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December 3, 2007

Questions of Trans-Inclusion and Identity
By Trevor

A week or so ago, my friend and Beyond Masculinity contributor, Cole, posted this link to a blogger Citizen Crain's analysis of the inclusion of a transguy in DC's MetroWeekly's "Coverboy of the Year" award. I didn't get around to reading the entries until tonight, but I thought they remained compelling for a few reasons.

There was some controversy over Chris' calling the contestant, Alexander O., a "lesbian." The story goes like this. MetroWeekly has a lineup of contestants for the "Coverboy of the Year" award that users can vote for online. One of them, Alexander, just happens to be a transguy who dates women. His favorite show is "The L Word" and, among the three people he'd choose to have dinner with if he could, he selected Judy Dlugacz, founder of the lesbian cruise line, Olivia.

Chris has admitted that he was wrong to call Alexander a "lesbian," and has since backed away from that claim (though he didn't technically apologize). I'll take Chris at his word, and believe that what he really meant to say was that Alexander's profile sounded like it related much more to lesbian culture than it did to gay boy culture.

Chris quasi-laments that "If Alexanders underground campaign should succeed, as I suspect it will, it wouldnt be the first time that trans activists have ruffled GLB feathers. For years, male-to-female trans women have tried to attend the female-only Michigan Womyns Festival, leading organizers to adopt a controversial women born women admissions policy." I am reminded here of Susan Stryker's criticism of John Aravosis' editorial on Salon.com arguing against inclusion of transgender people in ENDA (which I blogged about back in October). I'll quote Susan again here, because she does such amazingly funny job:

"To hear Aravosis tell it, he and multitudes of like-minded gay souls have been sitting at the civil rights table for more than 30 years, waiting to be served. Now, after many years of blood, sweat, toil and tears, a feast in the form of federal protection against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace has finally been prepared. Lips are being licked, chops smacked, saliva salivated, when -- WTF!?! -- a gaunt figure lurches through the door."

Chris' entry certainly twangs similarly when he describes Alexander's campaign as "underground" and as ruffling "GLB feathers." Whose feathers, again, are Alexander's campaign ruffling? Chris' entire argument actually seems to hinge on this contest being one meant for gay men, and since Alexander is clearly not a gay man, he's weaseling his way in under the banner of trans-inclusion. As he dates women, Alexander is, indeed, not a gay man. But the contest is "Coverboy of the Year," not "Gay Man of the Year." Thus, it seems pretty clear that the only feathers being ruffled here are those of people who'd prefer to keep transguys on the outside of our communities.

But I want to set all that aside, because I actually think there is something worth salvaging in Chris' convoluted and apparently transphobic arguments. I am interested here in the questions Chris asks about lesbian communities' inclusion of transmen, because I think these are questions that many communities really have not yet dealt with adequately. Plenty of my lesbian friends in San Francisco would make offhand remarks about how "white men" were __(insert bad thing here)___, while returning home to have sex with their transguy partners (who happened to also be white men). Some of them even talked about the beauty of women's-only spaces, when those spaces were actually chock full of transguys. They also continued to identity as lesbians, even though their partners were men.

I'm not interested in accusing anyone of hypocrisy, really, so much as I am interested in the radical potential for the inclusion of transmen to disrupt lesbian culture. Obviously, lesbian communities that are made up of huge numbers of transguys are no longer really lesbian communities. They are something else entirely. I'm not making a value judgment here, as some would have me do. Instead, I'm just commenting that, in places like San Francisco, what was once a lesbian community (or heck, even queer women's community!), is no longer composed of people with relatively similar gender and sexual identities. It's a community of queer women and men, and this shift has yet to be really theorized or understood.

Further, I think there are some compelling questions about the number of folks who used to identify as butch lesbians and are now taking testosterone and changing their names. My dear friend (and XXBoy extraordinaire) Jackson once wondered about this very question when he crossed the Bay to go to the White Horse in Oakland. There, he recounted meeting quite a few butch lesbians who went by their birth names. He wondered that, if they had just lived a few miles west, would they potentially consider transitioning?

I can't but help wonder the same thing. I don't want to sound as if I'm accusing transmen of jumping Butch ship, as I think Chris and some lesbian authors have done. I have the utmost respect for people's decisions, and support their right to explore their gender identities. Instead, I want to merely point out that I think the decision to transition is highly contextual for many. In a community like San Francisco, where half of the The Lexington's (the city's only full time dyke bar) patrons on a given night might identify as transguys, I just can't believe that the prevalence of this new possibility isn't exciting and alluring for many.

It doesn't make anyone's decision to transition less valid or important. But I think it does squash a certain need for narratives of gender that demand finding some root in childhood. You know, the stories that start with "Oh I remember telling my mom that I wished I was a boy when I was 9." They may have very well felt / said that, but that doesn't "prove" their transgenderness. Plenty of moms and dads can surely tells stories about their children saying similar kinds of things when they were young - and yet they did not grow up to identify as trans.

I think we should resist that call to essentialize our gendered identities. Because let's be real: plenty of us are unhappy for any number of reasons with the body we're given, and a lot of that discomfort is caught up with gender! I've long considered having the very same "keyhole" chest surgery that I helped raise money for my transguy friend to have done - and that's all about my discomfort with the way gender gets mapped onto my body.

The bottom line, though, is this: I think we should support transgender people's decisions to modify their gendered presentations and bodies. It's crucial to any justice-driven movement today. But this shouldn't preclude us from thinking critically about the emergence of these identities out of a sexist and homophobic culture. Identities and politics cannot be separated from their cultural contexts. And I think to ignore critical analysis of the context in which many female-born people are indeed transitioning to become men would be a devastating lost opportunity to better understand how gender works to shape our identities and lives.

This doesn't mean invalidating the experience / realities / identities of transgender people. I would make similar kinds of arguments about the emergence of gay men's identities (as I don't believe genetics or biology is to blame for our cocksucking tendencies). It just means that, in order to understand how these things work, we've got to ask some uncomfortable questions. And shutting down any inquiry into these questions for fear of facing question's we'd rather not consider is a real loss. While Chris' piece is messy, I think underlying parts of his entry were some important questions that we ought to consider - before writing him off as just another transphobic faggot.

PERMALINK | Posted at 1:59 AM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

can you please blog about Andre J?

Drew Mc | December 4, 2007 12:08 PM

Trevor--

Great post that contains many ideas I have been thinking about too. The Radical Faeries are an historically gay male space that is thinking through these issues too. The gathering spaces that I like (I go to the sanctuaries in Tennessee) are welcoming to people of all sexual and gender identities-- and it is a very exciting space to live in. Some of the faerie sanctuaries continue to create "gay male only" space. I'm excited that the faeries are doing all sorts of experiments and that all of them can co-exist without needing to be "right"-- you can just go to the sanctuary that best meets your needs.

As a proud sissy and someone who occasionally gets (mis?)taken for a lesbian or an FTM, I have enjoyed the fluidity in identities that is being created by our new generations of queers. I consider myself to be part of that work. With some of my work I consider myself an ally to the trans movement, and in some of my work (faerie, sissy) I consider myself part of it. It is an interesting dichotomy.

I think I believe in the trans movement so much because I don't see the mainstream LGBT movement (of which I am also a part, LOL)--- largely advocating for sissies and gay men who can't pass-- and I think the revolutionary ideas of the 70s around gender identity have largely been abandoned by our LGBT organizations-- so I am glad that you are one of the people still thinking and writing about these ideas. much love, Chris

Chris Bartlett | December 8, 2007 2:48 PM


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