Tortured analogies between transgender people and people who pretend at a different racial background than their own are so banal that they feature in South Park’s warpath against people like me. They have been made by every professional transantagonist at some point to declare people like me as invalid as Dolezal’s claim to blackness, and by Dolezal’s defenders to claim that recognizing the offensive absurdity of her blackface routine is the same as denying the legitimacy of trans genders.
I’m not even pretending at a neutral introduction. This analogy is sickening on multiple levels, and I am tired of it.
First things first: the analogy between “transracial” and transgender is, in one major respect, not as ridiculous as it sounds. Gender is, in big ways, socially constructed, as is race. Some cultures have genders whose analogy to seeming Western equivalents isn’t particularly tight; the classic examples are the bakla (Philippines), hijra (South Asia), and fa’afafine (Samoa) social classes. These groups consist primarily of people who, via the conventions of Western medicine, would be assigned male at birth, but who do not include themselves among men. Each culture has (or had) a fairly elaborate support system, up to and including coded languages spoken by its members and particular tiers of religious hierarchy reserved for them. Indeed, just about every culture that has been asked the right questions reveals, at a minimum, a subculture of gender-variant people, whether with broader support or actively reviled. Before the medicalized terminology of “homosexual” and “transgender” came into fashion, England had “mollies” and France had Joan of Arc. Whatever form we take, we emerge everywhere, built into all of humanity’s possibilities. These systems have no analogues in modern Western society, whose “queer” community is far more subdivided and has no intrinsic social approval.
A very important thing about genders that they are all, by and large, prominently displayed in a society that has them. Even in cultures where vast swaths of the human experience are gender-segregated, everyone’s personal experience, and virtually everyone’s household, will have representatives of at least two genders. Most people’s romantic and sexual attraction is directed at genders other than their own, and large cultural systems exist surrounding the associated interactions. A major side effect of all of this is that all of a culture’s genders are “socialized” simultaneously. I was not ignorant of what my culture(s) expect(s) of women by virtue of not recognizing myself as one until my late twenties. Those messages are omnipresent, but men don’t identify with them. True, I missed out on private conversations and formative experiences that may or may not exist for young women, but I did not miss out on socialization. We can therefore put the usual “male socialization” lie to which trans women are regularly subjected to immediate rest.
It’s entirely possible I might never have figured out what was poisoning my emotional life and driving me to such a carefully-crafted fantasy life as an alternative if I never made it to a supportive environment where I could explore what I was feeling. There’s a reason I knew something was off for most of my life, increasingly suspected what it was as a young adult, and didn’t make the final leap until I was close to 30. But if I’d been born in Tamil Nadu, I might have found myself under the tutelage of a hijra guru a decade ago. That’s the cultural element, limiting what possibilities we can imagine, determining how each strain of human variance will play out.
The thing is, though? The sense of wrongness I feel about my anatomy? The steady droning of “wrong wrong WRONG” behind all of my thoughts until spironolactone finally silenced it? The wall between me and a proper reckoning with my own emotions? The ridiculous specificity of the clothing I liked to see on the women in my life, before I figured out what I was actually defining was the clothing I wanted for myself? Spending much of my adolescence depersonalized and often dissociated, looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a stranger, angry and sad without knowing why? Finding discarded feminine clothing behind laundry machines and on the ground in parks and keeping it, because the crushing weight of desire for it would not be denied? Those experiences came from within. My flight from and revolt against maleness finds its expression, not its source, in what my culture allows. Growing up a hijra instead of a closeted trans girl wouldn’t have made me feel any better about not having the genitals I want, even if it might have made some other things easier.
Conversely, it’s entirely possible for a white person to live their entire lives without meeting a non-white person. That’s a standard experience in, say, Finland, or eastern Europe, where immigration is minimal and non-white minorities such as Gagauz or Romani live in isolated pockets rather than dispersed throughout society, to say nothing of rural parts of the US and Canada. White people don’t hear, by and large, the messages that black people tell each other, about how to survive encounters with police, how to care for textured hair, or the special position black churches hold. White people don’t hear, and actively disbelieve when told about, the crushing burden of honor politics in many Asian and Hispanic cultures. White people can actively uphold the obnoxious antagonism many racialized people experience toward their food, and still don’t experience it themselves because they’re “cool” and “edgy” when they have the same fragrant meals from a food truck. Even when messages coexist in a shared space and someone could hypothetically be receiving one that isn’t meant for them, the ones that are being sent are what white people think about various racial groups, not what racial groups think about themselves.
But perhaps the most damning evidence against the transgender/transracial analogy is…where are all the trans-Inuit born in India? Trans-Arabs born in Papua New Guinea? Trans-Guaraní in Japan? Trans-Japanese in the Central African Republic? We don’t get any of those people, because racial identity isn’t inborn the way gender is. What we get instead is people from hegemonic cultural groups taking on marginalized identities out of boredom or disrespect, or taking on attributes from those cultures to scandalize their own culture (Yanki in Japan, Wiggers in the US, etc.) while never ceasing to recognize themselves as members of their own culture. What we get is people hiding their status as members of a marginalized culture for protection (residential-school survivors, etc.). This doesn’t arise out of an innate mismatch between body or identity and culture, and is based entirely on social factors that reward or punish certain behavior and evidence of various affiliations. There is no innate culture. This doesn’t mirror transgender experiences at all.
The people who have a claim on a racial identity that isn’t “theirs” are people who have those experiences and messages throughout their lives: children with one racial background adopted into families with another. These are the exact specific people that the term “transracial” was originally coined to serve and who are directly harmed by charlatans like Rachel Dolezal stealing it from them. And even their experiences don’t analogize neatly to what transgender people go through. Transracial people often want contact with both their adopted and their ancestral backgrounds, for example, or need that contact for support against societal expectations of the people they physically resemble. Transgender people, by contrast, are usually in open revolt against any insinuation that we belong in the gender space originally assigned to us, and are harmed by being connected to it at all in others’ minds.
There is another reason I find these race-fantasists particularly detestable, one at least as personal as what their analogy between my realization of my true gender and their appropriation of minority cultures claims about me.
Many indigenous American cultures are more-or-less doomed without the inclusion of their “mixed” descendants, whose connection with their ancestry is decidedly weaker than those who had the good fortune to remain near or within their ancestral homes and societies. Thanks to violence, legal coercion, demography, and especially to the legacy of residential schools and other deliberate efforts at cultural genocide, huge numbers of people who can count indigenous Americans among their ancestors and some amount of diluted indigenous culture among their inheritance instead see themselves as, and live within, whiteness. Part of reinvigorating cultures that continue to lose members and linguistic integrity to the white mainstream is encouraging those descendants to respectfully engage with their roots and rejoin what they have lost. This plays out even more overtly in Latin America, where most of the population has been encouraged for centuries to see itself as “mixed” rather than indigenous and aspire to ever more Spanish rather than indigenous cultural characteristics, all the while being defined by that indigenousness. The very same person can be Hispanic on one side of the border, American Indian on the other, and “white” if they decry, deny, or are severed from their roots forcefully enough.
But indigenous societies exist in abject terror of white people deciding that this or that Cherokee princess on their somewhat mythologized family tree means they have a place amon their ranks and, from there, on tribal councils, making decisions about the future of indigenous culture from the inside. Indigenous societies these days are clannish and insular where once they were open and welcoming, because of their equivalent of transracial fantasists who effectively infiltrate their decision-making bodies and push them toward Westerners’ resource-exploration agendas. It is very difficult to recognize, encourage, and try to embrace how much of Puerto Rican and Cuban culture is Taíno in origin, and claim my own indigeneity despite being removed from specifically Taíno societies, in a world where a lot of the people who look like me and say they’re Indians have no such connection or commitment and just want to avoid admitting they’re white.
I’m not trying to “avoid admitting I’m a man.” I’m not trying to “avoid admitting I’m [Hispanic] white.” I avoided admitting I am Taíno because my family had their indigenousness compelled out of them for three generations and were fed the lie that the indigenous people of the northern Caribbean were obliterated, a lie I believed until recently. I avoided admitting I am a woman for almost three decades out of confusion and fear, and it nearly killed me.
I am nothing like Rachel Dolezal.