Transgender Semantics

Transgender Semantics

(Content Note: Discussion of problematic language)

A recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) featured a segment that upset and angered many trans* (and non-trans) people. The episode itself and the reactions from all sides to the episode (and to Drag Race in general) have got me thinking a lot about “transgender” as a contested identity category still in a state of instability. Before I get into that, let me lay out what happened on RPDR to set up some context.

RPDR Segment: “Female or She-Male”

During the segment, a mini-challenge titled “Female or She-Male,” contestants were shown close-up photographs of people and asked to identify them as “biological females” (in reference to Paris is Burning) or as “she-males.” The “she-males” shown in the challenge were all drag queens, and none of them have (so far) identified as trans* women. As far as I know, none of the people “correctly” (according to the challenge) identified as “she-male” during the challenge identify as trans*. Still, this was obviously a problematic segment.

One of the reasons it was so problematic was not so much because it called the drag queens she-males, but because some of the “biological females” it showed were meant to be perceived as more masculine looking and thus evoke a sense of disgust in viewers. Even some of the contestants made fun of some of those “biological females”—one contestant asked, “Are you sure?” in response to being told the person was a “biological female.” In this way, the segment really was playing on harmful stereotypes of trans* women.

Many trans* folks voiced concern over this, including former contestant Carmen Carrera, who transitioned after her appearance on the show in season 3. The producers of the show eventually apologized and have removed the segment from the show’s distribution as well as removed another regular feature of the show, the “You’ve Got She-Mail” that begins each show. Many people, including some trans* people, have argued that this went too far and that the show should have kept the “she-mail” feature. Much of the back and forth over this has been trans* folks disagreeing about whether or not Logo and RPDR should have removed the mail feature, and indeed about who has the “rights” to use such terms (let me be perfectly clear here: this is not a free speech issue).

I am not going to get into that issue here. Instead, I want to try to examine the ways that identity politics are at play here. What has come to light through these various responses to the RPDR segment and Logo’s response is just how contested the meanings of “transgender” still are. There seem to be at least two meanings in use: one broad and one narrow.

It’s Just Semantics: Contested Meanings of “Transgender”

The first—and the one that I’ve seen used a lot around the internet—is “transgender” as an umbrella term (check out this Google Image search for some visualizations). Under this usage of “transgender” fits anyone whose gender does not neatly align with the sex they were assigned at birth—including drag queens, a point that is not insignificant when trying to make sense of the issues around RPDR.

At least since Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (available as Ch. 16 in The Transgender Studies Reader—old copies of the out-of-print text are quite expensive if you can find them; a pdf is floating around on the internet), “transgender” has been utilized as an umbrella term to include any gender-variant person. Before Feinberg, “transgender” was a term used to refer to male-bodied people who lived as women without undergoing any physical transition. Feinberg’s re-working of the definition opened it up to bring in all kinds of gender-variant people, including transsexuals, butch lesbians, transvestites, and drag queens/kings.

In her text Transgender History, Susan Stryker uses “transgender” in a similar vein to

refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place—rather than any particular destination or mode of transition

The National Center for Transgender Equality defines transgender in a similarly broad sense as “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.”

What these expressions of “transgender” mean is that drag queens are considered by some to be transgender. And I think this is an important historical point that has to be considered when trying to make sense of the back-and-forth arguments about RPDR.tumblr_lyzb1ioS3u1qlvwnco1_400

One of the things that initially surprised me about the response was that I thought that drag queens were more widely considered to be transgender. In fact, before the 1980s, people who would today identify as transgender did not identify that way—the category did not exist in any useful or meaningful way. Many people, like Silvia Rivera, later identified as transgender but, prior to that identity category becoming available, they identified in other ways, including as femme gays, butch lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites, and drag queens and kings. Rivera herself identified with drag culture and was adamant about keeping it and gender variance in general on the radar of the more assimilationist-minded gay rights agenda.

I bring this up because some of the responses I’ve seen from some trans* people have been calls for the erasure of drag. This very clearly illuminates some ongoing tensions among gay, lesbian, and trans* communities. Today, most trans* people do not come to their trans* identities through drag as was more common in the past, and it seems that perhaps this has given rise to a new, more focused definition of “transgender.”

Another view of “transgender”—and one that seems to be a historically recent narrowing of the broad umbrella term usage—is a person who lives their everyday lives as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. According to this petition posted on Zinnia Jones’ site (emphasis original):

We reject [trans-activist Andrea] James’ classification of RuPaul as transgender, as well as any implication that cisgender male drag queens are therefore entitled to use transmisogynist slurs. Cisgender male drag queens are assigned male at birth, and they neither consider themselves to be women nor live as women in their everyday lives. Unlike trans women, they are not the ones who regularly face the consequences of widespread transphobia and transmisogyny, and they are not confronted with the fallout of normalizing transmisogynist slurs.

Clearly drag queens are excluded from the category “transgender” in Jones’ usage due to the fact that most drag queens do not try to live out their daily lives presenting as women. This more narrow vision of “transgender” very clearly indicates that only those people who have transitioned in some way to living their everyday lives in ways visibly different from the sex/gender assigned to them at birth are to be considered transgender.

* * *

What I have noticed is that it seems that in some ways this is a generational divide. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but it appears as if those who are advocating for the broad conceptualization of “transgender” are those who come from older generations and those who utilize a narrow usage are from younger generations.

Our Lady J

Our Lady J

In many ways, this divide reminds me of the same sorts of liberationist vs. assimilationist arguments in the gay and lesbian communities that were especially tense in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t help but think that some of the more outlandish responses (such as the person calling for the “delegitimizing” of drag on Zinnia Jones’ petition) have come from people who may be classified as assimilationist, or seeking to integrate trans* people into heteronormative society through normalization of “transgender.” And some of the responses from people like Our Lady J could be seen as more liberationist with their calls for unfettered freedom for people to identify however they wish and use language however they wish without regard to the potential harm caused by such language.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has perhaps inadvertently helped to illuminate a very real tension going on within the trans* community. It seems to be less of an issue between gay and trans* communities, or between drag queens and trans-activists. I think it’s important to consider that even within the gay community drag is often marginalized and stigmatized. In some ways (contrary to Zinnia Jones’ assertion), drag queens do experience transphobia, though obviously in different ways than trans* women who have transitioned in their everyday lives. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the unique kinds of oppression that drag queens have been subjected to historically. Just because RPDR is around (on a queer television network) and is popular does not mean that drag queens are magically treated wonderfully by mainstream society or within the LGBT community.

I think RPDR is helping to change the stigma that has followed drag performers around for so long, and in the process, it has shed light on other kinds of tensions within the transgender community. The meaning of “transgender” will continue to be contested and perhaps at some point in the future another category will emerge that will resolve the disparity between these broad and narrow conceptions. But until that happens, it is likely we will continue to see these same kinds of issues arise around identity categories and labels.

(Edited 4/20/2014 @ 2:38 Eastern Time: I realize that the way I phrased the assimilationist vs. liberationist paragraph towards the end of the article may have implied that I was treating the liberationist side as more correct. It was not my intention and I have added some wording to try to clarify that they can both be equally problematic.)

By Will
Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

17 Comments

  1. Your response to trans women asking gay men and drag performers to stop hurting them and supporting a culture of othering is seriously “won’t someone think of the drag performers”? Jesus.

    You also have the divide backwards – people like Calpernia Addams and Andrea James are the ones promoting One True Way to be a trans woman (stealth and the perfect image of stereotypical 1950s femininity) in ways that have set young trans women back years. I don’t fault them for that – they had to deal with an even worse gatekeeping establishment and they seem to have internalized a lot of it – but it’s not a free pass for foisting their rigid HBSer nonsense on others. Addams and James are the ones telling us not to get pissed off because it will make our cis masters angry. Zinnia is one of the most thoroughly inclusive and intersectional trans feminists out there, and it’s crazy to go after her like this. One angry person in a Zinna comment section does not an “erasure” make, and I’m not aware of any trans women with TV shows controlling their own images like RuPaul does. Instead of breathlessly using semantics to make a victim of the person who uses slurs and encourages cis people to participate in the kind of demeaning scrutiny that precedes the violent deaths of trans women … well, maybe just start not doing that, first.

    • I hesitate to even engage with this “argument” because it is a deliberate misreading of what I’m doing and is exactly the kind of rhetoric that has been unhelpful in discussions of trans identity politics. I’m looking to explore the historical and cultural contexts within which this issue is happening. I am not “going after” anyone. I’m not “making victims” at all.

      And I find your assertion that Addams and James are encouraging “stealth” kind of hilarious considering how outspoken they are about being trans. Besides, if you want to be “thoroughly inclusive” then you should be accepting of trans folks who want to be “stealth.”

  2. I’m perfectly accepting of trans folks who want to be stealth! I would love the option to be stealth myself! But their packaged nonsense about the right way to be trans set me and several other people I know back several years until we found other people more representative of us and our bodies and our means and our modern concept of feminism. And these people are not content simply preying on young trans women just starting to look around the internet for help – they’re out there telling other trans women not to complain about slurs and to just shut up and assimilate. They have access to nominally trans-friendly platforms like Boing Boing and HuffPost’s Gay Voices and use them to trample other trans women and side with the cis establishment they’ve hitched their carts to. How can you take James seriously when she calls trans women hurt by slurs “Social Justice Warriors” and “finger-wagging schoolmarms” in the piece Zinnia was referencing? Addams’s own post echoes trans-exclusive radical feminists in attempting to deride young trans women for having some kind of corrupting residual male privilege and rejection of the word “cisgender.” It boggles the mind for a Queereka blogger to want to side with that kind of stuff. We don’t need any more defenders of transphobic slurs and transphobic scrutiny – the rest of the world does that well enough on its own. Would you be stepping up to the plate to mince words about whether it was okay to use a homophobic or racist slur?

    • I’m not siding with anyone. Again, I’m exploring the contexts of identity politics in the trans community as illuminated by these back-and-forth arguments. My overall point is that there’s very clearly a lot of tensions within the trans community concerning who can legitimately be identified as “transgender.” I’m pointing out how these arguments have historical antecedents that are important to understanding why things are as they are now. That’s it. I have not “defended” any slurs and, in fact, I said I was not going to talk about that in the post and I didn’t.

      There is one place towards the end where I can see that it may come across as me being less critical of liberationists, so I will go edit that to make it more clear.

      By the way, we’ve put out calls for writers several times, including asking for more trans people and (trans women and people of color in particular) to join. The call is still open and we would love to have more trans women writing on the site. If you or anyone else you know is interested, send them our way! I would love to be able to give a platform to more trans folks to express themselves.

      • I apologize for my hot-headed responses earlier, I was simply stressed out by seeing all of these defenses or semantic abstractions pop up in my RSS reader, the feeds for which I’ve specifically selected because I don’t expect them to throw defenses of “tranny” or “shemale” in my face first thing in the morning. There is some minimal investigation to be done into the meanings of the term “transgender,” but it’s handled its dualities pretty successfully. When I call myself a trans woman, the adjective plainly has different meaning that the umbrella T at the end of the LGBT acronym. I think you’re missing the bigger semantic issue and a ton of context – both which would help you understand the actual divide in the movement, such as it is – which is the move from “transsexual” to “transgender.” Natalie Reed, another former FTB blogger, covers part of it succinctly here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/04/02/harry-benjamin-syndrome-syndrome/

        These older trans women were the assimilationists (referred to as separatists from the movement) in response to the gatekeeping medical establishment at the time. We’ve moved past that, and in general we are now so much better at recognizing and accepting non-binary genders and binary people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold. Zinnia Jones and our current crop of activists, including Janet Mock and Lavern Cox, have been the ones opening the umbrella and offering its shelter to those who need it. You have your categorization the “older” and “younger” “factions” of the movement completely backwards. James and Addams are pulling us backwards. The rest of the movement is progressing forwards.

        The problem here has never been RuPaul’s identity. I would feel no better if a trans woman had a similar show and was encouraging similar transphobic behavior. As you’ve seen, it’s quite possible to find trans women willing to say the same things as RuPaul is saying in his defenses of his words and actions. Zinnia isn’t playing with identity politics, she’s saying that careless transphobic speech has no place in the movement for trans rights and acceptance, and that RuPaul cannot be said to be working for the same, or even promoting it, when he so callously and quickly dismisses the objections of trans women to the use of words and practices that hurt them.

        This is particularly painful for me. I pass, more or less, in general. But the same kind of scrutiny that RuPaul subjected his contestants to is the same kind that people use to notice that I’m trans. That kind of scrutiny got a friend of mine beat up last month, by a trio of cis men yelling the same words RuPaul laughs about. I am not trying to “dismiss the unique kinds of oppression that drag queens have been subjected to historically,” because this case is not even about the oppression of drag queens. I’m trying to get drag queens (and others) who use language that viscerally hurts many trans women to think about it critically and cut it out.

        Flipping the script to make this some kind of “but what about the drag queens” is cissplaining tripe, because it’s not about them. RuPaul’s words and actions hurt trans women. Trans women have finally dared to ask him to stop. That’s it.

        • Seriously, James wrote this paragraph about Chelsea Manning in one of her other shitty Boing Boing articles:

          “I had hoped I wouldn’t need to write about this ever, because airing disputes within marginalized groups is rarely politically expedient. We’ve had a pretty good run in terms of mainstream media depictions of trans people over the past few years, focusing the kind of friendly, non-threatening, assimilated people that many non-trans people can support: “Why, they’re a lot like us!” Many activists have spent their lives getting trans people to this place, including yours truly, and revelations like Manning’s have the potential to derail that progress among people inhabiting the vast middle ground between complete condemnation and full support. ”

          She’s absolutely not the progressive, open umbrella person you mistook her for. People like Jones are fighting for gender variant people’s rights not to have to be friendly, non-threatening, and assimilating. Andrea James is decidedly not. Did you just read Zinnia’s piece and want to jump on her for calling RuPaul cis? I can’t see how you’d have that pleasant view of James if you’d digested the article Zinnia was talking about.

          On the other hand, here’s Zinnia: http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/2013/08/i-dont-want-to-be-one-of-the-good-ones/

          “If you’ve ever favorably contrasted me against other trans people or atheists or queer folks or anyone else like me, just because I’ve been quiet when they’ve been outspoken in the face of wrongdoing, or I was overly patient and indulgent of ignorance when they’ve been rightfully terse: fuck you.

          Stop it. I don’t want your support or approval. I am not on your side. I am not one of you. I want to be like them – not like you. I don’t want to be one of your “good ones”.

          When what I say is used to fuel some expectation that we should all be unfailingly kind and patient in the face of nonsense, I don’t feel good about that. It’s not something I want my words to be used for at all, and such approval is not something I seek. When they try to separate us into “good ones” and “bad ones” based on how agreeable they find us, it’s often my friends who are considered the “bad ones”. And I know who I’d rather be with.”

          Sorry, it just seriously bothered me that you got the factions (such as they are) so wrong.

        • No need to apologize. ;)

          I am not making a defense of slurs or those words or the segment on RPDR or anywhere else. I’m using it as a lens through which to look at how identity is at play in the various responses to RPDR. BTW, Natalie Reed was one of the founding members of this blog before she moved over to FTB, so I’m aware of her writing. ;)

          I guess I just don’t see the break down of assimilationist vs. liberationist in the same way, though I certainly understand why you see it the way you do. The people I cited–Leslie Feinberg and Susan Stryker–are the people I am drawing from when thinking about the broader umbrella term approach to defining “transgender,” not really Addams or James. And I would definitely not describe either Feinberg or Stryker as assimilationists.

          The problem here has never been RuPaul’s identity. I would feel no better if a trans woman had a similar show and was encouraging similar transphobic behavior.

          That’s a fair point, though I am curious how you would respond to a trans woman claiming to be using one of those words as a reclaimed word in a different context that’s not body policing in harmful ways?

          Zinnia isn’t playing with identity politics, she’s saying that careless transphobic speech has no place in the movement for trans rights and acceptance, and that RuPaul cannot be said to be working for the same, or even promoting it, when he so callously and quickly dismisses the objections of trans women to the use of words and practices that hurt them.

          I certainly agree that’s what Jones is doing, but I don’t agree it’s not identity politics.

          I’m trying to get drag queens (and others) who use language that viscerally hurts many trans women to think about it critically and cut it out.

          Like I said, I’m not arguing that the language wasn’t hurtful. I intentionally walked around talking about the language itself because I was interested in thinking about the different ways identity is at play here.

          Flipping the script to make this some kind of “but what about the drag queens” is cissplaining tripe, because it’s not about them.

          Once again, I did not ask “what about the drag queens” and I’m not “making it about them.” I’m using the responses to RPDR as a way to think about identity politics and transgender categorization more broadly.

          • Okay, but I don’t see much value in using texts from 1992 to illuminate the trans discourse happening today, given how much has changed in the last ten and even five years. The Stryker cite is just a generic definition of the umbrella term, not an enumeration of some faction stance. I’m not really aware of the existence of any kind of broader inclusive vs exclusive divide beyond the one surrounding transsexual and transgender. This investigation into semantics and whether RuPaul is or isn’t trans, and what particular kind of trans he is or isn’t, doesn’t reflect any kind of larger schism. He said some shitty things, and some people are highlighting his lack of lived experience as a trans woman to inform their criticism of his words. That’s valid, but it’s certainly not the only way to object to his antics.

            I have trans women friends who are comfortable using those words for themselves, but they defer to their interlocutors in deciding whether or not the terms are appropriate for the conversation, and they are generally careful not to use them casually in front of uneducated cis people in a way that would reinforce existent cultural biases. I’m not a huge fan of the words, but I have no problem with other trans women’s efforts to reclaim them personally as long as they acknowledge the context and the reasons why they shouldn’t use those words to refer to others they’re likely to trigger. I can’t imagine ever being happy with their usage on a popular national TV show, when we’re still trying to stop sitcoms from using the same words as transphobic punchlines to the apparent jokes of our existence. It seems quite analogous to the f-word – if gay men want to use it for themselves, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not okay to just throw it at whoever you want, and it’s still not appropriate for a broad audience that’s going to include some people who desperately don’t want to hear it.

            Your conclusions are pretty rough. Your whole last two paragraphs still read pretty much to me like “what about the drag queens.” Your characterization of things like Lady J’s piece as “liberationist with their calls for unfettered freedom for people to identify however they wish and use language however they wish” is conflating two completely different issues. The modern trans movement welcomes people of all identities, but we don’t welcome explicitly harmful language. Both of these constructions flip the reality (RuPaul trucking in transphobic slurs and activities to cash in on cis expectations and stereotypes) on its head to cast trans women as either oppressors of drag queens or language police, turning us from victims to the assailants. Citing Lady J’s piece as any kind of positive example of anything is bizarre – it’s full of the same “free speech” and “political correctness gone mad” and and “we are only victims if we allow ourselves to be” shit the right wing tosses at us all the time. She’s even quite plainly antagonistic, calling trans women objecting to these terms “the hissing ego of fanaticism,” like asking people to quit using slurs is beyond the pale. Neither approach you conclude with seems consistent, unless you’re going to start linking to the same kinds of defenses for anti-gay or racist slurs.

            But no – queer icons rarely defend the f-word so vociferously. Nobody tells gay men to just shut up and take slurs aimed at them. Nobody is angry at people of color for objecting to slurs aimed at them. Nobody takes the occasion of their objection to such epithets as a reason to investigate their semantics.The moment trans women speak up about slurs aimed at them, though – whoa, quit being so sensitive! You’re overpolicing language and/or starting a class war!

            Give me a break. None of this has anything to do with “trans*” vs “trans.” It’s just about listening to people who ask you to stop using anti-trans slurs, because they hurt. That’s really all it is. Distracting from or trying to obfuscate the issue will only hurt trans women further. Painting Jones and modern movement leaders as retrograde is almost as shortsighted as calling Lady J’s piece liberationist. Since when is shutting up and taking insults any kind of liberation?

          • I don’t see much value in using texts from 1992 to illuminate the trans discourse happening today

            But this is exactly part of what I’m getting at. What is happening today is not happening in a historical vacuum. There is a history behind these identity categories. I bring it up as an example of how these categories shift over time.

            I’m not really aware of the existence of any kind of broader inclusive vs exclusive divide beyond the one surrounding transsexual and transgender.

            What I’m exploring is perhaps there is a divide but that it has gone largely unexamined or unnoticed as such. I’m open to the possibility that I am reading into things, but from where I sit that’s how things look.

            And once again, I’ve pointed out several times but you keep coming back to it anyway, I am not defending the use of the language or the segments on RPDR.

            The modern trans movement welcomes people of all identities

            That is what I’m interrogating. Some of the reaction I’ve seen around the internet–one example was cited in the OP, the comment on Jones’ post–have not been welcoming people of all identities but have actively called for the erasure and delegitmization of drag identities, and I have see people label “drag queens” as cisgender, which erases the existence of drag performers who have transitioned. That’s what has spurred me to thinking on the state of the category itself today.

            Citing Lady J’s piece as any kind of positive example of anything is bizarre

            So, I’ve re-read that paragraph again, and I think I now see why it’s being read that way. I was seriously not trying to cite Lady J’s piece as a positive example, but as an “outlandish” example similar to the comment I was referring to. The writing is sloppy in that paragraph and does not do a good job of expressing that.

            unless you’re going to start linking to the same kinds of defenses for anti-gay or racist slurs.

            But no – queer icons rarely defend the f-word so vociferously. Nobody tells gay men to just shut up and take slurs aimed at them. Nobody is angry at people of color for objecting to slurs aimed at them. Nobody takes the occasion of their objection to such epithets as a reason to investigate their semantics.The moment trans women speak up about slurs aimed at them, though – whoa, quit being so sensitive! You’re overpolicing language and/or starting a class war!

            I know that that happens a lot, but that’s not what I’m doing here. I have, repeatedly in both my post and in comments, expressed that I’m not defending the language. You’re arguing against something that I’m not saying.

            None of this has anything to do with “trans*” vs “trans.”

            I’m unconvinced of this. And really, the only argument you’ve made towards this particular point is that you’re unaware of that divide if it exists. Which doesn’t really negate what I’m looking to examine because I am open to the possibility that has been largely unacknowledged or unnoticed.

            Painting Jones and modern movement leaders as retrograde is almost as shortsighted as calling Lady J’s piece liberationist. Since when is shutting up and taking insults any kind of liberation?

            I never “painted” Jones as anything, especially not as “retrograde.” In fact, I said the definition that she has operationalized in her post is “historically recent,” which is kind of the opposite of retrograde.

            To close out my comment, I’ll explain my thinking behind the liberationist vs. assimilationist dichotomy. I see people like the commenter at Jones’ site who insist that drag queens be erased because they paint trans* people in a bad light for the broader society as assimilationist. (And please don’t try to tell me that’s not a common thread in trans identity politics, because it is.) That reads to me as assimilationist because it is more concerned with what cisgender people think about trans* people than it is about giving space for people to express gender in non-normative ways.

            When I referred to the others as liberationist, I am referring to the fact that they seem to want to allow anyone to identify however they want and thus use language that should be reserved for certain groups of people in whatever ways they see fit. They are “liberated” from what they perceive as a “political correctness.” In this sense, and in line with the queer liberationist movements of the past, they are concerned more with the freedom to express themselves however they see fit than with what the broader society thinks about them or their community.

            I am aware that the lines can be fuzzy and people could appear to be in one or the other category depending on context. I am not trying to set up a strict dichotomy here that people can be easily placed into in all contexts. This is exactly why I made this post, because I am interested in how these contexts are shaped and change over time.

          • Do you see no distinction between trans women who transitioned after previously being drag performers and RuPaul, who consistently reinforces that he’s not a trans woman? I really don’t understand how acknowledging that those groups are going to be coming from different places is “erasing the existence of drag performers who have transitioned.” Carmen Carrera transitioned after appearing on RuPaul’s show and has spoken out against the scrutiny segment and transphobic language. She has not been erased by movement leaders – she appeared alongside Laverne Cox for that awful Katie Couric interview. We are not erasing anyone’s existence, and the very idea that trans women have any kind of power over these things is hilarious, especially given the current situation. We’ve merely spoken out against insults and violence and tried (generally unsuccessfully in the larger culture) to reinforce the fact that trans women are not drag queens. We do not want drag queens (or anyone else!) speaking for us or promoting anti-trans slurs, as RuPaul does with his large platform. We share an axis of oppression but the two states of being are quite different and drag queens should not be using their bigger megaphones to shout over us. RuPaul, in speaking over thousands of trans women objecting to his language, is the one doing the erasing in this scenario. RuPaul, in encouraging cis people to use slurs and teaching them to “clock” gender variant bodies, is propagating systemic oppression.

            You can write about whether you think drag performers are cis or trans, but either way most of them certainly aren’t trans women. And as long as RuPaul is out there actively harming trans women, you’re going to be able to find angry people seeking to distance trans women from drag queens. This is less a source for dispassionate semantic investigation and more a desperate survival tactic. RuPaul’s apathetic bullshit, for example, makes it harder for us to avoid insults and violence. His instruction of cis people in the clocking of people with gender variant bodies makes it significantly more stressful for many people to use the correct public restrooms and go about their lives without looking over their shuolders. Is it any wonder that people fighting for such basic rights are going to try to distance themselves from his act? Honestly, after the Lady J, Addams and James pieces, it’s remarkable that Jones and others have managed to stay so relatively restrained.

            RuPaul is certainly not transgender in the way I mean when I call myself a transgender woman, and he is not transgender in the way that the signatories of Jones’s letter are transgender. He can still be welcomed under the larger trans* umbrella. These views are not inconsistent, and I do not see the former as “narrow.” I continue to reject your assignation of “assimilationist” and “liberationist.” Your conflation of identity and language still has you looking at things backwards. People like Addams and James, who Jones was opposing, are clearly aiming to fit trans women into society as the “average, normal everyday citizens” your link describes. Read the stuff I gave you about Chelsea Manning and look at how they’ve made their money promoting and selling conformity to newly out and questioning trans women. Jones is clearly on the other team from these women, but working for liberation doesn’t mean you can’t work to stamp out hate speech, jokes made at trans women’s expense, and misrepresentation. If trans women are being thrown onto the alter to fuel queer empowerment, it’s definitely not drag performers who are being erased.

  3. I believe that you have misread Zinnia Jones. When she referred to drag queens not experiencing transphobia on a daily basis, that is not meant to be the definition of trans, it is simply why the definition (which she leaves unstated) matters. I think it would be inaccurate to say that ZJ would say that someone is not trans just because they don’t experience daily transphobic slurs, or just because they haven’t transitioned. That was extremely uncharitable.

    My own preferred definition of transgender (which I believe is very common among the “younger” generation) is someone whose gender identity does not match what was assigned to them at birth. This is distinct from the other definitions you mentioned in that it does not include gender expression or behavior. This (typically) doesn’t include drag performers or crossdressers, not that those aren’t groups worth talking about in their own right.

    But regardless of whether the drag performers on RPDR are classified as transgender, it seems clear to me that they don’t have a “right” to use transphobic slurs. I accept the authority of trans people to reclaim slurs if they want to, but they need to earn a little credibility first. As in, they need to demonstrate that they’re not themselves extraordinarily transphobic. As soon as you described the segment “female or she-male”, RPDR lost any of the requisite credibility in my eyes.

    • I very clearly quoted Jones’ explanation for how drag queens fall outside the bounds of the category “transgender.” It’s not a misreading, it’s literally right there for all to see. I didn’t say Jones would claim that someone is not trans if they don’t experience daily transphobic slurs. I said that since drag queens do not live their everyday lives as women that they are excluded from Jones’ definition of transgender. I did not say whether that definition was correct or incorrect or whether I agree or disagree with it. I am still exploring this issue of what could be considered to legitimately constitute membership in the category of “transgender,” and this post is just my “thinking out loud” about it as it were.

      I am not seeing how your provided definition differs in any meaningful way from the broad definition given by Feinberg or Stryker. “Gender-variant” or “moving away” does not have to include expression or behavior, it can be in identity-based.

      And, as I said in my post, I’m not disagreeing that the segment was hugely problematic, and I’m not going to get involved with trying to decide who should or should not be allowed to reclaim words. That’s not for me to decide. What I am interested in here is the meaning of “transgender,” and how it is contested and affects how people will approach the issue of language use.

      • Right, you weren’t expressing any negative judgment on Zinnia Jones. Nonetheless I think you misread it, by thinking she was expressing a definition (and that this misreading happens to make her look bad). I do not agree that it was either a correct or incorrect definition–it was not a definition at all.

        As you described Feinberg and Stryker, they seemed to include expression and behavior. If you now say that their “don’t have to” include expression or behavior, I think you need to explain what you mean.

        I view semantic arguments as primarily instrumental in purpose. If we want to figure out the appropriate definition of “transgender”, we have to know the context, and make judgments on it. Here the context is RPDR’s “right” to reclaim words, or lack thereof. So that’s why I expressed an opinion on it. I know you weren’t necessarily disagreeing on this point.

  4. Thank you to cornith and will for having this discussion. I’m with Zinnia and Cornith on this, but I think Will has a point in as much as putting now into historical context can be useful for understanding where others are coming from (even if I still profoundly disagree with them).

    Will, we keep coming back to the slurs because that’s the entire issue for us. The identity politics, not as much. But Wil wants to talk about identity politics so I’ll just take “RuPaul was wrong” as a given and move on to that.

    What I see is tension and a split between the idea that Drag is an identity, and Drag is a performance. This difference is critical to us because it directly impacts on the point we younger are trying to make with regards to our own identities. Specifically that we are genuinely expressing ourselves. That it is not an act to trick people. To the contrary, we are being *more authentic*. And to that end, we accept people who express in any variety of ways, as long as it’s authentic.

    When Drag is identity: that is, expressing this overblown femininity is true to their sense of inner-self, I think we’d be accepting of them in the same way that third-wave feminists are more accepting of women accepting traditional roles like homemaker. When Drag is performance, though… and Drag race has always appeared to reinforce that aspect of drag to me, then what we’re seeing expressed isn’t authentic self: it’s claimed as artistic performance.

    It’s this latter interpretation of drag that’s problematic for us, because it allows less-informed cis people to min-interpret someone like me as simply ‘performing’. It reduces the acceptance of my own authenticity. The problem I personally have is that it’s an art form that relies on cis expectations for the shock value, for the irony, and for the entertainment.

    In the 70′s it may have been that this was the only way to be a bit more authentic, but today, my sense is that the overwhelming majority of grag performers are otherwise cis gay men for him drag is performance, not self.

    Am I wrong about this?

  5. As an academic who teaches gender to undergraduates, I really appreciate this discussion. I find it very difficult to figure out how to address the issue of gender variant identities to my students. I am a sociologist and we commonly use the umbrella definition of transgender in the way Will presents here with transsexual* used to represent someone who feels the need to transition in some way. I do mention that there is some concern about this language. I clarify that transman and transwoman represent people who identify in the way ZJ uses the word transgender above. To me the terms transman and transwoman have always meant transitioned transsexual people. Now, I do realize that there is some concern about the word transsexual. But of course we have an issue with the word sex period in our society since we seem to regularly use “gender” on forms and documents when we mean “sex” but I would like to know what language would be better? Are we suggesting that we need some other umbrella term? Should I said “gender variant individuals” to mean genderqueer, butch, feminine identified males, androgynous people, non-binary identified people and transwomen and transmen? Most of my students do need language to talk about these things. It is hard enough for me to get them to see the spectrum between what they still see as “the two sexes/genders”. I need a term. So what should I say? We need a term as those people who transcend the boundary of traditional sex/gender categories are still viewed as a “kind” by the majority of cisgendered people. When we do research or write textbooks we need some language. I am open for suggestions.

  6. This is a wonderful discussion and makes some real progress. I do agree with Will that the core issue is definitional. I also agree with Corinth that Will (as written) has the viewpoints backwards in terms of “camps”. If the term Transgender is broad enough to include people who do not question their core gender (e.g. cisgender drag performers) then it has little use for me to help discussion. It only confuses an already generally clueless public and plays into the fear based bigotry of “men in dresses.”

    A trans support group I was involved with dealth with this by saying as long as you were questioning or questioned the core gender identity assigned to you the group was the right place . Seemed to work everytime as great guidance on wheher the group would help someone no matter how they presented their external gender. Cisgender people found little/no value in the issues being discussed no matter how they presented their external gender.

    Zinnia’s writings on this are right on. I guess I am thinking like the “younger generation” even though I am 56. :-)

  7. Thanks everyone for your feedback and discussion here. I have a follow-up post scheduled for tomorrow morning. ;)

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