphobia. Raises trans voices. Support us. Invite us into spaces.

Listen to us e.g. if the community is telling you Ru Paul is transphobic, then please believe Ru Paul is transphobic.

Be affirming. But treat us like normal people. You don’t have to be excessively effusive in your allyship to be a good ally – often we don’t want the pity and fanfare – we don’t think of ourselves as inspiring, brave people. We are human like everyone else, with the same basic needs just trying to find meaning in an absurd world.

More tips for being a good ally to trans people.

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Hey everybody! I am really excited to announce that I am working on a book:

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Trans Feminism Is Real Feminism

marsha-p-johnson1

Marsha “P” Johnson – Civil rights activist who famously started the Stonewall Riots which led to the modern LGBT+ rights movement

Trans feminism sometimes gets mistaken as feminism’s little cousin, a mere side show to the Main Event: Cis Feminism i.e. feminism written by and for other cis women.

On a superficial level, this seems fitting. After all 99% of women on this planet are cis so it makes sense that “feminism” is largely concerned with the perspective of cis women. According to this logic, “trans feminism” is merely “feminism light”, a pale shadow of the real thing.

But I want to argue that not only is trans feminism real feminism, real feminism *must* incorporate the insights of trans feminism if it is to be complete, to the extent any feminism can ever be complete.

Intersectional feminism is basically the idea that if you are a black woman the oppression you face as a black woman intersects with the oppression you face as a black woman. Gender and race also intersect with socio-economic status, disability, orientation, etc.

Being trans is just another axis along which intersectionality functions. Any feminism worth its weight recognizes this. Trans women have experiences that overlap with cis women as well as experiences that don’t. But that’s not inherently different than black women having experiences that overlap/don’t overlap with white women.

In my opinion it’s a fool game to try and find the experience or set of experiences that is universal among all women. But that doesn’t entail the concept “woman” is without meaning. Philosophers have noted it’s surprisingly difficult to give necessary and sufficient conditions for simple concepts like “chair” – yet I know a chair when I see one.

Why should we expect complex concepts like “woman” are any different? I might not be able to define womanhood precisely in such a way that will correctly sort billions of unique individuals into two mutually exclusive classes: women and not-women. It’s not so easy! Yet I know a woman when I see one. And “seeing” here is of course a metaphor for understanding. A pre-transition trans woman can radiate her womanhood without necessarily “passing” as a woman. “Passing” as a cis woman is such an arbitrary standard anyway because there are cis women who get misgendered on a regular basis.

Why will feminism never be complete without the inclusion of trans people? Because feminism has inputs. It’s not just done completely a priori. It operates with experiences and narratives as data to be explained. Traditional feminism started with only the experiences of white middle-class women as the inputs and got quite a bit done. But it was far from complete. Then black feminists started feeding in their inputs. And through similar processes the voices of people from diverse backgrounds have given their inputs.

Trans people represent 1% of the population. That might not sounds like a lot but that’s millions and millions of data points. And furthermore, they are data points that are highly relevant to feminism insofar as trans people have unique insights into the dynamics of gender, which should be of special interest to feminist theory. So not only does trans feminism bring the experience of millions of trans women, trans men, and non-binary folks, it brings it in such a way that has the potential to reshape the very concepts central to feminism.

Some prominent feminist theorists such as Judith Butler have recognized this conceptual potential and have started to work through those insights. And of course trans feminists themselves have been dissecting this stuff for decades.

 

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But feminism has yet to fully digest the trans experience. Though a mere “1%” trans folks have so much to bring to feminism, with spectacular proclivity to keep pressuring feminism to remain intersectional.

A common phenomenon in intersectional feminism is a feminism that believes itself to be fully intersectional yet is missing the perspective of important class(es) of people. To me it seems the best tactic is to remain humble about the intersectional reach of our feminism. There are probably voices feminism has yet to hear, stories that are important for understanding the full operation of intersectional semiotics.

Any feminism without trans experience is partially blind. This is why trans feminism is real feminism. Real feminism is spongelike in its absorption of different perspectives. Any feminism that fails to uptake the experience of trans people is incomplete at best and actively harmful at worst.

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On Being an Angry Tranny

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I am an angry tranny.

Yes, tranny. Not trans woman. Because when both liberals and conservatives see a trans woman getting upset over some social justice issue they are not thinking “Oh those angry trans women”. They’re thinking to themselves “Fucking trannies always getting their panties in a twist.”

The “angry tranny” archetype was made famous in the Stonewall riot, where trans women threw the first bricks kicking off the historical fight for LGBT rights which is now a major social movement.


(Source: wikipedia commons)

Trans women, especially trans women of color, have been behind every major civil rights issue since forever. They are the original agitators. They agitate simply in virtue of existing. The refusal to obey the rules assigned to them by a cissexist patriarchical society agitates the inner gears of the gender machine, the all encompassing system of norms, uwritten rules, scripts, stereotypes, etc. that defines our existence in a human society and feeds off all human difference.

Trans women, especially trans women of color, have very good reasons to be pissed off at all kinds of fucked up shit in our society with all its destructive systems of oppression, discrimination, exploitation, corruption, prejudice, violence, and marginalization.

And it’s not just gender. The whole system is corrupt – capitalism doesn’t escape the ire of the angry tranny.

I wasn’t always this angry. Transition slowly changed how I viewed the world. It changed my internal moral life and gave me the perspective to understand the concept of solidarity with folks living in oppressive systems. I went from literally being one the most privileged people on the planet to someone with a whole lot more to lose by remaining silent about social injustice.


(source)

I can no longer afford to be cordial, intellectual, rarified, theoretical in my direct discourse. As an ex-academic philosopher I spent a lot of time hanging out with white cis straight males who have a tendency to treat reality like a thought experiment. They debate social issues like an intellectual debate, a game of wit and logical acumen.

The question for me used to be “Who has the most clever argument?” but now my instinct leans towards “Who is this hurting?”

It’s funny how being a target of harassment, violence, hate and governmental regulation concerning what I do with my body will make you a more stringent feminist.

So many white cis people use the stereotype of the angry tranny, of the angry feminist, the angry WOC, to invalidate our experiences, our analysis, our solutions.

But until all systems of oppression are eradicated, I will remain angry, agitated, and antagonistic.

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There Is Nothing Universal to Say About Trans Women and Male Privilege

men-vs-women-leaders

There has been a lot of ink spilled lately about trans women and male privilege. I have seen so many discussions recently where people ask the question “Do trans women as a whole have male privilege and if so what kind and how much?” And then you see some trans women writing articles responding to this drivel by arguing “That doesn’t match my experience” and then go on to detail how their lives were not filled with privilege and how in fact they were brutalized for being feminine as children and did not internalize society’s messages about male socialization the same way cis boys did.

And on the other hand, some trans women are writing articles saying “I did have male privilege but I gave it up or am in the process of giving it up oh and btw I’m still a woman” or something along those lines. I’ve seen some of these articles also make the general claim that some types of male privilege were afforded to ALL trans women in virtue of living a life pre-transition as someone who was coded as male. But then other trans women deny this reflects their own experience growing up and we are going in a circle, with universal claims being negated by individuals claims and individual claims being taken as proof of some universal claim.

This is tiresome.

We have a general claim about ALL trans women being refuted by individual claims about SOME trans women. But the trans women who did not experiences themselves as having male privilege often make the same mistake of thinking their experience is universal. That’s what so wrong with this whole discussion. There are no universals. There are no generalizations to be made in terms of ALL trans women – every trans woman has a difference experience of living pre-transition as well as experiences their loss of privilege via transition differently.

And furthermore, people like to frame the discussion in terms of the pointless question of whether trans women’s experiences are identical to cis women’s experiences. But who cares? It doesn’t matter. Our experiences don’t need to perfectly match the cis experience to be representative of womanhood because to think otherwise is to buy into the cis-sexist belief that the cis experience is the “default” and the trans experience is a pale imitation. But in reality the trans experience is equally valid, it’s just more rare.

Personally, my own experience pre-transition featured a good deal of male privilege which I’ve wrote about elsewhere . I’ve retained some vestiges of that male privilege such as the privilege having grown up not thinking of myself as an emotional creature but rather a rational creature. I still have the privilege of not worrying about getting pregnant. But much of the other privileges I gave up during transition or am in the process of giving up. I now fear walking down the street at night whereas before I never did. I now fear cat-calling – before it was not even on my mind. I’ve lost the privilege of not worrying about my drink being drugged at a bar. I’ve lost the privilege of not fearing men. The list goes on.

The point is that privilege is rarely so monolithic or one-dimensional. My privilege as a white person and the vestigial remains of my male privilege is balanced against my loss of privilege as a woman and especially as a trans woman.

But my experience says nothing about the experiences of other trans women, who experienced their gender much differently than I did as a child and as I do now. I was never really made fun of for being feminine – my feminine behaviors were done in secret behind closed doors and so they weren’t a target for harassment. I was able to regiment my personality into a public boyish self and a private feminine self. It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first 5 years of life. While that might be true for many people it is not a universal truth. My gender identity has evolved significantly since I was 5 years old and I know I am not alone though I have the feeling that many trans people have a bias towards interpreting their memories as having an earlier identity  because that narrative is seen as “more valid” than the ones where gender identity evolution occurs later in life.

Not all young trans girls are able to hide their natural femininity and they are brutalized for it. If someone went through that experience and they are telling you they did not have male privilege then I believe it’s epistemically best practice to head what they are saying and take their narrative seriously. Likewise if a trans woman says she used to have male privilege but has since given most of it up, we need to listen to that narrative as well.

Cishet people seem to be more convinced that if a trait is displayed earlier in life it is “more natural” and thus a product of someone’s core essence. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. Innate or not, natural or not, what we should care about is if a behavior, trait, or personality is authentic and representative of someone’s deepest vision for how they want their life to go, regardless of the “origins” of that vision. If someone’s trans identity originated in their 40’s that does not make their trans identity less authentic than someone who’s trans identity originated in childhood. If someone starts painting in their 40s does that make them “less” of a painter than someone who has been painting since infancy? A painter is someone who paints. A trans person is someone with a gender identity different from their assigned gender. It’s not “gender identity different from assigned gender but also having emerged by five years old”. It just has to be different. But the causal origins of the identity itself in terms of when it originated in the life-line are not relevant for determining the authenticity of of the identity.

My trans identity only surfaced in my late 20s. It would be SO easy and no one could prove me wrong if I began saying things like: “I felt off during puberty but I only learned the words to articulate my feelings years later”. In a sense that would be perfectly true. I did have gender issues at a young age. But I think I would be deluding myself if I claimed I had any awareness of ever wanting to transition at that age. Just like gender identity doesn’t have to be cemented in childhood, neither does dysphoria have to originate in childhood. Dysphoria can surface at any point in a trans person’s life. I didn’t start feeling real dysphoria until my late 20s. The longer we hold onto the traditional narrative that all trans people somehow “knew” then they were children, the longer we will be unable to see the true diversity of the trans community.

The problem comes when we try to generate a one-size-fits-all theoretical framework for thinking about ALL trans women as sharing some kind of universal essence. But that’s a pipedream. There is no universal narrative. The human mind strives to “connect the dots” and create some kind of overarching generalization that is true of all trans women. But we need to resist that and instead focus on studying individual differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let Trans Women Grow

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Left: Me when I first started transition | Right: Me roughly two years later

Trans women are under intense pressure, internal and external, to perform femininity to a high level. They are seen as more “valid” in their identities the better they pass for cis women and in order to compensate for testosterone poisoning some trans women are pressured to wear makeup, accessories, and feminine styles of clothes to be gendered properly by strangers as well as fight their dysphoria. The common assumption is that trans women who are uber feminine are just narrow-minded 1950’s housewife artificialities who are putting on a costume to validate their own womanhood. Our femininity is never seen as natural – always artificial.

But in reality it’s often about pure survival, a defense mechanism. If we don’t perform femininity at a high level we get accused of being too manly and our womanhood is challenged and we are at more risk of misgendering, harassment, violence, and being discriminated against in general. But if we are feminine we get shit for just being caricatures of womanhood who think being a woman is all about dresses and heels. It’s a double bind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t – trans women lose either way.

But I don’t think the problem here is about femininity. The problem is that people don’t like the idea of a male-assigned person transitioning socially and medically. It’s the very idea of trans women that gives people a problem regardless of how well we perform femininity. The double-bind is thus a product of transmisognyny and not fundamental to femininity itself. The problem is that cis identities are seen as fundamentally more healthy and normal than trans identities. And I mean “normal” as in “normative” not “statistical”. Trans people are obviously in the statistical minority – but that alone doesn’t make our bodies or our identities pathological. Anomalous but not necessarily pathological. Trans women often get a lesser metaphysical status in the realm of valid identities but there’s nothing about our transness that is itself intrinsically pathological.

As philosophers like to say, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. It is the case that trans people are rare, but from that it doesn’t entail that we ought to eradicate trans identities. Imagine if we found a “trans gene” that caused transness and scientists had the power to edit that out before or after conception. We has a society would then have a choice whether to eradicate transness out of existence or not. My view is that the world would be much worse off if trans people weren’t around to shake up the cis-normative world.

Part of the pressure for trans women to perform femininity comes from a desire to relieve dysphoria. If I lived on a deserted island that had a Sephora I would still wear makeup because I just enjoy it and it makes me feel better about myself. But part of the pressure comes from how trans women are judged as less valid if we are not uber feminine.

But here’s the thing: trans women are often not even given a chance to grow into our femininity. As soon as we come out as trans we are expected to perform femininity flawlessly. We are expected to know how to do makeup, how to be stylish, have an extensive wardrobe of gender-affirming clothing, look sharp, natural, etc. But cis women have had decades to learn how to perform femininity, experiment with makeup, style, and figure out what looks good for their body shape. Not to mention, not all trans women can afford laser or electrolysis and the makeup techniques to flawlessly cover beard shadow are pretty advanced even for experienced makeup junkies.

Some trans women have been performing femininity from a very young age but that’s not true of all trans women. Some trans women such as myself repressed their feelings deeply and went through very “macho” stages to prove their masculinity to the world before their feelings finally surfaced fully and it was no longer possible to perform masculinity without great pain. But the little crossdressing I did in secret since childhood did not even slightly prepare me the pressure to perform femininity as a transitioned woman. The pressure is felt by all women but trans women feel it especially acutely. So I basically had to learn in a couple years what it took decades for cis women to figure out. Some trans women are just not interested in all that though and they should not be judged for it, no more than cis women should be judged for being butch or tomboys. The “tomboy” trans woman is often judged as less valid than feminine trans women. Many cis women say they are not scared of highly feminine cis passing trans women who have medically transitioned – it’s all those other, “bad ones” they are scared of in women-only spaces, the one who don’t perform femininity to some arbitrarily set cis-normative standard.

We need to let trans women grow into themselves. We are expected to perform femininity flawlessly within months of transition but often it can take years to come into a natural sense of style just like it takes years for cis people to figure out how to perform their genders. We need to let trans women have the space and time to explore themselves before we judge them as “successful”. Or better yet, how about we stop judging people who don’t conform to any gendered expectation and stop placing judgments on whether a transition is a “success” or not. If the trans person is happy at the end of the process it was a success, period. TERFs like to talk about how many trans women are just “pigs in wigs” but usually they are just selectively sampling from trans women just starting transition. Give them a few more years and get back to me. Let trans women grow. Give us time to figure this shit out without invalidating our identities because we have the audacity to look or sound like ourselves and not just flawless imitations of cis women.

Trans people are valid regardless of whether people have a hard time telling whether we are cis. That shouldn’t be the standard. There are no standards. Find me a rule book in the universe that tells me how men and women “ought to look”. There is no such book. There are just atoms in the void – but we place value on some arrangements of atoms and not on others. All value is created from the minds of creatures such as ourselves. Cis people often don’t place much value on trans lives. Our lives are seen as diseased. Just today someone commented on my youtube telling that I am “sick” and “need help”. Yeah – that’s a fun notification to get on my phone. That’s just part of what it’s like to be trans in 2017. And I have it easy! I am very, very privileged as a trans woman, both in terms of passing and my material status, but I still get constant reminders that my existence is seen by many in this country as an existential threat to the moral fabric of society. Here I am just trying to survive and somehow am the threat to society? Yeah, right.

Let trans women grow. Not all trans women have had a strong sense of identity since childhood. That’s the narrative that plays well with cis audiences and trans women are under immense pressure to reshape their histories to conform to that narrative but it’s not representative of the diversity in the community. Some of us need time to unlearn old patterns of behavior and learn new patterns of behavior. Some of us need time to figure out simple things that cis women take for granted like putting your hair up in a bun. Many of us were not taught by female members of our family how to perform femininity. If anything, we were usually punished for displaying the slightest amount of femininity. So how can cis people turn around and expect trans women to be perfect exemplars of femininity when they at the same time stamp out femininity in their own male-assigned children? It’s the double-bind of trans femininity.

When you start to look, the double-bind is everywhere. We cannot escape it. But we must. The liberation of trans women cannot happen unless the double-bind is loosened and we are allowed to grow.

 

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The Paradoxical Duality of Cat-calling as a Trans Woman

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It doesn’t happen often but last night I got cat-called. I was walking back to my car at a gas station and there was a group of guys standing around outside. Already on edge, one of them calls out “Hey sweetheart, how’s it going?” Many feelings rushed through my head as I answered back “I’m good” and tried to get in my car as fast as possible.

One of the feelings I felt was fear. I was afraid that my response “I’m good” would clock me cuz of my voice and that the man, having clocked me, would feel his masculinity is threatened and then proceed to beat the shit out of me, hence getting in my car as fast as possible.

Another feeling was disgust. I was disgusted at how piggish men can be towards women and felt a twinge of injustice in solidarity with other woman-identified people who get cat-called.

But here is the paradoxical feeling: In addition to fear and disgust, I also felt a boost to my self-esteem because being cat-called is an indication that hormones and my presentation are working such that people perceive me to be female. That is my goal, and it feels good to get positive evidence of getting closer to that goal.

I have seen TERFs talk about this as another example of why trans women have male privilege and don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman: according to them we like being cat-called. But that’s not true at all. The response is paradoxical because it contains within itself competing elements of fear/disgust and a positive feeling of gender euphoria at evidence of “passing” as your identified gender. It’s not that I liked being cat-called – I was afraid of being beat-up or worse and my deep feminist intuitions scream at the horribleness of cat-calling as a phenomenon that negatively affects women. It’s not so simple as either liking it or not liking it. But I would be lying if I said that I had zero positive feelings at being cat-called – the negative feelings were mixed into the positive feeling of gender euphoria, at feeling like I am passing and attractive.

I would be curious to know if cis women ever feel this paradoxical feeling as well e.g. feeling like your outfit and hair must be killing it today because you got cat-called which is unusual for you but also feeling disgusted at the misogyny on display while also feeling fear. I’ve never asked a cis woman about this so I don’t know for sure but I would wager that some cis women do in fact feel the paradox as well.

But I would also wager that for trans women the paradox is felt to a greater extent. For many trans woman, including myself, passing is of great importance and sometimes it’s difficult to garner “objective” evidence that you are passing. Cat-calling is a form of evidence and thus brings with it a positive feeling associated with feeling like you are passing. Nevertheless, we need to do a better job of raising young men to also feel disgust at the practice of cat-calling and call-out and shame fellow men for doing it when they see it.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, My life, Trans life