Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trans Women on the Margins

This is a post aimed at my queer community allies, with some simple and hopefully entertaining illustrative charts.

As a trans man, I need to say that I am sick of seeing queer people dump on trans women.

Why would people marginalize others who are supposed to be part of the same LGBTQIA community? Occasionally I encounter it when I'm speaking with older lesbians who still buy the Evil Empire rhetoric that trans women are really men who are trying to smuggle their phallic privilege into women's safe spaces, in order to run the whole world and sneak peeks in women's bathrooms. More often I'm in a space dominated by gay male politicos where trans issues as a whole are thought of as distracting--something that scares off the Main Street straight supporters who might otherwise support same-sex marriage. But sadly, I run into it regularly in the sort of spaces I'm told should be most comfortable for me: spaces full of educated, activist, third-wave-feminist queer folks. The kind of places, ironically, where androgyny and genderquerity are celebrated as radical and transformational.

A while back I had a conversation with a young white cis lesbian--let's call her Sadie. Sadie had recently, she said, "discovered" trans men. (Perhaps we are some sort of continent. . .) She was telling me how cool she thought I and other trans men were, because we "got" sexism, having seen firsthand how women are treated. I chatted a bit about how gender transition is an interesting window into sex discrimination, as studies show that upon transitioning, trans women make significantly less money than they had previously, while trans men make about the same, or a bit more. Sadie paused a moment, then said, "Well, I don't know about trans women." I asked what she meant, and she replied, "I guess I've mostly only seen them on television, and they look like glamorous living stereotypes." I agreed that television gives a very limited view of what trans women are like--just as the images of (cis) lesbians in the media are usually either of hot femme chicks who are meant to appeal to male fantasy, or of butch women who are presented as the opposite of sexy. Sadie replied, "OK, that's true. But I'm still not sure about transsexual women. One did hang out with me at a party once and it was kind of freaky." I asked what she meant and she said, "I don't know, she just. . . well. . . didn't really look like a real woman, you know what I mean?"

At this point in the conversation I ran out of tolerant educational patience, and just said, "No, I don't know what you mean. You do realize that there are plenty of homophobic people out there who complain that lesbians don't look like 'real women.'" Sadie got flustered and replied defensively, "Yes, but she made me uncomfortable when she hung out with me at the party that night. I have a right to feel safe."

Dear Fellow Members of the Assigned-Female-At-Birth Queer Community: you have an absolute right to be safe. No one should be permitted to harass or harm you. But you do not have a right to feel safe, if you're going to define that as being free from challenge to your preconceptions. Protecting yourself from threatening acts is important, but treating another person as a threat just because you're uncomfortable what they look like is juvenile prejudice. How can you demand that society at large accept your gender transgression and your nonconforming appearance, say too bad if people think you look or act weird--and then turn around and tell other folks to conform to your expectations or you'll declare them weird and exclude them so you can feel nice and safe?

Look, I'll make it simple with a couple of charts. Yes, they're tongue-in-cheek. This is the universe of queer people, as viewed through the eyes of bigots you despise:

You see how most queer folk are marginalized and villainized, as you deplore. Now, here's the queer universe as seen from a transmisogynistic position:

Now the purple circle of querity is a circle of joy--yay--but trans women get excluded from the party. Well, unless they look and act just like cis queer woman, in which case you'll permit them entry in exactly the way that the Midwestern homophobes you detest tolerate that churchgoing, Lands'-End-wearing, quiet lesbian couple.

Before I get in trouble, let me reiterate that I myself am a member of the queer community who was assigned female at birth. I have plenty of great friends of every sex and gender location on the map who stand arm-in-arm with trans women and others who are especially marginalized. I'm not trying to demonize any group.

All I really want to say is please, avoid hypocrisy. Don't marginalize others for the very same reasons bigots marginalize you.


  1. I love the diagrams! I think the cisglb's have a very hard time with MtF folk for the same reasons the het world does. It is too obvious, too challenging, too awkward, too everything. People can conveniently forget my husband used to be a woman. Not so with transwomen unless they are fortunate enough to start early and get head of the T. It"s also about sharing the pie. If those who are too obvious can get a piece, then there will be less, possibly none for the rest!

  2. Stay tuned for a future post on the icky concept of "passing," friends.

  3. I fully agree with you.
    I've seen too many times where some under the LGBTQI umbrella were excluded, as not being 'real' or 'good' enough to belong under the umbrella by their peers....
    Fem lesbians that were said to not be real lesbians because of wearing makeup and other attire that was supposedly worn by women to please men, and others that did not fit the 'dress code'...

  4. The dividing line exists even within the trans-woman community. Those of us who "pass" well all too often will act as though those who do not "pass" as well do not exist. I've also heard the term "tragic tranny" used by other trans-women to describe someone who was obviously trans and unfortunate enough to end up on the television for being discriminated against or worse. In the south, where I live, it may be worse due to the added social pressures of a non-LGBT-friendly culture. In the twelve years since I transitioned, I have met a few trans-women, but never once has any of us made a move towards creating a friendship. When I first started down this road, I had a support group that I attended every month. It was here that I first saw the dividing line. Outside of the group, those who "passed" well socialized exclusively with the others who also "passed" well. One of my "friends" was very direct about this. She said that one of us on their own might not draw any attention, but two or more of us in a group will get all of us read. Thusly, she only socialized with the "passes well" group. She was at least nice and cordial towards everyone in the group, and would genuinely try to help others behind the scenes, so I didn't find her exclusivity to be as repulsive, but I didn't socialize with many people in the group due to this dynamic. I'll admit, I had my own fears about socializing with the "doesn't pass well" group, and I really wanted to be in the "passes well" group, but it all felt terrible to me. When I moved to another city, I stopped going, and never found another support group worth attending.

    It is one of my dreams to be able to live somewhere that I don't need to be so stealth. I would love to be able to just be honest with people about who I am and what I've been through. If I tried that where I currently live, I'm pretty sure my social life would come crashing down around me.

  5. I am just so tired of people who feel marginalized trying to create a space where they are at the center by marginalizing those with even less social privilege then themselves. . . often by claiming that the subgroup they're stepping on poses some sort of threat. My sympathies to all who have suffered from this phenomenon.

  6. I think we all know now that there is no 'real' and there never was.

  7. this. bookmarked, thanks for typing about this. i have found that fighting this kind of thing is exceedingly difficult, some folks get super-defensive when you point out their hypocrisy and prejudice.

  8. Agreed, Liv.

    Kaiosyne, glad you find the hope helpful. The impulse to get defensive rather than being willing to engage in some self-examination is at the heart of a lot of grief.

  9. You know, I've never really gotten why it matters to anyone other than the individual and their respective partner... It's the whole, "What goes on in your bedroom, goes on in YOUR bedroom." However, I'm first to admit that this could very well be because I like men and women, and I don't care if they're transgender or not... The insides have always been what mattered to me.

  10. I'm a trans woman, and genderqueer, so I fit nicely into the 'those freaky trans women' category and it's always so hard to explain to people that there's a hierarchy in the LGBTQIA, and another in the trans community. Post ops tend to be the most well received, while pre-everythings like me, and non-ops are at the bottom. Social media does nothing to aid this view, where trans women are this unreal parody of femininity. So people see trans-women and Genderfuckers like me and cringe because we don't fit this 'acceptable' stereotype. Even though it's been thrust on them that because they're not in this 'ok' area of perception, that they're somehow less.

  11. I hear you, Dream {im}Perfect. I've tried to address the privilege spectrum in the trans community in my post on "passing." One of my posts on this blog generated a bunch of comments on Reddit, and a big chunk of them was an argument by trans people over whether or not genderqueer people or people who choose not to medically transition "count" as trans or not. It's so irritating.

  12. I want to love this post. But did you really have to use words which are used against trans women in your first Venn diagram? You may have scored rhetorical points but now I feel uncomfortable sharing this post. Even though I believe I know why you used those words, I can't bring myself to spread the words around even in context.

  13. "Yes, they're tongue-in-cheek."
    And absolutely well show the bigotry shown my many from outside the LGBTQI groups, but also from some within.