There are few topics I feel nervous to write about on this blog, as you might have surmised over the years. But one of them is the question of transgender people. It’s a fascinating topic, but remains so completely fraught and riddled with p.c. neurosis that no writer wants to unleash the hounds of furious, touchy trans activism. And that’s the first thing to note here, I’d say. Any minority – especially a tiny one like gays or transgender people – has, at some point, to explain itself to the big, wide world. That’s not entirely fair but it’s unavoidable if you want a change in attitudes or an increase in understanding. And my view is that there is no need to be defensive about it. Most people are just completely ignorant, and have never met or engaged a trans person, and so their misconceptions and misunderstandings are inevitable and not self-evidently a matter of bigotry or prejudice. I think we should be understanding of this, as open as we can be, and answer the kinds of questions some might feel inappropriate or offensive. That’s the basis for dialogue, empathy and progress.
But this has not, alas, been the way in which the transgender movement has largely sought to engage the wider world (with some exceptions). Kevin Williamson notes how Laverne Cox, appearing as a trans person on the cover of Time, nonetheless refused to answer a question about whether she had had her genitals reassigned as too “invasive.” Sorry, Laverne. But if you’re out there explaining yourself, you’ve gotta explain all of it. And the elaborate and neurotic fixation on language – will writing “transgender” rather than “transgendered” reveal my inner bigot? – is now so neurotic even RuPaul has been cast aside as politically incorrect. The insistence that the question of transgender people is essentially the same as that of gay people – when they are quite clearly distinct populations with very different challenges – is also why we have the umbrella term “LGBT”. And so Kevin Williamson is not wrong, I think, to note the way in which politics has eclipsed the English language here and that language itself has become enmeshed in a rigid ideology:
The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality.
But Williamson is just as wrong in his brutal, even callous, denunciation of transgender people as acting out “delusions”. And he’s wrong not because he politically incorrect, but because he’s empirically off-base. He too is creating his own reality. For Williamson, it seems, you can only have one sex and it is dictated by your genitals. End of story. Naturally, he doesn’t address the question of what biological sex is when you are born with indeterminate genitals that are not self-evidently male or female. The intersex are a small minority – from 0.1 to 1.7 percent, depending on your definition – but in a country of 300 million, that adds up. And the experience of those people – especially those have been genitally mutilated to appear as one sex, while feeling themselves to be the other – is a vital part of understanding what gender and sex are.
Kevin may not like this – but it’s complicated.
We can see crucial differences between male and female brains, for example, and they do not always correspond to male and female genitals. Since by far the most important sexual organ is the brain, the possibilities of ambiguity are legion. And this is not a matter of pomo language games. The experience of a conflict between self-understood gender and assigned gender is real, and a source of great anguish. That human anguish is what we should seek to mitigate, it seems to me, rather than compound as Williamson does.
And as J. Brian Lowder notes, the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse. There’s a reason that Iran’s theocrats allow for sex-change operations but not gay relationships. The transgender desire not to be trans-gender but to be one gender physically and mentally is actually quite an affront to queer theorists for whom all gender and sex are social constructions. Many of these people want testosterone and estrogen and surgery to end their divided selves. And it doesn’t get more crudely biological and not-social than that.
Which means that there are also divisions within the trans world between those who might be able to pass completely as another gender, after reassignment surgery, and those whose visual ambiguity or androgyny will remain. Lowder quotes a trans artist thus:
If you don’t wish to own [tranny] or any other word used to describe you other than “male” or “female” then I hope you are privileged enough to have been born with an appearance that will allow you to disappear into the passing world or that you or your generous, supportive family are able to afford the procedures which will make it possible for you to pass within the gender binary system you are catering your demands to. If you’re capable of doing that then GO ON AND DISAPPEAR INTO THE PASSING WORLD!
This is the perennial question of a minority’s anxiety about sell-outs – whether it be expressed in the fights over how light-skinned some African-Americans are or how “masculine” gay men are or how feminine lesbians appear. In other words, this is a very complicated and sensitive area. But if we are to make progress in understanding – and Williamson’s piece shows how far we have yet to go – we have to let go of these insecurities and defensiveness and accept that no question about the transgendered is too dumb or too bigoted to answer.
Is the transgender movement mature enough to accept this and move forward? I guess we’ll soon find out.
(Photo: Actress Laverne Cox arrives at ’10 Years After The Prime Time Closet – A History Of Gays And Lesbians On TV’ at Academy of Television Arts & Sciences on October 28, 2013 in North Hollywood, California. By Valerie Macon/Getty Images.)
It’s a very dangerous endeavor, as my old friend Dan Savage just found out. In talking about the evolution of his sex advice column in an off-the-record seminar at the University of Chicago, Dan referred to many terms he has used in the past, including the word “tranny” which he stopped using in 2011:
I talked about why the word was problematic, why some object to its use, where I see double standards, and the LGBT community’s long history of reclaiming hate words.
This was a hate crime, apparently:
During this part of the talk a student interrupted and asked me to stop using “the t-slur.” (I guess it’s not the t-word anymore. I missed the memo.) My use of it—even while talking about why I don’t use the word anymore, even while speaking of the queer community’s history of reclaiming hate words, even as I used other hate words—was potentially traumatizing.
I stated that I didn’t see a difference between saying “tranny” in this context and saying “t-slur.” Were I to say “t-slur” instead of “tranny,” everyone in the room would auto-translate “t-slur” to “tranny” in their own heads. Was there really much difference between me saying it and me forcing everyone in the room to say it quietly to themselves? … I asked the student who objected if it was okay for me to use the words “dyke” and “sissy.” After a moment’s thought the student said I could use those words—permission granted—and that struck me a funny because I am not a lesbian nor am I particularly effeminate.
This student became so incensed by our refusal to say “How high?” when this student said “Jump!” that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn’t get one’s way. In college.
Yes, this occurred at the University of Chicago! Now, I’m not interested in defending Dan, because he can defend himself. And John Aravosis is right that there’s a potent and destructive strain in the LGBT world that aims more hate at someone like Dan Savage than at Rick Santorum (tell me about it). What I am interested in is condemning this pathetic excuse for a student. This plea in a university to be free of hearing things that might hurt, offend, traumatize or upset you is an attack on the very idea of education itself. And don’t get me started about “trigger warnings.” So many things worth thinking about, grappling with, and chewing over can be offensive at first or second blush. That’s what a real education is about: offending your pre-existing feelings and prejudices with reason and argument and sometimes provocation. Education is not and never should be about making you more comfortable and more safe within your current worldview. It should not be about accusing someone with whom you might disagree of a hate crime.
And the idea that trans people or gay people are those signing up for this mindless crap is particularly distressing.
Policing language is something no gay person should ever countenance – if only because our language and our speech, as tiny minorities, could be the first to be policed in that brave new world. And what does it say about someone’s self-esteem that they run crying out of a seminar because they cannot handle a simple fricking word (and that they do that, while preferring to be referred to as “it”!). I know life as a member of a sexual minority is not exactly an easy one. But what happened to self-empowerment? Whatever happened to the proud, fearless trans people fighting back against the cops at Stonewall? Whatever happened to the great tradition of flouting all sorts of public norms and parading down main street in full Pride regalia? Or the tradition of bawdy outrage perfected by generations of drag queens, gay satirists, cultural provocateurs, and performance artists whose goals often include the salutary impact of – precisely – offense?
All of this is to be buried in a ghastly, quivering, defensive crouch of affirming claptrap, with trans people whining to teacher that someone said a naughty word, and incapable of taking in even a completely benign discussion without collapsing into trauma and tears. There is only one word for this and it is pathetic. I’m all in favor of avoiding words that some people find distressing if at all possible. It can get in the way of an argument, or simple manners. But I am more in favor of free, bold and fearless speech and argument, in which every t and l and g and b can give as good as they get, and in which this sad and pathetic recourse to fathomless victimology is called out for the disgrace it is. It is entirely self-defeating. No one else can give you the self-respect you may want. No one else’s words have any more power over you than you decide to give to them.
When you think of the courage so many trans people have demonstrated over the decades and centuries, when you think of all the brilliant, funny and sharp ways in which trans people have described their world and ours over the years, this craven emotional blackmail and language monitoring is particularly tough to take. It is not some kind of high-point for gay maturity and tolerance. It’s a sad and tawdry failure to live up to the heroes and heroines – and standards – of the past.
A reader follows up:
In your response to my letter, you dismissed my argument, claiming that it’s important that all trans advocates be willing to discuss their genitals because “reassignment surgery is often intrinsic to a full trans identity.” I am going to ignore the issue of whether surgery is intrinsic and what the words “full trans identity” mean and instead deal with the bigger issues: who has the right to know about our genitals, and why this is considered a personal subject.
The only people who have the right to know about our genitals are our intimate partners, and potentially anyone who needs to provide medical care directly related to our genitals. Beyond that, it is personal, and I will attempt here to give a non-exhaustive list of reasons why it is personal.
Part of the reason our genitals are a sensitive subject is that even people who want surgery may be denied it due to gatekeeping, lack of funds, or other medical reasons. The Medicare ban on GCS [gender confirmation surgery] was only lifted two Fridays ago. This is important not just for those on Medicare, but more broadly for trans people in the US, as many insurance companies base their coverage on Medicare policies. Without the possibility of insurance coverage, GCS is out of reach for many, including many middle-class trans people.
Additionally, there are many trans people who do not feel the need to have GCS or opt not to have surgery for other reasons. We are not any less trans and our gender is not any less real simply because our genitals do not align with the picture someone might have in their head. In fact, nobody beyond our partners and physicians would not even know what our genitals are if people weren’t so insistent on asking (and sexually assaulting us in public, often under the guise of curiosity).
In addition to being a personal issue, the question of genitals is also a distraction from other, more important issues. When every interview with a trans person, even those on completely unrelated subjects, turns into questions about their genitals, it is derailing the conversation and distracting from other issues. It is not possible to have the conversations we need to have when all the interviewer seems to care about is genitals.
These are exactly the points that Laverne Cox explained in her interview, and this is why questions about genitals are an invasive distraction. And at a personal level, people’s desire to satisfy their curiosity does not supersede my right to keep information about my genitals private.
I underwent sex reassignment surgery in my early 20s. For the subsequent 15 years, I have had to field questions about the most intricate details of my sex life and the function and appearance of my new plumbing. Complete strangers have offered me money to see or touch my vagina. Other men propose sex “so I can see what it’s like”. This is the harsh reality of being a MTF trannie – we get to experience all the lecherous advances that regular women do, plus the even more brazen and thoughtless objectification from those who see us as little more than fetish toys. I can completely understand high-profile trannies not wanting to go there.
The truth is, although getting surgery seems like the most important thing in the world during transition, after it’s over it becomes such an insignificant part of who we are. We are not defined by our junk. Post-transition we are just normal people with normal lives and everyday problems. I don’t want to talk to strangers about my genitalia any more than any other woman – or man – would. I’m no prude, but honestly, there are way more interesting things going on in my life.
As a general rule, I agree with you that the trans-whatever community has become overly neurotic and that it spends way too much energy policing language and trying to distance itself from “gay culture”, but wanting to take the public focus away from surgery is not a part of that. Sure, gay guys fuck other men, but they aren’t asked in high-brow interviews what it’s like to take it up the ass. Why should transsexual women be asked what it’s like to have a vagina? Leave that for the tabloids and the medical journals.
I’m really grateful for my readers explaining this in more detail and I better see now why a trans identity is what matters, not how radically that identity has been implemented physically. And of course I can see how those questions can seem invasive and violating. I get it better now. Which is why a provocative but sincere debate as we’ve been having here can lead to greater understanding.
A reader revives a recent thread:
If you choose to use any of this, please scrub my name from it. I am a transgendered woman who has, in fact, committed the unpardonable sin of transitioning and then, largely, being done with the whole thing. The vast majority of people in my personal life have no idea, and almost no one in my professional life does. Now that’s because I pass very well, which is both a matter of luck and a matter of will. It was luck because I didn’t shoot up to an inconvenient height, nor were my hands or feet inconveniently large, but it was will because I tried to just be an ordinary woman of my generation (born in the late 1960s).
In the last decade or so, I have seen transgender activism take on the idea that gender is “constructed” and that the “medicalization” of being trans is a horrible thing. It seems short-sighted in the extreme – at least for those of us who have a difference of opinion between our self-image and our secondary sexual characteristics. I say that because just as Medicare and other providers are finally starting to cover SRS (sex reassignment surgery) and hormone treatments, the activists are trying to make the case that none of that is necessary. It has taken activists two decades and more to get us to this place, and just as we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, they are trying to not just pull the rope up, but burn it.
Why? Because some transgender people are not able to pass and/or some transgender people have a hard time finding work (whether because of passing issues or unwillingness to conform, even the least bit, with the kinds of behavior necessary to secure a well-paying job).
I agree, mostly, with your assessment that those of us who are minorities may be in the uncomfortable position of having to educate people and answer questions because we may be the first person someone outside our little social category may have had significant interaction with. It isn’t really fair, but better to learn it from someone within the group than to persist in ignorance or, worse yet, to learn it from someone hostile to the group. I do part company with you on the issue of genitalia, however. That is a really intrusive question and one that I think is reasonable for me to divulge to anyone I am dating, any medical professional, any mental health professional and to select friends. It isn’t for public consumption, however.
You wrote this:
The transgender desire not to be trans-gender but to be one gender physically and mentally is actually quite an affront to queer theorists for whom all gender and sex are social constructions. Many of these people want testosterone and estrogen and surgery to end their divided selves. And it doesn’t get more crudely biological and not-social than that. Which means that there are also divisions within the trans world between those who might be able to pass completely as another gender, after reassignment surgery, and those whose visual ambiguity or androgyny will remain.
Here is where I really have parted company with what has become of the trans-movement in the last decade or so. When I transitioned in the early 1990s, the idea was to move through being transgendered and into just being a woman (or a man, for my FTM brothers). Now, it seems the point is to be neither a man nor a woman. What’s more, well-adjusted and socially successful transgendered people like myself are a profound threat to the activist and academic portions of the movement because we violate the narrative.
As a black transgendered woman, the narrative is that I have found it difficult if not impossible to find work that pays me more than a pittance. What’s more, I am supposed to have spent some time as a prostitute. As a transgendered woman, the narrative is that I am socially shunned and ostracized and only other transgendered people or “allies” will have anything to do with me.
None of that has applied to me, and it has not applied to me in a very visible fashion. I have not worked with someone who knew I was trans since the mid-nineties, when I told a boss that I was trans because I knew that I was going to need surgery and thus need to take some extended time off. Since my boss at the time was a lesbian, I thought it was a good risk. To give you an idea of how well I pass, when I told her she was fine, but the next day a couple of my coworkers, who were also gay and whom I had told first to see how our boss would react, said I needed to clarify some things for her. She actually had thought I was moving in the opposite direction (FTM instead of MTF) and was worried because, as she put it, “I just can’t see a femme like her as a boy”. We all had a really good laugh about that.
This was while I was working at a large software company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Does that sound like rejection and ostracism? It doesn’t to me, and I didn’t experience it that way. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite memories from the time in my life where transitioning was still something I was doing and not something I had done.
One other thing you get rightis that, in fact, from the point of view of the queer theorists and the activists who follow them, wanting hormones and surgery is a profoundly conservative impulse as defined by the theorists and activists. Like marriage equality it does cede some realities that in a certain (politically) correct light be seen as conservative. In the latter case of marriage equality, it absolute cedes the conservative idea that marriage is a stabilizing force in the lives of individuals and communities. In the former case it concedes the “gender binary,” at least in as much as it doesn’t try to construe being transgendered as a third, fourth or twelfth gender and instead cedes that for the vast majority of people male and female more or less accurately.
One of the results of this has been that transwomen like myself have largely stepped back from the community and do not mentor people newly in transition. It is not that I don’t want to; it’s that I don’t think I have anything to offer. Rather, it is that what I have to offer puts me at odds with a lot of the trans community – at least that portion of it involved in conceiving “theory”. I am very pragmatic in my approach to transition. Questions I think a trans person needs to ask and find answers to are:
1) Am I going to stay in a field that I started as my birth gender or am I going to find a new career? (For me, I started young enough that I didn’t have a career, so I got into one because of the need for regular money in sums above and beyond sustenance levels and regular, reliable health insurance coverage)
1a) If the former, what do I do with my work history?
1b) If the latter, what kind of jobs can I find where I will make enough to actually be able to do this?
2) How am I going to broach this subject with my friends and family?
3) How do I do this?
These are no longer questions to ask, according to queer theorists.
I applaud your courage in taking on this topic. You are going to be flamed for it as sure as there will be men in Speedos at Gay Pride parades in a couple of weekends.
Another reader circles back to the beginning of the thread:
Kevin Williamson’s essay may be over the top in its callousness, but I have to say, I read a lot of lefty sites/news outlets, and the focus on “the T question” sort of takes me aback. Why so much focus for what may be, as you note, as little as 0.1 of the population? Why is this the premier civil rights question of our lifetime, as trans folks might have it?
Worse than this is the impulse, which you address, among trans activists to essentially burn down the existing societal framework due to its inherent oppressiveness and replace it with something new – something that people like myself, a married suburban father who bears no ill will toward the transgendered community – will be required to accept.
For example, the use of the term “cisgendered.” We’re now supposed to use this at all times, you realize; I’m supposed to refer to myself as “cisgendered,” as a rhetorical means of leveling the playing field. The 99 percent or 99.9 percent must now adopt the rhetorical demands of the trans activists lest we reveal ourselves to be utterly hateful.
But you know what? I don’t use the term “cisgendered” and I will not use the term “cisgendered.” I think the term itself and the supposed logic behind it are ridiculous. Do your own thing; live your own life, and I will insist that however you choose to do so, you are accorded the same legal rights and privileges that every other American possesses. But when that’s not good enough – when my refusal to think of myself as “cisgendered” or use the term marks me as a bigot – I’m off the bus.
(Photo: The bedroom door of a Dish reader’s 15-year-old daughter)
One of our G readers can relate:
I loved the email from your transgender reader, recounting the normalcy of her MTF life. I admire how she successfully navigates in her complicated hi-tech office world and rejects transgender movement cant. There were no weepy complaints about anti-trans “hate” – which exists, to be sure, but is often overblown. She’s essentially my trans-analog. As a gay man I experienced in the gay world what she’s experiencing as a trans person. I always wondered if there were people like her out there – so glad to hear there are.
When I came out 25 years ago, I thought I’d be meeting guys who were basically like my straight buddies, except for sexuality. I’d read Andrew Tobias’ book – I thought I knew how this coming out thing worked: lots of “regular guy” types, doing regular guy stuff, comfortable in their own skin with no interest in waging gender revolution.
Oh how wrong I was.
What I found was a community where most of the leaders, spokespeople, organizations, and figureheads were in full-scale retreat from gender, didn’t believe gender roles are biologically hard wired, and disliked even the slightest vestige of traditional masculinity. It took me a long time to adjust. I’d come out to a community that doesn’t really know what to make of people like me.
I sympathize with the DL gay athletes and celebs we read so much about. They are inevitably portrayed in the gay media as closet cases, cowering in fear, afraid to be true to themselves. It never occurs to the gay establishment that perhaps these guys are being true to themselves. Perhaps they don’t “come out” because they haven’t been offered anything worth coming out to. They see the gay community in 21st century America as a tedious bore, and at times a bit of a freak show.
Like your writer, I no longer truck with gay officialdom (I was an early member of my college gay rights group back in the day, and an original “ACTUP-er”). I have nothing to say to those folks that they are even remotely interested in hearing. I no longer describe myself, or even think of myself, as “gay”. The term is now about gender, not sexuality.
For men like me (not only comfortable, but raucously enthusiastic, about trad gender), it’s best to avoid Gayworld altogether. Like an agnostic in church, sooner or later it dawns on you to move along and find new friends. Let one of the true believers have the pew space.
I like the term “MSM” [Men who have Sex with Men], popular with DL African-American guys for years (although I realize black MSMs often have a touch of denial about sexual orientation, which seems to lead unsafe sex – not good). For “MSMs” like me, the Internet is perfect for finding like minded guys, and weeding out the rainbow-flaggers. I also believe the strictly apolitical bears represent a quiet rebuke to the gay left establishment. So I hang out with the bears whenever possible.
Gay groups that skew towards conservative interests are great places to meet normal gay guys. I go to Log Cabin meetings, even though I’m a moderate Democrat. I go to Dignity services, although I’m not a super devout Catholic. I hang out at gay country western bars, even though I don’t like country music. I’m not a great ballplayer, but I join the gay softball leagues. As a lawyer, I’ve found gay bar associations are a great place to socialize with like-minded guys, as long as the politicos aren’t in charge. I’m even trying to break into a cop/firefighter/military gay group, even though I’ve never been any of those things. Strange yes, but extreme measures are called for once you’ve lost interest in rainbow flag world.
Of course, I have huge sympathy for my reader. I’ve long had issues with a super-gay world as portrayed by the pomo-left tendency. And I think many in the gay community don’t fully understand how their hostility to old-fashioned comfort in one’s own gender marginalizes many who deserve no such thing. As more gay men come out, this has changed somewhat. There are now far more places for men who have no gender issues and who enjoy more traditionally masculine pastimes to meet and congregate and socialize and find husbands and boyfriends and flings. From a plethora of sports bars to sports teams to online hookups, “non-scene” gays now have a foothold. But it’s a precarious one, and often subject to a certain amount of shunning or even ridicule.
In some ways, the emphasis on military service and marriage equality was designed to create an atmosphere in which more gender-conforming gay men could feel welcome, enfranchised, and equal in both the gay and straight worlds, and, of course, to reach a place where that division is not so clear-cut. But it can also mean a drifting away from the gay “community” in favor of a simpler and less defined way of life as a man who can fall in love with another man, or just fuck one. That’s in part what I mean by the end of gay culture. It may also be a birth of a new, and more inclusive, one.