Activism and Division

Last week, I read this wonderful post about why trans activism is important whether or not everyone in the trans community wants to participate in or be associated with said activism.  And I thought, wow!  What a wonderful discussion of why it’s important to fight for trans rights and an inclusive definition of the community!  Autumn Sandeen has been writing a lot of great posts for PHB recently, so I ventured into the comments section to see what sort of feedback she was getting.  I … kind of wish I hadn’t.  There were several commenters who basically told her to shut up and stop embarrassing the “real” transsexuals.

I’ve had a lot of hesitation about putting this post together.  Some of it comes from the fact that most of this dialogue is happening between trans women and I don’t want to come off as trying to dudesplain everything.  Another part is that reading so many homo- and transphobic comments has been extremely emotionally draining.  It would be bad enough to read this sort of thing anywhere else, but it hurts much more to hear it coming from other trans people.

In the context of this post, I’m going to use the phrase “transsexual separatists” for the people who are making these statements, since most of them seem to want to distance themselves from the greater trans community and any related activist work.  Some of the quotes and opinions I argue against here are from the website So You Want to be a T-Girl (referred to here as SYWT), which I had been linked to the day before I read Autumn’s post and was already planning to talk about.  This will be long enough as it is, though, so I think I’ll save a longer discussion of that site for later.  Here are the main points that came up repeatedly in the comment threads on Autumn’s post:

1. Since transsexuals are really women (I will use “women” here because all the voices I have heard in this debate so far are women; I would love to read what transsexual-identified men have to say about any of this), any laws that protect cis women will protect them; there isn’t a need for trans-specific legislation or activism.

Of course I agree that transsexual women are, indeed, women.  However, the fact remains that trans women are not legally counted as women in many situations, and are often subject to harassment based on their trans status and not because they’re women (or possibly with being trans as the primary reason, and being female as a secondary one).  I would love it if this issue were as simple as saying “I am x and therefore will now be treated by all people as x.”  But this isn’t the case at all!  No matter what someone’s surgical status, sexual orientation, gender presentation, level of outness vs. stealth is, trans people in the U.S. (which is where I’m limiting the scope of this post to since that’s my area of experience) do not have many of the basic rights and protections cis people have.  Repeating that this is or should be the case doesn’t make it true.

This argument also ignores the very sad fact that there are plenty of radical feminists who don’t see trans women as women and want to deny them access to women’s services and programs.  This, of course, is total bullshit!  If only for this reason, the fight for the rights of trans women continues to be a different area than the general fight for women’s rights, even though there’s plenty of overlap.

2. Out/outspoken trans activists have made the entire community suffer setbacks in public perception.

One quote I saw multiple times, both in the SYWT piece and the comments on Autumn’s post, was “If you are women, shut the fuck up and be women.”  The idea here seems to be that people who are out as trans are ridiculous, clownish figures who make the “normal,” deep-stealth transsexuals look just as ridiculous.  The SYWT piece comes out and says that the only reason for anyone to be a trans activist is because they can’t “pass” and/or are desperate for attention.  Putting aside the fact that not every trans person wants to appear cis to the rest of the world, that’s pretty fucking offensive.  Plus, why would anyone state that it’s a woman’s job to shut up?  I don’t want any women to feel like they need to be sweet and silent when they see injustice happening around them.

I fully admit that I don’t know what it was like to be a transsexual living in stealth in the 80s and 90s vs. today.  Is it more difficult for them, now that trans activists with a wide range of gender identities are more visible?  Do other people look at them and think “I thought you were just a normal woman with a male history, but now I think you’re a freak like those folks on tv?”  In my mind, the type of acceptance that’s based on a very narrow range of acceptable behaviors isn’t real acceptance at all.  It’s like the people who say “gay people are fine as long as they act straight,” which makes very little sense to me.  Your gay brother-in-law is only tolerable if he acts like he’s attracted to women?  Turn that around, and the transsexual separatists who say “you crazy activists are making all of us look like freaks” sound a lot like upper-class gay men who look down on anarchist queers in drag for making them look freakish and faggy by association.

There are plenty of activists in the trans and queer communities who say things that upset me.  It’s definitely important to call out vocal activists when they’re saying or doing things that disrespect or  misrepresent the people they claim to speak for.  I would encourage anyone who’s in an activist role or just a member of a large, diverse community to make sure that their actions are as respectful as possible to every member of that community.  I just don’t think you can take trans activism as a whole and say it’s doing more harm than good.  The difficulty here is finding a balance between saying “speak up and make a change if you feel like you’re being misrepresented” and putting the burden of education on the group that feels like they’ve been wronged.  I’m not sure how best to achieve that, especially when the women who are so angry seem to be angry that trans activists exist at all, not just with specific things they’re saying.

3. The T should dissociate itself from the LGB movement; the goals aren’t the same.

This is a tough one to address, especially since there are plenty of folks in supposedly T-friendly queer organizations who don’t see why they need to actually address gender identity issues as all and are even explicitly hostile towards/disrespectful to trans people.  The widespread use of “tranny” in some gay communities is a good example of this issue.  The truth is, though, that straight trans folks and cis queer folks need to work together, if for no other reason than because sexual identity and gender expression are often conflated by straight, cisgendered people.  I had a cis man ask me “why do you want to be a gay man (as I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t identify as a gay man but a lot of people make that assumption about me), since they want to be women?”  As ridiculous as this sounds, to some extent a lot of people make similar assumptions: that straight trans people transitioned because they didn’t want to be gay, that feminine gay men or masculine lesbians “really” want to be women or men.  This is one of the reasons why an ENDA that doesn’t include protection for gender identity will be worthless: companies who want to discriminate against gay employees can instead claim that they’re firing or reprimanding employees that don’t fit “appropriate” gender standards at work.  Cisgendered queer people who don’t adhere to strict binary gender roles – and there are plenty of them – won’t be protected under ENDA or similar laws if gender expression and identity aren’t included.  It’s unfortunate that so many mainstream queer activists don’t see this, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

The way in which all trans people, even straight ones, fit into the queer community goes back to #1 above.  To many people, NO trans woman, no matter how much surgery she has had, how deeply stealth she is in her personal life, and how well she fits the current standard for cis heterosexual female behavior, will ever “really” be a woman.  The author of the SYWT piece may believe this:

“There are no tranny rights, only women’s rights and human rights. There are no transsexuals, just those that are moving through the transition and soon to become women. The rest are just men in drag.”

but the fact remains that there are many cis folks who believe the same thing of her – that she’s just a man in drag.  It’s unfortunate and wrong, but the belief is still there.  A straight trans woman may have no interest in, say, marriage equality, but if she was born in a state that will never let her change the sex on her birth certificate, same-sex marriage will have to become an issue she fights for.  I’m not saying this because I believe this hypothetical woman is “really” a man, but because the current legal reality is that many states would see her as one, possibly depending on the state of her genitals (which is really no one’s business but her own).  I get that there are straight transsexuals who aren’t interested in the queer community because they’re not queer.  I’m not arguing that they should march under a rainbow flag if that’s not their thing, but to dismiss the work that trans activists are doing within the queer community is short-sighted and counterproductive.

There’s a lot more to say on this subject.  Next I want to tackle the narrow definition of a transsexual as presented by the SYWT article, and the dismissal of everyone else who doesn’t fit that definition but claims membership in the transsexual or greater trans community, but for now I need a break from all this negativity.

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