Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Being Transgender - Part II

TransGriot Note: Guest post from Denise Norris and her follow up to the previously published December 5 On Being Transgender one


While nearly everyone hates “labels,” they serve a valuable role in social organization.  I have identified three basic classes of labels.  In order of their value to a social group they are: Organizing, Defending and Contempt.
We often label ourselves in an effort to get our needs met. We use labels to advertise our primary alignment/position within a social structure and what our needs are as part of that structure.  By advertising our label, we seek other people of similar alignment and needs to form voluntary associations.  In Unity there is Strength.  These are Organizing labels.
The very act of labeling ourselves implies the automatic creation of the “not-us” label for outsiders.  We may perceive that some of the not-us are preventing us from getting our needs met and we label them as an enemy by using a specific term.  By grouping our perceived enemies under a label, we can advertise for supporters in the battle for our needs.  Any Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend.  These are Defensive labels.
Defensive labels, when taken too far and without the counter-balance of Organizing labels, can become Contempt labels.  Contempt labels are often used to define outsiders in such a way as to empower the labeler at the expense of the labeled.  When we use these labels to acquire a false sense of empowerment, we do so at the expense of members of the not-us population.  False empowerment, instead of increasing the empowerment of the group, only gives the illusion of empowerment by disparaging the not-us or another group with derogatory defensive labels without actually increasing the self-esteem or confidence of the labeler.  We hold members of the labeled group in Contempt.
As an example of this, I have witnessed Transgender individuals being called ‘Sissy’ by cisgender bullies.  Does the labeler actually gain self-esteem when they disparage the transgender?  I think not, they only gain the false sense of power by having the appearance an increase due to the lowering of those around them.  Imagine someone standing in the 4ft deep section of the pool.  Are they really any taller if they simply drain the water out of the pool? Clearly the answer is no.  Seeking to elevate ourselves at the expense of others is delusional thinking.  Like snorting a line of cocaine, we only feel better for a short time and then the realization that we are actually no better off set in, so rather than actually do something that increases self-esteem and empowerment, cut another group of people off at the knees.

Transgender is an alignment of interests

Since repurposing in the 1990s, who exactly is Transgender has become a social hot potato with everyone pointing in different directions and at different people. Some Transsexuals will point at crossdressers while saying “Not us!”  Others will point at themselves and say “Not them!”  Crossdressers point at the transsexuals and say “Over there.”  Some will announce “That’s us.”  Cisgender society in the United States points mainly to transsexuals when they think of Transgender, but in India and the East, Transgender can even include effeminate gay men (ie Kothi).  In fact, Transgender was originally intended to be the label used to describe the sociopolitical alignment of interests between multiple groups who face discrimination, harassment & violence due to having non-conforming gender expressions.
This alignment was created because society already grouped us into one community usually with the derogatory label similar to a “Man-in-a-Dress” which justified the discrimination, harassment and violence against us.  The intent was to take away society’s label for us and replace it with one of our own choosing.  That choice was eventually to be Transgender.  We are aligned as Transgender because society defines us as such.  As Transgender, rather than submit to discrimination, harassment and violence, we fight back on all fronts including legal, social, political, and cultural by defining ourselves with our own label.

Who should identify as Transgender?

In 1994, the Charter of The Transexual Menace ( defined “the Gender Community as consisting of anyone who breaks or challenges the traditional rules governing the behavior of the genders, be it sartorial, erotic, psychological, physiological or otherwise. “
Nearly twenty years later, we have a term for “the behavior of the genders, be it sartorial, erotic, psychological, physiological or otherwise” – we call them “Gender Expression”.  It was an early attempt to define the emerging alliance with phrase “Gender Community” representing Transgender.
Recognizing the need to enlist sympathizers and supporters in the crusade to fight discrimination, harassment and violence, the charter also said that “A person need not be a member of the Gender Community to be a Member of The Transexual Menace.” This was an early attempt to enlist allies in the alliance.

At this point, we can modernize the answer of the question “Who should identify as Transgender?” with:
Anyone who perceives they have been, are being or will be discriminated, harassed or suffer physical harm because of their gender expression.
Before going further, let’s take a moment to explore the significance of Gender Expression as the basis of transgender.

Expressions of Gender

In the RationalWiki, Gender Expression is defined thusly:
Gender expression is the manner in which individuals "perform" their gender roles. That is to say, an individual may identify as a particular gender, but that individual may express that gender in various ways.
 For instance, Chuck Norris and Michael Moore are both male, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, both unquestionably identify as male. However, both express this gender far differently from each other, although there are commonalities between the two. Again, both Norris and Moore express their gender in a much different way from a drag queen, even though all three identify as male.
 Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble, stated "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results." This strongly suggests that what we perceive as gender has little direct attachment to the deeper gender identity of the individual. Many of our expressions of gender are culturally based performances, according to Butler, and while many take these for granted as part of the natural gender, in fact they are overlaid on gender and not truly connected.
 An example of this cultural difference is the longstanding assumption in Western culture that males are better at math and hard sciences than the arts-oriented females. However, in Japan and other Asian countries, the reverse is assumed to be true.  Neither are based very closely on actual test results, and are in fact cultural assumptions based on gender. Individuals may live up to these expectations precisely because they are part of the expected performance of their gender roles, rather than anything inherent in gender itself.
Everyone expresses gender even non-expression is an expression.  And the gender they express does not always represent their core gender identity.  This is not always obvious to cisgender individuals, but some transgender individuals often define themselves by their incongruity between their core gender identity and their predominate gender expression.  “I am a woman trapped in the body of a man.”  Since cisgender individuals as a rule don’t have this sort of disharmony between identity and expression, they tend to judge gender identity solely as a function of their requirements for acceptable gender expression.  When society sees a gender expression that falls within their requirements, it is said to be conforming.  Gender expression outside the accepted cultural values is non-conforming.

Discrimination, harassment and violence begin to occur when the gender expression falls outside the accepted norms for that culture.  The further from the median expectations the expression falls, the more likely the non-conforming individual will experience discrimination, harassment and violence

The Theory of Passing

Actively seeking to achieve a conforming gender expression is frequently known as passing or blending within the Transgender alliance.  The term passing comes from the experience of people of color who had sufficiently light-skin to pass as a member of the empowered white society.  Many of us seek to pass as a member of the empowered cisgender society.
The problem with passing is that it can take on obsessive proportions as we try to become fully cisgender empowered or cis-privileged.  This progression is often driven by the deep frustration of not being able to achieve cis-priv.  The person eventually achieves a state of pseudo-cisgender when that someone is like cisgender, but not really and they have the qualities of cisgender and yet at the same time they are not cisgender.  Pseudo-cisgender to describe a place that approaches cisgender, but can never really reach it. Sort of like the speed of light – Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity says we can get real close to, but never actually travel at, the speed of light.  My Theory of Passing says the same goes for cisgender and cis-priv – real close, but never actually achieve it.
Rather than chase cis-priv, Transgender is about creating empowerment as ourselves - trans-privilege.  We achieve trans-priv every time we stand up to discrimination, harassment or violence using legal, political, cultural, physical, etc… means.  Every win in court, every law passed, every diversity training done, every pride day marched, we empower ourselves and others in the Transgender Alliance.

A Voluntary Alliance of People Involuntarily Lumped in the Same Bucket

There are many different groups within the transgender alliance; most of us share mutual needs and others have unique needs. It is vital to remember that while we label ourselves for our unique needs, we freely have joined together to achieve our mutual needs.  While we label those with unique needs as Transsexual, Crossdresser, Intersex, etc…, we are bound together by our mutual needs to stop harassment, discrimination and violence.
Transgender is a voluntary alliance of people with non-conforming gender expression which arose as a reaction to discrimination and harassment/violence from society at large.  Transgender is also an involuntary community of people gathered into one category by society – the same society who frequently sees anyone with a non-conforming gender expression as queers, faggots, sissies, men-in-dresses, dykes, or perverts.
This dichotomy puts pressure on the unity of transgender with people who prefer to stand-alone and outside the alliance.  Society, with its need to sort and categorize, promptly puts the stand-alone people back into the alliance, whether the stand-alones like it or not.  Justifiably resentful of being categorized into a groups they wish to avoid and knowing full well the futility of trying to convince society of their apparent-to-them uniqueness, they turn on the Transgender alliance trying to undermine and destroy it so that they can get their unique needs met first.
Unfortunately this pressure creates a fragmentation within the transgender alliance and people put their unique needs before the mutual needs.  Resolving the mutual need for protection of non-conforming gender expressions will resolve 90% of the needs for any one group.  Once this main objective is accomplished, it becomes simpler to address any remaining unique needs.
When I joined the Automobile Association of America, it didn't make me change what car I drive or any less transsexual, white, tall, financially stable, or any other sociopolitical, physical or cultural attribute.  It did make me more empowered as the AAA fights for the rights of drivers (and I get free towing).  There are Automobile Associations in many countries around the world, each addressing local needs, but the mission remains the same overall.
Suppose that instead of Transgender, there is the Trans Association of America (apologies to my trans-siblings in other parts of the world, but stay with me for the moment) whose membership was anyone who perceives they have been, are being or will be discriminated, harassed or suffer physical harm because of their gender expression. 
TAA's mission is to provide or fight for legal, educational, political, social, health, etc. benefits for it's members in order to stop discrimination, harassment and violence against non-conforming gender expression.
Would you join?
This is what Transgender really is after removing the nonsense.

Meeting discrimination, harassment and violence against non-confirming gender expression head on and winning that battle will cover 80% or more of the needs of all the member groups in the Transgender alignment.  Individuals in our member groups will be able to live openly without fear.
This is not gradualism, but a realistic assessment of the situation as we lack the numbers to get all our needs met at the same time. As a movement, our strength is in our numbers and by forming a voluntary association of people whose Gender Expression is non-conforming; we increase the likelihood that our mutual needs – Stopping Discrimination in Employment, Healthcare, Housing, & Public Accommodations and Preventing Harassment and Violence against us – will get met.

Author’s Note:
This is starting to turn into a lengthy series of mini-essays revolving around the general theme of Being Transgender.  Each section has to be read holistically with the other sections to get the entire gestalt of what I am trying to present. For TransGriot readers, please visit for Part I of this series.

I don’t know how many parts are still unwritten but if you want to contribute ideas to my writing, stop by and join in the discussion on Transgender – Rebooted/Reloaded.
-Denise Norris

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