Friday, 18 June 2010

Reclaiming "Transgender" and speaking for ourselves

This post is about the dangers in allowing non-transgender people to define and speak for transgender people. This is something which is becoming more common and which is likely to become increasingly so as trans people become more visible and political progress towards greater trans liberation is made. The conspicuous absence of trans people at David Cameron's LGBT reception in Downing Street suggests that the trans community has to consider who represents it and misrepresents it to the rest of the world.

The word "transgender" has become a phenominal success. Indeed it is one of the linguistic and political success stories of the last 20 years. Yet, in its current usage it is only 18 years old. In fact "transgender" was originally coined by Virginia Prince back in the 1970s to describe people (like myself) who were somewhere between "cross-dresser" and "transsexual". However it was used by Leslie Feinberg in a publication entitled "Transgender Liberation: A movement whose Time has Come" in 1992.

This was a call to arms and, in this case the word "transgender" was used as an umbrella term for all the various different transgender people who could come together to achieve political advancement of trans people. This is the current main usage of the word. As a Foucauldian political rallying-point it has been astonishingly successful and the last 18 years has seen transgender people emerge and become much more publicly visible and politically active, engaging in campaigning to achieve liberation for all trans people everywhere.

Although there is still a great deal to do there have been advances in terms of legal protections for transgender people such as legal gender changes on official documentation and protections against discrimination in areas such as the provision of goods and services and employment. The academic discipline of Transgender Studies has established itself as a bona fide academic field of study, and transgender people have been elected to important positions such as the state governor of Hawaii and MPs in Italy and New Zealand. Two transgender people have been appointed to work in senior positions in President Obama's administration. Even the normally conservative Royal Air Force has accepted the first transsexual pilot almost without batting an eyelid. Sass Rogando Sasot and Justus Eisfeld became the first transpeople to speak at the UN General Assembly last year. The depathologisation of transgender people is gathering pace with, so far, France and Cuba removing transgender people from the list of people with mental health issues. Holland, Spain and Scandinavia and other many countries are expected to follow soon.

Astonishingly, all this was achieved after what Susan Stryker described as the two "dead" decades for transgender people. The 1970s and 1980s represented a 20-year period when it became acceptable to bully, misrepresent, pathologise, demonise and ridicule transgender people. Malicous and ignorant "academics" such as Janice Raymond called for our extinction by public pressure from non-transpeople. "Mandated out of existence" was the phrase she used, a thinly veiled esprit fasciste inviting discrimination, pathologisation, cultural non-acceptance, media mistreatment and social bullying of transgender people who, remaining subalterns who cannot speak, were unable to defend themselves. Her call for non-transgender people to act against transgender people was as clear, her intention to mobilise the masses against a minority group reminiscent of the Nazi history she attempts, through dissemblement and innuendo to attach to trans people. The" Transsexual Empire" remains a dire warning of the need for transgender people to remain eternally vigilant against this sort of incitement to hate-crimes.

The success of "transgender" in bringing the trans community together has been documented by David Valentine, in his excellent study, 'Imagining Transgender'. However, he raises some issues about definitions and inclusion within the the group 'transgender' which, even in the last few years of the last century, were becoming problematic. Some people who were born male but lived as women did not see themselves as "transgender", especially those from ethnic minorities in the US, and some trans people who were born female may not include themselves in the category. Some, such as gay male drag queens, also did not include themselves under the umbrella term "transgender", although here the politics of gay liberation intervenes as gay men have sought to throw off stereotypes of effeminacy. The emergence of "transgender" as a category distinct from "gay" has been helpful to their cause from this point of view. Incidentally, the group within the transgender umbrella which has probably gained most politically in the last two decades has been transsexuals. Some view this being because they remain within the gender binary. However this is a rather simplistic view; Tam Sanger's research has shown that many transsexuals simply feel that changing their physical sex enables them to feel much happier and spiritually whole in a body which better approximates their identity rather than actually being a 'man trapped in a woman's body' or vice versa.

However we are now however seeing other people, who are not transgender, or organisations which do not have adequate knowledge of transgender people starting to define, to the perception of the public at large, what "transgender" means. Although Sefton's Transgender Work Volunteer Scheme is to be thoroughly approved as an example of how affirmative action can be taken to help transgender people in an area of high unemployment, and represents a fantastic piece of inclusive thinking, it still equates "transgender" with "transsexual". Yet people who are not transsexual may well be deterred from applying for this if they do not meet this criteria. Even two academics, Rebecca Dittman and Pam Meecham, who should know better, have written a scholarly article about transgender children where "transgender" appears to be interchangeable with "transsexual". Given that we know that not all transgender children become transgender adults, and not all those who do will want to have sex reassignment surgery, this is not merely a case of negligence but could be downright dangerous.

A more recent academic article by Richard Elkins and Dave King now seeks to identify two 'new' transgender identities; "Autogynephilic transsexuals" and "Adult male sissies". This is where I start to have problems with the concept of "identities". From my point of view these represent sexual practices rather than any particular type of identity. Autogynephilia has been the subject of much conflict between transgender people and that small group of psychiatrists who continue to try and pathologise us. Indeed, there appears no reason for this definition of a particular group to exist at all, other than to provide the likes of Blanchard with regular and substantial income. Elkins and King fail to enter into any discussion of this other than describing it as 'unwelcome', a description they also attach to "adult male sissies". In my opinion, these do not represent "Gender Identities" nor should they be lumped together under the "transgender" umbrella.

The reasons for this are not simply because, I believe, these activities should be categorised as sexual activities rather than gender identities, but because of the origins and purpose for the adoption of the term "transgender" by trans people. "Transgender" should be seen as first and formost a political term, and one which covers a range of different people from cross-dressers, genderqueers and drag kings to transsexuals and many others in between. It is not an academic category. That is not to say that academics should not study transgender people nor consider the study of transgender people to be an academic discipline; "Transgender Studies". This is not a problem. The word "transgender", and what is included in it is first and formost a political matter and a political matter for transgender people. Attempts by Elkins and King and others to 'discover' new transgender identities should as such be viewed as political rather than academic acts. As transgender people we should therefore be careful as to whether we accept the inclusion of these 'categories' and the political effects of that inclusion. It should not be up to cisgender academics to decide who should and should not be considered transgender. As Donna Haraway argues in The Cyborg Manifesto "Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousnes". The matter of who is involved in the construction of this consciousness is vital to it's effective functioning as a political concept.

I am not saying that transgender people should have the absolute right to veto who is and who is not transgender (not that we would all agree on everything anyway) but it is probable that the inclusion of such groups would not only cause division within the transgender community but also result in a loss of credibility from a political point of view whilst at the same timehaving no potential to achieve tangible political gains. The tiny number of Autogynephillic transsexuals (if indeed they do exist) are not going to benefit, in terms of their political or civil rights from being considered a seperate category from other transsexuals. As such we should ask what the political purpose of including "Adult male sissies" and "Autogynephilic transsexuals" as distinct categories within the transgender umbrella. Transsexuals are of course fully paid up members of the trans community (although some post-operative transsexuals would disagree with me there) what transsexuals' sexual preferences are is no concern of anyone else in the same way that cisgendered people's sexual preferences are not a determinant of their gender identities. Likewise with adult male sissies; it is probable that not all of these people would view themselves as transgender anyway, much less feel that their gender identity is dependent upon something they do in private at home. If the variety of sexual practices engaged in by cisgendered people are not used to define them as cisgendered, or to categorise them as a seperate category within cisgendered men and women, why should these practices apply to transgender people?

Whilst this post is ont intended to discourage our cisgender friends and supporters, it is clear that cisgendered people who are involved with the trans community need to be careful, as most of them already are, to respect the wishes and opinions of the transgender community.

We need constantly to remind ourselves that transgender is first and formost a political concept, and a particularly successful one at that. As such it is the more the property of transgender people than anyone else and who is included as transgender, or as seperate identities within that umbrella, should be a matter for us all, not academics. The consequences of weakening the transgender movement and a return to the days when "academics" such as Janice Raymond can openly call for others to engage in hate-crimes against us will not be borne by cisgender academics but by ordinary transgender people in their everyday lives, workplaces, schools, streets and homes.