Thursday, August 25, 2011

Whipping Girl FAQ: on the words, transsexual, transgender and queer

Originally posted on LJ 12-31-08

In this, the second in a line of posts that address some of the more frequently asked questions I’ve received about Whipping Girl (WG), I want to discuss the ways in which I use the words transsexual, transgender and queer throughout the book. I’ve received quite a number of emails from people who have had a transsexual experience and who appreciated many of the points I make throughout the book, but who were bothered that I used the word “transsexual,” and/or who were angered/disappointed that I positioned that identity/experience under the rubric of “transgender” or “queer.” Here, I hope to explain my reasoning and offer insight into where I’m coming from on this matter.

First, let’s start with the word “transsexual.” I chose to use it throughout WG because it is currently the only word in the English language that refers to people (like myself) who physically transition to, and/or live and identify as, a member of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth.

Some people object to “transsexual” because they feel that it is pathologizing, because it was coined and is perpetuated by the medical/psychological/sexological establishment. Those who make this point often prefer activist terms like “transgender” or “transexual” (with one “s”). As I mention in the book, transgender is an umbrella word that includes many cissexuals (i.e., nontranssexuals), so it’s really not a useful synonym for transsexual (more on “transgender” below). As for transexual with one “s”, I honestly don’t think that it looks different enough from the two-“s” version to make a significant impact. Perhaps this says more about my spelling (in)abilities than anything else, but I never even noticed the difference between the two versions until someone pointed it out to me two years ago. And frankly, I’m so over the whole misspelling-as-an-activist-tactic thing. I understand why second wave feminists embraced words like womyn, womon, wimmin, etc., back in the day. But these days, more often than not, misspelling seems to be used in order to avoid issues rather than to confront them directly. I am of the belief that it is far better to reclaim words like transsexual – to say to the rest of the non-trans world “Yes, I’m a transsexual and I’m proud of it!” or (as I once said in a spoken word piece) “Transsexual is our word and you can’t fucking have it anymore!”

Also, the pragmatist in me has some issues with attempts by some to completely remove the term “transsexual” from any medical context whatsoever. Having physically transitioned and experienced how profoundly and beneficially female hormones have affected my physical and mental well-being, it would be naive of me not to acknowledge the medical component (and for many, the medical necessity) of sex reassignment procedures. Thea Hillman has a great line in one of her pieces about how maybe we need to consider depathologizing the word “pathologize.” While I am totally against the conceptualization of GID as a “mental disorder,” I think that there are ways in which our needs to physically transition and access appropriate medical procedures can be met without simultaneously undermining/marginalizing us as a community.

While some people dismiss the word “transsexual” because they feel that it is an overly medicalized term, others distance themselves from it from what might be called a pro-medicalization standpoint. The argument goes something like this: I had a medical condition (GID, transsexualism, etc.), but that was corrected/cured when I physically transitioned, so now I’m no longer transsexual. Often folks who take this position will say that they are not a transsexual any longer, but just simply a woman or a man. Others might call themselves a woman (or man) of transsexual experience (a phrase that I sometimes use myself).

First off, let me say that I too fully and unapologetically identify as a woman - no ifs, ands or buts about it. What seems to be the pressing issue here is that many cissexual people view the word transsexual as being mutually exclusive and incompatible with the words woman or man. So when I call myself a transsexual woman, they misinterpret that to mean that I am a “fake” woman or not *really* a woman. While this pisses me off, I don’t think that the answer is for me to abandon the word transsexual. To do so would mean for me to deny important aspects of my body and life history. Those of us who have the experience of having lived as both female and male at different points in our lives have very real experiences, insights and issues that other people do not have. I fear that if we refuse to position ourselves as transsexuals, then we will not have a platform from which to speak in our own voices and have our issues addressed. And our silence will inevitably create a vacuum that will quickly be filled by trans-ignorant assumptions about us and half-assed theories about us forwarded by so-called “experts” (i.e., cissexuals who claim to know us better than we know ourselves). This is exactly how things have been for the last half century and frankly it hasn’t served us very well at all.

This is why I think that we should reclaim the work transsexual while simultaneously (and forcibly) reminding people that that identity does not contradict our identities as women and men. This is precisely what I tried to do in the book.

A final objection to the word “transsexual” has to do with the presence of the word “sex” within it. There is a popular misconception that trans people transition for sexual reasons (e.g., to prey on innocent straight folks, to fulfill some bizarre sexual fantasy, etc.), and many trans folks seem to fear that the word transsexual (because of the word “sex”) enables those assumptions. One can see the de-sexualization of transsexuality in the growing use of the phrase “gender confirmation surgery” to replace “sex reassignment surgery.” I think it also plays a role in why many physically-transitioned folks prefer transgender to transsexual. It’s as if the words “gender/transgender” simply sound more polite and respectable than the words “sex/transsexual.”

Given how regularly trans people are objectified and sexualized by society, I can understand why some might prefer the more wholesome-sounding “gender” to the more naughty sounding “sex”. However, there is a problem here that stems from the use of the word “gender” in sociology, feminism, and other fields. While many trans people use “gender” as shorthand for gender identity, in these other areas the word is more commonly used to refer to gender expression or roles (i.e., masculinity, femininity, androgyny). This confusion leads many people to presume that transsexuals transition in order to become gender-conforming or because we uncritically want to perpetuate sexist gender roles, and so on. This is not the case, at least not for me and most transsexuals I’ve spoken with. I experimented with and expressed my femininity plenty when I was male-bodied. For me, transitioning was first and foremost about my physical sex, not gender expression. Being male-bodied felt wrong to me and being female-bodied feels right. This is also why I forwarded the term subconscious sex in the book, because I feel that for many/most of us the main issue is our sex embodiment rather than gender expression.

So for all of the above reasons, I went with transsexual. I don’t think that it’s a perfect word, but I think that it is the most useful/appropriate one at this moment in time.

I also received a lot of feedback from transsexual-identified people who were bothered/disappointed by the fact that in WG I include transsexuals under the umbrella terms “transgender” and “queer.” To be honest, a few years back, when I first heard this sort of critique, I naively assumed that the people who made such comments were probably expressing some kind of internalized homophobia. I’ve since learned that, while for some this may be true, for most others, the desire to distinguish transsexual from the words transgender and queer is based on valid political concerns, many of which I share.

In many ways, the “transgender” umbrella serves to dilute certain transsexual specific issues (particularly regarding gender identity and sex embodiment) by conflating them with issues of gender expression and presentation that are the primary concern for the majority of transgender-identified folks. Also, some transgender-identified folks (including Virginia Prince, who coined the term) have openly and regularly expressed anti-transsexual sentiments. In its rhetoric - especially its social constructionist/anti-essentialist tendencies – the transgender movement focuses most of its energy on transcending/shattering the male/female binary. This can marginalize those of us who can’t take the maleness or femaleness of our bodies for granted, and who are non-consensually “third-sexed” as a result (e.g., transsexuals and intersexuals).

Similarly, I can now understand why many transsexuals object to being included under the term “queer.” After all, the greater lesbian and gay communities have historically and repeatedly marginalized transsexuals. Since the recent ENDA brouhaha (where many LGB people and organizations pushed for the passage of a bill that did not include gender identity), I’ve heard many transsexuals suggest that politically speaking it would be far better for us to seek legal protection under disability laws than under the LGBT umbrella (btw, those who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the former strategy should read Jennifer Levi and Bennett Klein’s essay in the book Transgender Rights).

While I personally identify as queer (in a large part because my life partner is also female), I can totally understand, given the history and politics of the situation, why many transsexuals wouldn’t want anything to do with the word “queer.” In my experience, the word “queer” too often reverts back to gay & lesbian, leaving those of us who are transgender, bisexual and/or questioning on the outside looking in, or having to constantly prove our queer credentials. From my perspective (and I talk about this in the book), queer politics almost seem designed these days to uphold and reinforce the distinction between queer & straight, rather than sincerely trying to make alliances across all lines to eradicate that distinction entirely.

Given the way that I feel, it might seem somewhat hypocritical that I use words like queer or transgender in my activism and writings at all. The reason why I do is because I believe in alliance-based activism, and think that it’s important for us to sometimes stand with people who are different yet share commonalities with our experience. While different from one another, all transgender people are marginalized by other people’s rigid views of gender. All queer people are oppressed by oppositional sexism. All female and feminine people are oppressed by traditional sexism. For me, the words “transgender” and “queer” are most similar to the word “feminist” – I see these words not as identities, but as political affiliations. In fact, I’ve spent a ton of energy critiquing anti-transsexual attitudes within queer and feminist politics precisely because I believe that strengthening those alliances is important. No one gender-marginalized group on their own can change the system – we all need to work together.

So in WG, when I describe transsexuals as falling under the queer or transgender umbrellas, it is not my intention to non-consensually label individual transsexuals as being queer or transgender. Like I said, I don’t see these words as identities (although I acknowledge that many people do). My purpose for doing so is simply to point out similarities that exist between the ways in which we are marginalized, and the potential that exists in forming political alliances based upon our related marginalizations.

I hope this helps clear things up. I know that all movements struggle with the language that is used to represent their constituencies and their issues. And sometimes words/terms/labels/identities that become adopted result in some people feeling outside (rather than inside) the movement. I feel that the language that I use as an activist constantly evolves as I become aware of such issues. It’s only through constant dialogue with one another that we can reach consensus on such issues or (in lieu of that) at least respectfully agree to disagree...


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1 comment:

  1. Julia,
    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for this clarifying piece. I am, by the way, in agreement with your position on these terms, particularly in regard to the term transsexual. As a transsexual man working to improve and increase understanding in my part of the South, with special attention to the interfaith communities, I am often frustrated with the applications of the term transgender--for the many of the same reasons you have listed and some others. I very much enjoy your work and hope for more discourse over time. So, I wanted to say with intention: I am very glad you are here and appreciate your voice.