tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[personal profile] tim
It's been radio silence here for too long (there's a reason for that, which I may or may not ever get around to mentioning), but in the meantime: here, how about some comments about this article by Jennifer Boylan that I posted on a closed forum? I don't have permission to repost other people's comments, so this will look a little disjointed, but hopefully gets across some stuff I've been thinking about lately.

I'm kind of perplexed at why a trans woman (or trans man, for that matter) would use "transgender" as a noun or imply that trans people "change their gender". But I hope that was due to bad editing.
The problem is that in the NY Times article (I read _She's Not There_, it was a long time ago, so I don't remember much), she's *not* just making a statement about herself. She's saying that transsexuals are "(individuals who change, or wish to change, their gender via medical intervention" -- not *her*. *All* transsexuals. To me, that's profoundly offensive, because I'm transsexual (not transgender), but I have never changed my gender, nor could I if I wanted to; rather, what makes me transsexual in public -- or, what I actually prefer terminologically, a man with a transsexual body -- is that I'm someone whose sex and gender are not universally accepted as valid. And what makes me transsexual in private is that I have a morphological sex, and a neurological sex -- just like everyone else -- but unlike most people, these two sexes aren't on the same side; so, "trans" (across) and not "cis" (on the same side).

(For the "public" definition, I credit Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia: http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 )
There is a new set of definitions going around that I like, but don't always use since it confuses people, that says that "transsexual" is more or less what I said above, but "transgender" refers to a person who has articulated more than one dialect of gender over the course of their life. So actually, what Boylan characterized as "transsexual" would then be "transgender"! Now, it's ok that she uses those definitions, but she should have been clear that definitions around trans terminology are controversial and in flux, and that she speaks for herself, not the entire community. It's unfortunate that every time a trans person opens their mouth, they have to prefix disclaimers like that, but it's reality, and what happens when they don't add disclaimers is that a very, very narrow sector of the trans community (trans women who are white and who at least pre-transition are socially and financially successful and who transition in their forties or later) ends up doing all the speaking for everyone.
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to everyone that everyone's lived experience is different -- somehow, it seems like the more marginalized you are, the more other people are willing to generalize about your experience. Nothing drives this point home like having one doctor ask you "How long have you felt like a man trapped in a woman's body?" (well, gee, I thought I was in my body -- if I'm in a woman's body, where is she and is she pissed off that I'm using it?) and another doctor ask you "Do you have sex like a boy or like a girl?" (the question-asker in the latter case was trans, and should have known better).

So it really can't hurt to say "but everyone's lived experience is different". Of course, what Boylan did with her questionable definitions was different than that -- she didn't just talk about herself while forgetting to say that she doesn't speak for everyone, she actually said something offensive and false about people who aren't her.

I also don't agree that "ever splintering identity politics" is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made. I get suspicious when people start using the phrase "identity politics", because mainstream politics is identity politics (the Tea Party is identity politics for white cis men who identity as heterosexual), but it normally doesn't get labelled that way. "Identity politics" really means "identity politics for people whose identities I think aren't too important", so it's kind of othering and it's term I tend not to use.

What I think is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made for trans people is that a lot of people hate and fear us and don't want us to have rights, because if trans people get rights, cis people lose the ability to feel better about themselves by virtue of being gender-normative.
I'm probably not communicating very well, because I've failed to communicate that my issues with Boylan's definitions aren't peripheral squabbles -- they are central to the trans liberation movement, and show how she's actually undermining it. I don't think her undermining is entirely unintentional, either. But I'll explain.

The fundamental struggle that people like me are fighting is against coercive assignment, for autonomous definition. (I'm borrowing that formulation from a friend, I didn't come up with it.) When Boylan says that people like me change our gender, she's saying that the genders we were coercively assigned at birth are real; that to be recognized for the genders we autonomously define ourselves as, we first have to submit to a process of "change". But I reject that -- the gender I was coercively assigned at birth was never real in the first place.

Every struggle in the trans liberation movement -- equal access to health care, employment rights, the deregulation of gender (i.e. getting that little 'M' or 'F' off your driver's license), and ending violence against us, to name a few -- relies on rejecting the cis world's attempts to coercively assign us. So we can never win by accepting terminology like that advanced by Boylan (and not only Boylan) -- if we accept that, we accept that we have no rights. We accept that what we were coercively assigned is what we *are*.

And if we accept that, we can't claim that we have the right to health care. How can we claim that if we're whimsical eccentrics trying to defy what we *truly* *are* (as opposed to people who have the right to live as who we are, like everyone else)? We can't claim that we have the right to employment, because if we're trying to "be a different gender", that's simply a whim that indicates our likely mental stability, and employers would be totally fair if they didn't employ us. We certainly can't claim that we have the right to have government-issued ID that reflects who we are, as then we're just talking about some fiction in our heads rather than the reality of what we were coercively assigned. Finally, we can't do anything to defend ourselves from violence because we can't say we're in a particularly oppressed class of people -- after all, under this regime, we're all free to stop trying to "change" reality (which is to say, the truths that were imposed on us by force) and be who we *really* are, which would free us from such violence.

So I don't take issue with Boylan over petty details. I take issue with her because she doesn't accept the same basic principles I do, and those basic principles are the foundation for any claim I have to civil rights. Unless this was all merely an editing error, she is not "my people", as people who make statements that deny that I am who I am are not "my people". And Ms. Boylan doesn't get to write off my struggles just because she's pretty, thin, transitioned after attaining financial and personal success while passing as her coercively assigned gender, and fits the standard narrative. That's why the NY Times picked her as a spokesperson for all of trans-kind, but it doesn't give her the authority to decide that everything that would actually make it possible for me to live my life is just a matter of petty "identity politics" (again, a silencing term).

If this isn't legible, I'm not sure what more I could say that would clear things up, but I do recommend the post I already linked to once (I think?) -- http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 -- as well as, for general background, all of the posts listed in the "Trans 101" sidebar on the main page at http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/

‎(Just one postscript -- I feel like it's misleading to characterize a disagreement between folks like Boylan who are happy with the existing definitions of sex and gender and simply want to modify them slightly to allow for a "change of gender", whatever that means, and folks like me who reject those definitions entirely as based on incoherent double standards, as "infighting". That implies that all parties in the debate have the same amount of power. But Boylan clearly has the upper hand here -- her views are much more satisfactory to the larger power structure, thus she's being published in the NY Times, where you aren't going to say the words of, say, Lisa Harney, Julia Serano, Talia Bettcher, or Viviane Namaste. So really, throwing around terms like "infighting" or "identity politics" is just another way of denying privilege.)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-13 03:35 pm (UTC)
ivy: Two strands of ivy against a red wall (Default)
From: [personal profile] ivy
Thanks for posting; I always find food for thought in what you have to say. My understanding of these issues tallied with your "sex assigned at birth was incorrect or invalid", but I have heard the "decided to change" argument in other places -- substantially among postmodernist technical people who view gender as a construct to be chosen and are basing their support of trans causes out of that worldview. I can understand "hey, sometimes I'd like to try out being another gender", but to me that is clearly and obviously not the same thing as someone whose gender has been categorically and institutionally misrepresented upon them all their life.

I disagree that a denial of "valid" gender assigned removes your right to health care, employment, etc. Even if one bought the line of thought that it made people mentally unstable or whimsical eccentrics, I still think that mentally unstable and whimsically eccentric people have every right to health care and to work. (I had a long and interesting discussion the other day about my views on innate human dignity and how they inform my political stances. So in my world, everyone deserves health care, full stop.) But I can see how the creepy train of thought goes, and support your disagreement with Boylan's base principles.


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Tim Chevalier

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