Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nobody reinforces the gender binary & nobody subverts it either (plus some retrospective thoughts about Whipping Girl)

I usually don’t publicly respond to critiques of my writings. People inevitably interpret (or misinterpret) things that I have written in all sorts of ways, and I usually just strive to articulate my ideas better the next time around. However, in the last two weeks, I have stumbled across numerous instances where people have accused me of claiming that two-spirit and other indigenous non-binary-identified people “reinforce the gender binary.” This notion so goes against everything that I believe and have written in the past that I feel compelled to address the matter here.

I am not 100% sure how this meme got started, but I get the impression that it may have originally stemmed from this blog post by b-binaohan, which is a critique of a chapter of Whipping Girl wherein I critique the notion (which was quite prevalent within academia a decade ago when I was writing the book) that transsexuals “reinforce” the gender binary. As I argue throughout Whipping Girl and Excluded, as well as here and here and here and here, I am strongly opposed to the notion that any gender or sexual identity is more radical or conservative than any other, or that some “reinforce” the gender binary while others “subvert” it. What we think of as “the gender binary” is driven by non-consensually projecting gendered expectations, assumptions, and meanings onto other people (i.e., gender entitlement), not by self-identifying or expressing our genders or sexualities in particular ways. The “reinforcing” trope is merely an attempt by some to establish yet another gender hierarchy—in Whipping Girl I refer to this hierarchy as the “radical/conservative binary” or as subversivism, where supposedly transgressive/radical genders are deemed “good” and supposedly reinforcing/conservative genders are deemed “bad.” I go on to say that we should be working to put an end to all gender hierarchies rather than creating new ones.

Anyway, during the aforementioned chapter of Whipping Girl, I critique certain claims made by anthropologists Will Roscoe and Serena Nanda, both of whom have argued that “third gender”* categories in other cultures subvert the gender binary, whereas transsexuals reinforce the binary. I chose to critique their work for the express purpose of challenging the overly simplistic radical/conservative binary that these (and countless other) academics were forwarding (and which was routinely used to undermine transsexual people). I was not in anyway attempting to comment or pass judgment upon indigenous cultures or gender identities—I was merely critiquing Nanda’s and Roscoe’s interpretations of those cultures and identities in relation to their views of transsexuality. In retrospect, I can see how by engaging in these anthropologists’ theories (as a white/Western person myself), I may have unknowingly/unthinkingly contributed to the systematic erasure that indigenous people have historically faced in academia and anthropological research. This is a point that b-binaohan makes, and it is a fair one—I regret my part in, and accept responsibility for, that.

Having said that, I never once in my critique of Nanda and Roscoe’s theories claimed or insinuated that indigenous non-binary gender identities “reinforce” the gender binary (as some comments I've seen on the Internet suggest)as I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that *any* gender identities “reinforce” the gender binary). Nor did I state or insinuate that transsexual gender identities are more “natural” or “transgressive” or “oppressed” than indigenous gender identities or other non-binary gender identities. Whipping Girl is centered on transsexuality, not because I believe that it is the most important gender variant identity or experience, but rather because ten years ago when I was writing the book, transsexuals were viewed as one of the most suspect gender variant subgroups within feminist, queer, and academic discourses (as hard as that may be to believe today). At that time, and in those settings, genderqueer, drag, and other non-binary identities were often praised, whereas transsexuals who unapologetically identified as either women or men were routinely dismissed. This isn’t me playing the “more oppressed than thou” card—it was simply the zeitgeist of the time, and it is evident in many queer theory and transgender-themed books of that era.

Nowadays, during this very different time period when (unfortunately) most of the progress made by the “transgender movement” has seemed to benefit people of transsexual experience, I recognize that my focusing on redeeming transsexuality may seem to some like yet another example of a transsexual taking up too much space and pushing aside non-binary identities. But that was not my intention way back then; I was simply trying to create space for respectful consideration of transsexuals within activist and academic conversations, not to bring down other gender variant identities in the process.

Whipping Girl is a very particular book. In it, I focused primarily on challenging societal critiques of 1) transsexuals, 2) trans women, and 3) people who are feminine, as I found that these three aspects of my own person were rarely defended at the time, even (and in some cases, especially) within feminist, queer, and certain transgender circles. It is also a very personal book, full of my own stories and anecdotes (which of course, stem from me being socially situated as a white, middle class, able-bodied, “generation X,” out, queer-identified transsexual woman living in a U.S. urban area). I never imagined that the book would gain the notoriety that it has, or that it would be taught in classrooms, or that it would be considered to be an authoritative or definitive “transgender book.” As a “transgender book” (in a general sense), Whipping Girl has serious omissions—it offers little discussion about the issues and experiences of non-binary-identified people, intersex people, trans male/masculine-spectrum people, straight-identified trans people, trans people of color and other cultures, and so forth. Many people have subsequently expressed their disappointment in these omissions. Had I known at the time that Whipping Girl would one day be viewed as an authoritative or definitive “transgender book,” I would have written it very differently: less personal and transsexual-focused, and more general and intersectional. But, for better or worse, it is what it is: the perspective of one individual trans woman situated in a particular time and place. And like all books, it will no doubt seem increasingly anachronistic as time marches on.

I’d like to think that Whipping Girl makes some points that remain insightful or useful. But I will be the first to admit that it is far far far from the whole story, and I am grateful for the many other gender variant writers of various identities, backgrounds, generations, and geographies that are filling in the many gaps that Whipping Girl misses. And as I said at the outset, I will continue to strive to articulate my ideas better the next time around.

*I put “third gender” in quotes to indicate that this is the language that the anthropologists during that era that I was critiquing used as an umbrella term for various indigenous non-binary identity categories.  


  1. Were dismissed? Are you kidding me? The transsexual narrative has all but been wiped from the map by the rest of the umbrella we were drug under! Do you think it is by accident that all the voices of old have gone silent! They went silent when one by one they were not only drowned in a cacophony of you're lying/elitist/transphobic/a hater/etc etc etc... added to which we've all been threatening with doxxing, which is about the most hateful thing you can do to a woman who's sold her soul and everything else she had to correct a physical defect...why? Because we insist on a distinct narrative, a narrative that is OUR narrative... and ours alone!
    It's a crying shame really, I've helped at least a dozen or more girls along the way, and you would think it's getting easier. It's not! It's getting harder by the day for young transsexual men and women... young people who don't have issues about "gender, " rather they have issues with being born with the wrong genitals, to get surgery and then move on! They are hounded by their "community and their hounded by their friends who having bought into the one size fits all lie insist that they be open. Their narrative a public commons open to anyone and everyone.

    1. Since you seem to be of the separate-from-the-umbrella mindset, I encourage you to read the following piece I wrote on the subject several years ago:

      I completely disagree with you about the "transsexual narrative has all but been wiped from the map by the rest of the umbrella we were drug under". Honestly, that is the *only* narrative that most people in the cis mainstream are familiar with, even though it doesn't fit all gender variant people, or even all transsexuals.

      And I don't know how you can say that it is non-transsexual transgender people who are throwing transsexuals under the bus, when almost all of the headway we have made in the last decade has benefited transsexuals, specifically with regard to making medical & legal transitioning more accessible. For instance, to access the means to physically alter your body to be more comfortable in it (e.g., hormones & surgeries) or to legally change you gender marker to match your identity in most jurisdictions, you need to be transsexual-identified (and to recite a transsexual narrative!), even though many other gender variant people desire these things as well. And while it may still be difficult to transition in the workplace for many people, at least there are resources and some legal protections for that, whereas people who are non-binary-identified or crossdresser-identified are not able to be out as such in the vast majority of workplaces.

      Finally, while things have clearly gotten better (in a general sense) for trans people over the last decade, I 100% agree with you that there are still many problems to overcome. Some of these are newer issues we didn't have to face before, for instance, backlash against the progress we have made in form of coordinated attacks (e.g., TERFs, fundamentalists). These groups never needed to be so vicious and coordinated before because no one was taking us seriously back then. Some of the other problems you describe (e.g., doxxing, trans people who want to "blend in" having difficulty doing so) I think have more to do with the interconnectedness of the world more generally (via the Internet) than anything else. I personally don't know any trans people who insists that we all must be "out" as such, but I can see how simply having one person in your life who feels like they have the right to out you can wreak havoc on a person's life. But this is also true of all people in the Internet age (see e.g., doxxing related to GamerGate), not just trans people.

  2. No offence hun but you need to check your Francisco privilege every once in a while. I have a feeling that most of the rest of the US and the world is far harsher on "binary" presenting/identifying trans women and transsexuals than in your little bubble. I've seen you argue too that the Cis LGB community where you live in SF is more supportive than straight cis people and I believe you... but even just a couple cities up north in Seattle this isn't the case, unless you happen to be popular enough and carry enough clout to have your gender respected. I know far too many trans women, myself included who don't feel comfortable in Seattle queer and trans spaces, for fear of being thought of as regressive, or generally dismissed or even just plain despised. Ironically the straight cis community here is better (not MUCH better, but better), in the sense that they usually don't presume to know and will listen to what each transperson has to say, which definately isn't the case in the queer community.

    I entirely agree that the medical side of the fight needs to be made available to all trans people, and we need to do away with gatekeeper bullshit. Most young trans women I've talked too agree with this, but I have a feeling that a lot of us are now afraid to talk about medical stuff at all, for fear of being read as co-opting and making everything about ourselves. Which is kind of fucked up. Especially considering that binary identification isn't just a white middle class thing, there's folks all across the board who feel this way. And I think the transer than thou stuff tends to come from older folks and folks who have experienced the most extreme form of denial and repression of thier gender identity. Doesn't make it right, but it kind of makes sense why they act that way and say the things they do. I personally don't agree with the Sepratist or the Borg mindset completely, but both make good points, and I believe that the situation is both that gender non conforming and nonbinary indivduals are under represented, AND that transsexual and binary identified trans people face an even stronger backlash and alienation than they did in 2008 when I began transition at 27. Also I wouldn't really call the focus that the media puts on specifically binary identified and presenting trans people ACTUAL REPRESENTATION!!!! To this day it is still filled with tropes and even when they try to be supportive its are you skinny and beautiful enough and meek mannered enough to have our support. You could call this just a part of the so called trans-normative mood of our culture, but I think that viewpoint ignores the fact that just becuse someone identifies as binary or transsexual that they nescisarily pass, or want to be stealth or not, or feels represented at all by this bizzare fixtation and microscope attention. So I know I'm babling, and I'm having a hard time remembering all the correct terms and stuff, so I hope I'm not being offensive,but I guess my main point is that its kind of fucked up to label us as oppressors or attention whores sabatoging the rest of the community by continuing to fight for medical rights, and it kind of feels that is your attitude of late.... Anyways signed annomynous because I don't have the spoons to deal with a backlash at this point.

    1. I am not sure where you got the idea that I think trans women and binary-identified transsexuals have it easy or are fully accepted. In many of my writings (including throughout Whipping Girl and some chapters in Excluded), I discuss in great length the ways in which binary-identified transsexuals and trans women are especially targeted for marginalization and exclusion in society and as well as within queer communities.

      It is not contradictory for me to say 1) that transsexuals and trans women have been, and continue to be severely marginalized, while also noting 2) that the much of the slow progress toward acceptance and legal recognition of trans people in mainstream society benefits binary-identified trans people more so than non-binary ones. These notions are not mutually exclusive! And if you happen to disagree with me on point #2, fine, but that does not automatically mean that I am somehow "denying" point #1.