Note: Before thinking I’m talking about any specific person in this post, understand that I made a deliberate choice to read almost entirely commentary by trans or genderqueer people on Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, both before and after the Vanity Fair cover. The exceptions would be this piece by Alex on affirming people’s looks, which I quite enjoyed and tend to agree with, and this mess from this morning that several people were shaking their heads about on Twitter, plus a couple of points I’ve argued on Facebook. While I’m not linking specific examples here, any behavior or argument I talk about I’ve seen from at least two sources. No one is uniquely bad at this.
This is a “we” observation, where “we” are cis feminists, mostly female for reasons that are probably obvious, mostly white for reasons I could only offer unhelpful speculation on. We’re people who see a trans person in the spotlight, usually a trans woman, and discover that we have things we must say right now about gender.
I understand the impulse. We already have a good bit of data and theory on gender. It’s a huge part of our lives. It’s a hobby horse for many of us. Trans people talking about being trans makes gender very salient. A trans person can feel like an amazing data point: how they’re treated, how they express gender, or even how they conceptualize their gender in opposition to all the messages they receive from society.
I get it. I’ve been there. Really, when I say this is a “we” observation, I very much mean myself. Still, as I reread that old post, the most important words it contains are “Then I told myself to shut up.” I’d like to encourage others to join me on that. Here are three big reasons why.
We’re adding to already large burdens.
Trans people attempt suicide at a rate nine times the national average according to one large survey (pdf). Housing and employment discrimination, poverty and homelessness, denial of medical care, and loss of family and social ties all mattered. So did hate crimes, for which trans people are also at an elevated risk. However, even among people for whom none of these was a factor, the risk was still five times the national average.
These are some of the last people we should be reacting to as a data point. If you wouldn’t treat someone talking about their mental illness as an opportunity to discuss theory around mental illness–I know those people exist, but I’ll do my readers the good grace of assuming they aren’t among those people–work against the impulse to see someone talking about their experience of being trans as being about gender theory. It almost never is, and on those rare occasions, the announcement tends to be explicit.
When a trans person wants to talk with you about gender theory, by all means, have at it. When everyone’s up for it, it’s a great, informative time. Just don’t mistake the fact that they’re talking about their experiences with gender for that invitation because gender is important to you. Don’t say the equivalent of “I noticed you have a gender. I too have a gender. We should talk about gender!”
It isn’t hard to respect the trans person’s goals for speaking up in public. They are tired of hiding, need to vent, want to tell trans kids they’re not alone? Those are all easy to accommodate, and there will be another opportunity for gender theorizing along that doesn’t involve a trans person in approximately half a second. We won’t miss out.
Also, let’s not set up situations in which trans people need a sophisticated understanding of gender theory to exist as publicly trans. I’m talking about our apparent need to step in and correct trans people who repeat gender stereotypes or incorrect scientific information about gender as a way of putting their own experiences in context. Whether it’s habit or due to the insidious idea that any person from a marginalized group is responsible for the way the world views the whole group, we need to stop and at least think about the situation.
These statements are generally not advocating for a particular understanding of gender nearly as much as they are asking the world for acceptance of their gender in terms the world has already told them it understands. When someone is attempting to act as an advocate on gender, that’s a different matter, though you’ll generally find that trans activists got there before you could. But focusing on the average trans person’s understanding of theory risks denying their real and potent need for acceptance.
Cis men don’t need to understand theory to be publicly male. I don’t need to in to be publicly female. Neither of us needs to in order to be publicly cis. The fact that trans people make you think about gender theory doesn’t mean they need to study it. Those who do often offer valuable insights, but those are not a ticket we get to demand of anyone who wants to talk about their own gender out loud.
We’re largely misdirecting our efforts.
Trans people didn’t create gender essentialism and gender binaries. They aren’t, even the richest and most famous of them, in any position to enforce or even significantly reinforce them. Trans people are the grossly marginalized victims of gender policing, not the perpetrators. Taking our concerns to them as though they were responsible for easing/fixing them is ridiculous.
If we want to make a dent on gender policing, we do much better to stand up to the people policing trans people in the spotlight than we do questioning that trans person. By choosing to focus on our own (real, earned) gender insecurities and anxieties, we can lose an opportunity to confront the problem directly and head on.
We can also lose the chance to build bridges with trans activists, who have some of the greatest motivations to fight gender policing there are. Whether or not they fit normative gender expectations themselves, trans activists lean heavily toward those who point out that “passing” is an unfair, arbitrary burden that makes trans people’s lives less safe. Trans people by the fact of their existence point out the absurdity of broad, gendered expectations, and they often do so explicitly as well.
When we demonstrate that our main concern over a trans person appearing in public is what their existence does for our understanding of gender, we signal to potential trans allies that they can expect more policing from us rather than acceptance. If they distrust us after that, if they don’t want to work with us, if they want to see us swapped out for a feminist movement that isn’t going to give them more of the same problems they’re already dealing with, well, who’s to blame them?
We’re making some terrible arguments.
There are a lot of bad arguments made when people are dealing with anxieties over gender raised by the public existence of trans people. I’m talking you-would-point-and-laugh-if-an-antifeminist-made-that-argument bad. Since they often come from people who are otherwise good at spotting bad arguments, I have to conclude that this is one of those situations where emotion, or perhaps the intersection of emotion and privilege, gets in the way.
We have the laughable scientific arguments that bolster concepts we usually fight. Right now, my “favorite” of these is best paraphrased as “We haven’t found any differences between male and female brains, so Jenner has no basis for identifying as having always been a girl if she hasn’t always been treated as one.”
This is terrible in its fundamental assumptions. A gender is not a single shared set of experiences. As a pathologically shy introvert raised by a not-quite-hippy feminist, I received very little direct pressure toward gender-conforming play, for example. I’m still a woman, and no one but a few rabid antifeminist harassers are going to question that, and they won’t believe themselves when they do. Women who are raised in more egalitarian societies are still women too.
I did pick up broader societal messages about gender roles, but I identified them as directed at me in at least some part because I identified as female. Kids who identified as boys were blind to many of those messages, as evidenced by their ongoing bewilderment to this day that any such messages ever existed. The experiences we have are shaped and filtered by our identities.
Then there’s the awful way this represents the science on gender differences, both in expectations and in the current status of our understanding. Let’s start with the latter part first. What we have for the science of gender differences is a lot of grandiose claims about the abilities and interests of men versus women made on the basis of mostly poor science (poor design, small sample sizes, unrepresentative samples, etc.) that still only shows modest differences. Better design, including comparisons across time and across cultures, suggests that even these modest differences are probably cultural.
This tells us nothing about gender identity. Nor would we expect it to. It’s a complete non sequitur. Suggesting that someone couldn’t have identified as a girl at an early age on that basis would be like denying that people can validly know that they’re homosexual or heterosexual at an early age. Problems with the science on brain differences between gay and straight people (bisexuality is generally left out) are similar to those with the science on gender differences. That is to say, the current science is murky and contradictory, but we don’t tell homosexual people they’re not real.
On top of the bad biology, we’ve got poor sociology, as with the assertion that trans women aren’t women because “They experienced male privilege all their lives until they transitioned.” Now, there is some sense in which this is trivially true, as is attested to by the trans writers I linked above. Trans women may be treated better in some senses when people think they’re male, but this is so far from presenting the whole story as to be embarrassing.
Would you tell a woman who adopts a gaming ‘nym usually taken for male so she doesn’t get harassed that it gives her male privilege? Does a black person with an Anglo name who has a cartoon avatar because they’re tired of dealing with prejudice have white privilege? Would a queer person whose same-sex partner doesn’t come to work events for a fundamentalist-owned business have straight privilege?
All those things get better treatment for the people who do them. We don’t describe any of them as having privilege. We call them hiding who we are because the consequences are miserable, as Caitlyn Jenner knew when she threw herself into sports and as she rediscovered when she tried to come out thirty years ago. And there’s good evidence that hiding this way is bad for us, if for no other reason than that it robs us of social support. Those suicide rates aren’t high for no reason, and they’re similar for bisexuality, which faces similar problems of erasure.
This argument doesn’t just get the very basics of privilege wrong. It’s callous and harmful to boot.
The political arguments are just as poor, if easier to deal with briefly. I think we’ve all seen, “People are being silenced!” Yes, trans activists are silencing cis people just like black activists are silencing white people just like feminists are silencing men. It’s a good thing all those cis, white, and male people can take to their large media platforms to alert us to this danger.
Alternately, if you don’t like sarcasm, see what I said above about the amount of power trans people hold. Then let’s stop making bad arguments and recognize that sometimes, shutting up is a good thing.