Controversy erupted in Toronto’s queer community recently as Danny Glenwright, a cissexual editor at Xtra, Canada’s largest gay and lesbian newspaper, publicly posted a trans woman‘s birth name on his personal Facebook. After at first agreeing to remove her information, he instead posted a non-apology to Xtra‘s website, sparking further outrage by trans people and their allies. In response, Xtra has promised to engage in efforts to increase trans awareness and inclusivity at the paper, though details of the plan are unclear.
The tragedy here for me isn’t just the incredible disrespect shown to the trans woman by a member of the LGBT media, but that it seems part of a larger pattern of backlash to trans women by cissexual gay men. Whether it is in response to the transphobic actions or words of a Ronald Gold, or Dan Savage, or exploiting our deaths for camp, or even arguing against use of the word ‘cis’, there is a significant minority of cis gay men who make no effort to restrain their vitriol for trans women who demand equality.
This is by no means to suggest all cis gay men are transphobic. Far from it, I myself have many cis gay men who are incredible friends, allies, and community, and many prominent gay men are vocal supporters of trans rights. Still, whenever conflict arises between cis gay men and trans people (trans women specifically), there is inevitably a core of gay voices who respond with anger and hatred. The tactics of belittling, derailing, and dehumanizing occur again and again.
This isn’t limited to trolling commenters on websites, either. Some gay men in positions of real power – politicians and the media, among others – hold at best regressive ideas about trans women, and at worst engage in actively anti-trans behaviour. These men directly affect the quality of life for trans people in their ability to influence laws and culture. Whether it is excluding trans people from legislation designed to protect other LGB people or normalizing our culture’s transphobia, the outcome is the same: trans people are marginalized and dehumanized.
Now, the point of writing this isn’t simply to point out that some gay men can say and do transphobic things, or to engage those men in a flame war. Though it is an uncomfortable pattern to point to, and the conversations to begin addressing this issue will not be easy, they nonetheless need to happen. One of the common derailing arguments of those internet commenters is to suggest that the ‘real enemy’ is elsewhere, and that trans people are misguided in their criticism of transphobia within the gay community. I flatly reject this. We cannot move forward to seek social justice for all if we have rot in our foundation. Allowing transphobia, racism, ableism, misogyny, classism, and other oppressions to go unchecked only undermines our efforts. Only by addressing them will our movements be stronger.
This post is part of an informal series on dating as a marginalized queer identity. The focus will inevitably be shaped by my personal experience – being white, a trans woman, fat, poor, polyamorous, and a survivor of sexual violence and abuse – but I hope it will resonate to some degree with whose experiences aren’t similar to mine but who nonetheless feel marginalized by their communities. These posts arose from conversations with a number of people on various points of the continuum of queer cultural desire, and I am deeply grateful for those folks. They give me hope these conversations can happen more often, and on a much larger scale.
The first part of the series is available here: Dating from the Margins: Desexualizing and Cultural Abuse
On many occasions I have heard a friend or acquaintance dismissing a potential date because they’re “insecure,” “too needy,” or seem “more invested.” In polyamorous communities I have often noticed alarm if the person dates fewer people, or doesn’t seem to have much dating history. These value judgements are rarely if ever accompanied by any further analysis, though, and seem to be almost universally accepted as reasons to not date someone.
I have trouble accepting this conventional wisdom for many reasons. At its base this kind of thinking assumes a model of equal access to dating and desirability, which is demonstrably false. Further, it ignores any awareness of oppression models and privilege, and instead works to support those privileged by this model by making neutral these judgements which are nonetheless strongly informed by external cultural biases.
In my last post I presented the idea of systemic desexualizing as cultural abuse, and I stand by that. Especially if one identifies as a proponent of social justice, and of equality in the face of cultural prejudices regarding race, disability, queerness, body type, gender identity, etc., the understanding of the impact of desexualizing and denying desirability is of paramount importance to dismantle oppression. I cannot imagine describing the systemic denial of food, or sleep, or shelter to be dismissed as unchangeably innate and apart from oppression models, yet we do this with desirability all the time.
When I hear someone say their rationale for not dating someone is because of their “insecurity,” or some other easy pop psychology reasoning, I always hope they’ll have a flash of understanding and compassion, and say, “Though I imagine their insecurity might stem from a set of cultural oppressions which I can’t begin to imagine.” We cannot expect progressive social models to ever take hold if we accept the denial of an arbitrarily defined subset of people to the basic right to access love and sexual expression. This zero-sum thinking is the essence of capitalism, and encourages us to hold tight our own privileges while denying the exclusion of others.
When we stigmatize the symptoms of cultural abuse and marginalization (which is what most of the described “insecurity” is), especially in relationships where that same cultural abuse and marginalization privileges us, we are agents for that system of oppression. To identify ourselves as proponents of anti-oppression yet still engage in language and attitudes which apply negative value judgements to people without acknowledgement of the roots of those judgements undermines the very point of anti-oppression activism. It denies the impact of that abuse.
While we imagine ourselves capable of dismantling such oppressive systems as capitalism, sexism, racism, and classism, I find it deeply sad that we are unwilling to commit resources to the dismantling of desexualizing and exclusionary desirability. This is the truly revolutionary, and the truly radical.
This is the first in an informal series on dating as a marginalized queer identity. The focus will inevitably be shaped by my personal experience – being white, a trans woman, fat, poor, polyamorous, and a survivor of sexual violence and abuse – but I hope it will resonate to some degree with whose experiences aren’t similar to mine but who nonetheless feel marginalized by their communities. These posts arose from conversations with a number of people on various points of the continuum of queer cultural desire, and I am deeply grateful for those folks. They give me hope these conversations can happen more often, and on a much larger scale.
I am often frustrated by people who are otherwise invested in understanding and opposing systems of oppression, but who nonetheless exclude dating and desirability from analysis or self-critique. This is especially frustrating when they are privileged by those very systems. This lack of analysis by those who have access and who are prioritized as desirable by their communities effectively silences the experiences of those whose trans status (or having a disability, or not meeting cultural beauty standards, or any of the markers of undesirability imposed by external systems) limits or completely denies access. In many queer, sex positive, polyamorous activist communities I have experienced those with access treating their privilege as the status quo, something which is never discussed, is neutral from criticism, and to which all are assumed to have access. This is done with an often startling ignorance of those who do not.
Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.
Conversely, those who do not enjoy much dating capital face an incredibly challenging and vulnerable process when discussing desirability. You can’t help but wonder how much will be dismissed as sour grapes, or what judgements will be made about you to justify your undesirability in the minds of others. This furthers the silencing, and prevents the discussions which can begin to address these inequalities.
And the inequalities are considerable: The systemic desexualisation of any group of people is abuse at the cultural level. Though the idea of being privileged by a culture which abuses the sexuality of others is sure to provoke knee-jerk defensiveness, much like white people who respond to the idea of being privileged by living in a racist culture by saying “But I’m not a racist,” this isn’t about individuals. Refusing to engage with the systems which privilege us because we’re uncomfortable with that sort of self-reflection, however, allows those systems to continue, and makes us complicit in their existence. The effects of desexualization are nonetheless real, and cause much emotional damage for many people.
This isn’t to say we can simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community, but waving the discussion away with “I can’t help who I’m attracted to!” isn’t the answer either. What we do need is discussion and acknowledgement, not as a defence of our desires, but to perhaps understand how external forces narrow their scope. Acknowledging the prioritizing of certain bodies and identities is just the beginning, and will lead to many difficult conversations I’m sure, but ultimately can only lead to more understanding, more inclusiveness, and stronger communities.
Dan Savage has a long history of transphobic commentary in the advice column he writes for Seattle’s The Stranger. Yesterday he took his transphobia to a new level, mockingly suggesting that Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna is trans (he’s not). In Savage’s world view being trans is so shameful it is something to slur right-wing politicians with.
Having grown used to “Ann Coulter is a tranny” slurs from the folks on the left for the past decade, this kind of behaviour strikes me as typical of many cissexuals who otherwise would consider themselves progressive. Typical, too, are the responses to trans frustration: the angry tranny trope, trans people need to get a sense of humour, to focus on the “real fight,” and all of those other derails that only aim to avoid responsibility for the privileged and phobic comment.
I am sure Rob McKenna’s policies are worth criticism, but if that’s the case critique policy. Savage’s response weakens any real criticism of McKenna because the right can now point to this stupid diversion. Further, it fractures response to McKenna by alienating a segment of people who might agree but find mocking trans people to make a political point reprehensible. So Savage isn’t just transphobic, he’s a shitty political activist, too.
Past initial outrage what will the response be, I wonder? I’m expecting Savage and his supporters to dig in, that’s nothing new, but this is a hard point to gloss over for those trying to remain ‘impartial.’ I’ve heard a lot of lip service from cis allies over the years, but I’ve rarely seen them give up something they like consuming – I’ve had people flat out tell me they know Savage is transphobic but they’re going to read him anyway. The kind of transphobia Savage engaged in by making those comments about McKenna has real life implications for trans people. I wonder how many more passes he’ll get.
This used to be an article criticizing transmisogyny in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video. A LOT of people read it, more than anything else I’d ever written here. After a while, though, it became clear people were linking to it and sharing it not to criticize the transmisogyny, but to criticize Lady Gaga. The vast majority of hits to this page have been cis people using it as a “source” to argue with other cis people. ABOUT LADY GAGA. Yawn doesn’t begin to describe it.
So I’ve taken it down, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. We’ve all got better things to talk about than another rich, white pop star.
In my last post, I touched on a point about the lack of contemporary personal narratives by trans women for trans women, and how that was a symptom of a cis-dominant culture which gained by refusing us identities beyond those they supplied. This unceasing assault against our most basic access to self-identification has served to erase generations of stories of trans women and replace them with a cis-enforced and cis-beneficial debate. I have been transitioned something over fifteen years now, and the argument hasn’t changed. Sure, cis is replacing non-trans, and some of the theory has shifted in response to bigger cultural movements, but ultimately I could not date a post on the Michfest boards if I didn’t know when it was written and there were no other clear identifiers of date (how much enthusiasm the poster has for Ferron as some kind of lesbian atomic isotope decay maybe?). 1996, 2001, 2009 – the arguments are the same, and the hatred of trans women is a constant.
During my fleeting career writing for cis-LGB media I presented an editor with an idea for a story on essentially this topic, but was told it was probably too academic. Considering my inch or two of column would be alongside phone ads with photos of white gay men holding their cocks I could see her point, but I still felt the irony of having a cis person telling me no to my story idea on how cis people enforce trans identities. My thesis now remains as it did then: Stick figures and straw men in dresses are the easiest target for transmisogynists, and as long as we ignore that and try to fight a different fight, we’ll be stuck. Cissexist media has almost completely dominated trans women’s narratives into a handful of caricatures, and transmisogynist anti-inclusion cis-feminists don’t extend us much beyond that. Their hatred and fear influence cis people who would otherwise think themselves progressive and supportive of trans women, because there are no other portrayals of identity which they can counter to the haters’ version. I have seen the dynamic of “arm’s length inclusion” because of this, the peripheral inclusion of a trans woman or two in a community, who nonetheless rarely seems to date or take any central part in activities. Like person of colour tokenism, this trans woman tokenism allows people’s conscious need to think of themselves as progressive to mask their subconscious ickiness at our presence.
A side note: I am always aware, when writing about trans women, of the dangers of being coerced into oppositional stances with other trans women. The good tran/bad tran model is designed to shame us into shaming those like us, and I have made it my personal goal to divest from that as much as I can (which is still hard, having grown up in the transmisognyist culture I did). This extends to taking the position that any trans woman’s self-identification is hers alone, and I will not criticize her for taking it. I will criticize some ideas, sure, but not the people holding them. That is the goal of a cis-dominant society, and I do not want to be a tool to achieve that. So, for the purposes of this essay, and as the general brand of trans identity empowerment I’m dishing out, I want to be clear that above all I believe in the self-determination of trans women, even when I do not agree with them as individuals. I have fallen into that trap of cis-serving essentialism before, and all it did was make me feel less of a person.
Denying us our stories as individuals further serves cissexism by keeping us apart. You’re far less likely to scream your point at someone if you know them: The heightened emotions of some discussions within the trans community reflect to me not an internal struggle about trans identity, but are rather a distraction to maintain focus solely on cis dominance (even the HBSers are trying to enforce a transphobic, cis-supremacist model of gender). The positions we’re left defending inevitably are defined by the cissexist debate we’ve been forced into.
I think next time I’ll write down a few thoughts about trans autobiographies as consumables in a cisgender marketplace.
As I have discussed before, I am approaching one of those personal milestones that arose from our ability to tell time. The thing I keep returning to, as a source of amusement, is the memory of thinking I could never trust a trans woman in her 40′s. I felt this strongly when I was in my early twenties, after some abuse and a great deal of alienation in my attempt to find community. Looking back (from nearly 40), I realize much of my frustration was that – although I hadn’t yet formalized the idea – I had never come across a trans woman who was transitioning to or living the sort of life I wanted to live.
As I look back now I see the first trans women I came across with whom I felt a deep affinity for (through our atypical approach to the prescribed narrative of being trans) were my contemporaries (a fantastic group of women who probably saved my life). Our personal contexts as women were deeply rooted in either a formal feminist self-analysis or one which would nonetheless assert the right of self-determination in identity for trans women; Although we may have had experience with the old HBSOC approach and formalized gender clinics (as I certainly did), we rejected that approach and claimed our lives for ourselves. Those are lofty words, it seems, but that was what it felt like. Now I can look around my communities and see dozens and hundreds of trans women whose experience I implicitly understand, even if the details of our lives are on the surface tremendously different (even if I find some of them frustrating and misguided).
It was the lack of older trans women in my life that motivated me to start writing here. I’ve been around for a long time, mostly glad to let others take the mic and keep a low profile, but I was lucky to take part in discussing and formulating some ideas that while they are now becoming commonplace were once revolutionary (I spent countless hours explaining to people why they needed to put a space in trans woman!). I’m most excited, though, to live in a community in which there is beginning to be that sort of historical context. Even though I don’t know many trans women from the generation before me who would have fit easily into these ideas, I am sure they exist. I hope the internet will find a venue for their stories.
I feel like most of the writing we do – or at least most of the writing done by trans women whose writing I enjoy – is done in the arenas of feminism, and in debating our rights with those who would and do other us and put our lives in peril. I believe this focus itself is a function of cis-dominance, transmisogyny, and marginalization. It saddens me, though, as it deprives us of sharing our experiences with one another. That is when community really begins to weave tightly: Not in the exhaustion of defending our rights, but in the ability to see others who are living lives like us, and are happy.
Make this your new radical stance: Stop arguing in their debate. Well, take a break from it sometimes, at least, and talk about yourself. Give trans women the chance to see the real lives of women like them, not the ones cis-dominant media portrays, and maybe pick up some of the cis people who sense the way things currently are isn’t how they should be. Give history more than just the fact you were right.