In-Fighting Among Trans People

My sister recently sent me this very interesting article by Jen Richards on the topic of in-fighting in the trans community. We have both observed and talked about the phenomenon. While every community has issues with members not getting along, trans people in particular tend to pick on each other for… god, at this point nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen flame wars that erupted over whether you put a space between trans man and trans woman or whether it’s okay to write transman and transwoman*. Most commonly, though, the issue revolves around fights between people whose experiences of their transition were different; because one had intense physical dysphoria and another felt indifferent to their body but more comfortable socially after transitioning; because one person was fairly binary and one very genderqueer; because one was an FtM who resents the way MtFs dominate the trans narrative and the other was an MtF who resents the way FtMs fly under the radar and get slightly less murdered. There are even more examples in that article, and I’m sure anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in trans circles has their own stories.

I think the author described the phenomenon very well, but I’m not sure I agree with what she identifies as the cause. She suggests that queer white trans women are typically the most visible, and so they lead the narrative, but often they have little experience of overt oppression. The shock of the change is one they are ill equipped to deal with. Many do become wonderful advocates (love you Kate Bornstein!) but some do not, and the loud, ugly voices can drown out the others. This makes sense, but the reason I disagree is that most of the aggression I’ve seen has come from white trans men… but that might be just because I’ve mostly been exposed to trans men. So initially I discounted that, but then I thought, “well, maybe she’s overrating the number of vitriolic queer white trans women for the same reason.” Maybe if you polled any type of trans person, they would say their type is the worst, simply because they see plenty of the good and bad while the only other trans voices that transcend the boundaries are the most decent, level-headed ones. Or maybe not. I really don’t know.

Her post did give me another thought though; the trans movement may be at a disadvantage because of how much intersectionality is inherently involved. Intersectionality always complicates discussions of privilege and oppression. Most groups get to talk about intersectionality as a secondary issue. You can talk about the way society treats women, and come up with some things that apply across the board, and then get into how race, ability, economic status, queerness etc tweaks their experience of misogyny. This makes it easier to come up with a basic message and platform, and intersectionality can branch off of that. But if you are talking about trans issues, no less than three identities intersect.

First, there’s the gender identity itself. Depending on whether you are MtF/transfeminine or FtM/transmasculine, the rules you are raised with, the rules you need to get used to and the way people react as you present opposite to your assigned sex are all very different. Second, there’s orientation. Now, who you are attracted does not have anything to do with who you feel you are… except that society conflates the two so often that orientation inevitably becomes part of a discussion about gender identity, if for no other reason than to clarify. Furthermore, switching from gay to straight or vice versa is such a shift in dating worlds, it does become a significant part of many trans experiences. Even bisexuals have to tread some new waters. Finally, there’s binary vs non-binary. Do you feel wholly male, or was male just closer-enough, or are you not medically transitioning because even though you have “man days” being seen as a woman is comfortable enough that full transition isn’t worth the hassle? Do you fall outside of that spectrum completely?

Just imagine if every discussion of race had to also include gender and disability, with the latter requiring an intensive discussion of how disabilities can be invisible or visible, cognitive or physical, and include everything from your basic paraplegia or depression to something as rare and complex as progeria or Harlequin Ichthyosis? It would be so difficult for anyone to get even remotely close to honest, accurate representation of their unique combination of identities. Unless the situation was handled very openly and delicately, you would end up with a lot of people getting completely pissed at each other for hogging their spotlight.

Because this is what we have to deal with in trans spaces, people who want to be included end up feeling vulnerable and neglected in the very place they went to feel safe. Some of them take it out on other trans people, and a vicious cycle emerges.
I do think there is one bright aspect to this issue. It is true, I think, that trans advocates tend to be more bitter, vitriolic and in-fighting-y than other social justice groups. But I also think that when they aren’t like that, they are some of the best groups out there. In trans advocacy, the learning curve is steep, so you either grab up the nastiest tactics of activism and use them to get revenge on everyone who you think is hurting less than you, or you learn quickly to be truly sensitive and accepting of everyone.
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’m going to blatantly steal. This is from Jen Richards’ conclusion in that article linked above; “There is no simple solution to these issues. Which isn’t the point. Truly supporting trans people will require education and patience. It will require an effort to know us and our issues well enough to make informed decisions… There is a crisis facing trans people, and the response will need to be as intersectional, sophisticated, and persistent as the causes. There doesn’t need to be a singular trans movement to rise to that challenge.”
Well said. Good luck to all of us.
*I think the space looks better, but people, let’s not lose our heads over this. Especially if the context is “um, hi guys, I’ve felt really awkward all my life and I think I might be a transman… I don’t know what to do nobody I know is trans somebody please help I’m 17 btw.”

Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.