Whipping Girl

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Whipping Girl FAQ: on the words, transsexual, transgender and queer
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juliaserano
In this, the second in a line of posts that address some of the more frequently asked questions I’ve received about Whipping Girl (WG), I want to discuss the ways in which I use the words transsexual, transgender and queer throughout the book. I’ve received quite a number of emails from people who have had a transsexual experience and who appreciated many of the points I make throughout the book, but who were bothered that I used the word “transsexual,” and/or who were angered/disappointed that I positioned that identity/experience under the rubric of “transgender” or “queer.” Here, I hope to explain my reasoning and offer insight into where I’m coming from on this matter.

First, let’s start with the word “transsexual.” I chose to use it throughout WG because it is currently the only word in the English language that refers to people (like myself) who physically transition to, and/or live and identify as, a member of the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth.

Some people object to “transsexual” because they feel that it is pathologizing, because it was coined and is perpetuated by the medical/psychological/sexological establishment. Those who make this point often prefer activist terms like “transgender” or “transexual” (with one “s”). As I mention in the book, transgender is an umbrella word that includes many cissexuals (i.e., nontranssexuals), so it’s really not a useful synonym for transsexual (more on “transgender” below). As for transexual with one “s”, I honestly don’t think that it looks different enough from the two-“s” version to make a significant impact. Perhaps this says more about my spelling (in)abilities than anything else, but I never even noticed the difference between the two versions until someone pointed it out to me two years ago. And frankly, I’m so over the whole misspelling-as-an-activist-tactic thing. I understand why second wave feminists embraced words like womyn, womon, wimmin, etc., back in the day. But these days, more often than not, misspelling seems to be used in order to avoid issues rather than to confront them directly. I am of the belief that it is far better to reclaim words like transsexual – to say to the rest of the non-trans world “Yes, I’m a transsexual and I’m proud of it!” or (as I once said in a spoken word piece) “Transsexual is our word and you can’t fucking have it anymore!”

Also, the pragmatist in me has some issues with attempts by some to completely remove the term “transsexual” from any medical context whatsoever. Having physically transitioned and experienced how profoundly and beneficially female hormones have affected my physical and mental well-being, it would be naive of me not to acknowledge the medical component (and for many, the medical necessity) of sex reassignment procedures. Thea Hillman has a great line in one of her pieces about how maybe we need to consider depathologizing the word “pathologize.” While I am totally against the conceptualization of GID as a “mental disorder,” I think that there are ways in which our needs to physically transition and access appropriate medical procedures can be met without simultaneously undermining/marginalizing us as a community.

While some people dismiss the word “transsexual” because they feel that it is an overly medicalized term, others distance themselves from it from what might be called a pro-medicalization standpoint. The argument goes something like this: I had a medical condition (GID, transsexualism, etc.), but that was corrected/cured when I physically transitioned, so now I’m no longer transsexual. Often folks who take this position will say that they are not a transsexual any longer, but just simply a woman or a man. Others might call themselves a woman (or man) of transsexual experience (a phrase that I sometimes use myself).

First off, let me say that I too fully and unapologetically identify as a woman - no ifs, ands or buts about it. What seems to be the pressing issue here is that many cissexual people view the word transsexual as being mutually exclusive and incompatible with the words woman or man. So when I call myself a transsexual woman, they misinterpret that to mean that I am a “fake” woman or not *really* a woman. While this pisses me off, I don’t think that the answer is for me to abandon the word transsexual. To do so would mean for me to deny important aspects of my body and life history. Those of us who have the experience of having lived as both female and male at different points in our lives have very real experiences, insights and issues that other people do not have. I fear that if we refuse to position ourselves as transsexuals, then we will not have a platform from which to speak in our own voices and have our issues addressed. And our silence will inevitably create a vacuum that will quickly be filled by trans-ignorant assumptions about us and half-assed theories about us forwarded by so-called “experts” (i.e., cissexuals who claim to know us better than we know ourselves). This is exactly how things have been for the last half century and frankly it hasn’t served us very well at all.

This is why I think that we should reclaim the work transsexual while simultaneously (and forcibly) reminding people that that identity does not contradict our identities as women and men. This is precisely what I tried to do in the book.

A final objection to the word “transsexual” has to do with the presence of the word “sex” within it. There is a popular misconception that trans people transition for sexual reasons (e.g., to prey on innocent straight folks, to fulfill some bizarre sexual fantasy, etc.), and many trans folks seem to fear that the word transsexual (because of the word “sex”) enables those assumptions. One can see the de-sexualization of transsexuality in the growing use of the phrase “gender confirmation surgery” to replace “sex reassignment surgery.” I think it also plays a role in why many physically-transitioned folks prefer transgender to transsexual. It’s as if the words “gender/transgender” simply sound more polite and respectable than the words “sex/transsexual.”

Given how regularly trans people are objectified and sexualized by society, I can understand why some might prefer the more wholesome-sounding “gender” to the more naughty sounding “sex”. However, there is a problem here that stems from the use of the word “gender” in sociology, feminism, and other fields. While many trans people use “gender” as shorthand for gender identity, in these other areas the word is more commonly used to refer to gender expression or roles (i.e., masculinity, femininity, androgyny). This confusion leads many people to presume that transsexuals transition in order to become gender-conforming or because we uncritically want to perpetuate sexist gender roles, and so on. This is not the case, at least not for me and most transsexuals I’ve spoken with. I experimented with and expressed my femininity plenty when I was male-bodied. For me, transitioning was first and foremost about my physical sex, not gender expression. Being male-bodied felt wrong to me and being female-bodied feels right. This is also why I forwarded the term subconscious sex in the book, because I feel that for many/most of us the main issue is our sex embodiment rather than gender expression.

So for all of the above reasons, I went with transsexual. I don’t think that it’s a perfect word, but I think that it is the most useful/appropriate one at this moment in time.

I also received a lot of feedback from transsexual-identified people who were bothered/disappointed by the fact that in WG I include transsexuals under the umbrella terms “transgender” and “queer.” To be honest, a few years back, when I first heard this sort of critique, I naively assumed that the people who made such comments were probably expressing some kind of internalized homophobia. I’ve since learned that, while for some this may be true, for most others, the desire to distinguish transsexual from the words transgender and queer is based on valid political concerns, many of which I share.

In many ways, the “transgender” umbrella serves to dilute certain transsexual specific issues (particularly regarding gender identity and sex embodiment) by conflating them with issues of gender expression and presentation that are the primary concern for the majority of transgender-identified folks. Also, some transgender-identified folks (including Virginia Prince, who coined the term) have openly and regularly expressed anti-transsexual sentiments. In its rhetoric - especially its social constructionist/anti-essentialist tendencies – the transgender movement focuses most of its energy on transcending/shattering the male/female binary. This can marginalize those of us who can’t take the maleness or femaleness of our bodies for granted, and who are non-consensually “third-sexed” as a result (e.g., transsexuals and intersexuals).

Similarly, I can now understand why many transsexuals object to being included under the term “queer.” After all, the greater lesbian and gay communities have historically and repeatedly marginalized transsexuals. Since the recent ENDA brouhaha (where many LGB people and organizations pushed for the passage of a bill that did not include gender identity), I’ve heard many transsexuals suggest that politically speaking it would be far better for us to seek legal protection under disability laws than under the LGBT umbrella (btw, those who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the former strategy should read Jennifer Levi and Bennett Klein’s essay in the book Transgender Rights).

While I personally identify as queer (in a large part because my life partner is also female), I can totally understand, given the history and politics of the situation, why many transsexuals wouldn’t want anything to do with the word “queer.” In my experience, the word “queer” too often reverts back to gay & lesbian, leaving those of us who are transgender, bisexual and/or questioning on the outside looking in, or having to constantly prove our queer credentials. From my perspective (and I talk about this in the book), queer politics almost seem designed these days to uphold and reinforce the distinction between queer & straight, rather than sincerely trying to make alliances across all lines to eradicate that distinction entirely.

Given the way that I feel, it might seem somewhat hypocritical that I use words like queer or transgender in my activism and writings at all. The reason why I do is because I believe in alliance-based activism, and think that it’s important for us to sometimes stand with people who are different yet share commonalities with our experience. While different from one another, all transgender people are marginalized by other people’s rigid views of gender. All queer people are oppressed by oppositional sexism. All female and feminine people are oppressed by traditional sexism. For me, the words “transgender” and “queer” are most similar to the word “feminist” – I see these words not as identities, but as political affiliations. In fact, I’ve spent a ton of energy critiquing anti-transsexual attitudes within queer and feminist politics precisely because I believe that strengthening those alliances is important. No one gender-marginalized group on their own can change the system – we all need to work together.

So in WG, when I describe transsexuals as falling under the queer or transgender umbrellas, it is not my intention to non-consensually label individual transsexuals as being queer or transgender. Like I said, I don’t see these words as identities (although I acknowledge that many people do). My purpose for doing so is simply to point out similarities that exist between the ways in which we are marginalized, and the potential that exists in forming political alliances based upon our related marginalizations.

I hope this helps clear things up. I know that all movements struggle with the language that is used to represent their constituencies and their issues. And sometimes words/terms/labels/identities that become adopted result in some people feeling outside (rather than inside) the movement. I feel that the language that I use as an activist constantly evolves as I become aware of such issues. It’s only through constant dialogue with one another that we can reach consensus on such issues or (in lieu of that) at least respectfully agree to disagree...

-julia

I agree. I've always felt the umbrella term of transgender allows for cis and transsexual people to retain their own identities while carving out a space for non-traditional gender identities.

Refering to your comments about transsexual in relation to medical context. I can see, as you pointed out, how some take the word as being pathologizing. Referring to transsexual as strictly a medical term denies any cultural, historical, personal significance.

-ashley altadonna-

ps. Did you ever get a chance to check out my film?
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hi Ashley, good to hear from you! I've been meaning to email you for a while but haven't quite gotten to it (sorry about that). Anyway, I very much enjoyed your film! I'll email you back-channel about it later today...

and happy new year! -j.
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Julia, you are rad.

Also, I had to tell you, the whole "womyn" thing bugs me, because it implies that those outside the traditional "women" aren't quite "women" at all, and I had this idea of "peopyl" and how you would make "polypropylpeopylene" when they got together...

Anyway! Happy New Year!
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hi Cheryl, happy new year to you too!

regarding womyn: what I meant was that I can understand why that originally caught on. feminists back then were just trying to talk about women in ways that didn't rely on male definitions. I can see how at the time alternately-spelled versions of "woman" would be very empowering. But I completely with you that it has turned into a sort of female-superiority thing, where self-proclaimed womyn-born-womyn arrogantly look down upon so-called male-identified women (i.e., heterosexual, bisexual, feminine, femme, butch and transsexual women).

also, i have to say that polypropylpeopylene makes the science geek in me all warm and fuzzy...-j.
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Interesting - I haven't really thought about the womyn thing, not being in the activist/front-edge of feminism, I only caught on to the knowing of the "womyn" word AFTER the empowerment and during the afterslosh. The timeline is something I haven't thought about.

Question then: In 2004 at Nats they had a women's open mic for all "self-identified women." This bugged me, as if folks were less women because they "only self-identified" as such, and I spent the whole summer "self-identifying" as Asian with Jaylee and Mesej. What do you think of the "self-identified" label? Inclusive, or disrespectful?

Maybe it's too soon to not have "womyn" who "self-identify as female." But there is an exclusivity in the inclusivity that bugs.
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Re: polypropylpeopylene

juliaserano

2008-01-03 02:46 pm (UTC)

hi Cheryl,

So “self-identified women” is meant to be trans-inclusive language. It arose because of the fact that people who are determined not to allow women like myself in their event can always point to *something* “male” about me (my genitals, chromosomes, appearance, socialization, etc.) and say that it disqualifies me from participating in a women’s event or space. Policies based on self-identification are favored by many trans folks and allies because they are respectful of trans people’s lived and identitied sex, and they do not require one to have had specific procedures or surgeries (which many trans folks cannot afford).

Your initial reaction to the word “self-identified” is common. It sounds like someone can just claim to “identify” as a woman without having had the experience of being treated as one. Despite the fact that this seems to be a giant loophole that can easily be abused, in all of my time working on this issue, I have never once heard of a nontrans man doing this. Whether this is out of respect, or a fear that claiming to be female would be emasculating in some way, I am not sure.

In my experience, the only (or overwhelming majority) of people who take advantage of the “self-identify” loophole are trans men (i.e., a female-to-male transsexuals) who wish to partake in women’s (and especially dyke) spaces. . Granted, not all trans men do this (not by a long shot) but some do. I find this problematic for a number of reasons as I discussed the following two posts:

http://transgroupblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/having-it-both-ways.html

http://www.juliaserano.com/frustration.html#original

Anyway, personally, if there is going to be some kind of criteria to police women’s spaces/events, I prefer to have them be open to all people who *live* as women - that is, who navigate their way through the world as women on a daily basis. This would be inclusive of trans women, but not include people who now move through the world as men (e.g., trans men).

That’s just my two cents...
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I like the "live as women" vs. "self-identify," because it places the identity on the lived experience rather than, to my feeling, insulting all kinds of folks by implying that they are women only in their imaginations.

Language is an important thing!
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Re: polypropylpeopylene

amandarc

2008-01-04 09:09 pm (UTC)

"Anyway, personally, if there is going to be some kind of criteria to police women’s spaces/events, I prefer to have them be open to all people who *live* as women"

While I agree fully, wouldn't there be some sort of problem when it comes to ts women who can pass vs. those who can't? I assume (based on my own hunches, not really anything I've ever seen) that lots of cisgendered women would feel less anxious around transwomen who can pass well-regardless of genitals-whereas even if a post op transwoman publicly and very vocally self indentifies as female, if she doesn't pass well, then I think you're always going to get snide comments about men invading women's space, men in dresses, blah blah blah.

Amanda
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Re: polypropylpeopylene

juliaserano

2008-01-05 04:41 pm (UTC)

hi Amanda,

By "live as women", I mean anyone who identifies as, presents as and/or moves through the world as a woman on a daily basis. In the case of trans women, some will "pass" as non-trans women, while others will not. The fact that some trans women are "read" as trans or as "men in a dresses" does not negate the fact that they live as women. In my mind, it is similar to the issue of butch women: just because a woman is mistaken for being a man, that doesn't negate the fact that she lives & identifies as a woman, and she still has the right to participate in women's spaces & events regardless of how others perceive her.

I totally agree with what you're saying about "passing" being an issue. But it is already an issue even in spaces based upon self-identifying as a woman. Sadly, anyone who others perceive as "looking like a man" (whether they be a trans woman or a butch non-trans woman) will continue to have such problems so long as people feel entitled to non-consensually assign genders to other people...

thanks for the reply! -julia
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