Category Archives: gender
CN Lester’s Trans Like Me, out this summer in the U.S. from Seal Press, adds another strong voice to the growing chorus of trans authors writing about the trans experience from their own, uncompromising perspectives. Written in an accessible style, but heavily backed up by research, this book is not a trans memoir, but it does blend Lester’s own experiences as a non-binary trans person with observations on media, culture, medicine, and the law. Though the book jumps between a number of topics, I found a cohesive theme throughout around the question of who controls the trans narrative—and what they choose to keep or leave out.
Tomorrow Will Be Different, and so will this memoir, written by trans activist Sarah McBride about her experiences since coming out in her senior year of college. I generally avoid trans memoirs, since the genre has become rather predictable and honestly a little depressing. But this book breaks out of that mold—though Sarah doesn’t shy away from discussing her experiences as a trans person, she also doesn’t conform to the genre. Her story is more a tale of coming into politics as a young adult, learning to balance professionalism with the authenticity of identity-based storytelling, and battling cancer as a young couple than it is a traditional trans memoir. She sprinkles in the statistics and legal realities of trans people throughout to educate the casual reader, but it’s really just a story, told by a bold and heartfelt young woman who’s been through way more than anyone should have to before reaching the age of 30.
Tear-jerker warning: a lot of what Sarah writes about in this book is the ultimately tragic love story of her and her late husband, Andy, another trans activist who died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know if folks who didn’t know Andy will do quite as much crying in airports as I did while reading this, but as a friend and former coworker of Andy’s, I was terribly struck by how the intimate version of the last couple of years of his life written by his wife aligned with my own experience of Andy as a person. Bright, fiercely dedicated, and hillarious, Andy was a hard worker whose efforts were instrumental in getting trans health care protections put into law, but he was also just an awesome person and I wish I’d been closer with him in his life. It was a little surreal to read about what was happening in Andy and Sarah’s private life as I was making bad oral sex jokes with them on Facebook and offering to teach Andy to sign if his tongue cancer made speech difficult. Even those who didn’t know Andy, I think, will have a hard time not getting emotional when they learn through Sarah what a sweet, romantic nerd he was, and how dedicated he was to improving trans peoples’ lives.
I don’t really know Sarah personally, but I feel like I do after reading this book. Some of her experiences ring so true for me, as she goes from terror around coming out to pleasant surprise at the positive reactions to political activism and ultimately pride in herself as a transgender person. I am so, so happy to read about kids like Lula who ask a question like “What’s your favorite part of being transgender?” as if there’s nothing unusual about it. I admit that I’ve sometimes been fiercely jealous of trans kids, but I think part of it is that, like Sarah, I look at them and see the authentic kid I could’ve been, if I were born just a little bit later. I’m happy that I’ve been even a tiny part of the national trans movement that has made their experiences possible.
And it’s the feeling of community of that movement that I think Sarah best brings to light in her account. DC can feel like a bubble sometimes, but the trans and queer movements really can be like a big family at times. Behind the big trans policy announcements of the last few years, there are spectacular people working tirelessly even as they go through their own struggles of bullying and bad breakups and figuring out family life. Even though I don’t currently work in the movement, I feel that I have a home there, and I’m happy to know that such awesome people are working to protect my rights even in terrifying political times. I’m also so happy to read a white trans activist like Sarah giving full credit to the trans folks of color who are much more marginalized and usually can’t get a book deal or the kind of spotlight that she has. She’s clear that while her own story is valuable as a tool for activism, she stands on the shoulders of giants whose names most of us will never know, and I can feel her commitment through her words to changing that world from a position of relative privilege.
Ten years ago this summer, I attended an event called Women & Power at the Omega Institute in New York. I was open about not being female-identified, but figured that the feminist focus of the weekend retreat would apply to a non-binary person as well. I remember being extremely turned off by the leader of the event, who spoke about femininity in this really essentialist way–about how as women, we had to reclaim a different kind of power that reflects feminine traits and values, because we’re all a sisterhood, bound by menstruation and reproductive cycles and yada yada. But as much as I was turned off by her delivery, ten years later I’m coming back to the core message about a different way of exercising power and leadership and thinking that I really wish we did talk more about that–just maybe not with such a focus on human gender.
I wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.
I curse like a sailor.
Whenever a new person joins my team at work, I always ask whether they’re offended or bothered by cursing, because without censoring myself I have trouble keeping “fuck” out of my vocabulary. Especially as I become friends with my coworkers, it’s just likely to happen. But one word that’s always gotten to me, that I use far less frequently, is “bitch.”
I think “bitch” is uncomfortable to me mainly because of misogyny–it’s a word used mostly for women, or is supposed to be emasculating when used for men. It has a really ugly sound in my ears when used as a quick insult. But I’ve also noticed that I do sometimes use it in certain phrases, i.e. “bitch please.” In that context other words don’t have quite the same impact.
When I do use “bitch” in phrases like this, I’ve realized that the common element is a certain kind of competition or cattiness. This variety of competition is coded as intra-femme or woman-on woman, and I’ve internalized it in such a way that it can actually make me feel better to put a woman or femme down through such language. Think of the triumphant femme archetype in a movie getting into an argument with a femme villain who’s done something particularly vile. “Bitch, you just made it personal.” I have the urge to cheer on my fellow femme, crow with the heroine’s scrappy resilience, but at the same time this triumph is actually about putting another femme down. What does that say about the values I’ve internalized?
Pitting oppressed folks against each other is a tale as old as time. Using media and culture to encourage poor white racism against people of color in the same economic position was an easy tactic for elite white folks to consolidate power. Similarly, I wonder how media that glorifies femme competition might encourage us to frame personal success as being cooler, more fashionable, or wittier than other femmes, rather than working together in collective action. After all, part of the whole point of femme community is to challenge narratives of female competition, but acting in solidarity and avoiding societal messages requires continuous struggle.
It’s been several years since I spoke openly about my birth assignment. I stopped doing it, initially, because it’s none of your g-d business. It also confuses a lot of cis people not to have a birth assignment to work with. They need to know “which way” you’re trans, to fit you into at least a birth assignment binary, and that feels shitty to me. This not only doesn’t serve non-binary folks like me, but it also is an imposition of a colonial white binary gender system on lots of people whose gender never was assigned to that system. It erases gender diversity on all sorts of axes. And I get really uncomfortable when even trans people start talking about ourselves more along “AFAB/AMAB” lines than in terms of our actual genders.
But despite that, there is some relevance to birth assignment, particularly when we’re talking about transmisogyny. When I stopped talking about my birth assignment, I enjoyed that not everyone could guess it correctly, particularly those who hadn’t met me in person. It made it more difficult to lump me into a preconceived trans pile. My hope, I think, was that in the confusion someone might trip, fall, and land on my actual gender, but of course that rarely happens. Most people couldn’t pick my gender out of a lineup, because I don’t fit a lot of scripts. I don’t present in a way that consistently announces my femmeness, nor do I spend much time hanging around with assumed-female-at-birth white genderqueers. I don’t identify as transmasculine or androgynous. But I do benefit from the privilege of being assumed female both at birth and in most of my life. I don’t experience transmisogyny or the potential violence that my assumed-male peers do.
Today’s gender pet peeve: why does being polite in so many languages have to require gendering?
I mean, in historical terms, I know the answer. Gender has been infused into everything we do as a society for so long, and manners are just one part of society and culture. A lot of languages use gendered terms to refer to people, and so it make sense that polite forms address would follow this pattern. But it’s still annoying.
Earlier in the day I’m writing this post, I had a server who called everyone they presumed to be female “my lady” or “my ladies.” Not only gendering, but ownership, too! Gee, how refreshing. It was particularly cringe-worthy when he did it to folks of color.
Slowly, queer communities are starting to come around on this language. Terms like “Mx.” are available, and neutral terms like “friends” are being used in place of “ladies and gentlemen.” But the mainstream is still going to Mr./Ms./M./Mme./Herr/Frau/Signore/Signora everyone, and it’s frustrating. Personally, I think misgendering is much more rude than “casual” forms of address!
It’s always one of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about personal data and gender: “I understand that calling someone by a first name avoids the gendering, but my boss insists that we need to address people politely if they’re giving us money.” And sadly, this is frequently where things come down. My only answer is to keep pushing, try to demonstrate the impact (including financial) of misgendering, and hope that the culture will continue to evolve so that “casual” forms of address are no longer inappropriate. Or hey, if nothing else, ask folks how you should address them! When you collect addresses, offer a “prefer first name” choice next to all your salutations. That way, nobody gets offended.
Is there such a thing as legible identity privilege?
This thought was tumbling around a lot in my mind for a while, particularly in discussions of what it means to be femme and presumed as female, but also when cis folks would ask me about assuming pronouns when you’re “pretty sure you know” someone’s gender versus when it’s unclear.
As a starter, I’ll say that if there is a legible identity privilege, it’s certainly not anything like as strong as other privileges such as being white. As a white non-binary person, I am less vulnerable to violence and harassment than any black or brown person, full stop. I explicitly reject any arguments that white non-binary people make around “binarism” putting them in a riskier place than a black trans woman, for example. See b. binaohan for why that’s fucked up.
But considering this as its own possible thing, I have a few thoughts. One is that, like “passing privilege,” this has a lot to do with specific cultural context and how other people perceive you. The two are also related. A trans man who is presumed to be a cis man might experience “passing privilege” alongside legible identity privilege, because he “passes” for a cis man and also “man” is a legible identity. Conversely, a trans woman who doesn’t conform to particular beauty standards and expectations might not “pass” for a cis woman, but could have a legible identity in cultural context–it is clear to most people around her that she intends to be read as a woman, and she is a woman.
One of my favorite reasons for identifying as queer is all about fucking with how we center our understanding of relationships and attraction. In the last post, I covered how other terms don’t work well for me because they’re clunky to use as a non-binary person. But also, I don’t find terms that relate to gender to be particularly useful for describing those to whom I’m attracted. Gender just isn’t my main focal point for classifying my relationships and attractions, and I find it strange that a single trait would be so central to how almost everyone talks about these subjects. Even terms like “pansexual” are implicitly about gender–they just mean “all of them.”
Personally, I use other sorts of categories to vaguely describe the pool of folks I’m interested in. I’m attracted to queerness, dominance, and (with some notable exceptions!) femmes. I suppose I could come up with specific terms for these attractions, but I like “queer” as a way of saying “hey, you might want to ask me some more questions to understand my sexuality.” I can then describe my attraction in sentences and paragraphs, and that’s more likely to lead to a connection anyway.
Here’s my current theory of how the medical establishment thinks about gender identity and transition:
- Gender is pretty abstract. It’s more of a decision to group oneself in a certain way than a concrete provable fact. This is a problem.
- We can’t just let anyone who wants to medically transition. How would we know who “qualifies” if we just let anyone who believes themselves to be male or female access medical care for that gender? Transition would be rampant! (Or something.)
- Since we need a requirement to access medical care, masculinity or femininity might as well be the requirement. It’s easiest to quantify your gender in medical terms if you present as masculine or feminine. Femme trans boys and butch trans girls are just confusing.
- Don’t even get us started on those genderqueers–especially those who aren’t interested in a more androgynous. What do they even want? What kind of dysphoria could they possibly be experiencing? There is very little to be sympathetic to, here.
Now I know there are empathetic medical professionals, professionals who understand the difference between identity and expression, and those who don’t think of trans people as requiring a certain level of tragedy and pity to medically transition. But sometimes, it feels like the profession is stacked against us.