Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Genderqueer Individuals and the Trans Umbrella

Let me start off this post by saying that personally, I like my gender bent. I'm an intersex trans man who currently presents in a pretty generically masculine way, but I've always identified as genderqueer, on the femme side of manhood. As an intersex person I am perpetually aware of the medical violence done to my intersex kin in the name of enforcing dyadically-sexed body norms. I think that breaking down the insistence that there must be two and only two sexes, two and only two genders, is all to the good. I like a rainbow of bodies and identities. This doesn't mean I disrespect the large majority of people whose identities have developed in the context of our dyadic gender norms. But it pleases me to see people rock the gender binary boat, and I'm glad when trans people do it.

There's often bickering and conflict in any community about where to draw the boundaries for group membership. For the trans community, such as it is, one central debate is whether genderqueer people belong under the trans umbrella. Some trans folk believe that the boundary for who "counts" as trans should be easy to cross: anyone who self-identifies as trans on any basis that matters to them should be welcomed. Others define the "truly trans" around formal gender transition: anyone, genderqueer or binary in their identity, who seeks to take some transitional steps legally and/or medically can stand under the trans umbrella. Yet others are much more restrictive, seeing only binary gender-transitioners who transition surgically as "really trans," and others as confused people who deserve to stand out in the rain until they "make up their mind" and follow the medically-normalized, binary pathway to "sex change."

I'm inclusively-inclined, and don't feel marginalized communities do themselves any good by trying to define people out of the group. I hate it when people turn to a community for support, and instead face gatekeeping checks: "Prove you're intersex. Prove you're trans. Prove you're disabled. Prove you're Asian." So I accept as part of the trans community anyone who says they belong. However, I believe community membership entails duties to the community, and central among these are understanding the diversity within any community, recognizing one's own privileges, and working never to marginalize the most marginalized among us.

So it's from this position--full inclusion, celebration of gender diversity, and a demand that all of us be respectful to community members--that I address the issue of genderqueer people as members of the trans community.

I believe that sometimes genderqueer people are among the most marginalized of trans people, and other times, among the most privileged. As someone who ran the gauntlet of legal transition and seeking access to hormone therapy I can testify to the fact that this process is much more difficult for someone who tries to assert a genderqueer identity. I didn't have the strength to do it. I kept my lack of allegiance to the gender binary a secret and tried to answer all the gatekeeping questions in a traditionally masculine way and present myself as a standard guy. There's something very ironic in having to pass as something one is not (a manly, manly man) in order to be permitted to stop passing as something else one is not (a woman). And it makes passing through the gatekeeping system more complicated and nervewracking. However, I'm sure my experience was much easier than that of a person who tried to, say, assert a totally neutrois identity while seeking access to hormone therapy. I can but salute anyone who attempts to take the difficult path of seeking openly to transition to a nonbinary sex, and recognize that the barriers they face make them among the most marginalized of trans people.

At other times, however, genderqueer people are privileged in comparison to other trans folk. I acknowledge as having the right to trans community membership anyone who identifies with a gender other than one conforming to the sex they were assigned at birth. But it's important to distinguish between gender identity, gender presentation, and seeking to access gender transition services.

Anyone who doesn't identify with the gender society pushes on them suffers the pain of gender dysphoria. Our psychological suffering is equal and deep when we are misgendered by others, however we dress or groom ourselves and no matter what our transition status. A FAAB person who identifies as genderqueer but who presents as a gendernormative woman shares the emotional pain of a MAAB trans woman who has just come out at work when the two are called by the wrong pronoun by a customer. However, the material consequences are likely to be very different for the two individuals. The first person gets to go to work without facing transphobic harassment, while the second person's career is endangered.

There is a huge difference in the levels of harassment and marginalization faced in everyday life between those whose genderquerity is always visible to cis people and those who identify as genderqueer but who generally pass as cis people. Again, I can testify to this personally as a trans man who identifies as genderqueer but who is now often perceived by cis people to be a generic guy. I certainly enjoy wearing eyeliner and fishnets to a queer party, but most of the time I dress like a standard metrosexual male professor. I can teach, go shopping, attend my kid's school play and just go about my business. When my more androgynous trans woman spouse does the same things, she has to endure a barrage of stares and whispers and binary-enforcing confrontations ("Are you a dude or a chick?"). It's clear that because I can choose to present as genderconforming and I usually do, I am privileged. True, my privilege can evaporate in an instant when my trans status is revealed (and I've certainly had the experience of having a guy touch my chest and realize what I keep bound up in there). And there are plenty of circumstances in which I can't try to present as a cis man--any context requiring disrobing, for example. But by having the choice to be able to present as a binary man and by taking it, I enjoy privilege--albeit discreditable--that I need to acknowledge.

Genderqueer individuals who pass as cis people in a way that can't be discredited by a random touch enjoy even more privilege, and must acknowledge that too. People who are usually perceived by others to be members of the sex they were assigned at birth, whose ID cards all match that sex, and whose bodies present the expected genital configuration enjoy cis privilege. They may not want it, any more than I desire male privilege or white privilege, or any more than a MAAB individual who wishes to but is afraid to transition desires male privilege. But we all have to acknowledge each of the privileges we have, and how we benefit from them. To deny I get many privileges from being white would be racist. To deny I enjoy male privilege would be a sexist act. Not acknowledging one's privileges makes one complicit with marginalization.

An analogy: I had an acquaintance who identified as a person of color due to being Jewish. She was deeply aware of the fact that Jews were considered a “dark race” by Europeans a century ago, and how 6 million were exterminated as racial others in the Holocaust. She didn't identify with the experiences of Anglo Americans, and so she refused to check off “white” on forms and instead marked “other” and wrote in “Jewish.” She had an absolute right to identify as she did, and to seek to subvert our current definitions of race. But she was fair-skinned and blue eyed. When she would speak of her “experience as a person of color” and fail to distinguish between her lived experience in the contemporary United States and that of, say, a dark-skinned African American, I considered her way off base. She might not identify as white—but she enjoyed white privilege. By failing to acknowledge the difference between her nonwhite identity and the fact that her daily lived experience was one of a person perceived as white who was not trailed by store security, presumed to be in grad school due to affirmative action rather than merit, or any of the thousand other indignities faced by people of color, she was acting in a way I'd deem complicit with racism.

What I ask of genderqueer-identified people who are not seeking to transition legally and who pass as binary cis people in their ordinary daily lives is that you acknowledge the material cis privilege you enjoy, and how great it is, even if you suffer from the emotionally painful dysporia all trans people share. Don't equate your experiences as someone whose gender identification isn't reflected back to you by the cis masses to those of people who have gender transitioned and are often misgendered. Both of you may feel psychic pain, but the material consequences of the misgendering benefit a person who is not perceived as trans, and endanger a person who is. Use that privilege to speak up for your trans siblings and fight transphobia. But don't presume to judge a less privileged trans person who doesn't report an act of police harassment against them, or doesn't refuse to use the basement bathroom their boss orders them to use, or doesn't correct a teacher who misgenders them in front of a classroom full of people. Actions that may be safe for you may not be safe for them.

What I want from binary-identified trans people is that you accept genderqueer identities as equally valid gender identities. Don't presume that someone who says they are genderqueer is just "taking the easy way out" or "going through a stage." And please acknowledge that your genderqueer trans siblings who seek transition services are treading pathways even more difficult that your own, that put their access to transition services at risk if they refuse to keep their genderquerity in the closet.

What I want from everyone in the trans community, as a genderqueer-identified trans man, is that we do our best to walk under the trans umbrella together, being as careful as possible not to tread on one another's toes.


  1. Some of this stuff was a mouthful - mixing trans, gender, identity, expression, transition, society, power, -isms, etc - but you made excellent points.

    Like you, I believe in the power of inclusion, and of self-inclusion, and especially of mutual respect and acknowledgement. Policing is not positive.

    I could relate to some of what you said, that being one thing has its positives and its negatives. As a non-binary transperson who is transitioning, there are some aspects that are easier for me than for a binary transperson, and some aspects that are not, and both of those might be just one thing.

    For instance, I will never expect to consistently pass as not-a-girl, much less as my actual neutral gender. Binary-leaning people, after a few years of transition, usually don't have this issue. On the other hand, I am visibly queer because of the nature of my androgynous presentation, so I don't *need* to pass as a man/woman. But some transpeople, for mental, emotional, or even physical safety, do *need* to pass. So I don't pass consistently, and I likely never will, which is distressing, but it's not absolutely necessary for me and I am usually in no danger if I don't pass.

    Luckily for me, I have never had to lie about my identity to access any sort of medical transition, or mental health services (which I have yet to access, but they are available to me). But this is definitely a common problem I hear, even of binary transpeople who are barred from services they desperately need.

    Anyway, great post!

  2. I would just like to say, as someone coming to terms with their genderqueer-ness, this post is incredibly helpful. Thank you.

  3. This is a really great, thought-provoking, emotion-provoking post. Your perspective on these issues is greatly appreciated. Thank you :)

  4. I love your post :D I understand everything you said and fully support all Trans people however they choose to prevent themselves. I, too, fall under the LGBT category, being a lesbian myself. Although I can't undertand what it is like to be trans, or genderqueer or anything else, just know that the trans community fully has my support!

    The only thing is im still trying to learn when To use all these different trans terms and the differences between them. Its a very difficult thing as there's so many of them and not everybody fits one of these ones exactly but I will keep learning

  5. Apologies for commenting on a 2-year old post, but I love your blog and appreciate the way you articulate problematic aspects of queer culture and intersectionality in a way that's considered and respectful.

    It's in that light that I was brought up short by the phrase: "They may not want it, any more than I desire male privilege or white privilege, or any more than a MAAB individual who wishes to but is afraid to transition desires male privilege. But we all have to acknowledge each of the privileges we have, and how we benefit from them." Trans women do not and never "have male privilege". They may, if presenting as their assigned gender, receive some of the perks of being assumed male, but this is a long way from posessing the easy assumptions and iunquestioning mental attitudes that constitute "having male privilege" in the sense that it is used in most circles. Moreover, this plays into damaging transphobic stereotypes that transwomen are really men, that they're "socialised male" and will never be able to shake that off, and therefore represent dangerous threats or disruptive influences to women-only or lesbian communities.

    Obviously, I know from reading the rest of your writing that this is not an attitude you ascribe to in the slightest, but the phrase I quoted expresses a sentiment that I see creeping into more and more queer writing, as people attempt to (rightly) problematise the queer umbrella but slip into using language more often used to promote exclusion and cissexism.

  6. Wow. Trans friend posted this on fb today. Great article! two comments:

    1) In the past, I have always found it ironic and hypocritical that there are women-only events which deny entry to obvious M to F trans individuals on the basis that they are not woman-born women. Over the years, I have had an increasing number of trans friends and acquaintances whom I have enjoyed and supported. One of them however, has demonstrated that she grew up with and still behaves with the expectation of male privilege on multitude occasions. At least I now have some context for those events which make that decision (despite disagreeing with them). Any suggestions for feedback to her, should the opportunity to present itself?

    2) I am a white lesbian breast cancer survivor who has no breasts but is otherwise an obvious female. It's been four years since the operation. I recently spent an hour at the Canadian border being interrogated rudely by the Customs Officer. I could not figure out his hostility. Two weeks later I realized that he probably thought I was trans since I had on a camisole and nothing else (on top) because it was in the 90s and my car does not have A.C. My partner is Native American and I certainly notice the consistent difference between how I'm treated frequently when I'm with her! compared to how she is. But especially I notice how different my experience of the world is. I've grown immensely in my awareness of my various privileges theoughout the years, but this particular incident, once I finally figured it out, was a huge lesson.

  7. I want to respond to the issue of female-identified people having male privilege raised by the two prior comments. First, I would argue that people can experience privilege for being perceived as members of a group to which they do not belong. A trans* person who is perceived as being cis gender receives cis privilege (albeit discreditable). A person of color who is taken for white receives white privilege in that context. And a female (cis or trans*) who is perceived as a cis straight man receives male privilege in that situation. This is true however these people were socialized and whether they wish to be perceived as they are, or hate it.

    Now, as for the idea that trans* women are "socialized male" (or vice versa), I disagree, because we are active participants in our own socialization. To be very simplistic, if a teacher were to say, "Boys use their fists to settle arguments, but girls use words," chldren who *identify as male* would attend to the first (silly) assertion, and children who *identify as female* would attend the second. That said, we are shaped by others' nonverbal cues all the time as well. For example, people tend to respond with raised eyebrows or wrinkled noses to a loud belch when they perceive the person emitting it to be female, but not when they perceive the person to be male. So unless the person in question has spend time thinking consciously about the issue of burping and how they do it, their burping practices are likely to be more strongly shaped by perceived sex than by gender identity. Thus, people who gender transition often encounter embodied habits that they have to alter consciously. It's complicated. But what quendergeer says is very true: people often try to discredit trans* women and exclude them from female-only spaces based on an assertion that because trans women were "socialized as men," they present a threat to (cis) women. And this is utter bullpucky. Trans* women suffer much more harassment in bathrooms than do cis women, have an appallingly high level of sexual assault victimization, and are the group most in need of a safe space.

    Spiritualsinger, my response to your scenario is that some people are kind of jerks. Cis or trans*, whatever their gender, some people act entitled, or boorish, or selfcentered, or are poor listeners. The appropriate thing to do is to address that behavior, not exclude an entire category of people that you stereotype as more likely to engage in it. I don't know what behavior you are categorizing as "male privileged" in which your acquaintance engages, but address it directly, without presenting it as a failure on her part of "acting like a real woman." I go to meetings with cis women who talk over other people all the time, for example, and my response is not to challenge their gender identity or accuse them of being incorrectly socialized. I just ask them to please notice that someone else was starting to speak, and to give that more quiet person a chance.

    Trans* women are women and belong in women's spaces; trans* men are men and do not belong there. Excluding all trans* women from a "safe space" that isn't actually, because a boorish cis woman is there, is just sad.

  8. I agree strongly with everything you wrote here except for one small point:

    "What I ask of genderqueer-identified people who are not seeking to transition legally and who pass as binary cis people in their ordinary daily lives is that you acknowledge the material cis privilege you enjoy"

    I would call what I have "closet privilege" or "passing privilege" not "cis privilege". In order to have cis privilege I would have to BE cis and I am not. It may look very similar on the surface and have many of the same consequences for me personally, but it is a different thing because of all the other stuff you mentioned.

  9. Hey there, I know this is an old post but I thought your article was awesome! I'm a trans woman (heavily "binary" identified) who is easily triggered. I want a world where we can all be respectful of the multitude of genders and identities out there, but often have a hard time thinking about how to go about creating such a world. Whats on my mind a lot right now is pronouns. I know I'm privileged and that I pass ok (still get he'd a lot even when I throw out my busty tits), but I seriously depend on being gendered correctly in order to function in society. I know that sounds whiny but it is what it is. I seriously could not function in a world where people were not able to identify me as female with some ease. Its so bad that being asked about presentation or pronoun preference is triggering (my fucked up brain makes that feel worse than being called he sometimes) to the extent that I avoid all places where that might happen. On the other hand I can imagine how awful and fucked up it is for non-binary, gender queer and a-gendered folks to have to live life where they are constantly misgendered. I don't want others to go through what I go through even at the cost of me not getting what I want or need. That said, I'm sure there are a lot of binary folks (and possibly "third gendered" folks(?)) who experience the same level of paralyzing triggering that I do when they are misgendered. I worry constantly that its impossible to create a world where we can accommodate everyone. Please please please correct me if I'm wrong, but It seems necessary to use "gender neutral" pronouns or to ask people about pronoun preferences in order to create such a world. I fear it, because if that became a part of my daily routine and I had to constantly tell strangers my gender, that I'd basically have to become a hermit, or end my life. I KNOW that sounds extreme and probably is, maybe not that many people experience extreme dysphoria around pronouns the way I do, but its the reality I would face. I can't work my way around this hypothetical block. I want to know a better way to address this issue so I can promote it in my own life, in my own advocacy. I want to respect people of all genders while feeling my own will still be validated. Sometimes I think that it would be good to separate binary trans people from the umbrella, but then that wouldn't really solve the issue, and I'm sure we'd be thrown under the bus even more if that happened. Or are people like me just too sensitive, do we need to shut up? Do we need to sacrifice our needs for the greater good? Sorry for the ramble wall of text, but I suck at explaining myself especially when experiencing high anxiety.