Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Considering Trans and Queer Appropriation

[note added November, 2016This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]

Within the activist circles I run in, I routinely hear people accuse others of appropriation, or claim that certain behaviors or endeavors are appropriative. I myself have written about how certain people (e.g., cisgender academics and media producers) sometimes appropriate transgender identities and experiences (discussed more below). So I am certainly sympathetic to the concept.

At the same time, however, I have seen the concept of appropriation used (or misused) in order to undermine marginalized groups as well. For instance, cisgender feminists have long accused trans women of “appropriating female dress” or “appropriating women’s identities”—indeed, if you click the link you will see that this was part of the justification for why Sylvia Rivera was kicked off the stage at a 1973 Pride rally in New York City. On Cathy Brennan’s anti-trans-dyke website “Pretendbians” (which I refuse to link to), the byline at the top of the webpage says: “We don't hate you, we hate appropriation”—the implication being that trans women cannot ever be actual lesbians, but rather we can only appropriate lesbian identities and culture.

Recently, on several occasions, I have heard trans people claim that cisgender people who perform drag, or who crossdress as part of a Halloween costume, appropriate trans people’s identities and culture. Such statements surprised me, in part, because they are so eerily similar to the aforementioned accusations of appropriation that trans-exclusive radical feminists have levied against us. But what struck me even more was how such claims represent a complete about face from the direction that transgender activism had been taking during the ’90s and early ’00s. During that era, we tended to celebrate binary-shattering activities. Trans activists didn’t merely discuss our own gender-non-conformity, but we emphasized the fact that most of us (whether trans or not) transgress gender norms at some points in our lives. Indeed, trans activists often encouraged forms of gender transgression in the cisgender majority, as it was generally believed that such expressions would help undermine binary gender norms throughout society.

And suddenly now in 2013, some trans people are essentially taking the exact opposite approach by discouraging cisgender people from transgressing gender norms (via accusations that such actions represent an appropriation of transgender identities and culture).

In the wake of all these claims, I have done a lot of thinking about appropriation over the last year. And I have come to the conclusion that the issue is way more complicated than the cut-and-dried “appropriation-is-always-bad” perspective that seems to predominate in activist settings. While we should be concerned about appropriation (especially certain manifestations of it), we should also be cognizant of some of the negative ramifications that can arise from the indiscriminate or overzealous use of the concept. In this essay, I will share some of my thoughts on this matter.

For the record, my main focus here will be accusations of appropriation with regards to gender and sexuality, and what they mean for transgender and queer (e.g., LGBTQIA+) communities and activism. Some of what I say may have import for thinking about other instances of cultural appropriation (e.g., with regards to ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, etc.). However, LGBTQIA+ identities and cultures are unique in a number of ways (which I will address toward the end of the piece), and this may limit the usefulness of applying what I say here to other such instances of appropriation.

What is “appropriation,” and why (or perhaps when) is it bad?

In the most general sense, appropriation occurs when we take something that somebody else has created and use it for our own purposes. For example, I can appropriate a certain chord progression others have previously used in order to create a new song. Or I could appropriate another person’s theory and apply it to a new problem. If I like your fashion-sense, I may appropriate your style. Humans beings are highly social animals: We are imitators, and we learn language, fashion, traditions, expressions, and ideas from one another. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Almost everything we create has its origins elsewhere—we are constantly adopting, adapting, and repurposing other people’s past creations and reconstructing them in novel ways. So appropriation—in the most general sense—is an everyday part of human life.

Within social justice movements, we typically use the word “appropriation” in a more specific sense: to describe instances where a dominant and/or majority group takes up some tangible or intangible aspect of a marginalized and/or minority community. Sometimes it is the marginalized/minority group’s identity that gets appropriated—for instance, members of the dominant/majority group may claim that identity for themselves, or create their own depictions of members of that group (which typically resemble the dominant/majority group’s assumptions and stereotypes rather than the marginalized/minority group’s lived realities). Other times, it is the minority group’s culture (e.g., their language, art, beliefs, religions, traditions, rituals, and fashions) that gets appropriated. Often cited examples include when Western countries appropriate art and artifacts from nations they have colonized, or appropriate their spiritual practices and traditions (as seen with the popularity of Yoga and Buddhism here in the U.S.). Or in how white America has historically appropriated musical styles that had their origins in African-American communities (e.g., jazz, rock-n-roll, hip-hop). And so on.

So if appropriation (in the most general sense) is a basic human tendency, why is it considered to be bad when dominant/majority groups appropriate from marginalized/minority groups? I would argue that there are at least three non-mutually-exclusive reasons why this is so:

Erasure: Marginalized/minority groups have little power or voice in society. Therefore, when the dominant/majority group takes up their identities, ideas, and other cultural creations, it tends to undermine or erase the context in which they were created, and the original meanings and symbolism that underlie them. In other words, the dominant/majority typically takes up the marginalized/minority group’s creations while disregarding their perspective. Sometimes the fact that the appropriated items had their origins within the marginalized/minority group (rather than the dominant/majority) gets overlooked or forgotten.

Exploitation: Sometimes members of the dominant/majority group will materially profit from aspects or acts that they have appropriated from a marginalized/minority group without ever giving anything back to that community. This tends to further exacerbate economic disparities that may already exist between the two groups.

Denigration: This can refer to a couple different things. Denigration can mean “to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance; belittle,” which applies to instances where important or sacred aspects of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture are appropriated by the dominant/majority group in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. Denigration can also mean “to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame: to denigrate someone's character,” which applies to instances where the dominant/majority group appropriates some aspect of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture in order to purposefully ridicule, parody, or insult members of that group.[1]

As I mentioned earlier, in my past writings (specifically in Whipping Girl), I have critiqued the way in which cisgender media producers and academic researchers have appropriated trans people in their art and theories, for instance, when they hold us up as examples of gender ambiguity or liminality.[2] Such instances are problematic because:
  • They erase the marginalized group’s voice and perspective (as trans people are depicted as merely symbols or metaphors, while our real-life circumstances and issues as a marginalized population are completely ignored). 
  • They exploit the marginalized group (as many a cisgender media producers have made lots of money capitalizing on the exoticness of gender variant lives, and some cisgender gender theorist have garnered success and built their careers upon interpreting trans people’s bodies and identities, without giving anything back to the trans community). 
  • They denigrate the marginalized group (in that cisgender media producers and academic researchers often outright dismiss or discount trans people’s self-accounts, fail to take trans people’s struggles seriously, and sometimes even blatantly ridicule or demean trans people in the process).

I believe that these three phenomena—erasure, exploitation, and denigration (or “EED” for short)—encapsulate most, if not all, of what typically concerns activists when they critique instances of appropriation.

Once we recognize EED, it becomes clear why dominant/majority groups’ appropriation of marginalized/minority identities and cultures can be a bad thing, but not vice versa. After all, marginalized/minority groups have relatively little power or voice in society, and thus are not in a position to erase or exploit the identity and culture of the dominant/majority group. And while marginalized/minority groups may choose to denigrate the dominant/majority group, it will only have a limited effect, as the dominant/majority group is already taken for granted, respected, and viewed as the norm throughout society.

Non-EED appropriation

Thus far, I have argued that appropriation is a bad thing when it leads to erasure, exploitation, and/or denigration of the marginalized/minority group. And most activists (including myself) would agree that instances of EED appropriation should be challenged and critiqued. However, there are other occurrences where appropriation (in the most general sense) occurs, but it does not necessarily erase, exploit, or denigrate the marginalized/minority group—I will refer to these instances as non-EED appropriation.  

Here are a few examples of non-EED appropriation of trans people:
  • A cisgender academic could carry out a research project that focuses on issues and obstacles that trans people are most concerned about. This project could be done in a way that respects trans people’s perspectives and opinions, and portrays us in a realistic manner (rather than relying on stereotypes or reducing us to metaphors). The final product (e.g., an article or book) could be described as appropriative in that it uses trans people’s realities, ideas, perspectives, and experiences, despite the fact that it amplifies trans voices and has the potential to create positive change for trans communities.
  • There have been several instances in which cisgender students have attended school crossdressed in order to show support for a transgender classmate. Such acts could be described as appropriative, yet they are done out of respect and in support of trans people. Much like students who shave their heads in support of a student who is going through chemotherapy, such acts can help de-stigmatize and lend legitimacy toward the marginalized/minority group in question.
  • Over the years, I have met a number of cisgender people who appreciate transgender perspectives and culture. For instance, they might have learned a lot from trans authors, and they may recommend those books to others. They might enjoy performances by transgender spectrum artists or patronize transgender film festivals. They do this out of genuine respect, and their actions do help to promote trans voices and to put money into the hands of trans performers and writers. Yet the person in question could be described as appropriating trans culture in a non-EED sense.
  • Cisgender people who are partners of trans people sometimes start their own support or discussion groups. While such groups may focus a lot on partner-specific issues, they will also discuss how to be supportive of the trans people in their lives and how to challenge societal cissexism. Such groups may have a net-positive effect on trans communities, by directly supporting relationships in which trans people are involved, and by demystifying and de-stigmatizing trans sexualities and relationships. Despite these benefits, some trans people may claim that the group members appropriate trans identities (by positioning themselves as “trans partners”) and/or appropriate the oppression trans people face by discussing how it impacts their own lives.

Now it is quite likely that these four examples have evoked a range of feelings among trans people who read this. Some may have positive feelings about the cisgender people in question—they may be described as allies or advocates, and their actions (while arguably appropriative in the most general sense) may be welcomed with open arms. Other trans activists might have a negative view of said people, dismissing them as “tourists” who are privileged in ways that trans people are not, and who are reaping the benefits of a marginalized/minority population while not having to endure the harsh realities of actually being trans themselves. (Indeed, I have heard these latter critiques made with increasing frequency lately.)

In other words, while most activists would agree that EED appropriation is a bad thing, there is significant disagreement about whether non-EED appropriation is bad, neutral, or good. In thinking through these differences of opinion, it seems to me that whether a marginalized/minority group member has a positive or negative view of non-EED appropriation hinges on two interrelated axes: stigma-versus-acceptance, and integration-versus-separatism.

Stigma versus acceptance

The more highly stigmatized a group is, the less likely it is that the dominant/majority group will even attempt to appropriate aspects of their identity or culture, as doing so will only lead to them becoming tainted by said stigma. However, if the marginalized/minority group becomes more accepted over time, there will be less of a social price to pay for associating oneself with that group. Thus, as acceptance of the group increases, so do the chances that others will engage in non-EED appropriation.

From the marginalized/minority group’s perspective, non-EED appropriation is often welcomed when the group is highly stigmatized, as the group appreciates any genuine outsider interest and support they can get. But as the group becomes more established and accepted in society, such appropriation starts to feel more like an invasion, as more and more dominant/majority members seemingly want to associate with their identity and take part in their culture.

When I was a young adult (e.g., in the ’80s and ’90s), there was a ton of stigma associated with being trans—way more than there is today. Because of that stigma, very few cis people would have dared to go to a transgender event or taken part in a trans-related demonstration, as the cisgender majority would likely have viewed them as suspect as a result. The rare cis people who were willing to associate with trans people back then were often viewed in a positive light and welcomed into the community. For instance, the first transgender spectrum support/social group that I belonged to had the phrase “and friends” tacked onto the end of the title, and partners, family, and friends were regularly welcome to attend meetings.[3] Even in the early ’00s, when I was active in the San Francisco Bay Area’s trans community, there was a sense that cis partners and close friends of trans folks were a part of our community too, and they would often take the stage at trans events. I’m sure today that some people would dismiss this as “cis people using their privilege in order to take up space at trans events,” but that would overlook the very different reality of that time. Back then, very few people supported trans people, and those that genuinely did were embraced as part of our community.

Things are very different now. There is still quite a lot of cissexism out there, but in certain segments in our culture (e.g., especially in queer, feminist, and social justice circles) there is an acknowledgement that trans people are legitimate, and that cisgender people should be good allies to gender variant folks. In such settings, being aware of transgender politics and culture may be seen as a sign that a person is a good progressive or activist. Indeed, this may lead to an increase in what might be called “faux allies”—people who are not especially concerned with trans people and issues, nor personally invested in trans communities, yet who nevertheless regard themselves as allies of trans people because to do otherwise would potentially garner disdain from other progressives or activists.

Furthermore, the fact that we currently exist in an era where there is a mix of both societal cissexism and trans acceptance—and where the former is viewed as conservative and close-minded, and the latter viewed as progressive and open-minded—means that an awareness of trans culture and politics can allow a person to be seen by others as worldly, cutting edge, or “hip.” Thus, just as hipster straight folks began to appropriate aspects of gay and lesbian identity and culture during the ’90s and ’00s, more and more cisgender people are now appropriating aspects of trans identities and culture.

It would be relatively easy for someone like myself, who lives in a very progressive part of the country, to pan the influx of cisgender people who suddenly seem interested in trans people and culture. While it may potentially be annoying, it is also a sign of our increasing legitimacy in the eyes of society. And frankly, having lived through the past, I would much rather be in our current situation than where we were several decades ago (or where other trans folks in more conservative parts of the country remain today) where trans people are viewed as pariahs, and nobody wants anything to do with us, appropriation or otherwise.

Integration versus separatism

Activists who have a positive or neutral view of non-EED appropriation often imagine the ultimate goal of their activism as being the complete integration of their group within mainstream society. By integration, I mean that the group’s identity, perspectives, and culture are viewed as unique, but also as a legitimate part of the culture at large.

One can see examples of integration in how certain groups that have immigrated to the U.S. from other countries are now seen as both distinct yet legitimately part of the culture. For example, I am of Italian (father’s side) and Irish (mother’s side) heritage. A century ago, when my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the U.S., they were highly marginalized. The dominant/majority (primarily Protestants of Northern European ancestry) blatantly discriminated against them with regards to employment and housing, and used derogatory slang terms to refer to them. They were routinely ridiculed for their religion (Catholicism), and stereotyped as criminals, drunkards, lazy, etc. Some of my older relatives have told me about how, when they were young, neighborhood parents wouldn’t let their children play with them because of their ethnicity. Even during my parent’s generation (in the ’50s), many in the dominant/majority wouldn’t have approved of their children marrying someone of Irish or Italian descent.

Nowadays, Irish- and Italian-Americans are generally seen as part of U.S. culture, and this integration is due to both U.S. culture rubbing of on Irish- and Italian-Americans, as well as Irish- and Italian-Americans influencing U.S. culture.[4] Americans of various persuasions eat at Pizza parlors and drink at Irish pubs; we all watch Martin Scorsese films and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. While such activities are clearly examples of non-EED appropriation, they are not viewed by most people (both within and outside of Irish- and Italian-American communities) as “appropriation” in the negative sense. Rather, they are viewed more as “cultural appreciation” than “cultural appropriation.”[5]

One can also see this integration and growing cultural appreciation in mainstream attitudes toward gays and lesbians, at least in some sectors of the country. The first Gay Pride events in the ’70s were far more like protests or demonstrations rather than celebrations, and the average straight person wouldn’t dare set a foot anywhere near them. Nowadays, Queer Pride parades are (for better or for worse) endorsed by mainstream corporations, covered by the mainstream media, and many (if not most) of the audience members are straight (not unlike the countless people of non-Irish heritage who show up to New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade). This non-EED appropriation/cultural appreciation can also be seen in the rise in popularity of gay-themed TV shows and movies, the embrace of gay artists and celebrities, and so on.

As these examples illustrate, when marginalized/minority groups are highly stigmatized (as Irish- and Italian-Americans were in the early 1900’s, and as gay people were in the ’60s and ’70s), they tend to be relegated to their own communities, and there is not much culture permeability between them and the dominant/majority group. But as stigma lessens and integration begins to occur, the marginalized/minority group and the dominant/majority groups inevitably become somewhat culturally permeable. And non-EED appropriation plays a major role in this process, as both a contributing factor to, and the net result of, that permeability.

Of course, not all members within a particular marginalized/minority group will strive for integration, or welcome the cultural permeability that comes with it. Some individuals may feel that their unique identities, language, and traditions are being watered down or made impure by mainstream non-EED appropriation. Such people may want to keep their culture pure via taking a more separatist stance, such as discouraging or limiting the dominant/majority group’s access to their culture. Such people are way more likely to critique non-EED appropriation as “oppressive appropriation” rather than “cultural appreciation,” and to view it as just as bad as (or as merely an extension of) EED appropriation.

It should be noted that people who take on more separatist stances typically look down upon members of their own group who strive for integration, often dismissing them as being “assimilationists.” For example, separatist-oriented queers who complain about straight mainstream folks who appropriate Queer Pride and queer culture more generally are also likely to dismiss LGBTQIA+ people who dress gender-normatively, or same-sex couples who seek out legal recognition of their marriages, as being assimilationist. This usage of the word “assimilationist” is meant to be pejorative, and synonymous with the words “sell out” or “traitor.”

This conflating of integration with assimilation is rather off the mark. After all, true assimilation would be to completely blend in with straight culture—to be “closeted” or “stealth.” In contrast, someone who moves through the world as an out queer person (regardless of how they dress), and who is part of a visibly same-sex marriage, isn’t engaging in assimilation by any means. Rather, they are part of an integration process.

So one might ask: What purpose do these accusations of “assimilation” serve? It seems to me that they are meant to undermine members of one’s own community who strive for integration, by insinuating that such individuals are traitors, and thus illegitimate or inauthentic members of the group. This sort of identity policing helps to maintain a level of cultural impermeability between the marginalized/minority group and the dominant/majority group. Indeed, understanding this allows one to recognize that accusations of “assimilation” and non-EED “appropriation” are essentially flip sides of the same coin: the latter maintains cultural impermeability by delegitimizing members of the dominant/majority group who cross identity or community boundaries, while the former delegitimizes members of the marginalized/minority group who are perceived as doing the same.

Now, I could make some grandiose claim like, “Integration is the righteous path, whereas separatism will ultimately lead to our doom” (or vice versa), but I am not about to. In my book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, I decry such one-size-fits-all approaches to activism. The truth is that both approaches have some negative drawbacks. Separatism generally favors sameness over difference, and in doing so, it leaves behind many members of the marginalized/minority group in question. For instance, separatist-oriented queers who decry assimilationists and instances straight people engaging in non-EED appropriation seem to want to preserve some kind of idealistic notion of queer culture that they have experienced, enjoyed, and/or felt empowered by in the past. That version of queer culture probably resonated with them because they were accepted within that culture. In contrast, while I am politically queer, I have never felt fully welcome in queer communities and spaces, mostly because I am a transsexual woman, but also because I am bisexual and femme—three identities that often lead me to be dismissed as an inauthentic or illegitimate queer in those spaces.

Of course, I could turn around and create (or participate in) femme, or bisexual, or trans woman separatist movements. But even if I did feel welcome and empowered in such communities, there would inevitably be many other members of my marginalized/minority group who would feel excluded from them

While I tend to fall on the integrationist side of the spectrum, I do understand why separatist tendencies exist. Some marginalized/minority group members may feel irrevocably injured or violated by the dominant/majority group, and as a result, they may not want to have anything to do with them. As a result, they might view people (like myself) who seem to blur strict distinctions between queer and straight (on the basis that I am bisexual, femme, and/or trans), and who strive for integration rather than separatism, as potentially threatening because we “undermine the movement.” (And of course, whenever people refer to “the movement,” what they really mean is “their movement.”)

Furthermore, while I will never feel welcome or relevant in certain queer spaces—such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which explicitly excludes trans women from attending—I nevertheless recognize that such separatist communities do develop their own unique culture, and that the cultural permeability that comes with integration and non-EED appropriation would inevitably change that culture. While I might view such an evolution in a positive light, I understand that others would view it negatively, and perceive any such changes as a loss of the original culture that they very much cherished.

So rather than frame integration and separatism in terms of a good-versus-bad binary, I believe that it is more useful to recognize them as two general tendencies that always seem to arise within marginalized/minority groups. And while we (i.e., integrationists and separatists) might agree that EED appropriation is a bad thing that should be challenged, we will invariably view instances of non-EED appropriation very differently.

The case for cultural permeability with regards to gender and sexuality

While disagreements about integration versus separatism exist within most marginalized/minority groups, there are a few additional reasons why those of us who are marginalized because of our genders and/or sexualities should think twice before enforcing cultural impermeability via accusations of non-EED appropriation.

The first has to do with what I refer to in Excluded as the insider/outsider myth. The myth assumes that some of us (for instance, members of a particular LGBTQIA+ subgroup) are legitimate members of the group—that is, “insiders”—who are allowed to freely participate in queer cultures, whereas other people (e.g., the straight majority) are “outsiders” who can only appropriate our identities and culture.

This sort of insider/outsider mentality may make some sense in thinking about cultural appropriation based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc., where some people are born into and socialized within that culture, whereas others are not. Of course, even in such cases, there will always be people who are of mixed nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc.—people who Gloria AnzaldĂșa famously described as living in the borderlands between two identities or cultures.

However, this insider/outsider framing completely falls apart when considering the identities and cultures of gender and sexual minorities. After all, almost all of us grow up in straight families and communities. While we may have experienced ourselves as different from the straight majority in some way as young children, we did not initially have LGBTQIA+ identities or culture to help us make sense of our lives. Rather, we tend to discover these identities over time: We hear someone mention the identity, we seek out books and websites to learn more about them, we try these identities on for size ourselves, we connect with other people who we believe are “like us” in that way, and so on. The first time we enter a particular LGBTQIA+ space (whether it be a gay bar, a trans support group, or an asexual online discussion group) we often feel like outsiders, and we experience a steep learning curve in trying to understand the language and customs associated with the group.

In other words, we discover LGBTQIA+ identities and cultures. And one could say that all gender and sexual minorities are appropriators, as virtually all of us have adopted identities and participate in cultures that others created before us, and which we were not initially socialized into. Indeed, the only people who are immersed in queer cultures from the start of their lives are children of queer parents, and the majority of them turn out to be straight!

Permeability between straight and queer identities and culture is essential for LGBTQIA+ self-actualization and empowerment. Furthermore, when a straight person engages in a stereotypically queer activity, it may be an act of appropriation, but it could also be experimenting or questioning on their part. I have heard queer people accuse straight people who make out with one another of “queer appropriation”—when I do, I often reply, “Well how do you know that neither of them will come to identify as gay/lesbian or bisexual someday?”[6] And even if the people in question do end up being straight, isn’t the fact that nowadays people can engage in same-sex kissing without being ostracized a sign that that heterosexist norm is eroding?

Along similar lines, don’t instances where cisgender people crossdress or engage in other forms of non-EED gender-non-conformity help to deteriorate binary gender norms? Shouldn’t we be celebrating such instances of permeability between genders and sexualities rather than condemning them as appropriation?

And if we do decide to call out certain people’s genders and sexualities as “appropriative,” then where exactly do we draw the line? And who gets screwed as a result? Doesn’t the claim that heterosexuals-shouldn’t-appropriate-queer-culture pretty much leave bisexual/pansexual folks especially vulnerable to accusations of appropriation? And doesn’t the claim that men-shouldn’t-appropriate-women’s-oppression leave trans women especially susceptible to similar criticism?

This leads us to another crucial point: Accusations of appropriation are essentially claims about authenticity.[7] Specifically, they create a binary wherein certain people (i.e., the marginalized/minority group) are considered to be authentic when they engage in a particular activity, whereas others (i.e., the dominant/majority group) cannot authentically engage in that same act. Rather they can only appropriate it.

This specter of “inauthenticity” isn’t nearly so troubling when it comes to other forms of cultural appropriation. For instance, the implication that white folks/Westerners are “inauthentic” when they perform reggae or practice Yoga is not meant to be an indictment of their natural abilities. After all, nobody is born performing reggae or practicing Yoga—these are leaned skills and traditions. Rather, the “authenticity” that is invoked simply refers to whether one was socialized within the culture that originally created these practices versus whether one was raised in an outsider culture and only discovered and took up such practices later in life.

In sharp contrast, there is ample evidence that sex, gender, and sexuality naturally vary in the population, not only because of culture and environment, but also because of biological variation.[8] And all of us are socialized into cultures where there are a multitude of different expressions of gender and sexuality. Some of these expressions may be considered feminine, masculine, or androgynous. They may be described as queer or straight, or as unusual or normal. But regardless of what labels and meanings others might project onto these different gender and sexual expressions, all of these variations exist within the society in which we are raised. They are arguably all a part of our culture.

While sex, gender, and sexuality naturally vary within the population, we live in a world where such expressions and identities are highly policed. And they are primarily policed via the tropes of “authenticity” and “naturalness.”

In the culture at large, feminine gender expressions and attraction toward men are viewed as authentic and natural when expressed by women, but not by men. Masculine gender expressions and attraction toward women are viewed as authentic and natural when expressed by men, but not by women. Penile-vaginal penetration sex between monogamous partners is viewed as the only authentic and natural form of sex, whereas most other sexual interests and acts are dismissed as inauthentic and unnatural.

The concepts of “authentic,” “natural,” and “real” lie at the heart of almost all manifestations of societal cissexism. The notion that transsexuals are not “authentic” women or men, or that genderqueer people have not chosen an “authentic” gender, enable the cisgender majority to dismiss our identities as “inauthentic,” and thus misgender us as they see fit. The “trans panic” phenomenon is steeped in assumption that trans people are deceivers who pose as an “inauthentic” gender while hiding our supposed “real” gender. It is commonly presumed that people who partner with trans people do not experience “authentic” attraction to us, but rather that they are driven by some kind of “fetish”—a word derived from the Portuguese word for “artificial.”

The point is that, while gender and sexuality naturally vary, sexual- and gender-non-conformity is rigorously punished in our society via accusations of inauthenticity, whether it be claims that trans people’s gender identities are “inauthentic,” that asexual/bisexual/lesbian/gay people’s sexual attractions (or lack thereof) are “unnatural,” or that straight cisgender people are not “real women” or “real men” because of some relatively minor gender transgression they may have committed (e.g., not shaving their legs, expressing too much emotion, or having a gender atypical occupation). And calling someone’s non-EED expressions of gender or sexuality “appropriative” is really just another way of dismissing them as “inauthentic” (which is precisely why trans-exclusive radical feminists so frequently accuse trans women of appropriation, as it depicts us as merely fakes, pretenders, impersonators, and imposters).

There are no “authentic” expressions of gender and sexuality. There are merely those that are deemed legitimate in society and those that are dismissed as inauthentic. While I understand why some LGBTQIA+ people might be inclined to describe non-EED acts of sexual- and gender-non-conformity as “appropriation” (especially when the person engaging in them appears straight, cisgender, etc.), I fear that such accusations may only perpetuate the real/fake, natural/unnatural, and authentic/inauthentic binaries that are so often used to undermine our own genders and sexualities.


This essay was intended to illustrate that the concept of appropriation is way more complicated than many people seem to realize, and that non-EED appropriation is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your politics and perspective. Furthermore, I hope that people will recognize that cultural permeability is an absolute necessity for LGBTQIA+ communities to exist and flourish, and that claims that certain non-EED expressions of gender or sexuality are “appropriative” will only lend support to existing binary gender norms and to the false notion that certain genders and sexualities are more “natural,” “real,” or “authentic” than others.

Moving forward, I believe that we should continue to critique instances of EED appropriation, but it would help if we were more explicit about why such instances are bad. Specifically, rather than simply crying “appropriation” (which often conflates EED and non-EED appropriation, and can also implicate acts that merely resemble those that occur in marginalized/minority groups), we should explicitly discuss how such acts either erase, exploit, and/or denigrate the marginalized/minority group in question.

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1. Definitions from Dictionary.com.

2. See WhippingGirl, pages 195-212.

3. For the record, the group did occasionally have closed meetings where only trans folks themselves could attend. But many, if not most, of the meetings were open to partners and friends as well.

4. It must also be said that these groups were more easily able to integrate because they are both white and Christian, and thus they did not have to overcome the entrenched racism and Christian-centrism that continue to proliferate in the U.S.

5. I have appropriated the phrase "cultural appreciation" from Susan Scafidi, Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005); see pages 6-11.

6. Here is a real life example of this: Way back before my transition, I played in a band. And on a few occasions, a male friend from another band and I would make out on stage during our set. We did it primarily for the same reason that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana famously kissed on national TV—to make homophobes uncomfortable, to challenge heterosexism. I suppose that some people in the audience could have viewed us as two “straight dudes” who were trying to garner “indie-cred” by appropriating queerness, but in reality, both of us had been sexual with men previously and we both eventually wound up identifying as bisexual.

7. This is discussed in great length in Scafidi, Who Owns Culture?, especially pages 52-66.

8. See Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements MoreInclusive, pages 138-168, and references therein.


  1. "While such activities are clearly examples of non-EED appropriation, they are not viewed by most people (both within and outside of Irish- and Italian-American communities) as “appropriation” in the negative sense."

    Sorry, but I'm not convinced. Celebration of St. Patrick's day clearly contributes to erasure, if not outright exploitation, of Irish culture, whereby it is reduced to the surface detail of Guinness and green. Nobody ever got a better understanding of Irish culture from getting drunk in a green tutu.

    1. I hear what your saying, and as I tried to make clear in the piece, members of a group may disagree on whether any given act constitutes appropriation. In this particular case, I would argue that, because Irish-Americans are very much integrated into U.S. culture, such St.Patricks day celebrations are not especially erasing - people don't go around assuming that all Irish people drink Guinness and wear green tutus all the time. Because we are integrated, most people know Irish-Americans personally and realize that we are heterogeneous, and they we all don't fit some kind of overarching stereotype (as people once did think). I am not a big fan of St, Patrick's day celebrations myself, but I personally don't feel erased by such events. But I acknowledge that some people might find them appropriative in a negative sense...

  2. "In the most general sense, appropriation occurs when we take something that somebody else has created and use it for our own purposes."

    But femininity wasn't created by women for women, it was created by men to control, dominate and hurt women. It's a weapon used against us daily, to rape, kill, and deny basic human rights. That's why people are arguing that is is similar to racial appropriation. Racial sterotypes are used to hurt people who belong to that race, and sterotypes about being a woman (like how we dress, look, behave) are used to hurt women. It's not this fun thing we get to do every day, putting on our makeup and high heels and enjoying how men treat us. It's horrible. It's something we do because it's expected of us, and to deviate from it is rebellion against men and only leads to even more hatred and violence. We're damned if we do, and even more damned if we don't.

    To say that a woman's presentation of her gender is a privilege is to say that a slave's shackles are a privilege, or that a soldier's uniform is a privilege. "Look at my lovely uniform! Oh no, here come the bullets..."

    I apologise for being anonymous but talking about gender like this has led to online abuse for me before; I've been called all sorts of nasty things when I have zero intention of saying anything bigoted and I honestly don't believe I am. This is my gender, too. It's my identity, too. And I didn't choose it. I was forced into it. I should be able to question it and talk openly about it. Normally I'd be really open with my identity. I will come back and see if there are any replies and will be more than happy to give contact details to the OP if asked.

    1. First, I can relate to the online abuse, having received a shit-ton of it myself before.

      Second, I allow people to post anonymously on my blog provided that they don't disrespect my identity/perspective/experience or say anything patently offensive toward other people. So your post is OK in that respect.

      I do, however, disagree with your take on femininity. I encourage you to read my book Whipping Girl, specifically the chapter called "Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism" (you don't have to buy it, you can check it out of a library if you want). In that chapter, I thoroughly challenge the type of argument that you have made here, and explain why it is both oversimplified and potentially marginalizing toward feminine women. I hope that you will give it a look...

  3. I was disappointed that after mentioning drag performance and crossdressing Halloween costumes in your introduction, you never go back to address these two things in detail later, particularly since these often do constitute EED appropriation.

    Drag performers often present a grossly exaggerated portrait of women and trans* people. If I were to hop on stage with a sombrero and a Pancho Villa mustache and made my entire performance centered around how lazy I am, it would invariably seen as very offensive. (For the record, I am white.) Yet when a cisgender man hops on stage wearing a ridiculous "diva" costume complete with 10-inch false eyelashes and make-up that would make a circus clown cringe and does a performance ridiculing women as vapid and superficial and playing on the idea of how hilarious it that a maab person would wear women's clothes, that's somehow okay?

    Drag queens also frequently appropriate transmisogynistic slurs, using the t-word the way most people use "the". RuPaul also had (has?) a segment on his show called "She-Mail" and didn't see anything problematic about that.

    As far as Halloween costumes, it one thing if a cisgender person has crossdressing a incidental aspect of their costume (e.g., dressing up as a historical figure they admire who happens to be of a different gender) but many crossdressing costumes, again, center around how hilarious it is for a maab person to adopt a female/feminine gender expression.

    My mind jumps to a "transsex Barbie" costume I saw floating around Tumblr a while back. The costume consisted of a cisgender man with a full beard and copious amounts of body hair wearing a bikini and carrying a rainbow flag. There is no way to read this as anything other than exploitative and denigrating.

    Using "crossdressing" (which is kind of a bunk concept anyway) as part of a performance or Halloween costume is not always erasing exploitative, or denigrating, but it often is and you can't just ignore that.

  4. So I am not ignoring the fact that crossdressing is sometimes done in an EED manner. As you mentioned, it can be if the person is doing it to make fun of trans people or women. But some people who crossdress for a party or Halloween do it an exploring/questioning sort of way - to see what it's like, perhaps because they have transgender feelings themselves. I also know people who have done it in order to challenge gender norms (despite the fact that they were not trans-identified themselves). So I really think that it is a case by case basis.

    I think the same is true for drag as well. I'm sure there are some drag queens who have misogynistic attitudes that they are trying to convey through their performances. But most drag performers I have known are gender variant/gender-non-conforming people themselves, and their performances are meant to be critiques of the gender binary/heteronormativity rather than trans people or women.

    Also, while some drag queens self-identify more as cis gay male performers, many others present as female/feminine in their day-to-day lives, and still others eventually transition to female. There isn’t a sharp boundary that one can draw between drag queens and trans women any more than there is a sharp boundary that one can draw between butch women and trans men: While many people clearly fall into one camp or the other, there are others who blur those lines, or have inhabited both identities at different times in their lives. (And if anyone out there doubts this, I encourage you to read about Sylvia Rivera or watch the film Screaming Queens.)

    One more point worth making:
    You said "many crossdressing costumes, again, center around how hilarious it is for a maab person to adopt a female/feminine gender expression."

    I agree with this, but I think that it's important to recognize where this hilariousness stems from. Is the crossdressed person dressing that way to make fun of trans women and/or trans femininity? Or is it the people who are doing the perceiving who harbor trans-misogynistic assumptions and therefore find the crossdressed person hilarious?

    If the crossdressed person is trying to be funny, then it's clearly EED. But if they are doing it sincerely, yet others find it funny, then that's a very different situation. Before I transitioned, I used to crossdress sincerely, and on more than one occasion other people laughed at me and thought I was a ridiculous sight.

    We don't always know why people are doing what they're doing. If we see someone crossdressed, or engaging in some other form of gender-non-conformity, we don't necessarily know what their motives are unless they tell us (or make it blatantly obvious). So sometimes it is more useful to focus our critique on the people who are doing the laughing, as they are the ones viewing the person in a trans-misogynistic manner. Just a thought....

  5. I'm going to respond to this from a trans man perspective.

    I find it incredibly disingenuous of transphobic radfems (TERFs) to be complaining about appropriation when they very much engage in this themselves. Sheila Jeffreys is especially guilty of this. According to her, trans men are just lesbians with a false consciousness (she describes us as "lesbians with an interest in masculinity", erasing many trans men who are feminine/androgynous). Her definition of what a lesbian is goes:"a woman who does not sleep with men. It does not mean compulsory sex with women; it just means we do not fuck men". So by Jeffreys' own definition, I cannot possibly be a lesbian as I do sleep with men. The TERFs become furious when people suggest that they may be in denial about being trans, but do not hesitate to claim that trans men are in denial about being one of them.

    Of course, Jeffreys isn't the only one to engage in this EED appropriation of trans men. I've just been reading Joan Roughgarden's 'Evolution's Rainbow' where she discusses Jehanne D'Arc. It has been suggested that Jehanne was a lesbian, but Roughgarden's evidence suggests that they are more likely to have been trans. Court proceedings from the time state that "You have said that, by God's command, you have continually worn man's dress...your hair short, cut en rond about your ears, with nothing left to show you to be a woman; and that on many occasions you received the Body of our Lord dressed in this fashion...and you have said that not for anything would you take an oath not to wear this dress". Jehanne was burnt at the stake for this. The "nothing left to show you to be a woman" bit suggests that Jehanne bound their breasts to give a masculine appearance to the chest, which sounds more like trans behaviour than lesbian behaviour.

    I leave you with a quote on appropriation by Roughgarden:
    "Too many sociologists don't accept transgendered people at their word, perhaps because doing so would admit that there is some truth to the biological account. Instead, these sociologists cling to the belief that...transsexuals have 'chosen' to live as a different sex. Pieur writes, 'Transsexuals...may be the only persons in the world who have actually chosen their sex, yet they are the last ones to claim that sex is founded on choice'. Perhaps transgendered people are correct...in my opinion, social scientists who cannot avoid being so judgemental about the subjects they study should find another occupation. The gritty and determined refusal to acknowledge, accept, and affirm transgendered people is...an attempt to deny and erase a valid aspect of humanity".

  6. Reading this essay, I found myself thinking about Jews in America, communities of which explicitly span the spectrum from separatist to assimilated. Many of the terms you mentioned, positive or negative appropriation, insider/outsider, would also apply.

  7. I appreciate this article, but I think the question in appropriation (broadly speaking) is about who benefits and who has self-determination. Obviously, in EED its clear who benefits (ie not the marginalized folks), but even in the case of so-called non-EED appropriation it gets tricky.

    Your first example of non-EED appropriation:
    "Here are a few examples of non-EED appropriation of trans people:
    A cisgender academic could carry out a research project that focuses on issues and obstacles that trans people are most concerned about. This project could be done in a way that respects trans people’s perspectives and opinions, and portrays us in a realistic manner (rather than relying on stereotypes or reducing us to metaphors). The final product (e.g., an article or book) could be described as appropriative in that it uses trans people’s realities, ideas, perspectives, and experiences, despite the fact that it amplifies trans voices and has the potential to create positive change for trans communities."

    This reminds me of Paris of Burning - which as a trans*women of color, is a film I'm especially grateful for. But the director - a white cis-lesbian from my understanding - totally made a career out of the movie and took hella long to actually compensate the main performers (after a lawsuit, the way i hear it). Some of the queens ended up getting some fame/$ from the film, but overall my impression is that the process was exploitative. Sure, we could discuss about whether or not this was Big Picture more helpful or harmful for our movements for racial justice, trans*justice and queer liberation (and how it even lead to the appropriation of Q/T black cultures in mainstream gay worlds, but also how this film was huge in terms of representations of TWOC, not just the stereotypes/cis-people playing trans*people), but I think its more helpful to envision how things could be done differently in the future that are more inline with our goals for liberation.Why couldn't the filmmaker be supporting the leadership of young, poor QTPOC filmmakers to make that film about their own communities? Sure, there are insider/outsider dynamics at play there, but for me that's more about the access to resources and privilege than it is about identity-policing the filmmakers (like yo, if you have access to privilege try'n leverage it for folks who don't have access rather than just cashing in rather than telling someone not to make a film because of their identity). People build their academic careers being the "experts" on marginalized people who will never have the level of educational access that the PhD candidates do (that access, in our society, usually leads to other benefits/privileges as well). That can help create resources that may or may not be actually useful to the marginalized folks themselves, but at the end of the day the academic is sure to benefit.

    I agree with you that with sexual orientation and gender, its less useful to look at who's "authentically queer/gay/trans/etc" and know that things happen on a spectrum, but its also useful to be able to call out when someone's making hella $$ (or otherwise benefiting from) on our culture/ideas/struggles and they also *self-identify* as not being a part of those (Here I think of Macklemore's Same Love. Even though he did support a young queer artist by having Mary Lambert on the hook, I'm still like, We Couldn't Support A Queer Rapper On This?)..Isn't it different when folks are telling us themselves that they aren't a part of the identity/culture/etc?

    Overall, I think the fear around appropriation in our cultures/struggles/movements is that if folks don't share the lived experience, they often get it wrong - and that's why the folks most impacted should be at the center of the decision-making because we are experts on our own lived experiences. Is it too much just to ask folks to be real about when they're benefiting from someone else's work and be able to pay that back?

    1. Yes, I pretty much agree with what you said. As I said with regards to works that exploit trans folks:

      "They exploit the marginalized group (as many a cisgender media producers have made lots of money capitalizing on the exoticness of gender variant lives, and some cisgender gender theorist have garnered success and built their careers upon interpreting trans people’s bodies and identities, without giving anything back to the trans community). "

      I think that all this arguably applies to the filmmaker of Paris is Burning, who made money & a career off the film without giving back to the community/performers who she filmed. (I was not aware of the lawsuit until you mentioned it - I am glad the performers made *some* money from it.)

      This example also highlights the fact (that I wish I had made more explicitly clear in the piece) that people within a marginalized group may differ with regards to whether they feel that a particular act is erasing, or exploitative, or denigrating. Paris is Burning might fall into this messy gray area: Some might praise the film for giving voice to queer & trans people of color, while others might view it as pure financial exploitation of them. I've had similar arguments about Transamerica, which I thought was horribly exploitative and denigrating, whereas other trans people told me they didn't feel that it was denigrating, and that while arguably exploitative, they did hire a number of trans folks to be in the film (thus allowing them to qualify for the SAG union).

      My main reason for writing the piece was to move beyond the appropriation-is-always-bad mentality and instead recognize that many forms of appropriation are a mixed bag that people within marginalize groups may interpret differently based on their perspective and politics (for instance, where they fall on the stigma/acceptance and integration/separatist axes). The examples you cited (Paris Is Burning and that Macklemore's Same Love song) are definitely instances where some might see them as EED whereas others might feel that they are non-EED because positively benefit the community.

      Also, for the record, I think that those in the marginalized group who feel that these works are exploitative have every right to make those arguments and call out people in the dominant majority who make lot's of money off the marginalized group, and to ask for financial compensation. I just think that it is useful to recognize that not everyone in the group may agree with them.

  8. Thank you for taking on this complex, mucky subject. This is a timely issue as you have noted, n as a 50 year old trans man of 15 years,it gets under my skin all the time. I was impressed by the amount of thought you have put into moving a discussion forward, structured the issues between various generations, between the various types of "appropriation" ie. "exploitative" vs "ally" (I wouldn't even use the word appropriation in these cases but that's jst me). I think you are also trying to get at some of the subtleties btween "integration" n "separatism", though I don't have a picture in my mind yet, given the gross inequalities of trans people being positively integrated -anywhere. It is positive to hear someone making a case for moving to a positive structure. Building positive alliances, n making bridges "easier to cross" I agree is part of this road to respectful, intelligent relations, since we will never hav the critical mass of the gay/lesbian cohort. I agree with writer above that the main argument should not be bout policing the people policing the so-called "gender" borders (placing onus on heavily affected) more on emphasizing, taking to task the privileged end of the appropriation equation. It is correct the "queering" of "transgender" public dialogues is recent,this has both positive n negative. Some individuals n sections/age trans groups have gained prominence (some symbolic mayb not actual), or received some fruits of members. On the other hn, the most marginalized become more erased or marginalized or disappeared from view. In practice, I think the article is optimistic about the "ally appropriation”. the majority from these so called queer circles are still of the "exploitative" variety, ally posers w the exception of SO's n concerned friends who continue remain few. It is so easy these days for a white gay filmmaker in my city to tell a trendy FTM story, while most FTMs in my city do not have voices of their own (or have lost them due to transition, or r forced into making autobiographies or forms of trans-education). Although he has never spent time with us, assisted in standing by our work or the carreers some of us lost in transition, everyone thinks how progressive! There is little subtlety or analysis of trans issues in "queer" circles, except on their own terms only tokens that the "queer" community feels comfortable socializing with on their "spectrum" (I don't Identify on e female masculinity spectrum, I am automatically constructed at those parties - still constantly being misgendered after 15 years!!!). It is still relatively rare to find "queers" who want to hang with trans people in our own spaces, or who care enough to simply listen, not as novelties to tire of, but as genuine friends. Where I feel the article is most weak is in the parallels between Irish/Itialian n "queer" appropriation n "trans" appropriation which is at another level entirely. Transsexuals n Intersex people for example in particular still highly stigmatized then any of these groups in basic human rights, employment, housing, health care. TS/IS people are more on par socially, economically with current "outsiders" Indigenous peoples, mental health, refugee, homeless populations. In "queer" communities these often vast differences in privilege are glossed over, equated, real lives erased from public dialogue. Trans people do not have the means of community resources to address levels, volume of exploitation/appropriation of our stories by cisgender anybody. A huge body of material now, n of course it is time to take to task th vast imbalance. As I said I really enjoyed your article, I wouldn't have written if I didn't. thought it was one of the few that really tries to make sense of cultural appropriation in this queer "alphabet soup" era. Keep writing I will look out for your work!

  9. Has anyone heard of "transracial" people? They're people who claim to identify with one race whilst being genetically another (I do not mean people who have acquired citizenship here - this is about race, not nationality), as in "I'm an Indian girl trapped in a white body". Or "otherkin" people who claim they're members of different species, but trapped in the bodies of humans? The whole concept of "X trapped in a Y's body" when used in a non-transsexual context strikes me as EED appropriation.

    These people are usually young teenagers playing around on Tumblr, innocent and ignorant. However, I do think they could potentially undermine transsexual people, especially since they insist that they too are "trans", that they suffer from "species/race dysphoria" and that discrimination against them is "transphobia". They seem genuinely ignorant of why transsexual people are so angry at them for appropriating "trans", "dysphoria" and "transphobia". Transsexual people have it hard enough convincing people that transition is a medical necessity as it is - we really don't need people comparing us to a bunch of kids who want to be dolphins! As far as I know, no one has ever needed antidepressants or committed suicide due to "race/species dysphoria".

    There is, of course, no biological evidence for transracial/otherkin - whereas there's volumes to support genetic causes for transsexualism. I don't mind otherkin for whom their identities are just a bit of childish fun, but it would be nice if they didn't appropriate our terminology (not just trans people, but those from different races might find "transracial" people offensive). I think we can all agree that their linguistic appropriation is EED.

  10. Hi Julia, hope you see this.

    I have a problem I hope you could shed some light on. I'm bigender, closeted, I have had disphoria most of my life.

    My daughter is growing up to be a staunch social justice advocate, and I'm very proud of her. She's cis, and when she learned about these issues she correctly told us she was cis when we talked about it. But these days she claiming to be agender and dimisexual. It pains me, because it seems like she's appropriating terms to fit in more with queer type people. But I'm not sure, and I don't want to say anything to her about it in case I'm wrong. Although sometimes I get mad because I know she's never experienced disphoria, or been bullied for not fitting her gender. I've seen similar attitudes from cis people claiming to be queer, and I don't want my daughter to do that.

    1. I can't really comment on your daughter's identities, as no one is able to truly get inside another person's mind and know why they identify the way they do. I do know a number of transgender-spectrum people (including some transsexuals) who say they have never experienced dysphoria before. I also think (as I discuss toward the end of this essay) that there should be some room for people to explore & experiment with their genders and sexualities. As long as she is not using those labels to speak on behalf of all trans or asexual or queer people (for instance), I don't see the harm in your daughter trying on those labels for size.

      Also, for a more nuanced discussion of who "counts" as cis or trans, and what those labels mean, I recently wrote this long-ish essay which you may find useful:

  11. Clothing should not be gendered in the way it is anyways. A man should be able to wear make up and a dress as part of masculinity.

    I could be considered a crossdresser as i wear menswear fulltime and if i was to wear a costume i would want to wear a male version. I dont see why i should have to identify male to do so.