Why it’s okay to identify as a different gender but not as a different race

[Edited to add: Kat Blaque has made a fantastic video answering the same question (with transcript for those like me who don’t take in video that well.) I strongly suggest you watch/read that first, then come back and read this if you want.]

I don’t often write about current news stories — in part because my writing process is way too long — but this Rachel Dolezal thing has taken up occupancy in my brain and won’t let go… specifically, the question many people are throwing out, “Why is it okay to identify as a different gender but not as a different race?” The part of me that loves to educate meets the part of me that’s still working to comprehend issues of race and racism meets the part of me that goes all Big Sister Bear when trans* acceptance is threatened. And, coincidentally, the day before the Dolezal story broke, I had been texting with Lane about why I don’t think it’s fair to compare cross-dressing to blackface. So I was already primed to have this discussion. Gender and race have some stuff in common. They’re social constructions, centered around aspects of our bodies. They’re axes of oppression. They’re important parts of many people’s identities. But just because they have those things in common doesn’t mean they’re the same, and it doesn’t mean an analogy between them is valid. In this case, it’s hugely harmful to black people and trans people alike. Janet Mock lays it out, but if you want more detail and explanation, I’ve tried to hash out some of the issues below. I know a fair bit about gender, and a little bit about race. I’m indebted to several black (and other PoC) writers and tweeters for helping me understand the racial aspect of this question better, and I’ve linked to them at the relevant points. There’s a lot I’ve left out and probably a couple of things I’ve gotten wrong. (Up until yesterday, I’d been saying that “transracial” isn’t a thing. Turns out it is, just not in the way it’s being used here.) If this is an issue you’re interested in, I urge you to keep searching out other writings on it, especially writings by trans people and people of color. One more note: while most of the current buzz has been comparing “transracial” to transgender identities, there are also comparisons to be made with men who identify as men in their everyday lives, but who sometimes present publicly as female/feminine — drag performers and people who cross-dress socially on occasion. At different points below, I talk about cross-dressing men, trans women, or both. Please don’t conflate or confuse the two groups: trans women are women who were assigned male at birth (AMAB), and cross-dressing men might be genderqueer, but often are quite comfortable identifying as men who sometimes express themselves through femininity. The important similarity here is that the same question has been raised around both groups: “Isn’t that just as bad as blackface?” Okay, let’s get to it: some of the key differences between gender and race, that make the transgender=transracial analogy just plain wrong. Different histories around cross-presentation Blackface, historically, has been used to entertain white people, mocking and caricaturizing a white view of blackness. It centers around exoticizing and “othering” blackness, while affirming the whiteness of everybody in the space. Even in cases where blackface performers thought they were showing respect and appreciation for pieces of black culture, what they were actually doing was hugely appropriative, carefully calculated enjoy what they wanted while distancing themselves from actual black people and their needs and humanity. (See below for more on appopriation.) And, of course, many times blackface was simply mean-spirited and contemptuous. Male cross-dressing*, on the other hand, has historically been about self-expression of the man himself. While I’m sure there have been times and places where men put on exaggerated femininity for the amusement of other men, it’s not a big piece of our cultural consciousness the way blackface is. The closest I can think of is in cases where a junior man is forced to wear a dress or act feminine as part of a hazing-type ritual. This is clearly a case where femininity is being ridiculed and masculinity affirmed, but in these cases the person doing the cross-dressing is being compelled by higher-status men, and part of the point is humiliation of the cross-dresser. Men who voluntarily cross-dress and put on femininity, whether on a stage or on the streets, are doing a very different thing (and most men would be very careful to distinguish between the two.) Rather than “othering” femininity, they’re embracing it. If the distinction still isn’t clear, consider: a white person who performed in blackface wouldn’t face any questioning of his whiteness, while a man who voluntarily cross-dresses instantly faces questioning of how much of a man he really is. Blackface serves to reify whiteness and otherize blackness, while crossdressing blurs the line between masculine and feminine. *(Trans womanhood isn’t applicable here at all, since womanhood is not a role trans women put on and take off.) Different histories around appropriation Appropriation and colonization make up a large part of racial oppression. We white folk have a nasty habit of saying to communities of color, “Oh you’ve got something we like? Cool, it’s ours now.” It happens with land, with neighborhoods, with music, with language… we take what we want and leave the people who created or nurtured it to fend for themselves. It’s not the only shitty thing white people do to people of color, but it’s a big one and covers a lot of the turf. So when a white woman occupies black spaces, takes scholarships designed for black women, and claims black experience as her own, it comes in the context of an overwhelming trend of appropriation, which can’t be ignored. Sexist oppression contains some forms of appropriation — men taking credit for ideas women had years earlier comes to mind — but it’s much less central and common. On the contrary, sexist oppression tends to involve male contempt for femininity and rejection of the feminine, except as a means to be served (sexually or maternally.) It is the cis female body that patriarchal maleness claims ownership over, not femininity or womanhood itself. So a man or male-assigned person taking on femininity does not resonate with years of former oppression, as this Rachel Dolezal thing does. Oppression of AMAB femininity Building on the previous point, men who crossdress and trans women are, in general, taking a on more dangerous and scorned identity than simply “woman.” If the wrong person reads them, they risk violence or murder (especially if they’re a person of color.) And even without the violence, they are subject to ridicule and contempt at nearly every turn. Sitcoms and stand-ups still feel quite free to use trans women as punchlines, erasing their humanity and treating them as freaks. A trans woman (and, to a lesser extent, a man crossdressing publicly) is not taking a risk-free dabble in the pool of femininity: she is swimming against a strong social tide that says it’s wrong and laughable to be what she is. With the side benefit of wondering if today’s going to be the day some dude assaults her because he finds her existence offensive. What’s going to happen to Rachel Dolezal, or any white woman who poses as a person of color? A bunch of people will get real mad. Maybe she’ll lose her job. She probably will be the punchline of some jokes, but they’ll fade away as the news story fades from public interest. This is what it looks like when privilege takes a dabble in the pool of oppression. The realness of transgender identities For a trans person, gender identification goes far beyond playing. We do not have a detailed and clear-cut understanding of the biological and social factors that make some people cis and some trans. What we do know is that in every culture and every era of history, there have been people who identified as a different gender than the one they were assigned. We have unfortunate reams of psychological data showing that gender dysphoria is real, and potentially deadly. Even before we began to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with being trans, scientists recognized that, for someone with a strong trans identity, it was easier to change the body than the brain. All philosophy aside, it is a matter of human decency to recognize transgender as a normal variant of human gender identity. People literally suffer and die when we don’t. If there’s a similar widespread phenomenon, of people feeling a strong internal identity with another race and suffering acute psychological distress when this is denied (apart from the social advantages and disadvantages that come from a particular racial identity), I’ve never heard of it. I suspect there isn’t, because gender and race are differently situated within the individual psyche. Gender is universal in a way specific race isn’t Gender, in a way, belongs to all of us. Man or woman, cis or trans, we started with the same set of tubes and gonads. They developed along different lines in utero, but we started out the same (and there are more diverse pathways and combinations than you might think). Man or woman, cis or trans, we have both estrogen and testosterone in our bodies. And whatever personality traits our culture associates with masculinity and femininity, we all have some traits that fall on either side of the line. We all have a little bit of male and female within us. Playing with gender, in a spirit of self-expression, is a birthright that belongs to all of us, whether we choose to claim it or not. We don’t have the same kind of claim to different racial identities. I may enjoy, for example, music that came out of black communities, but that doesn’t mean I’m “a little bit black” in any way. No part of my history or genetics gives me the right to claim blackness as a legitimate means of self-expression. Some people do have access to multiple racial identities — people of mixed racial background, or people who were adopted into a family of a different race. These people may have some leeway to play with “racial expression” in the way that all of us have the right to play with gender expression. But it’s still limited: if you’re half white and half Asian, you don’t get to claim blackness as an identity. And this “leeway” comes with a lot of identity struggle and having people deny or erase your identity. And let’s keep in mind that cross-racial identification, even for those whose family gives them that right, is pretty much a one-way street. Someone whose appearance is read by society as white might be able to play with different racial identities, but someone who’s darker-skinned doesn’t get to play at being white. If this whole #WrongSkin concept catches on, is a dark-skinned person going to be able to say, “I’m really a white person born black” and have all of society start treating them as white? Nope. Not gonna happen. The bottom line: you can’t ignore oppression I long for a society where we take a transgender person’s word about their identity and treat them as the gender they have told us they are — whether they’re a man or a woman. In the parallel case people are trying to make, what would it mean to create a society where a black person could say “I’m really white inside” and we start treating them as white? “You’re white now, so we won’t follow you around the store expecting you to steal something, and we’ll allow you due process and reasonable response, and we’ll give you better jobs and not expect you to constantly prove yourself”? This is not the utopia I’m looking for. We don’t want to remove racist oppression by letting black people be white… we want to remove it by, you know, actually not being racist anymore. Race is not just a matter of oppression and privilege, but oppression and privilege are so overwhelming right now that they pretty much dominate the scene when we’re talking about racial identity. We can’t ignore them and just treat racial identity as a matter of personal self-expression. If we were to take this #WrongSkin notion and run with it, all we’d be doing is increasing opportunities for white and very light-skinned folk, while leaving people who couldn’t pass for white in the same position they were in… except more of the jobs and scholarships that we’ve been striving to create for them are being taken by “black inside” white people. Again… this is not the utopia I’m looking for. I hope I’ve helped in explaining some of the “whys”. I welcome questions and corrections in the comments. On the simple “what,” Janet Mock deserves the final word:

A voice and its uses

This has been a really great week. Last Friday, my first article on abuse in polyamory went up on Everyday Feminism, which got great responses and brought me a lot of new followers (a belated hi and welcome! to all of you.) On Wednesday, The Toast published my piece about my relationship with my best friend. I’ve been wanting a way to share this story for a long time, and I’ve been a huge fan of The Toast since they started (this was the first piece I read and it’s been pure and devoted love ever since), and I was BONKERS excited that they wanted to publish my piece.

And this morning, my brother (and co-blogger!) Lane and I presented at the Philadephia Trans-Health Conference about dealing with partially-supportive family in the process of coming out and transitioning. We had an astonishing turnout, especially since it was at 8:45 on a Friday morning, and it was awesome to get to stand up with him and share with a group about the experiences we’ve had. A lot of people said our talk was helpful to them, which always makes me happy. (We may write up some of our talking points here at a later time.)

So it’s been a great week for sharing my stories and using my experiences, some of them pretty awful at the time, in ways that are helpful to others. But life can’t be sunshine and rainbows all the time, and today a thing happened that I’ve been braced for since October… my ex-boyfriend, who was emotionally and sexually abusive, posted one of his many attacks on my ex-husband Shaun, and used the fact that I left Shaun after he hit me as part of his ammo.

He was able to do this because I mention that in the piece about my best friend. I thought long and hard about including that, but decided to go ahead because it is true, and that’s a part of my story that I have every right to tell when and where I want to. I don’t want to tiptoe around what happened, regardless of how it might make others uncomfortable or be used by people who hate me. I’ve been finding my voice this year and I’m not willing to throttle it back.

But I’ve always known that one consequence of doing this would be that my ex-boyfriend would immediately pick up on it and use Shaun’s treatment of me as another example of why Shaun is an evil person who should be shunned by everybody, while still shrugging off and making excuses for the abuses and assaults he perpetrated on me. And there’s no way I can effectively stop him from doing this, nor am I going to try. I’m just going to say, publicly and for the record, that I utterly repudiate this person’s use of my experiences, which I never shared or discussed with him, against my former husband. It is appallingly disrespectful to use (and distort) my voice and story when it suits him and ignore, minimize, and attack it when it doesn’t. It’s also exactly what I expected of him.

I’m not going to link to the post; in addition to the disrespect he shows me, what he writes is false and misleading in several respects, and continues his pattern of discussing sexual encounters without the consent of the other people he names as involved.

Also for the record, if I believed Shaun to be a danger to other women (in the way I do believe my ex-boyfriend to be a danger to women and communities), I would speak out about it; not because as a survivor I owe it to my community, but because I have found power and healing in speaking out, and because I do think it helps for those of us who are willing to share openly about our experiences. I don’t believe that, so I haven’t said anything. I don’t feel unsafe sharing a space with him or attending a conference he will also be at. I did and do feel unsafe sharing a space with my rapey abusive ex, and I will continue to avoid any conferences or social groups where he is welcome. If anybody wants to hear more from me, I am willing to be contacted with questions (except by the ex-boyfriend I’m discussing; any contact from him, I will continue to view as harassment.)

Anyway. I have, as I say, been finding my voice this year. And one thing I’m learning is that when I speak, other people may choose to use my words in ways I didn’t intend and don’t appreciate. That doesn’t erase the value or power of my voice — that’s not something they can take away from me. But it’s one more thing for me to speak about.

My Original Sin

As a young Christian, I had a problem. I was too good.

I know, what an arrogant thing to say. I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, so let me take a moment to clarify. There were times I did bad things. I would promise to do something and then forget. I would leave my chores undone even though I knew mess really bothered my father. I, um… sometimes even though I knew God wanted me to give up something meaningful for Lent, the only thing I could think of that I loved enough to give up was Doctor Who, and I really didn’t want to give up Doctor Who. It made me happy when everything else felt empty.

See, that’s my problem. I’m trying to think of things that were bad, and that I would have considered bad at the time. There are things that I thought were right, but now regret. All the times I was arrogant and judgmental, all the times I proselytized at people who just wanted to get on with the theater rehearsal, all the misinformation I spread, all the gay-bashing I participated in. I also had shitty social skills and said hurtful things sometimes. Also, if you’re looking at, say, my childhood before I was seven or eight, there were plenty of times I lied or broke things or even stole. But I really wanted to be good. I was very motivated to live according to the rules that were taught to me. Recently I discovered a British comedy called “Would I Lie To You?” where contestants share weird anecdotes and their opponents have to figure out which are true and which are lies. While I was watching, I realized that from ages 7 to 17, I have no memory of lying. My sister can’t remember me lying either. I remember telling truths when I was terrified, when I felt certain that honesty would get me punished. I even remember telling the truth when I thought honesty would get me punished unfairly. The idea of lying was so terrifying to me I feel like I would have remembered it if I had. It’s hard to say for certain, but I’m fairly sure I went for about a decade without telling a lie.

My point is, once I was neurologically developed enough to have a reasonable amount of self-control, I followed the rules really, really well.

This was a problem because I was supposed to be a sinner. I was supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at the great love my redeemer had shown me in dying for my sin. I was supposed to understand that all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that if I thought I was perfect, that just meant I was full of pride. All week, I would struggle to do good, and then on Sunday, at confession time, I would wrack my brains to think of something to confess, and the fact that I couldn’t think of anything filled me with guilt and terror.

This post reminded me of that. As a Christian I thought I was alone. I thought everyone else was easily caught up in this beautiful cycle of sin/forgive, and I was left out, because either I was too good to be forgiven, or too sinful to see my own sin. I wanted to confess my pride, and sometimes I did. It never felt adequate, because it was not a genuine confession that came from understanding that I had sinned, just a desperate prayer to cover my ass. Now, coming out of religion, I see my experience reflected so often. So many decent people, told again and again that they were bad.

Polyamory and flexibility

Over the last week, I’ve had a couple different conversations with poly friends of mine where they expressed a similar idea: “Now that I’m poly, I find I’m not making plans more than a year or two down the road, because you never know what will happen.” It was an interesting point and got me thinking. The friends I was talking to all came to polyamory by opening up a monogamous marriage, so for them, there was a time when the future seemed more predictable. Monogamous marriage (or intentional long-term partnership) brings a certain stability: while jobs and education and health might be up in the air, you can make plans around your home and future with the assumption that the needs and preferences you both have are the deciding factors. You can look down the road, based on what you know about yourself and your partner, and make some pretty solid predictions about what kind of plans will suit the two of you in the long term.

By leaving open the possibility of falling in love and sharing a life with another person — somebody you haven’t even met — polyamory destabilizes this kind of long-term planning. Just about this time last year, I went to visit my newish friend Galia at her apartment, and we talked about how happy she was there and how much she loved her housemates. They had a cute little picture on the fridge that she had made, of great things that come in threes. While none of them were ready to make a ten-year plan, they were happy and stable together and didn’t foresee making any big changes in the near future.

It's still on our fridge because it's awesome.
It’s still on our fridge because it’s awesome.

Well, then one of her housemates and I fell in love and we all moved to a bigger place so I could live with them. Destabilizing influence, right here! And while our household is basically the best and I hope we all live together forever, I never think about the future without keeping in mind that any of the four of us could, again, fall in love with somebody and want to share a home with them, which would again change our situation one way or another. I would never want to keep Galia or Claire or Greg from sharing a home with somebody they loved, just because I like what we have here now. And even if we all click and want to keep living together, a new person may have needs and preferences around where they live, and what kind of home they want, that we’ll need to work into our decisions. So there are a lot of built-in question marks when I think about the future.

It’s natural to want stability and predictability about your future — I certainly do. And a lot of poly people find ways to grasp at it. Polyfidelity, where there are multiple adults in the household but they’re not open to seeking new partners, is one such way… another is strict hierarchy, where you put limits on how much a new partner is able to impact your lives. These approaches allow people to feel like they know who is going to be shaping their future, and ensure that new people won’t have a too disruptive effect on the life they’ve built.

I also suspect that the stability aspect is a big reason some people choose monogamy; the value of getting to pursue multiple relationships just isn’t worth the trade in stability. That’s a totally reasonable decision; since becoming poly, I’ve had moments of wondering for myself whether the trade-off is worth it to me. So, while I’m about to start praising the value of planned instability, I want to make it clear that I don’t think preferring stability and predictability is a bad thing. A certain level of stability is necessary for all of us to function, and some people have a higher threshhold, and that’s fine.

I think there’s a lot of value in stretching my comfort zone around instability, and I really appreciate the way polyamory nudges me in that direction. Mostly because a planned and stable future is pretty much an illusion anyway. Another conversation I’ve had a couple of times lately is about divorce, and how one of the things you mourn during a divorce is the future you planned on having. Which is silly, because that future never existed… it was only ever real in your mind. But it’s also deeply not silly, because things that are real in your mind are real. Our dreams and plans for the future are vital parts of who we are today — I wouldn’t know how to give mine up, even if I thought it was a good idea.

But I do best when I think of the future less as a contract I’ve made with the world — “if I hold up my end and walk steadily down this path, the future I planned will be at the end of it” — and more as a way of expressing my needs, wishes, and values. When I think of the future as something I can plan and map a route toward, I feel crushing disappointment and confusion when I fail to get there, or when something unexpected makes the route impassable. When I think of it more as a way of saying, “This is what’s important to me, this is a way I can imagine being happy and fulfilled down the road,” then I can weather change and disappointment more gracefully. I can take stock of my new circumstances, and dream up a new way of being happy and fulfilled that fits with them. The needs, wishes, and values that were at the heart of my former future plan don’t change (necessarily)… I just find a new way of expressing them.

I say it like it’s easy, but it’s not, for me. I’m still very prone to latch onto a single vision of the future like a security blanket. That’s why I appreciate the built-in instability of polyamory. If I were monogamous, or in a more rigid form of poly, I’d find it easier to ignore the possibility that my carefully built plans could be thrown off by an unforeseen event. Living in a home with four poly adults, though, I’d be foolish not to expect the unexpected. And being prepared for change in the shape of someone’s new lover helps me also be ready for any other changes that may come down the road. My security comes from knowing that I’m loved, that the people closest to me will be kind and considerate to me, whatever changes may come, and ultimately, that I have the will and the resources to take care of myself.