Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Transsexual Empire, Transnormativity, and other Bugaboos

I'm around 50 years old, and a lot has changed in the queer community since my youth. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and I want to discuss some of these ironic consistencies with you. They relate to gender policing.

Here's something that has changed: when I was in college, there was no recognized trans* student community—there was just the “lesbian and gay” community, and it was small. When I showed up at college, there was a welcome party for the new “lesbian and gay” students, and out of a class of 1200 freshpeople, four of us showed up. Today, when I attend the welcome reception for new LGBT+ students on the campus where I am the director of an LGBT+ studies program, it's more like a hundred happy new faces. Out of the four of us who showed up when I was a freshperson, two of us were actually trans* identified, but that was something we had no way to articulate. This was the era of lesbian separatism. “Transsexuals” were framed on campus as men who pretended to become women in order to try to seize control of “womyn's spaces,” à la Janice Raymond's Transsexual Empire. Bisexuals were supposedly gay men and lesbians who were afraid to really come out of the closet and were traitors to the community. The only accepted identities were lesbian or gay. Today, things are quite different. Students at the welcome reception self-identify proudly under a panoply of terms: queer, asexual, demisexual, polysexual, heteroflexible, bi, bear, furry, trans*, genderqueer, neutrois, etc. etc.—and oh yes, lesbian and gay.

As you might imagine, I had a hard time fitting in to the “lesbian and gay” community of my college years. At my university, there were two organizations at the time, one “lesbian and gay” collective that was really understood as the gay men's group, and one lesbian separatist organization. Having never identified as a lesbian, I started going to meetings of the mostly-gay-men's collective. I was there because, inside, I identified with the men, but the idea of a trans* man was not yet on anyone's radar, and even I only thought of myself as sort of spiritually akin to the boys. My deepest secret—that I was born with a sex-variant body—I told no one. Like most intersex people of the time, I understood my differences to be a shameful secret, and my sex assignment a permanent status I would always live with. So while I was attending the guy's meetings, and feeling I was in the right place, nobody, including myself, thought of me as being there because I was “really” a man. The best I could do at the time was to fill the role of one of the few token women participating, and keep my private incohate identity to myself.

A bunch of my gay male friends referred to me by a term they thought was cute: I was their “fag hag.” I hated that term with a passion—the way it excluded me, treated me as a groupie, and framed me as someone who must only hang around gay men because “she” was a hag who couldn't get a real boyfriend. The thing is, that was also how I was understood by the women in the lesbian separatist group. They saw me as a lesbian who had been blinded by the patriarchy into thinking she'd get more status by hanging out with men, who were contaminating me.

And so the lesbian separatist group staged an intervention. They called me to a meeting, and when I arrived, they sat in a circle around me and told me that it was their duty to break through my false consciousness, and that I must stop betraying the lesbian community and change my errant ways. I was injuring the lesbian community by the ways I was dressing, identifying, and behaving, and they were going to stay by my side and monitor me intensively and break through my false beliefs and bring me home.

And then they lay down the rules. First, they didn't think I really understood that I was a “womyn,” born innately different from and better than the men. (They were right.) Men, who always tried to steal women's power, were using me as their little wifey in their organization, and I was putting myself at risk of rape by spending so much time with them. I had to agree to at least go to as many meetings of the lesbian separatist group as the “men's collective.” They would work with me to get me to understand my essential womanly nature, as they were shocked when I said I didn't really think of myself as different from the men. I needed to identify with the goddess within me and see myself as the womb of creation.

The second rule they lay down was that I had to stop calling myself (using the term available at the time) “bisexual.” I was betraying them when I refused the label “lesbian,” and they all apparently felt deeply wounded. As for actual sexual behavior, sleeping with men would be sleeping with the enemy. Yes, men could be attractive—a number of them had had male partners in the past—but to be true to the lesbian community, they wouldn't do that any more, and I shouldn't either.

Interestingly, it was the third rule that the group was most incensed about, and that pertained to how I dressed. Most days I wore jeans and tank tops, but other days I wore what today I'd call femme drag—I had some 1950s dresses, and would wear them with elbow-length gloves and cat-eye makeup. My gay male friends always liked that, and would ask to borrow my dresses when they wanted to dress up for a drag party. The lesbian separatist group was horrified. They told me that I was a victim of patriarchal false consciousness who believed the myth that lesbians, in mockery of heterosexual power relations, engaged in butch-femme relations, and that sometimes I was acting like a butch, and sometimes a femme, and that this was terrible. I had to understand that the personal was political, and this meant I had to dress like the women in the group. And Politically Correct Dress (the actual term they used) was androgynous. They gave me a long, long lecture on correct androgynous fashion, showing me their own soft pants and political t-shirts and labrys jewelry. They told me I should never again wear a skirt. (Sheer bloodyminded rebelliousness in the face of this explains why I, someone who didn't identify as a woman, wound up wearing skirts much of the time for the rest of his college career.)

So, the rules boiled down to this: there was a correct identity (lesbian), a correct way to behave (avoid men), and a correct was to dress (androgynously). I was a problem in need of much intervention. So while I devoted a great deal of my time during my college years toward community activism, I never really felt comfortable or at home in the community I spent so much time trying to serve.

Fast forward 30 years, and clearly a whole lot has changed since my gender and sexuality were policed at college. I have since gender transitioned, and as an openly intersex trans man am “allowed” to coordinate the LGBT+ studies program at the university where I now teach. Recognized identities have proliferated, and the queer community is much larger and more visible. But the rituals of daily queer life remain much the same. There are meetings and conferences, “awareness days” and dances, poetry readings and protests, and informal but regular hanging-out in coffeeshops, clubs and bars.

And separatism and exclusion? They're still happening at these venues, if not in the formal way of my own queer youth.

If you had told me about the queer community as it exists now around my current college campus, it would have sounded like paradise to me. It's full of people who, like me, were assigned female at birth but don't identify as such, and who like to play with gender presentation. They identify as genderqueer, as bois, as neutrois, as trans gender, as genderflexible—in any way they please. They are full of a sense of radical mission in subverting the gender binary.

But you know what? I'm still often getting the cold shoulder as someone who seems to have betrayed the cause. Even worse is is the treatment my spouse, an intersex trans woman, gets: they freeze up when she approaches, glare at her, nudge eachother, and turn away, making it quite clear they consider her unwelcome at their events.

I've written before about this business of genderqueer people who were assigned female at birth excluding trans* women from their party (see here). I find it both cruel and ironic that what gets raised, informally this time instead of as written doctrine, is Transsexual Empire logic for excluding trans* women, complete with misgendering: “I'm am a sexual assault survivor and I don't feel safe around men,” or “Well, I'll say 'she' to be polite, but I think 'she's' carrying a lot of male privilege into the space.” What I want to talk about today is a new twist I've been running into of late in the midwestern LGBT+ academic spaces I occupy: the pejorative label of “transnormativity.”

Transnormativity is a neologism born of the term “homonormativity,” which has been bandied about in queer academic circles for some time. Usually, the term “homonormative” as been used by queer scholars to diss gay men and lesbians who have the aspiration or privilege of being able to live almost heteronormative lives: getting married, buying a house in the suburbs, raising a kid, assimilating. It's been used to express the usual self-righteous disdain of the more radical for the more normative. A few months ago, however, I was at a conference where the term was being used differently. A young, white, middle-class, cis, femme bi grad student presented on her masters thesis about homonormativity. She employed the term as her nodding peers apparently do as well: to critique the “homonormative narrative” that a real queer person experiences homophobic oppression. Apparently, when she met her girlfriend and came out to friends and family as bi, nobody had a problem with it. The way that this grad student felt oppressed was in attending meetings of the queer students' group at her college, because people talked about experiences of family rejection, being bullied at school, and other traumas that attended their coming out. She felt that because she had no such story, she was viewed as “failing to uphold the homonormative narrative of coming out,” and that other LGBT+ students' stories were unfairly more valorized than hers.

It certainly seemed to me that this grad student and her circle of friends were recasting their relative privilege as a form of oppression. If you show up to a support group, and your experiences are much less traumatic than that of others in the group, are you really oppressed by the other group members when they focus their support on those who are dealing with more trauma? If members of the grad student's queer college group had said, “Oh, your story shows how bisexually-identified people never experience true oppression and people like you aren't welcome here,” I'd agree with terming that homonormative. But saying, “I am oppressed by the homonormative narrative that queer people are oppressed” just strikes me as bizarre.

The conference where this paper was presented was a Wisconsin state conference, and as is my general experience around here, there were not a lot of people attending who were out as trans* people who had medically transitioned. I met one other guy and one woman who were out as having transitioned. There was also a woman from the local community attending who sat by herself, ignored by the people around her at all the panels we both attended, often with empty seats on either side of her. Her trans* status was visible in her wig and the hair on her hands. I saw her at lunch sitting at an otherwise totally empty table, and joined her and invited some others to sit with us. She told us her sad midwestern story: she wanted very much to transition legally and medically, but her priest and wife had forbidden it, so she “crossdressed” to attend a few conferences every year in secret. It's always disheartening to me to see people like her who are experiencing such difficulties in their lives come to a community event hoping for some recognition and support, only to face more social ostracism at the place they hoped to meet with understanding.

Among the people who stayed far away from the “crossdressing” trans-identified woman at the conference were a bunch of young, mostly white, female-assigned-at-birth (FAAB) students who identified as as some flavor of genderqueer: as bois or androgynes, genderflexible or genderfucks, as neutrois, as trans gender. On the second day of the conference I asked to sit at a table of them for lunch, but was told the two empty seats were being saved. So I sat at the next table—but interstitially I heard bits of the conversation at the table of genderqueer students, and that conversation was about “transnormativity.”

I've heard transnormativity come up a lot in such spaces of late. I'm absolutely in agreement that there is a transnormative narrative, and that it's problematic. That narrative is that a “real” trans person is someone with a binary gender identity, who has known since childhood that they were “born in the wrong body,” having a medical disorder which if not treated with hormones and surgery leads to suicide, which is cured upon completion of genital surgery and the achievement of “passing” status. That narrative sets up a standard for “true transsexuality” that most trans* people never meet. I certainly don't, as I've had neither chest nor genital surgery. Chest surgery I'd like, but finances haven't permitted it (one salary for a family of three containing two gender transitioners and two people with disabilities makes for a very lean budget). Genital surgery holds no interest for me, as an intersex person who knows all about the risk of loss of sensation and is all in favor of genital diversity. So, even though I am recognized as a man at law and socially, according to the transnormative narrative, I haven't “really” or “fully” transitioned. That's silly and irritating.

But just as the grad student who presented on homonormativity used the term differently than I'd heard it used before, the genderqueer students at the table next to mine (and in other venues I keep entering) used the term “transnormative” differently. Basically, they used “transnormative” as a pejorative for any trans* person whom they read as “reinforcing the gender binary.” In translation, what that meant was trans* men they saw as “passing,” and almost all trans* women. They viewed such trans* people as those given social recognition, unlike the real gender warriors, the genderqueer people who were breaking down the gender binary. They presented the supposedly transnormative group as complicit with cisnormative people in oppressing them.

Let's unpack that a little. It is certainly true that there are some transsexual people who dismiss genderqueer people as confused or as dabblers. It reminds me a lot of how lesbian separatists in my own youth derided bisexuals. It's cruel when people who are marginalized draw up identity battle lines and tell people “you're with us or against us—no sitting on the fence.”

But I am not doing that; in fact, I, like many people who make use of medical transition services, reject the ideology of the gender binary. I'm intersex, after all. I know the huge amount of violence that lies behind the enforcement of the ideology of a sex binary—and my spouse, with her loss of capacity for sexual sensation that doctors sacrificed in imposing a male sex assignment on her in infancy, knows better than I. I personally identify with a male place in the gender spectrum, but fluidly so. I'm a genderflexible guy. But apparently they can't see my genderquerity.

I will tell you what I see from my perspective. It's not that privileged transsexuals and privileged cis people are united to gang up on genderqueer folks. It's much more like a reconfiguration of my own college experience.

You'll remember that back when I started college there were four of us first year students who attended the “lesbian and gay” welcoming event, and that two of us were really trans* identified, but given no way to express that. The political focus back then for FAAB people was on enforcing a presumed essential sex binary, and fencing in the womyn-only space. I was forced into that space. The other prototrans person was assigned male at birth, and “he” was kept out—her request to be able to attend a meeting mocked and seen as proof that “men” really did want to take over lesbian spaces.

Today, the exciting queer political action for FAAB people is not in enforcing the gender binary, but in rejecting it. But oddly, despite this reversal, the end result is eerily similar. Welcomed to the party are people perceived as androgynous but FAAB, while others get the cold shoulder. Supposedly those informally enforcing this rule do so to fight the oppressive ideology of the gender binary, but I see a sex binary being reinscribed. I see these genderqueer FAAB circles as working to keep the “men” out.

Let's consider another conference that I was recently involved in organizing as an illustration. Sitting in the back of the large conference room for most of one day was a large contingent of young, white, genderqueer-identified FAAB folks. They sported a fair number of piercings, asymmetrically-bobbed hairstyles, and other fashion signifiers that someone familiar with midwestern college queer culture could identify as signs of genderflexible affilation. But generally these individuals could walk around most places passing as cis women without a second glance, facing no transphobic harassment. Now, as someone who passed as a woman for decades without wanting to, I know that that can be painful. If you want people to recognize you as genderqueer and call you by a gender-neutral pronoun and they never do, that hurts and makes you feel invisible. Not wanting the group to feel marginalized, I walked over to them before the first panel and invited them to sit closer to the front. All I got were a lot of blank silent stares, however. I felt like I was being perceived as The Man impinging on their space, so I took my suit and beard away and left them in peace. As a trans* guy who is fairly often taken for a cis man, I recognize my privilege, and I try not to deploy it at people when I can avoid it, but nobody likes a cold reception.

Later, my wife arrived. An intersex trans* woman, she's very androgynous. Seeing her feminine face and breasts on her very tall, solid frame, her long, waving hair and her tough boots breaks binary sex and gender for people all the time, and she's a magnet for transphobia. She faces constant street harassment here in the midwest—laughter and stares, people yanking their children away from her, spitting at her, throwing bottles out of cars at her head. She's living proof of the powerful enforcement of the gender binary, and you would think that to any genderqueer person, she'd be a hero. But when she arrived at the conference and was looking for a seat, she faced a wave of hostile stares and mutters from the FAAB genderqueer contingent in the back. This happens to her all the time at queer events around here—even ones that say “all genders welcome.” She's had FAAB gender-flexible-identified people call her “he” many, many times, and treat her with disdain and/or fear.

The apparent “logic” behind this mistreatment is the belief that FAAB people transgress gender binaries while male-assigned-at-birth (MAAB) people reinforce them when they act in similar ways. A FAAB person in a tux is doing important gender-dismantling work. A MAAB person in a dress? Amusing if it's drag, insulting or creepy if it's not. This transmisogyny appears to be based on imputed motives. The “logic” goes like this: a FAAB person is oppressed by male privilege and so understands gender and wants to dismantle it, while benefitting from male privilege blinds the MAAB person to how gender operates, making trans* women actually nontransgressive female imposters. This is pure Transsexual Empire transphobic reasoning. . . Yet FAAB genderqueer circles can deny this by allowing in the occasional trans woman who looks physically like a cis woman and who “gets it” (meaning she shares the style of dress and cultural interests of the FAAB genderqueer circle), as well as by celebrating all of the trans bois in their midst who are visibly FAAB.

The formal radical womyn's-only spaces of my queer youth seem to have been replaced by informal radical FAAB-looking-only spaces around midwestern college campuses. The two milieux even have a very similar androgynous dress code.

So: who's oppressing whom? According to the “transnormative” talk I've been hearing recently, transsexuals join cissexuals in oppressing the noble and radical genderqueers. In practice, I see many FAAB genderqueer people joining cis people in treating most trans* woman like pariahs.

It makes me sad that my genderqueer identity is as invisible to a lot of FAAB genderqueer people as their own genderqueer identities are to most cis people. But I can live with it. Not having your identity validated is painful, but material oppression is a lot worse. The levels of violence, bullying, sexual assault, unemployment, and general social ostracism that people face when they are read as gendertransgressive males or trans* women are appalling. They are foundational to sexism and patriarchy, and we must fight them.

So, I say to my genderqueer siblings: we must dig out the roots of Transsexual Empire reasoning born of gender essentialism if we are ever going to see the gender spectrum flourishing and free. You cannot queer gender unless you embrace all trans* people—not just the ones who pass as FAAB. People with bodies of any age and race and size, with any set of sex characteristics, must be equally welcome to the gendertransgressing party. For decades I've watched queer communities excluding some of their own—the most marginalized cast as a danger and dumped on, and it's time to put an end to that.

You cannot queer gender and police sex at the same time.


  1. Dude, I see that all the time at my universities Pride Alliance group. If your not with them, then your against them. The Queer club on my campus has ostracized me and made me feel like a social outcast.

    1. I read The Transsexual Empire, my impression of it was, a paranoid delusion with intimations of a psychotic nature.

    2. Apparently the Queer community has taken the Transsexual empire to the next level and now excluding anyone not like them or part of them. I have seen the queer community on my campus taken the concept to include outcasting anyone not queer enough or not LGBT enough.

  2. as a queen i want to be FAAB darling, MAAB sounds so DRAAB. Thanks for the essay, particularly for the intimate personal disclosure. Yah boo sux to the gender police and the sex police and the thought police! ACAB!

  3. Fantastic article, I'll be posting links to this in various venues.

  4. It seems to me a sad part of human nature to exalt one's self and one's group by oppressing another perceived to be inferior in some way. I think that's the thread that connects your past and present experiences. The tools used, separatism or sex/gender policing, are just the most available to the people involved.

    Ego and its protection seems to be at the root if this phenomenon.

  5. Oppression seems pervasive, and it's saddest when it comes within the community.

    I'd like to take a step back and see where the pattern comes from - since it appears to be timeless. Perhaps an essential part of the human ego which we are taught (or is it innate?) to protect ourselves from "others" who are different from us. The "us" and "them" gets redefined decade after decade, but the premise remains the same. Therefore instead of trying to explain to lesbian separatists why men are not the enemy, or to FAAB genderqueers why MAAB transfeminine people are, well, people too, we should just teach everyone from the start that everyone else ain't so bad and just like, well, me and you. Alas, my idealist is coming out of the closet...

  6. As an open and out transwoman I have had a similar response to me when I enter womens, queer and feminist spaces at my university.

    I am tolerated by genderqueer people for as long as I know my place.

  7. I am a GQ FAAB, and because I am relatively cloistered [post-college, rural Georgia, and married to a man], I had no idea of the situation. This is infuriating. I do not understand why humans consistently feel the need to subjectively exclude, even amongst minority groups. All of us on the gender-challenging spectrum have a voice and a place. To set oneself up as "more queer" than another is egotistical and foolish. Amazing article, well-written -- bravo, sir.

  8. Maybe its regional differences, maybe its the fact that I employ a more femme presentation, but I have found a slight difference in the areas that I end up in. Trans and genderqueer people who don't adhere to specific presentations based on their assumed ASAB are generally shunned. For example, my spouse's support group started to edge her out when it became obvious that she preferred a butch presentation but embraced her role as mommy. I was given the complete cold shoulder as a non-binary person with a more femme presentation who was assumed to be FAAB. The group is "all genders welcome" and is about half binary identified trans folks, and half genderqueer folks who embrace a de-feminized androgyny or a mild masculinity. I have found this breakdown occurring in online spaces as well, though without the pejorative use of the term "transnormativity." Its isn't really a "keep out the men" mentality that I have noticed, but a more misogynist undercurrent, in which a form of watered down masculinity is put in a position of "non-gendered" and only a certain amount or the correct kind of what is considered feminine is allowed. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this phenomenon takes other forms in other arenas.

    I wonder if its surprising that even in an attempt to radically break from something that is as ever-present as gender and sex binarism, people tend to fall back on policing and purity narratives. Existing in a margin does not inoculate us against a toxic culture, we are still immersed in it. Anger and strict boundaries feel righteous, and it is very easy to feel like you are transgressive when you are just reiterating the same structures in miniature. That's not to say that this behavior is excusable, just that long lasting solutions should probably come from an understanding of why these things happen.

  9. Wow. This post is so packed with serious truths that I want to print out copies and hand it out on the street. Thank you so much for articulating all of these ideas so clearly. Seriously, thank you.

  10. @ 45 I've lived through most of these experiences as well. Gobsmacked & sharing this article.

  11. Thank you for writing this, and for sharing your perspective across time and different historical moments. There is so much that's familiar to me (a 32yo cis bi queer dyke) in this, and while it's depressing to realize how deep and pernicious the influence of The Transexual Empire continues to be, I also feel strongly that the day will come when we get it together (as queers, as radicals, as folks who just want to live liberated lives with dignity, whatever the language and names will be then) and stop repeating these fascist, divisive patterns of gender/sex policing. I do believe that a vital part of that process is describing our experiences and naming them for what they are over time, even as they show up under different guises, just as you've done here. So, thank you for taking the time to write this and share it. It means so much.

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  12. As an MtF butch who is usually read as an FAAB genderqueer, I am consistently floored by the privilege that I experience in queer spaces while my less passable and/or more feminine sisters are unwelcome. I butch up before going into most queer spaces, so as to avoid being read as feminine MAAB - for the exact reasons outlined here.

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  14. I think a lot of this is, well, just college kids. It's an age of idealism and massive personal growth but not usually entirely EVEN growth. I'm someone who identified as agender back in the 90s in college and looked down on transgender people because I thought they were all binary and said a lot of really insensitive stupid things as a result. And with age and experience and getting over my own sense of being impressed with my own amazing insightfulness into the world and how everything gender worked (I saw it, why couldn't everyone else?) I've come to see what an ass I was back then. I've come to see that most of the trans people I know are not particularly binary identified. And I'm happy to say that having come back after a long hiatus from taking part on non-binary discussion groups I've found myself an awesome genderqueer discussion group at my local LGBT center that has a fabulous mix of people from their 20s to their 50s, some transitioning medically to various degrees and some not, some using gendered pronouns and some not (thought the majority not), some looking cis and some not, some DMAB and some DFAB (though only one who has specifically come out as intersex so far), and some (though not huge) cross-over between people who attend the genderqueer group and people who attend the MTF and FTM groups held at different times at the same center. Anyway, it's a great group and pretty much the opposite of the uniform college clique you describe. So there is hope!

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