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.
I finally got my iPhone to successfully play Invisibilia, a much-lauded new podcast from the producers of This American Life. Overall, I really like the show, but I was disappointed and even a bit disturbed by the story in “The Power of Categories” focusing on Paige, a bi-gender person. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why I feel this way. The hosts cover Paige’s story sympathetically, and seem to have done their research. It’s for the most part a scientific take on the topic. But maybe that’s why, as a genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary person who can’t quite even pick one word to describe my gender, it rankled me.
It’s been a while since we had a Radical Reading column around these parts, and I confess that it’s due to the fact that I read Excluded, written by Julia Serano and published by Seal Press, about three times before I felt like I could really talk about the book. The October 1st release date came and went, and I knew I needed to get a review up, but I just kept dithering about what I wanted to say. In a way, though, I think it’s appropriate to post this review as 2013 comes to a close, as this was such a major year for intersectional feminism and (perhaps more obviously) its discontents.
Excluded summarizes some of Serano’s earlier work since her widely-read (in the trans community, anyway) Whipping Girl and then tackles the issue of trans women’s exclusion from feminist spaces. This topic clearly hits a chord with trans and cis feminists alike, and it’s been brewing in feminist, queer, and alternative sexuality communities for several years. A post I wrote about the cotton ceiling debate back in 2012 remains the most popular post on QueerFeminism.com, a site I founded to give a voice to communities that have been excluded by many mainstream feminists, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t find some example of cis feminists being transmisogynist to a greater or lesser degree on Twitter. Furthermore, Serano’s book comes from an important voice at this important time–unlike some of the other trans authors popular in radical queer communities, Serano is a binary-identified bisexual trans woman. She describes herself specifically as bisexual, a transsexual woman, and a femme tomboy. Much of Excluded reminds us of the danger of assuming that the gender binary is a conservative force, and the continued prevalence of biphobia or perhaps general bi-cluelessness in communities that rally around the term “queer.”
Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.
When I was in high school I learned about the difference between sex and gender. I was lucky to even have that much education at the time, where I lived, but what we learned was rather basic. Sex is your body and your chromosomes; gender is your identity. This simple definition assumes that gender is a relatively simple, coherent thing. It’s the idea that’s behind “real life experience,” the idea that assumes trans people fit into a fairly narrow range of expressions and traits based on gender identity. Of course, we don’t.
Being female doesn’t mean that you’re feminine, nor does being male mean that you’re masculine. Perhaps this would be easier for some people. People do like to be able to identify and name gender. I’ve said before that my gender is more about how I’m read or named than how I experience myself. My gender comes out of how I’m perceived. When I disclose that I’m trans, I sometimes am asked, based on my femme appearance, whether I’m a trans woman or a trans man who hasn’t yet transitioned. When I explain that I’m genderqueer, I’ve been asked a couple of times what sex I was assumed to be at birth. I no longer am willing to respond to that question, because it’s so irrelevant.
Asher Bauer wrote a post a while back that I need to find where he explained that he’s not transmasculine. As a femme transman, “masculine” is not part of his gender as he experiences it. I think this would confuse a lot of people, but it makes sense to me. Coming into femme has been the biggest part of my transition, and my history isn’t relevant to that. Whether I was assumed male or female at birth rarely matters; what does matter is the kinds of privilege I have based on how I’m perceived. In spaces where I don’t mention my transness, I’m usually perceived as female because of how I look, which gives me a certain privilege. I also have a lot of privilege because I’m white and college educated, and a whole host of other things. I don’t want to appropriate anyone else’s experience, and I want to recognize that it is a privileged thing to be able to experience gender in the way I do.
One thing I don’t have, paraphrasing from my friend Stephen, is legible identity privilege. My gender is never going to be very obvious, and no one is ever going to see me walking down the street and think “oh, cool, a non-binary trans femme!” I’m also not sure how many other non-binary trans femmes are out there, and whether there’s enough similarity in our experiences to form community and camraderie around that. But I’m very grateful to the trans men and women in my life who do offer that community and camraderie, and who accept that my gender is not something that is visible, though my femme-ness–and through that, my transness–is.
Here’s the deal, folks. I so want the Gender-Independent Kids Books project to succeed that I am offering a custom post to any reader who donates $35 or more in the next five days to the project at the Kickstarter link above. To celebrate my birthday, make a donation and not only will you get a signed coloring book and audiobook of either Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy or Backwards Day, but if you let me know in a comment here that you donated, I will write a post on any topic for you within the scope of this blog (gender, sexuality, queer, law, human rights, race, class, and similar topics). If you donate $100 or more you’ll get the above, two signed books, a limited edition t-shirt, and an 8 x 10 photo print of a book page, plus I will either do a five-post series OR an online radio show episode OR a vlog (in ASL or English) on your topic of choice.
Please spread the word! If the project gets $3,500 more they’re going to do an ASL-accessible video storybook version of Backwards Day! This will allow D/deaf/HoH kids all over the world who have internet access to learn about gender in a trans-friendly way, and that’s a big deal to me. Thanks for supporting this project and please share widely!
Happy New Year!
As we dig into 2012, I have several exciting things to announce.
First, a href=http://www.queerfeminism.comQueerFeminism.com/a has officially launched! Focusing on areas where the feminist movement could improve, including queer/trans inclusion, anti-racism, disability, and decolonization, this is a collaborative site that welcomes contributions from anyone who has thought I wish feminism would do better with me and my community.
Second, Ive been very pleased with participation in the Sunday Twitter chats I launched in the fall. #transchat and #queerchat take place alternating Sundays, 2-4 pm. Anyone can suggest a topic by contacting me on Twitter or just leaving a comment here.
Finally, I have several cool workshops and talks coming up. At Creating Change, the nations premiere LGBT organizing conference in Baltimore, Ill be leading a workshop Friday morning, January 27th, on incorporating ambiguous identities in queer organizing. At Lavender Languages (Saturday, February 11th) Ill be facilitating a lunchtime workshop on the words used to describe non-binary identities and populations. At Momentum (last weekend in March, workshop date TBA) Ill be leading Workshopping Your Sexual Orientation, a unique experience that will break your sexuality wide open. If youd like me to speak on your campus or at your organization, let me know. I still have spring dates available.
Also, no details yet, but look for more coming from me at Gender Across Borders.
During the last #transchat (next one is tomorrow, 12/11, 2-4pm EST on Twitter) Nat (@quarridors) got me thinking about trans medical history and the kind of assumptions we make based on appearance. Though I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask a person whether they’re trans*, or a genderqueer person what their “birth” gender was, and I don’t assume that I can tell anything about gender by looking at someone, I do tend to assume that it’d obvious from looking at me what I was raised as, or what’s in my pants.
When I think about that, of course, I realize it’s not true. No one knows that for sure unless I tell them. And I’m thinking about the value of not disclosing that kind of information as a way to destabilize or deemphasize gender in our interpersonal relations. What’s in your pants is about as private as it gets, but we don’t treat it that way. We also make assumptions about bodies and medical histories based on a person’s gender identity. On the other hand, I think there may be value in my writing about my experiences as someone who grew up female-identified, because that background is a huge part of my trans* story.
Anyone have experience with this, or has anyone changed approach over time?