Monthly Archives: December 2013

Why gay and trans rights really are equivalent issues

I have a foot in two worlds, and this gives me unique insight into the connections and crossovers between the experiences of the trans and LGB communities, which I wanted to reflect on in this blog.

We don’t fully know what makes people gay or trans, but the science is suggestive that both could be manifestations of hormonal fluctuations while we’re “cooking” in utero – so I have come to think of gay and trans people as cakes and cookies – lots of the same ingredients, some different. I tend to think we have more in common than not, and that we are stronger together as an inclusive queer community.

I have been trying to get my head round the odd estrangement between gay and trans communities ever since a “friend” of mine linked to an article about why there should be no “T” in “LGB(T)”. I refuse to give the article an audience, but the nub of it was that gay rights will advance more quickly if trans people are excluded. The outrageous honesty of the piece declared what a lot of trans people and gender variant gay people already know – in the struggle for acceptance and assimilation, some gender conforming gay folks are distancing themselves not only from the trans* community but also from butch lesbians and feminine gay men.

It is time to speak about the equivalences in the gay and trans struggles. I know that comparisons between rights movements can often be clumsy, and I know that games of “Oppression Olympics” are tiresome, but in this case there is so much connection and crossover between the two communities it is absurd and false to separate them. We are stronger together, that ought to be self evident, but there’s something more at stake here; when we distance ourselves from people based on their differences, we soon end up with a community that stifles variation.

The wrong “choice”

Being gay has been described as a “lifestyle choice” rather than something a person just is. The inference is not only do gay people choose to be gay in some sort of whimsical fashion, but also that not being gay is a preferable choice. Being trans is equally seen as a choice, and the wrong choice to make. Yet all the evidence shows that it is impossible to change your sexuality or gender identity at will.

“My definitions are based on the fact of human reproduction”

Homophobes define sex in terms of human reproduction. The implication for gay people is that their lovemaking falls outside of the terms set to describe what sex is for, and can then be trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised. Equally trans identities are trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised when we make the completely arbitrary assumption that the categorisation of human beings should be strictly in terms of reproductive organs or chromosomes.

“Prove it”

There is no test for being gay or trans, and no apparent genetic difference. We have biological hints and clues in a process known as epigenesis. We see behaviour reminiscent of both gay and trans experience in the animal kingdom, but we cannot prove or disprove being gay or trans, nor can we simplistically extrapolate findings in nature to our more socially complex existence. Self-identification is the only option. We have mostly come to accept the self-identification of gay people, now we need to offer the same dignity to trans people.

“It’s a modern invention”

There is a belief in some cultures that homosexuality was invented in the modern west, a symbol of its decadence and corruption. Of course, we know that homosexuality has occurred in different social forms and with different meanings throughout history, and we also understand that homophobia may well be the result of colonialism in many countries who now cling to it. Equally, being trans did not originate with western culture and medicine. It takes many forms and meanings throughout history and culture and appears in many religions. Even surgical alteration has manifested in history, and while modern medicine provides new choices, it was the pre-existing trans community that asked for these options, not a medical profession diagnosing and enforcing them.

“If we allow it, everyone will do it”

You can’t “turn” someone gay. You can’t “turn” someone trans. Acceptance may bring more people out of the closet, but it will not change people’s orientation.

“I hate the word cisgender”

Heterosexual people resisted the introduction of a word that describes them impartially in relation to gay people. They prefer to use words like “normal” “natural” or “straight” (the opposite of their own chosen terms for gay people; queer, bent, abnormal, unnatural). Likewise cisgender (non-trans) people are resisting this neutral word, preferring terms like real, natural, or biological (even if being trans is entirely likely to be natural and biological in origin). Hopefully, we all know that people exist on a continuum, and that gay/straight, trans/cis should not be seen in terms of simplistic dichotomies.

“It’s a sickness – treat their mental health!”

It is established, and written into the guidelines of most psychological and counselling bodies, that reparative therapy does not work for either gay or trans people, and that neither is a sign of mental illness. It is now understood that the increased mental illness found in gay and trans populations is as a result of marginalisation and oppression. The bestowing of rights and social support decreases the incidence of mental health issues.

“You’re just confused”

Being trans and being gay are constantly confused with one another – if a man acts “effeminate” or a woman is “masculine”, it is assumed to be related to their sexuality rather than their gender. In countries like Iran, transitioning is seen as a culturally acceptable way to “deal with” being gay, but in most western cultures being gay is more socially acceptable than being trans. The confusion lies in the fact that there is a clear crossover between the two populations; nonetheless they are separate things, and trans people are not confused gay people any more than gay people are confused trans people.

The interrelatedness of these two experiences and the prevalence of gender variance within the LGB community means it is essential for LGB people to be the most passionate allies to the trans community, and vice versa. In the words of Audre Lorde:

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

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Yuletide Peace and Empathy

I’m posting this video in which I am interviewed by Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy because it works well as a Yuletide message – a reminder to myself, as much as anyone else, of how we can hold onto the best of aspirations for ourselves and each other – to be good at relating, to communicate our feelings in ways that can be heard, to listen to and fully meet the difference in others. Because if I want a happier world I have to start building it myself, and inevitably I am going to sometimes get that wrong, but hopefully if I am clear in my intentions I will help more than I hinder.

Because the video is long, I have picked out a few segments that say things that are particularly important to me.

Here I speak about my reasons for starting this blog:

Here I explain why I think empathy should be at the heart of any feminist revolution, an expansion of my earlier blog on empathy:

Here I give my take on the privilege debate, something I previously blogged about:

Here I speak about anger and empathy within feminism and activism:

Here I talk a bit more about why in my blog on empathy I said “diagnosing and theorising about people without their involvement is inherently paternalistic – the very essence of a patriarchal approach” in response to transcritical debate from non-trans feminists:

Wishing everyone who reads this a peaceful Yuletide and a New Year full of hopeful connections and increased understanding.

Fighting to keep my empathy

I spend a lot of time mulling over how best to respond to the hate of a particular, very stuck and insular branch of “radical feminism” that focuses the majority of its activism on undermining trans* folk. Recent skirmishes have thrown me off course – pulled me into the mire of someone else’s debate, someone else’s agenda. I need to re-focus on what I stand for – not just what I stand against. My brand of feminism provides alternatives to the oppressive power structures that we currently endure – it is radically relational, radically empathic, fundamentally anarchic.

I’ve felt hurt and afraid and angry, and I have not wanted to be premature in making a response to what I’ve recently experienced. I am still processing a lot of things and I’m still, overwhelmingly, sad that this institutional cissexism that goes by the name of “transcriticism” has taken a hold in places that should be safe, anti-oppressive spaces. I’m finding myself losing my empathy, and it troubles me.

My feminism is based on a relational ethic and I strive to build a relationship with my reader through this blog, by sharing both personal and theoretical ideas. It is a conscious, ethical choice not to be sensational, abstract, overly theoretical or antagonistic. I know that you cannot really change minds by using such instrumental (and patriarchal) techniques, you can only control minds. I also know that whatever minority we may belong to, our words have power; if we have an audience on the internet and are articulate enough to communicate with that audience that is a privilege and we have a responsibility not to abuse that privilege. If we are using our words to control rather than connect to people, well, whoever we are we are instruments of the patriarchy.

I’m being careful with my words, now, because I know the depth of my anger and hurt could make me desire to try and take control of the discourse, and that would go against everything I believe. But this feeling gives me insight into where oppressions starts – how it is almost always rooted in fear.

Before I came out as trans*, I spent a lot of time in radical feminist spaces, including, I am ashamed to say, ones that excluded transwomen. When in those spaces, I and other cis feminists, tried to overturn offensive “women born women only” policies. In all of those spaces, the individuals who wanted to exclude transwomen were actually a clear minority, but somehow their views still dominated the discourse. I believe this is partly because of the misleading belief that to be considered sufficiently radical, you have to embrace “transcriticism”, and so dissenters were seen as not radical enough, or not feminist enough, and were therefore marginalised.

The “transcritical” debate has currency because it is fear-based, it catches in a little bit of dry kindling and it spreads quickly with just one fabricated story of somebody once having heard about somebody else seeing a trans woman who did a bad thing one time. It is dangerously tempting to all humans who feel oppressed and marginalised to go down that route.

I can feel my history of trauma, my bubbling resentment, my hurt, my anger and underneath it all my fear making me want to lash right back at these people who are threatening ME and my existence and wellbeing. So tempting. And don’t get me wrong, I think anger has it’s place, anger is important. But anger without empathy? Where does that take us?

It’s a struggle to stay connected. It’s a struggle not to “other” some group of people or another. Learning that those sinister places exist just as strongly in myself is what keeps me connected.

Opposing “transcriticism”

This is an abridged version of a post I made here

I would like to teach Feminists a new motto. It goes like this:

“I oppose any debate or campaign that seeks to exclude or marginalise transgender people. Transcritism is such a debate. This debate should not be given a feminist platform.”

Any feminist space that wishes to consider itself non-oppressive should not support transcriticism. There are ways of debating the nature of gender and gender oppression without marginalising or de-legitimising transgender people.

I will outline why “transcriticism” is an inherently oppressive system of thought that feminism should ethically oppose, but first . . .

How do we categorise human beings?

  • Categorising humans according to reproductive organs or chromosomes, using pronouns and labels, is a human choice and not a biological fact. If this rigid categorisation does not work for transgender people, we have a choice to be flexible in how we apply it.
  • This socially constructed categorisation we call “sex” perpetuates the oppression of women as well as transgender and intersex people: “Biology is not destiny”.
  • People identified as women experience oppression, including rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, reproductive control and the demeaning, objectification and sexualising of what are perceived as “feminine” qualities and presentation.
  • Some of these oppressions are shared by transgender women, and some are not, but overall transgender women’s experiences intersect significantly with cisgender women’s issues therefore transgender women should fall under the protection of feminism, and should not be excluded from the socially constructed category “woman”.
  • Some of these oppressions are shared by transgender men, and therefore transgender men should fall under the protection of feminism, even if they do not claim the category “woman”.
  • Cis women and trans men have the right to self-organise around issues of oppression regarding reproduction, but not to extend this organising to exclude trans women from all feminist organising, and in particular organising around rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse which disproportionately affect transgender women.

Why Feminism should not give “transcriticism” a platform

Feminism needs to challenge the sense of entitlement cisgender people feel to create a social order that does not fit the experiences or needs of transgender or intersex people. Other cultures throughout history have been able to acknowledge what we call transgender people, even giving them an important social and spiritual role, whilst binary, black and white, heirarchical western thinking marginalises transgender people and puts them at severe risk both physically and psychologically as a result.

No feminist group or organisation should give a platform to people who call themselves “transcritical” for the following reasons:

  • To frame this as a fair, reasonable debate ignores the fact that one side of the debate is fighting for recognition and social inclusion and the other is fighting against this; this is inherently traumatising and oppressive for trans people. Therefore, “transcritical” feminists can claim to have won when transgender participants withdraw to preserve their emotional wellbeing, or become too upset or angry to debate in the coldly theoretical terms being promoted.
  • “Transcritical” theories erode transgender rights and marginalise transgender people, particularly women, particularly trans people of colour, and are therefore oppressive.
  • “Transcritical” theories are based on the supposition that it is valid for the more powerful majority to define terms in a way that suits their political ends. This is a hierarchical position that is out of step with feminist ethics.
  • “Transcritical” theories ignore intersex conditions and the overlap between the sexes, insisting the sexes are two non-overlapping categories. They also ignore the many transgender people who are also intersex – i.e. those who medically transition later in life because they cannot live according to the “sex” they were medically assigned at birth.
  • “Transcritical” theories create spurious/ strawman arguments:
    •  There is no such thing as “trans theory” nor should transgender people be required to account for themselves theoretically in order to be accepted.
    • Most transgender people acknowledge that social construction of gender, gender hierarchy and gender oppression are as real as gender identity – these are not mutually exclusive ideas.
    • Simplistic either/or arguments are employed to eradicate the complexity and variance of trans people’s lived experiences.
    • Stereotypes are employed to create a no-win; if trans women behave like a stereotypical woman, they are artificial, if they behave like a stereotypical man, they are clearly men.
    • Nurture vs nature arguments are also used when it is now understood that such arguments are ludicrous – we cannot possibly untangle nature from nurture and both have a profound influence on us.
    • The completely demeaning and trivialising acts of “blackface” or “cultural appropriation” are likened to identifying as the opposite sex to that assigned.
  • Many “Transcritical” feminists dedicate a significant proportion of their “feminist” activism to campaigning against transgender inclusion and transgender rights. The debate takes up feminist time that could be better used fighting patriarchy, and it alienates trans people from feminism, meaning they don’t get the opportunity to be influenced by more positive feminist discussions.
  • “Transcritical” theories believe biology is destiny.
  • “Transcritical” theories speak of the abolition of gender without any clear framework as to how this will be achieved without further human oppression and potential racism.
  • By focussing negatively on transgender people, “transcritical” theorists hold transgender people as responsible for the problems inherent in the way gender has been socially constructed, rather than as casualties in the way we construct both gender and sex.
  • Feminism and trans people do not exist in opposition to one another: a radical feminist understanding of transgender existence is not only possible but desirable, because it does not ignore the needs of one oppressed group to support the other. Judith Butler, Andrea Dworkin, and Gloria Steinem have all at different times put forward radical feminist frameworks that are trans inclusive.
  • It is true that not all transgender people conceptualise their circumstances in a way that is compatible with feminism, which is all the more reason why feminists and transgender people should be working more closely together – as feminism has become more trans inclusive, the ideas of trans people have evolved to take feminist ideas more into account. Relationships need to be built before understanding can be reached.
  • Feminism needs to evolve from a position of being “transcritical” to a position of “transaware” – how can we develop our theories and definitions to include both cis and trans experiences, and take all oppressions into account?

Don’t be a bystander

Too many cis feminists stand by and watch this happening, and either fail to see the devastating impact on the trans community or do not register it as their problem. Feminists, please say no to “transcriticism” whenever you hear that word, say no to people casting doubt on whether transgender women are “real” women, say no to people discussing any kind of trans exclusion from LGB or feminist spaces. Don’t stand by and be afraid to say “I don’t agree with this”. Learn the following phrase:

“I oppose any debate or campaign that seeks to exclude or marginalise transgender people. Transcritism is such a debate. This debate should not be given a feminist platform.”