Saturday, 17 May 2014

Dear Trans People: No, We're Not All Equal

The trans umbrella is fairly big nowadays. Sorry, should I say the trans* umbrella? I wouldn't want to exclude anyone. I mean, that's basically the mission of trans activism nowadays, isn't it? Not excluding anyone? It's great! Everyone gets a piece of the pie -- and the more people we include, the louder our voice. Heck, it seems like even cis people can be trans nowadays.

Well, no. Including everyone in some vague liberal definition of "trans" doesn't help anyone. Words have meanings, and the meaning of "trans" is important to me. It should be important to you too. Words and labels don't define who we are, but giving labels to concepts allows us to define and discuss them.

For me, "trans" has a particular meaning. It means that your gender identity (or lack thereof) doesn't match the sex or gender you were assigned at birth. This is a pretty wide definition of trans already (certainly compared to the old days of HBS and true transsexuals), and I thought it was fairly uncontroversial, but apparently I was wrong.

Let's get something out of the way here. Cisgender gay male drag performers are not trans. They aren't transsexual, and they aren't transgender. They may be "trans*", depending on whose definition you use, but that just highlights how meaningless that word has become.
Of course male-assigned trans people (DMAB, designated male at birth) can also be drag performers, and for some trans women drag acts as a way to express or explore their gender identity. But that doesn't mean drag is trans. If you're trans and you do drag, you're trans because you're trans. Not because of the other stuff.

And then we have gender non-conformant (GNC) people: people who present in a way not typically associated with their prescribed gender role. GNC presentation can lead to abuse (mostly for DMAB people), and certainly it helps break down false and harmful divisions of gender role, which hurt cis and trans people alike (but mostly trans women). Gender non-conforming people might be trans, or they might be unsure and exploring their identity. But again, being GNC alone doesn't make you trans.

"Trans*" is one of those words that everyone defines differently. I'd like it to mean "transgender or transsexual", but it doesn't. (In any case, "trans" essentially has that meaning already.) For most people, it seems to be a sort of catch-all for anyone who doesn't present as a boring old gender-role-conforming cisgender person. Maybe we could do with a word for that, but that word should not include "trans" anywhere in it. GNC is not trans. Drag is not trans. So stop saying "trans*" (please!).

(Some white people like to include non-western gender identities like "two-spirit" and "third gender" into "trans*". Not only is that wrong, but it's colonialist appropriation. Whether or not you agree with anything else I say here, you need to stop doing that.)
So, we've gotten "trans*" out of the way. That was easy. But there's a more insidious form of faux-inclusion going on here, and it's trans people themselves that are perpetuating it. I am, of course, talking about the idea that since "we're all trans", we're all the same. Equal. Specifically, that we're equally oppressed.

Unfortunately, while I would like this to be true, it's nonsense. Does anyone really believe that a no-dysphoria, no-transition non-binary (NDNTNB) trans person suffers an equal amount of abuse or hardship as a transsexual woman does? I hate the "oppression Olympics" as much as the next person, believe me (although I know many won't), but I'm afraid there's no way to square this sort of nonsense with reality. All you need do to convince yourself of that is look around.

Okay, so basically I'm just a bitter transsexual separatist and want all the cookies for myself, right? Well, no. I'm white, and as a white trans woman, I still have a huge amount of privilege. When a trans woman or a trans feminime DMAB person is murdered, or raped, or subject to police brutality, or made homeless, or sent to a men's prison simply for existing, it's almost certainly not going to be me. It's going to be a trans woman of colour. And when white trans people point to Trans Day of Remembrance as a sign of the violence we face, we rarely acknowledge that most of those we are trying to remember were not white.

Of course, I'm not saying white trans feminime people never receive abuse, or that none of those things can happen to any one of us. And I'm certainly not saying that we should ignore the abuse that white trans feminime people face. My point is only that, while recognising my own oppression and marginalisation, I can still recognise that others might have it worse.
So let's talk about some other things that are a factor in the abuse that trans people receive. As you might have guessed, the main one, besides race, is assigned at birth (AAB) gender. As a transsexual woman, I was assigned male at birth, so I describe myself as DMAB. I presented as male for many years, but now I'm transitioning to live as a woman.

Now, as you might have noticed, in Western society we live under a patriachy (or, more generally, a kyriarchy), and there are certain things that the patriachy doesn't like. One of those is when DMAB trans people -- who the patriachy views as men -- transgress our assigned gender role. A man becoming a woman? Hah!

At best, trans feminime people are used as the butt of TV sitcom jokes. At worst, we're abused and attacked in the street and discriminated against in housing, education, employment, and many other fields. Not only are we seen as traitors to our supposed male identity, but the entrenched misogyny in our society makes the idea that a "man" might actually want to be a woman almost inconcievable.

Of course, trans feminine people are not the only people who receive this sort of abuse. It would be absurd to claim that trans men and trans masculine people, or indeed non-binary trans people, have an easy time of it. But the vast majority of anti-trans hatred and bigotry is in fact transmisogyny -- it's directed specifically at trans women.
This abuse has nothing to do with identity. Being a trans woman isn't the reason we're the victims of it. This is fairly clear, since when a trans woman is born, people don't look at the baby and exclaim, "Ugh -- it's a transsexual!". How would they even know?

The cause of abuse for all trans people is, rather, transition. That is, the act of transition from one gender role to another. Transition can mean different things to different people, from transsexuals who seek HRT and SRS, through "non-op" (what an awful word) trans people, to people who may just change their appearance a bit. Even for those who don't seek physical gender reassignment or feel a need to change how they present, transition can involve changes to one's name, pronouns, or a variety of other things.

None of these forms of transition are more or less valid than any other, and none of them make you "more trans". As I said, being trans simply means your gender identity doesn't match your assigned gender. Whether you choose to do anything about that -- assuming you even can, a problem many non-binary people face -- is a whole other matter; that's transition.

But for trans feminine people, whether binary or non-binary, transition has a special relevance. It requires we adopt the persona of the male traitor, refusing to adhere to the rules laid down by society, and receiving the concomitant abuse. It might be difficult to get an organisation to add non-binary options alongside 'male' and 'female' on a form, and having to check the 'male' option when you're not a man might be upsetting. But has anyone suffered physical violence because they checked the wrong box?

We've gone a bit off-topic here, but let's go back to the idea that "we're all trans" and so "everyone is equal". Are we? Well, we are all trans; and no one is more trans than anyone else. But when trans abuse is considered in terms of its primary causes -- like transition, and racism -- it should be clear that, unfortunately, we're not all the same. We face different abuses, and we need to acknowledge that if we're going to do something about it.

Recently someone told me that because I talk about AAB gender a lot, I'm no better than a TERF. That by talking about how society sees me, I'm reducing trans people to our genitalia*. I hope it's clear that I'm not doing that; but more importantly, I want to be explicit about the harm that this sort of statement does: ignoring AAB gender and transmisogyny in discussions of trans oppression is itself a form of transmisogyny. It's a way of silencing the voices of trans women and other trans feminime people in the name of faux inclusionism.

* Actually, the decision on what gender babies are assigned at birth is a lot more complicated than simply looking at their genitals.

I won't stand for transmisogyny, whether from outside our community or from within it, and I won't be silenced by people who believe that being trans means using a gender-neutral pronoun and instantly gaining the right to speak over every other trans person who ever lived. And neither should you.

Author / Source: Felicity Tarnell at Le Fay