Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gendercator-centered dialogs

originally posted on LJ on 7-12-07
As most of you probably know, a film called The Gendercator was recently selected and then subsequently pulled from Frameline (an SF-based LGBT film festival). It was a supposed sci-fi short produced by a lesbian filmmaker that depicts physical transitions from one sex to the other (i.e., transsexual transitions) as being imposed on gender-variant people by a rigid patriarchal/heterosexist society, thus implying that transsexuals are the “dupes” of an oppressive gender system.

Anyway, because the film was pulled (due to outrage from the trans community over the fact that a film with such blatant anti-trans stereotypes was showing as part of the LGB-and-apparently-sometimes-T Pride festivities) there have since been accusations of “censorship” (despite the fact that a blatantly anti-gay/lesbian film never would have seen the light of day at Frameline). This has resulted in a growing movement of late to 1) show the film, and 2) follow it with a panel designed to discuss the issues raised by the film. In theory, this would (*hopefully*) lead to a respectful dialogue that would heal the community.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned as a trans activist, it’s that I should immediately be suspicious of oppositional binaries. And to be honest, I see one forming around this Gendercator film, one where a trans activist can only ever be depicted as either a narrow-minded advocate of “censorship,” or as a progressive, open-minded person who understands that showing and discussing the film is the best course of action. Now, I think that having a dialogue between trans & cis (ie., non-trans) folks in our community over this and other issues would be very timely and potentially bridge building, but the idea of centering such a dialogue around the Gendercator film is highly problematic for reasons that are typically overlooked.

What follows are excerpts from two emails I wrote in response to a group who invited me to take part in a meeting to discuss the potential format of one of these Gendercator-screening-followed-by-a-discussion-panel events. My purpose for posting my responses publicly is not to embarrass or “trash” this group for putting together such an event (as they seem to be sincere about creating a constructive dialogue), but rather to articulate why I feel so uncomfortable about the idea of a Gendercator-centered trans/cis dialogue.


Thanks for thinking of me. While I appreciate the invitation, I respectfully decline for the reasons stated below.

As a transsexual, one of the most common ways in which I am marginalized within gay/lesbian and feminist communities is by the accusation that I (and other transsexuals) transition either because we are "dupes" (who are misled into transitioning by a patriarchal/heterosexist medical establishment) or as “fakes” (who are so distressed by our own exceptional gender expression and/or sexual orientation that we are willing to go to the extreme lengths of surgically altering our bodies and unquestioningly embracing sexist ideals in order to fit into straight, mainstream society).

These accusations are an attempt to portray transsexuality as a "false consciousness" - it is the exact same tactic used by the religious right when they claim that same sex relationships are merely an "alternative lifestyle." Such accusations outright dismiss the possibility that the person in question has a better understanding of who they are than their accusers do.

If you invited me to participate in setting up a showing of a film that portrayed same-sex relationships as an "alternative lifestyle" to be followed by a discussion afterwards, I would decline. My reason for doing so is that it has been my experience that 1) people who use the "alternative lifestyle" tactic never want to engage in actual dialog (if they did, they wouldn't stoop to using the false consciousness tactic in the first place), and 2) it is downright demeaning to put any person in a position where they have to defend the legitimacy of their own identity and life experiences from an entitled person who has not shared that identity and experience.

For the same reason that I would not participate in a homosexuality-is-an-alternative-lifestyle film screening, I cannot participate in a Gendercator screening, as I would only be enabling cissexism within the LGBT community. Crouch has turned down numerous attempts to engage in an actual dialog with trans folks about this (this option was even offered by Frameline, but she declined), so it is disappointing to me that so many cissexual queer folks are so willing to offer her a soapbox. I honestly don't see what good can from this other than exacerbating the divide that already exists between transsexuals and cissexuals within our community.

Respectfully yours,

(2nd message)

Thanks for your reply. From your email, I get the impression that you are trying your best to create a respectful dialogue. In my last message, I was not trying to insinuate that you were purposefully trying to enable cissexism. But what does concern me (and what I will try to explain better in this message) are some of the unarticulated problems inherent in the idea of creating a trans/cis dialogue around a screening of the Gendercator.

I am assuming that the proposal to show the Gendercator as part of your series arose out of the controversy surrounding the fact that the film was selected and then subsequently pulled from Frameline. If this is the case, then let me ask you this: If the film was pulled for a different reason – for instance, if Frameline pulled it because it promoted racist stereotypes – would you go out of your way to show the film as part of your film series? I would suggest that you probably wouldn’t. And if you chose not to, it wouldn’t be because you advocate “censorship,” but rather that you would not want your series to be associated with racist sentiments, or to be misconstrued as tacitly endorsing those views. And if you did decide to screen the film anyway, and you invited folks of color from the community to take part in a panel after the film (where equal numbers of racists & folks of color would discuss the issues raised by the film), do you really think that most people would view this as an entirely fair, unbiased and open dialogue? And would this really be the best way to heal divisions with regards to race within the community?

What I hope the above scenario demonstrates is that airing a “debate” or a “controversy” is not automatically an unbiased proposal. For instance, if I made a point of giving equal time to both a doctor and a tobacco company executive to “debate” the issue of whether smoking causes cancer, or a climate researcher and an oil company lobbyist to “debate” climate change, it would be rather obvious that I was not being completely impartial. After all, by giving equal time to both sides of the “debate,” I would tacitly be validating dubious viewpoints (i.e., I’d be legitimizing the view that smoking *doesn’t* cause lung cancer & that carbon emissions *don’t* cause global warming).

Let me ask you this: doesn’t it bother you when the media covers some important gay/queer issue and they invariably include someone from the Traditional Values Coalition to provide the opposing view, you know, so that both sides of the “debate” get equal time? The reason why that’s so frustrating is because 1) it ignores the fact that the “opposing view” is in fact a majority view in our culture, 2) that viewpoint regularly marginalizes gay/queer people (whereas gay/queer viewpoints do not reciprocally marginalize straight folks), and 3) it insinuates that gay/queer people’s identities are up for “debate.” In other words, instead of discussing what needs to happen in order to ensure that gay/queer identities are considered just as legitimate as straight identities, the media instead creates a “debate” about whether gay/queer folks deserve to be seen as equals in the first place.

The viewpoints forwarded in Crouch’s film – i.e., that transsexuals are gender “dupes” or “fakes” (as I described in the last email) – are the views that have historically dominated within the gay and lesbian community (who make up the majority of the LGBT community). They are regularly used to dismiss, undermine and ridicule transsexual identities & perspectives, even today. A trans/cis dialogue that is centered on Crouch’s film (and the stereotypes therein) is one where transsexual identities and experiences are deemed questionable and up for debate from the get-go (in a way that lesbian/gay identities are not). In other words, the very premise is delegitimizing and alienating to transsexuals.

I know a lot of cissexual queers in the community feel that showing this film might help create a discussion about these issues, but I would suggest that that viewpoint is enabled by the fact that they don’t ever have to deal with cissexism – constantly having other people insist that one’s gender is “fake” or “illegitimate,” or being accused of “reinforcing heterosexist/patriarchal norms” when one is simply being themselves. I think that if more of them had that experience day-in and day-out, they would realize that a screening of a film that promotes such cissexist stereotypes is probably not the best way to begin this dialogue, as the very premise serves to alienate trans folks and legitimize anti-trans bigotry.

I think that a lot of trans folks (myself included) would love the opportunity to engage in a cissexual/transsexual dialogue about this and other issues. But such a conversation should begin with the recognition that our identities are not up for debate (any more than cissexual queer identities are). And we shouldn’t have to sit through an anti-trans film in order to participate in that conversation either. So I implore you to reconsider whether a screening of the Gendercator is truly the most constructive way to address differences between cissexuals and transsexuals in our community, or whether it will only serve to exacerbate divisions that already exist between us.


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