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Friday, September 09, 2005

Trannier than thou

As the world starts getting a little tougher, and a little tougher, people seem to be practicing up on their skills in deciding who will be left behind.

I have been aware all along that there is bigotry towards transpeople, though I have seldom encountered it myself, except from endocrinologists who "don't do that kind of work," and that not all of this comes from straight people. Occasionally I run across examples of "LGB" that would rather not have "T" but that, too, has been rare in my experience.

No, what I've seen the most of, sad to say, is a syndrome I've heard called "Trannier than thou."

It crops up a lot on bulletin boards and listservs, which are rife with shouting matches between people who have never met in person. I sometimes sigh and resign from one, only to have it crop up on another. After about the twentieth back-and-forth venomous message on this topic I tend to hit the eject button.

The categories for exclusion are numerous. Some younger post-operative transsexuals disdain, or are even angry with, older transitioners for having stayed in their birth gender for half a century, enjoying the benefits of being "straight," such as marriage, children, perhaps even a career, and then, when most of the barriers to a sudden change have weakened, ta-daaaa!

Forgetting that when the older people were young, it was a time when everything was harder to achieve: finding a sympathetic and experienced counselor and doctor, access to hormones, and a good surgeon. And the prospect of no longer being able to find work was much higher. Many (myself included) went years not knowing what a transsexual was! So we tried to get by on being transvestites, and hating it, partly because many of us didn't get the buzz from it that true transvestites seem to -- just an eternal inexpressible yearning.

Older transpeople, in turn, seem to disdain the younger ones -- "too political" -- "too idealistic" -- and shake their heads over the unfathomable, to them, rise of the genderqueers.

Some post-ops assume a role of "graduate" transsexuals and act patronizingly toward pre-op "undergrads."

Many transpeople, post- and pre-op alike, disdain transvestites and cross-dressers, assuming that cross-dressing can be reduced to the acting out of masturbatory fantasies. There is some truth to what's worrying them, which is that the straight public, and especially puritanical bigots, will confuse them with "those people," and resist their efforts to gain equal access to restrooms or other "sex" segregated facilities. But by attempting to distance themselves from CDs, they're (we're) being reactive, not proactive. It amounts to "hey, I'm not them, discriminate against them, not me."

Not good.

The technical term for all this is internalized transphobia.

That's getting close to the point that's on my mind, but while we're here, let's drag a few more prejudices out of the closet.

All of the above tend to unite in disdain for one of the oldest groups in the gender-variant world, the drag queens (drag kings seem to be astonishingly exempt -- perhaps much of the lesbian community holds "woman born woman" as primary, regardless of how a born woman dresses or acts, or why).

There was a time when being a queen was about all that was open for a born male to "transition" to. A fiercely loyal and insular community, much reviled (and much desired), built up around female impersonation, continuing as a culture today that has considerable depth and vitality.

Drag queens have discovered an ancient safe zone, and exploited it to the hilt for needed self-expression and a means to social status among their peers, as well as some shelter from the disapproval and sometimes violent reactions of the outside world.

The stage, which evolved from the village dancing grounds of prehistory, was and still is, like those dancing grounds, a sacred space. Actors, dancers and singers are separated from the audience by silent assent to an unspoken contract like that between the priest and congregation in a church -- that the audience will be transported, for a time, beyond the boundaries of everyday life, adding a richness to their experience otherwise unattainable. In exchange for which, the performers obtain a certain immunity from harm, and perhaps even income.

In general, the formula has worked better than any available alternatives for over a century; hence the extent of this culture. But danger remains high.

There's a sense of pent-up energy unleashed in drag shows, the surface of which is joi-de-vivre, the undertow of which is tragedy and sadness. Most, though not all, queens are gay males. Many have self-esteem issues, dating back to family rejection, and their performance milieu is rife with access to alcohol, other harsh drugs, and men with STDs or dangerous agendas. Many have lost friends to one or more of these. There's a wisdom, acquired through excess exposure to humanity's darker impulses, that many queens have, especially as they grow older, but it's not always on display -- there is a wariness here that often comes across as hatefulness:

Can I trust you? Probably not. Please go away.

Many drag performances embody complex aspects of distrust, despair, and ironic social commentary that comes across to outsiders as misogyny. While some performers undoubtedly cross this line, I would only note that idealists make a poor audience for satire and should perhaps not frequent drag clubs.

At the bottom of all this presumed hierarchy are prostitutes, porn models, and porn actresses, many of them the most disdained of all: she-males. And the most-most disdained: transwomen and she-males in the sex trades who are women of color.

A she-male, as a rule, is a born male who uses silicone instead of hormone replacement therapy for feminization. They also may use facial feminization therapy and electrolysis or laser, and their public presentation is very convincing. But they avoid hormones.

This is frequently for the purpose of allowing themselves to be exploited for their ability to maintain an erection, which is very important to a wide constituency of mostly "heterosexual" males who are in denial about their sexual orientation. "It's not gay if you can pretend it's a girl." She-male porn and escort industries amount to a billion-plus-dollar trade.

There are many transfolk who find that, just as they are hated, and opportunities for housing and employment are denied them, they are also desired -- and sex work represents, sometimes, the only income they feel they can realistically access, frequently rationalized as just 'til I get my operation." But it is put off, often as the result of easy access to debilitatingly addictive drugs which become attractive in this stressful setting.

Some actually manage to fund their sexual reassigment operations and even their educations in this way, escaping back into the hetero mainstream with little or no former history, which is known as "going stealth." If no one knows you were born the other gender, this is called "deep stealth," but especially under the Bush administration' open hostility to transpeople and Homeland Security's obsession with tracking identity changes, this is becoming more difficult over time. I have a few friends who have pulled this off. They all tell me the odds were long, and that they feel fortunate not to have acquired AIDS, or long, rape-infested jail time, or a junkie's tombstone.

Heterosexual society tends to lump all gender-variant people into a single category associated with an obsession (their own, really) with "deviant" sex. They may feel justified in this assumption if they can point to queens, CDs, pre-ops and she-males, especially those working in the sex trade, and somehow extrapolate from these to some idea of "sexual predators."

The strange thing, and it's what's on my mind today, is that the LGBTQI community at large tends to take the same view or to be sadly fearful of advocating for the rights of gender-variant people, sometimes drawing one line or another one through the trans "hierarchy," but seldom accepting all.

When the first Pride parades marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion was inaugurated, queens and transpeople were denied participation. The organizers did not relent until twenty years of parades had marched by.

Yet witnesses say it was the late Sylvia Rivera, for whom the Sylvia Rivera Law Project has been named, who threw the first bottle. And was followed up by the other queens, many of whom were pre-op transsexuals with little chance of becoming post-op, along with some of their fans and patrons.

The Stonewall Inn was a drag scene, and it was largely the queens that hit the "enough" button and changed gay history. This was conveniently ignored for decades, because it is convenient to ignore embarrassing people whose presence may make one's work of becoming respectable (in the eyes of oppressors) more difficult.

The reaction among the gay and lesbian communities to transgender people in general and to queens and she-males has ranged as widely as that of the hetero community; from acceptance and empathy to discrimination and outright bigotry, sometimes more, sometimes less, and, I feel, the cycle is tied to that of hetero society's attitude toward all LGBT people.

When the witch-hunting against gays and lesbians heats up, some gays and lesbians seem to be inclined to ditch those may appear to be a liability. The argument that is offered, usually, is that the bad guys will punish us for having these people with us. But sometimes there is more than just this fear at work.

At the time of the first serious backlash against the Gay Liberation Movement, in the Seventies, Janice Raymond, a separatist lesbian theorist, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. (1979). It's still in print, and taught in women's studies programs.

Raymond's theory, to which she brooks no rebuttals, is that the vast imperialistic patriarchy, not satisfied with the hitherto available forms of rape such as domination, and exploitation, came up with transsexualism (no discussion of female-to-males) as a new way to invade and colonize women's space. This theory represents MTFs as a kind of penis-of-the-patriarchy in the form of a man whose penis has been cut off, as camouflage.

While Raymond's view perhaps represents the extreme, even those who may accept MTF transsexuals sometimes try to make distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable born-male gender-variant people on the basis of the presence or absence, or scheduled absence, of a penis. Make the sacrifice, or I'm not with you is the unspoken message.

Yet many of those thus shut out may have had hopes, but will never come up with the many thousands of dollars to transition. And if they would rather keep their penis, why disqualify them from the LGBT umbrella, under which 3 out of the four initials happily fall because of sexual preference, including gay men and bisexual males?

Meanwhile, the grim statistics show where the real sacrifices are being made.

Every November, the trans community, with a significant number of LGBQI friends and other allies, hold a vigil called Day of Remembrance.

This is held to honor the memory of those known to have been killed for gender variance, with records going back only as far as 1997. (suicides are not listed; they are nearly impossible to track. The families do not list bigotry as the cause of death, and the deceased are typically buried under their birth name and pronoun.)

Those killed for gender variance in this time, well over 300 in number, almost universally follow a specific pattern:

1. No visible means of support.

2. A person of color.

3. Pre-operative transsexual, transvestite, queen, or she-male. I.E., there was a penis present.

I'm not in much danger from this kind of death because I'm middle class, white, and on track for an operation, as well as not much attracted to meeting nervous guys in dark bars.

But I do go to Day of Remembrance.

The unhappiness that led these victims to variance in gender expression seems to me closely akin to the unhappiness that led me to "change" my gender identity.

They are members of my tribe; my people.

For this reason, though I participate in LGBTQI activism, I am careful to support organizations that refuse to exclude, or act ashamed of, my people.

A shining example is PFLAG: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

PFLAG made a historic policy decision not to cut legislative deals that, otherwise progressive, leave out transgender people:

Inclusion in Legislation

Long experience has shown that it is exceedingly difficult to broaden the scope of civil rights legislation to expand the protections provided for additional classes of persons, such as transgender, once those laws are in place. This means that any proposed legislation, however progressive and desirable, which does not include all the classes of persons in our mission statement and for whom we advocate will result in the exclusion of those persons from the benefits of such legislation for years to come, if not permanently.
The Board of Directors of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays has, therefore, adopted the following policy:
PFLAG can only support legislation that provides explicit inclusion of all who are included in our mission statement.
(Adopted by the PFLAG Board of Directors on September 27, 2002 and revised on October 18, 2003.)
All who are included in our mission statement; thus:
PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.
Intersex people, who labor under the same or similar prejudices, have been specified as well.

The choice of the word "transgendered" was deliberate; it means that transsexuals are not to be the only people who fall under the policy's mandate. Those who identify as trans (and self-identification, as opposed to definition by others, is key to all respect for diversity) are included; PFLAG is there for all of my people.

This is why I am honored to be a member of PFLAG.

It's also why I am suspicious of separatist movements. I can empathize with the desire to get away from those who appear to me to be oppressors; or to those whose presence may lead to my being mischaracterized; but if I am the one drawing the line, by defining others I will inevitably commit the very bigotry I seek to avoid.

I believe that separatism, "us versus them," inevitably leads to hierarchism, and hierarchism to oppression.

In the end, whatever one's noble goals:

There is no substitute for solidarity.

-- risa b


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