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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Why I Identify as Transgender

There's been a spate of blog posts recently about how the word "transgender" is dead and we all need to decamp to a new term. And then there are posts arguing to opposite point. I'm not going to bother linking to any of them, but I am going to offer my 2p.

First of all, I've noticed that almost all of these posts about whether the word "transgender" is good or bad are coming from trans women, but none that I've noticed have come from trans men. The trans women who are against the term transgender seem to call themselves "transsexual" instead. I suspect that the reason for this is a desire to separate themselves from cross dressers and specifically from fetishists. Some straight men get a sexual kick from dressing like women. There is no parallel situation for trans men. While a surprising number of drag kings are straight, there is no visibile community and no stereotype of straight women dressing up like men for illicit fetish sexy fun time (alas).

It's quite reasonable to want to de-link your gender identity from being seen as a fetish. However, I don't think emphasising the term "transsexual" is the way to do this. First of all, it has the word "sex" in it. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. This makes me uncomfortable. I almost never identify as TS. I don't want to describe myself in a way that invokes sex or genitals.

I also really don't want to invoke medical intervention, when disclosing conversationally or whatever, and especially not in a human rights campaign. Now, of course trans people should have rights to transition-related healthcare. But our other rights should in no way be linked to that. I don't want my job or housing rights to have anything to do with what surgeries I've had or am planning to have. Indeed, this can, itself, create a human rights issue, in which some governments require sterilisation as a prerequisite to proper gender recognition and/or civil rights protections. That's deeply problematic.

Furthermore, there are problems related to privilege. This is much less an issue in the UK, as the NHS does offer appropriate healthcare to trans people. But in the US and developing countries, medical transition can be economically out of reach for a lot of trans people. Thus, any limitation to those who are medically transitioning is a hugely problematic assertion of class privilege.

The rights of people who don't want to medically transition are also hugely important. I spent many years as an obviously gender non-conforming person and I didn't want to face discrimination then any more than I do now. People who are full or part time cross dressers or whatever, still deserve to have full rights to access education, housing and employment and enjoy the same full civil rights as cis people. The same issues that effect people with no plan to medically transition also effect people who are planning on medically transitioning and haven't started yet and people who may not be passing all the time. Again, linking rights to medical procedures seems deeply dubious and may pressure people into having interventions that they don't want or need and leaves out people who cannot afford the costs associated with those procedures.

And did I mention that a word with "sex" right in the middle of it makes people feel uncomfortable? No centrist political candidate in the US is ever going to give a speech about how we need to protect the rights of transsexuals. They may be persuaded to give a speech protecting the rights of transgender people, but they're not going to want to say the word "sex" in this context. And, if we don't want to be lumped in with fetishists, we don't want to say the word "sex" either.

Those who think that we can get more rights by sacrificing those who don't medically transition need some serious help with the concept of solidarity. It's sort of amusing that some of the same people complain whenever trans protections are stripped out of laws that were originally conceived to protect all LGBT people.

So I'm sticking with the word transgender. People who hear it know what it means (or can figure it out quickly enough. It's a word I'm comfortable with. It implies solidarity. People can, of course, self-identify however they want and that's fine, but I think it's too soon to say the word "transgender" is done.

2 comments:

Ariel Silvera said...

I used to use the word 'transsexual' to define myself, because I took it for the meaning it had about 'changing sex'. It's how I saw it a few years back.

Nowadays I'm copped on to the fact that transsexual has another implication for people, which is that being trans is a form of sexuality. This is very evident when we hear some misguided cis LGB allies talk about trans people as if we are just another sexuality (at a recent event, one speaker, a straight cis man, said that 'being straight means I maybe cannot say much', assuming all trans people are queer).

Transgender is also problematic for me. My gender presentation, how I exist in the world, has certainly changed. But there's a lot of me that is still the same no matter where I am in the trans spectrum. Combat boots, riding bikes, Doctor Who, shouty rock. I've always had a problem with trans meaning a strict a-to-b, in terms of my own life.

TL;DR: I think the transsexual vs transgender debate is kind of unnecessary, and the elitism exhibited by some members of the trans community towards other identities (which I feel very strongly, being disliked by some of the local community for being a feminist gender-nonconforming trans woman) is plainly put, bulshit and destructive. Intra-community policing needs to stop.

As for political campaigns, this is why I simply go for trans. It's easier, less complicated, rolls off the tongue in a speech way better.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I really didn't mean to write a post slagging off the term "transsexual," yet I seem to have done so. While it's a word I usually don't want to use for myself, I don't think there's anything wrong with other people using it for themselves as a point of identity. I don't want to politically organise around the word "transsexual" because I think that strategy has problems. But I don't think those problems also apply to people who just want to call themselves transsexual. I do use it to refer to myself occasionally, but it's not my preferred term.

Like you, my gender is not the sole component of my identity. I don't think my love of boots, bikes, Dr Who and punk rock (and the other music stuff I do) is related to my gender identity at all. There are a bunch of annoying stereotypes about those things, but they're just stereotypes.

And you're totally right about the word "trans" which happily includes both TG and TS.