Follow-Up to Transgender Semantics
Last week I wrote a post about how the issues surrounding RuPaul’s Drag Race got me thinking about the meaning of “transgender” and how its meaning is still contested. In the intervening week, I’ve continued talking about these issues with various people in a few different places, and I would like to re-visit some of the thoughts from that post in an attempt to try to clarify my positions and goals.
First, I would like to reiterate that I had not intended my post to be a defense of the sorts of harmful rhetoric going around during the last few weeks. I especially detest the ways that Calpernia Addams and Andrea James have been making claims on various social media outlets about residual male privilege in trans women as a way to try to shut down conversation (I will not link here but they are discoverable with some Googlefu). I want to apologize up front that my post came across as defending that behavior as it was not my intention. And in my quest to try to get a grasp on what was going on with transgender identity politics, I wrote a poorly worded afterthought about assimilationists and liberationists that certainly came across as supportive at worst and ignorant at best.
On that note, I have been reading some various thoughts on the identity politics of “transgender” as a category and the various border wars that have sprung up around it, including Veronica’s recent post on Queereka about trans-exclusionary trans activists and some blog posts by Julia Serano (h/t to Yessenia) and Riki Wilchins’ introductory thoughts to GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary, all of which have given me a lot to think about.
Of interest to the present discussion, both Serano and Wilchins address accusations of assimilationism and explore the implications of such accusations. From Serano:
For decades (and still to this day), radical feminists have argued that drag is an inherently conservative phenomenon in that it reinforces the patriarchy. Twenty years ago, queer theorists retorted that drag was inherently subversive, in that it deconstructed binary notions of gender. Interestingly, what both of these very different feminist camps shared was a belief that transsexuality was inherently conservative, assimilationist, and reinforced the gender system.
I just thought that this was worth pointing out in the wake of arguments that have been playing out on the Internets lately between some trans women who suggest that trans women who don’t appreciate drag are conservative and assimilationist, and other trans women who suggest that drag (and the trans women who appreciate it) is conservative and assimilationist. I am not linking to any pieces here, as this post is not intended to be a “call out” of individuals. Rather, I feel the need to point out the subversivist nature of these arguments, and how they happen over and over again in feminist, queer, and progressive circles.
I think this is perhaps why there was some disagreement in the comments thread over which of the various actors within these border wars might be assimilationist—both sides see the other as assimilationist. When a commenter named corinth on my old post pointed out that I was looking at this the wrong way, I saw their perspective and recognized it was true, but when I re-read what I wrote and thought about it some more, I still thought that the perspective I laid out was also true. The above passage by Serano has helped me figure out why: I think people on all sides are seeing various actions on other sides as assimilationist.
All that being said, I now see how the attempt to draw this distinction is entirely unhelpful. In my quest to explore the fuzzy boundaries of identity categorization, I stepped into an area of identity politics that can do little but obscure the important issues that we should be discussing. Again, from Julia Serano:
Drag is not inherently conservative, or subversive, or assimilationist, or liberating. It is simply an expression of gender. People who do drag are different from one another, and they gravitate to drag for different reasons. Some drag performers are cis gay men, while others are eventual trans women. Some drag queens present masculinely when they are not performing, while others present femininely 24/7 and face cissexism and misogyny on a regular basis. Some people do drag to explore or experiment with their own gender, others to challenge societal binary gender norms, and still others may do it to mock other marginalized groups (e.g., women or transsexuals).
If you don’t like the language Ru Paul uses, or you find a video that Alaska Thunderfuck makes to be offense, then by all means *critique those individuals and acts*. But once we start making blanket claims about drag and the people who gravitate toward it (e.g., that they are inherently assimilationist, or misogynistic, or trans-misogynistic) then we are condemning a whole slew of people, many of whom have done us no wrong.
This dovetails nicely with a passage from Riki Wilchins (p. 60 of GenderQueer), in which she warns:
Debates over identity are always divisive and never conclusive. They are divisive because at heart they are about conferring status, always a zero-sum game. For one person to win, another must lose. They are inconclusive because there are no objective criteria by which to decide. Winning such debates is always a function of who sets the rules and who gets to judge.
And in my previous post what I wanted to explore was exactly what Wilchins brings up in the last sentence there: I wanted to get a conversation going about who is setting these rules and making these judgments about what “transgender” as an identity category means, and what the implications for those decisions could possibly be. Unfortunately, by trying to figure out who might be thought of as assimilationist, I veered the conversation off in the wrong direction.
I should state for the record that this is not an entirely academic exercise for me. Part of my interest in this question is that I identify as queer, and more recently as genderqueer. I have had numerous exchanges with trans-identified people who have insisted upon labeling me as cisgender because I have no urge to transition—I don’t know what I would even transition to as I don’t identify as a woman or as a man, and I’m (mostly) comfortable with my body as it is now. I certainly move through my life being perceived as a man, though often as a sissy, nelly, femme gay man.
I have had people, both trans and non-trans, tell me that I cannot possibly be anything but cisgender because my everyday appearance is rather normative. I have also been subjected to similar kinds of hatred, fear, and ridicule as many trans-identified people have, though certainly I have not experienced it in the same ways. Sometimes, though, it begins to feel a little bit like oppression Olympics, where my identity as genderqueer is invalidated because I have not experienced the same kinds of oppression as trans people, and trans women in particular. And since I have not experienced a certain degree of a certain type of oppression, I must therefore be cisgender. Very rarely is there room made for those of us who do not identify along a trans/cis binary in these discussions, so I guess in my own way I was trying to stake a claim in these border wars for those of us who are left out of the neatly defined boundaries.
Thus, it is both a personal and an academic interest to me where these borders are drawn. What I see going on—and this is nothing new—are identity politics in which certain groups are trying to establish clear boundaries, and those of us who fall outside of these boundaries are not taken seriously by people within those borders. As Veronica said on the Queereka backchannel, “it’s the bisexual problem all over again.” And she’s totally right.
I’m glad that people found my last post useful despite its many issues. I hope that we can continue that conversation, because I think it’s a really important conversation to have.