Back to the “Questioning Transgender” well, finally. In the essay The Emperor’s New Gender, Alix Dobkin attempts to address the phenomenon of increasing number of trans men transitioning out of the dyke community. She frames this as concern that maybe these men are transitioning because society makes them uncomfortable as women, and doesn’t even attempt to acknowledge what trans men might have to say about themselves. This essay is also unusual for transphobic feminists because it not only acknowledges trans men, but it focuses on them. Specifically, it focuses on the fear that transitioning is siphoning butch lesbians away from the lesbian community – the same fear that Catherine Crouch expresses in Gendercator.
Now, I’ll say right up front that I know that not everyone who starts transition finishes, or wants to finish. This happens with men who start to transition to womanhood and women who start to transition to manhood. In both cases, they find that they don’t want this, and they stop the hormones, and go back to their lives as well as they are able. What this says to me is that people who think they might be transsexual and try it, who find it’s not what they really want, don’t go through it. There are exceptions, but they’re really not any kind of majority, or even common. This tells me that we don’t have large numbers of women tricked into becoming men, despite the fears expressed by Alix Dobkin, Catherine Crouch, and others. It’s just a superficial examination that appears to confirm their beliefs, and they never really have to subject those fears to any kind of critical analysis.
Ms. Dobkin begins with this paragraph, intending her audience to read it as the attitudes trans people exude when faced with transphobia:
You know that glazed look certain born-again Christians get in their eyes when they’re not listening? Or how voices of loud mouthed Republican politicians and TV pundits get even louder to out shout the opposition? To foreclose debate defends the fainthearted against attack, even when no attack is intended. Beloved tactic of cowards and bullies everywhere, shutting down discussion stymies challenges to the firmly held, vulnerable doctrine of the True Believer. Thus does insecurity unite with bluster to frustrate education’s advance.
I can almost see the seed of a criticism here: That trans people aren’t nice enough, not receptive enough, to listen to transphobic discourse and give it a fair hearing. This is a fairly standard pattern, and you see white people do it to people of color and men do it to women all the time: They see themselves as reasonable and logical, and their arguments as fair and balanced. When you tell them what their opinions are, they accuse you of being emotional, of not being rational, of being too mean, and thus not worth listening to. Our viewpoints on our own lives are not welcomed – we’re supposed to listen respectfully as transphobes tell us that they don’t consider our gender to be valid, that our life experience is a lie, and that they will never accept us as we are, but instead impose their own prejudices upon us. This is cisgender privilege, which is not much different from any other kind of privilege.
Anyway, Dobkin goes on to describe how when she played in Europe, she encountered anti-Semitism, and that she chose to ease that anti-Semitism by announcing that she doesn’t believe in God, that she does not support Israel’s every action, and that she does not blame them for the Holocaust. She apparently considered it reasonable that she had to do these things to be accepted. Personally, I wonder why it’s necessary for her at all to repudiate the Jewish faith, indicate her willingness to criticize Israel, or assure anyone that she doesn’t blame them for the Holocaust. Whether or not she truly is not religious is beside the point, she was expected to participate in her own erasure – she was expected to apologize for being a member of a minority that was subjected to genocide. Apparently, if she didn’t do this, much of her audience would simply walk out when she identified herself as Jewish. Now, when she thinks of this experience, how her identity was marginalized to make others comfortable, does she equate her own experience to that which trans people experience? No, she relates the insensitive audience members who walked out on her to trans people who are faced with transphobia:
I hadn’t thought about that old story for many years until Elana Dykewomon told me of a similar experience at a reading only weeks ago of San Francisco Jewish Lesbian writers. When she spoke the name of her new poem (Butch resisting the pressure to change gender) a group of transgendered individuals and their supporters got to their feet and left the theater. Had they stayed they might have learned what this award winning writer and long time survivor of Lesbian community struggles (since before some of them were born) had to say, proving that closed minds are not limited to anti-Semites.
Like my Swiss departees, this bunch also refused to listen. Too bad, they lose.
Transgender people equated to anti-Semites. That’s pretty amazing, it’s a hugely volatile connection to make. She has to know what she was doing with this. She doesn’t acknowledge the idea that the poem itself is probably deeply offensive to trans people, and the title alone implies that transitioning is something you do because you’re pressured into it, rather than something you do after fighting it for years. It robs trans men of their agency and invalidates their identities. While “Elana Dykewomon” herself may have been pressured to transition, I suspect it’s more likely that she saw other former butch lesbians choose to transition, and questioned why she also didn’t want to. Now, this is a valid question, and hearing someone explain her own explorations of her self, to determine that “No, I don’t want to do this,” would be interesting. Hearing about cis people who actually go through this thought process is pretty rare. But if she titles it something that implies everyone does it because of peer pressure? I suspect that the examination’s not likely to be that deep or interesting, and is likely to carry some pretty offensive stereotypes about trans people. This doesn’t even address the weight of transphobic commentary those trans people and their allies likely heard within the GLB community over and over again. That this was probably not an isolated incident. Of course, Elana wouldn’t know that due to her cis privilege. She only sees that they left rather than listen to her poem. She doesn’t see that they’ve heard it all before, over and over again, at tedious length, and if they told her, she would deny it.
Privileged people close ranks when that privilege is pointed out. They look for other explanations to rationalize bigoted actions as something reasonable, and when they do, they’re satisfied with their own explanations The Unapologetic Mexican describes these behaviors as they relate to race, but I’ve seen them play out the same way in terms of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.
WHITE: Being WHITE means you get to make the rules. It means you get to decide how to frame everything (like the Left complains about the Right doing), it means you get to define morality, history, and the feelings and experience of every other type of peoples. Being WHITE means (as “truthmachine” makes clear) that discussing Race, Racism, Racists, or the finer points of such (as in how it affects others or how you are perceived) is a luxury. Being WHITE means you can claim to be COLORBLIND. Being WHITE means it is your job to work your White Magic on the world and shape it as you will.
Or I could reframe it to be explicit:
CISGENDERED: Being CISGENDERED means you get to make the rules. It means you get to decide how to frame everything, it means you get to define morality, history, and the feelings and experience of every type of transgender person. Being CISGENDERED means that discussing transphobia, transmisogyny, transphobes, or the finer points of such (as in how it affects others or how you are perceived) is a luxury.
For Elana, seeing how transphobia affected those people who walked out on her was a luxury. She didn’t have to notice, and obviously didn’t care to – or if she did, she agreed with it. She could afford to do this, because despite her melodramatically named poem, there was no risk to her for being cisgendered and choosing not to transition. Because of this, she had the luxury of framing those trans people’s reactions on her terms – that they were close-minded, that they can’t stand to hear criticism, that they’re just too mean – rather than understanding why they walked out.
She goes on to point out how Jim Fouratt (who said some extremely transphobic things of his own) was criticizing GenderPAC for its activism, and noted that she agreed with Jim that “once again, men are defining who and what women are.” This is her main transmisogynistic comment in the article, implying that trans women are not women.
She then goes on to say that this is her opinion, and she’s entitled to it without being called a Nazi, fascist, and the like, when stepping over the gender party line, implying that 1) there is a party line, and 2) that invalidating other people’s identities is just a matter of opinion. This is a hugely privileged statement to make – she has the luxury to state this thought without any need to examine what’s so wrong with it. And she’s wrong – she’s not entitled to speaking her opinion without criticism, especially when she’s outright wrong.
People with privilege like to cloak their bigotry as a matter of opinion. “It’s just my opinion that homosexuality is immoral,” or “it’s just my opinion that women should stay at home to do housework, and that it’s selfish of them to seek their own careers.” This is a defensive reaction – an attempt to claim unassailable ground for an untenable position. It’s a bit pre-emptive, too, as Alix plans to make a few more directly offensive statements before getting to the trans men she’s waiting to pity.
1) transgender issues present complex and difficult terrain loaded with quicksand and stumbling blocks which I approach respectfully and with an open mind.
2) Over the past decade I’ve accumulated masses of information and engaged in much study, reflection, thoughtful discussion and process with a variety of people representing diverse perspectives.
3) In conversations with transgendered individuals and their supporters, some of whom I like and some not, I am aware of their pain and try not to add to it.
4) Everyone needs a community where they feel respected and safe.
5) There is more to learn.
She’s already negated 1, when she equated transgender people to anti-Semites. I realize that this is an analogy, and that analogies don’t have to have rhetorically equal comparisons, but how you use an analogy can and do set up associations. If I compare someone breaking a rule on a message forum to someone committing murder, I could make a valid analogy, as both involve breaking a communal stricture. However, this would immediately polarize the discussion because the person in question who broke the rule will probably feel that I just compared him to a murderer. In a similar fashion, Ms. Dobkin abuses her analogy to connect trans (oppressed) people in one anecdote to racist (privileged) people in another anecdote. This is automatically disrespectful. She does it again when she refers to men defining who and what women are, implying that trans women’s identities should not be respected, and should in fact be repudiated. This is neither respectful nor openminded.
Number 2 is just vague. She’s accumulated masses of information etc. etc., but as far as I know, that information came from Janice Raymond (transsexuality must be morally mandated out of existence), Germaine Greer (whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother), Mary Daly (is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes), and others like them who write sensationalized transphobic – transmisogynistic – screeds that don’t require reference to any actual trans people. She could have talked to trans people, but in my experience, transphobes dismiss, belittle, ignore, and erase trans experiences, and substitute them with comfortable (for them) lies which they can attack as strawtrans people.
Number 3 ties back to 1 – she’s lying. This article is itself an attempt to add to our pain. Numbers 4 and 5 are just affirmations – and I really wish she’d taken 5 to heart before writing this essay, and actually tried to approach the subject with an open mind, and a perspective that actually is informed by trans people’s views. But she didn’t, and we’re stuck with this.
She then asks if “young butch lesbians who are considering changing genders” (already she gets it wrong – no one changes gender. They change sex, or at least as much of sex as possible) would be willing to have “thoughtful, open discussion without personal attacks and hurt feelings.” This is such a horribly privileged statement. She’s asking, “This part of you that you’ve probably wrestled with your entire life, do you mind if I consider it up for debate? Are you willing to barter away a part of yourself to make me comfortable?” She’s not respecting them – she’s already asking if they’re willing to acknowledge that their gender, their lived experiences, their realities, might possibly be invalid and debate that point with someone for whom this discussion is a luxury.
She then drops back into transmisogyny, cheerlessly dispensing stereotypes of trans women across the page before describing the numbers of trans men present at the 1999 “Creating Change” conference as “unsettling,” their transition as “flight from womanhood,” and gay men and lesbians as “oddly invisible.” Yes, absolutely, when I approach someone “respectfully and with an open mind,” the first thing I do is describe their existence as unsettling and imply their major decisions indicate cowardice. Don’t we all?
She goes on to quote Germaine Greer (which reassures every one of us that she wants to be respectful and open-minded toward trans people, because Germaine Greer never tried to harm a trans person’s career out of pure spite or anything. Anyway, she uses this Greer quote to ask why trans men aren’t all about “being/creating their own version of a woman,” because that’s what lesbians do. She asks “why would a lesbian embodying infinite female potential ever think she needs to be – or actually could be – a man?” This is a completely ignorant question about trans people, and indicates that my earlier statement about her ignoring, dismissing, and erasing what trans people say about them is dead on. It also shows she’s more interesting in imposing her definitions on the trans men she wants to have a “thoughtful open discussion” with her. Obviously, she wants that discussion on her terms, where she gets to define who trans men are and what their motives are for transitioning.
She goes on to imply that this generation is “groomed” to “change gender” because it’s informed by deconstructionist queer studies. Of course, if she ever read deconstructionist queer studies, she’d realize that going from woman to man or man to woman isn’t really the kind of stuff they talk about. As radical feminists are quick to remind us, you don’t deconstruct gender by moving from one box to the other, and it’s silly to think that any queer deconstructionists didn’t know this.
The Germaine Greer quote she uses is: “Born women are all too aware of a disharmony between who they are and what their gender role requires of them.” She refers back to this in the next paragraph when she says:
Hey, why not jump at the chance to escape “gender distress” – the universal female condition forever afflicting “the second sex?” How instantly gratifying, how perfectly consumer friendly. This postmodern all-American quick fix comes complete with academic sanction.
I have read many radical feminists online who assert this, that women live with a disharmony between who they are and what their gender role requires of them, and they conflate this with the dissonance a trans person experiences when hir brain expects hir body to be a different sex. Trans people’s discomfort with their body’s sex is not driven by dissatisfaction with the gender roles expected of us – that puts the cart before the horse. We identify with a particular gender role because we are that gender – trans men don’t transition because they can’t stand the expectations of womanhood (although those expectations are frustrating for them. Trans women don’t transition because we can’t stand the expectations of manhood (although those expectations are frustrating for us). It’s deeper, more fundamental than that. To us, our bodies are wrong and the only way to resolve that wrongness is to bring our bodies as close to the proper sex as we can. To reduce trans men’s experiences to “they don’t like doing what women are expected to do” is deeply insulting and somehow ignores (while simultaneously pointing it out) that women don’t have to adhere to those roles in modern society. But that’s what Ms. Dobkin gets when she builds her ideas of what trans people are from those who hate trans people deeply.
In today’s “LGBT” hierarchy the last may indeed be first, but beneath the surface of lock-step acceptance lies an unspoken universe of discomfort. Doubts and qualms fill the closets of newly silent Lesbians and gay men now afraid of being labeled “bigoted.” Rather than injure feelings or appear oppressive toward a sexual minority, many remain silent, unwilling to deviate “…from the politically correct gender rhetoric (which) subjects one to being called and dismissed as transphobic,” as long time gay activist and independent thinker, Jim Fouratt, writes.
I like how she implies here that the transgender community is in the process of taking over the GLBT community. I mean, read this, and keeping in mind that history shows a different power dynamic. Trans people have been hounded out of the gay rights movement after kicking it off in the first place, we’ve fought for inclusion in the GLB (now GLBT) movement in the 90s, and 2000s, only to be repeatedly thrown off the bus when seen as politically expedient. I don’t see any lesbians and gay men now afraid of being labeled “bigoted.” The Jim Fouratts, Alix Dobkins, Norah Vincents, John Aravoses and Chris Crains are willing to step front and center and recite their litany of contempt for our bodies and our lives over and over again, to describe us in dehumanizing terms and silence us by saying that we’re oversensitive, that we’re too mean, that we call them terrible names – because being called a bigot is sure a hell of a lot worse than being told that everything about you is false.
Alix goes on to say “young butch dykes walking the FTM path look, and despite vocal alteration, sound quite like the young butch dykes many of us have known for decades,” but she doesn’t realize that perhaps this is because many of those young butch dykes were trans men all along, and that they may have tried to cope with being trans men through denial, as many other trans people – as many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – do. That the trans men were always their alongside them, but perhaps their voices were silenced by the loud transphobic voices that have been echoing throughout the lesbian community for years – the same voices that ejected Beth Elliot from the Daughters of Bilitis, that forced Sandy Stone out of Olivia Records, that published The Transsexual Empire. Sure, these were aimed at trans women, but if everyone around you is demeaning and degrading transsexual people, is it going to be as easy to seek transition as otherwise?
I suspect that an increasing acceptance of trans people in GLBTQ spaces led to the greater numbers of transitioning men, not pressure, not fads. Not a dissatisfaction with what society expected of women. Maybe if Alix Dobkin had bothered to listen to trans men, she wouldn’t have felt the need to write this essay.
Ms. Dobkin closes with an affirmation of how gays and lesbians struggled to name and be themselves, and then derides trans men’s struggle to be and name themselves by characterizing – again – their transition as “flight from womanhood.” She would rather that these trans men deny who they are – deny their gender – and remain lesbians in an extremely conservative demand that the gay and lesbian communities not change, not accept change. Not embrace these people who are able to embrace who they truly are. She wants to define who they are for them, rather than allow them the freedom of self-determination.
She closes with another smarmy attempt to reduce this issue to a matter of debate or opinion, as a controversy (and thus setting up trans men’s gender as a matter of debate, opinion, and controversy):
But while we’re at it, let’s also honour our identity and history. And our women. Then maybe our girls won’t be so eager to run. So let’s put away the knives. Can we talk?
I don’t know about you guys, but when someone asks me to surrender my sense of self, I’m not putting any knives away. Sorry, Ms. Dobkin. You’re a bigot, a transphobe, and a transmisogynist, or you were when you wrote this. Maybe you’ve learned something since then, but if not, well, maybe you can learn to see the cisgendered privilege you carry and wish to use to oppress those of us – men and women – who are different from you and justifiably proud of who we are. Maybe someday. If the GLBT community is supposed to celebrate diversity, trying to shove trans men back into a comfortable-for-you box because you find them “unsettling” is counter to that.