hey i have a question for you, gaytrans internet:
what do we do about this question of assignment at birth?
so can you follow me here–i’m just spitballing and i have questions, no answers–like, here’s an obvious reality:
1) female-assigned people have an easier time finding space and support in “trans” “communities” (heavy scare quotes here, bc this is not the case in y’know, communities by and for trans women, and it sucks that that’s not what “trans community” brings to mind these days) than male-assigned people, and that’s because of transmisogyny, and i believe a trans movement has to take dismantling transmisogyny as one of its foundational goals
2) thinking about people in categories stemming from their birth assignment goes against another foundational goal of any trans movement (part and parcel of dismantling transmisogyny, imo), which is ridding ourselves of the idea that birth assignment is The Indicator of one’s gendered experience
i’ve been trying to reconcile these points for like a long time and i just haven’t come to anything satisfactory, and i’ve had some good convos about it, but i felt like it was worth bringing up again and just seeing what people thought?
like, another way to put this is: how can we talk about this stuff without naturalizing “faab people” and “maab people” as categories in a way that assumes birth assignment dictates experience? but that’s my preferred framing and may not be yours
idk, i just really want to put this out into the ether and see if anyone has anything good to say!!
I wonder if it might be helpful to think of the ways that reading and interpreting birth assignment functionally determine social relations? so for instance it’s, like, totally true that categorizing people based on birth assignment is, at heart, a kind of reification, it’s separating an object of historical processes from those very processes and suggesting that it has a kind of categorical and determining force that it doesn’t always have, and therefore to see transness split into DMAB/DFAB experiences or whatever is not always or often the most useful analytic. BUT you can also turn around and say that the act of providing an answer for “what are you?”—which I feel comfortable saying is, for most trans people, pretty emotionally fraught territory, and for some of us is even like a constitutively violent question to form—is de facto based on readings of birth assignment and thus as a category it has real effects on how we treat each other, which are sometimes not so different from how cis people treat us.
and i replied:
i think a few things about this, some of them not entirely baked yet. mostly, i’m inclined to flip the framing. but/and to my eye, the big question you’re raising doesn’t have much to do with your point (1).
i think gravitys-rimbaud is right on target in pointing to “readings of birth assignment”. i’ve been looking at kessler and mckenna again lately (don’t ask), and their work on gender attribution is pretty damn sharp. they did some elegant research demonstrating a very clear (and surprising to exactly no trans people) schema: “See someone as female only when you cannot see them as male.” to me, that attribution by ‘seeing’ – which is basically a reading of birth-assignment – is the place to look at when we’re talking about how trans folks are dealt with as we move through the world. our senses of self, whatever they may be, do not have much of anything to do with it; the ways we’re read do structure our experiences.
and (close to what bitterpunktrash said about descriptive/normative, but at a slight angle to it) looking at those readings, i think there’s a clear line not around birth-assignment, but around the category of “man”. the basic (misogynistic) imbalance of the gender-attribution schema makes motion towards the category of “man” work very differently than motion away from it. and for folks read as male-by-birth-assignment, being read as ‘failing at’ manhood or ‘faking’ womanhood, has real, material consequences.
so i’m kinda of the opinion that it’s not so useful to think about the concrete stuff through supposedly neutral/symmetrical abstract categories like ‘birth assignment’, rather than in terms of the lines of power. “faab people” isn’t as useful a category to think with for me as “people moving towards manhood”.
snort. do i sound like a sep yet? ah well.
i do want to touch point (1), though, because i think it’s a situation that gets talked about in terms of transmisogyny, birth assignment, and trans community in ways that i don’t think are particularly useful to thinking about those things. to me, it makes a lot more sense to look at (1) in terms of just-plain-old misogyny within nominally queer spaces.
if i’m reading you right, in (1), you’re talking about specific subcultural spaces that are essentially populated by queer-identified cis women, the het trans men who they date, a scattering of gay men (both cis and trans), and non-binary folks who function in that sexual economy more or less in one of those three roles (mostly the latter two). i’ll be the last trans dyke to say that there’s nothing specifically transmisogynistic at play in those spaces, but i do think it’s not the main thing going on. fundamentally, these are just like other spaces that combine het and gay male sexual economies: pretty damn misogynistic. in ways that affect cis women, trans women, and other fem folks (to the degree that they can’t be read as men).
nb white people whose transness is a movement towards masculinity away from womanhood are like, the majority of most ~radical queer trans communities~
and i replied:
just a brief (for some value of ‘brief’) thing, crankily, but i hope with love. i think your tildes are meant to imply what i’m saying here, but i still want to be concrete, and say: why give up the ground if you know it’s wrong?
so: no. lez be real here.
those folks are a felt presence, in wild disproportion to their numbers, in certain white lesbian subcultures which: use the word “queer” to describe themselves; claim to hold radical politics which they enact rarely if at all in practice; and use the word “trans” to mean genderdeviant (and at times transgender) cissexual (and at times, if they’re heterosexual enough, transsexual) woman-assigned folks. in some of those spaces, folks who fit that description are an influential political reference point in certain contexts – mainly being deployed as an alibi in certain rhetorical moves around transmisogyny and as part of rhetorical evasions around regular old misogyny.
these spaces are not, i would say, in any meaningful way, radical (meaning: focused, politically, on the structural causes and operation of oppression), queer (in the 90s sense that is not a synonym for GLmaybeBfakeT), or trans (meaning: transsexual and transgendered) communities. and that’s giving a lot of benefit of the doubt on these spaces being communities in any meaningful way at all (rather than niche markets, cliques and their hangers-on, or at best sets of overlapping social circles).
i’m not trying to spit terminological hairs here, just trying to have terms mean things when we use them, so it’s possible to communicate.
if we’re talking about radical queer/trans community, what we’re talking about is (almost entirely, in my experience) outside that subcultural zone. some folks participate in both, but the spaces are pretty much entirely separate. it’s the Ballroom scene (the folks in it, not those of us who talk about it). the sketchy punk houses full of trans sex workers. the couches where trans women crash tipsily in each other’s houses (like mine, tonight). and all the myriad other places where the folks hang out who don’t throw the parties that win nightlife awards, who don’t get book contracts signed by abusive transdudes, who the trustfund faery drug dealers won’t hire to sell for them, who’ve just been cut off food stamps and need to decide whether they can handle sucking dick again or whether they can effectively agree to pimp out their friends…
and, to be clear, plenty of the spaces i’m talking about are ones where there are folks who could be talked about as white, nonbinary, and in motion towards masculinity. because the distinctions i’m making aren’t about Identity. they’re about the material world: how folks pay rent; who sleeps on which couches; who makes sure that who gets to their doctor’s appointment; who passes hormones to who; who shoplifts to feed who; who knows who well enough to ask after their nieces, to ask about their court date, to ignore their birthday, to hand them a spliff without asking, to kiss them and not ask anything.
i ended up typing this out on fb in the course of a thread that was truly and hilariously out of control and then i thought i’d done a pretty good job, so i’m reposting it here:
When I was in reparative therapy, my therapist repeatedly encouraged me to articulate what contemporary urban queer circles would call a “nonbinary” identity. So did the other abusive adults in my life. They were extremely enthusiastic about it, and, like the people in this thread, repeatedly implied that my refusal to articulate the kind of gender they wanted me to have was a function of me being politically retrograde and closed minded.
so this is like, not a thing i have talked about very much, but this was one of the big strategies cis grownups had to try to make me feel that i could not be the gender i was. they would encourage me to inhabit a nontransitioning genderqueer identity, basically.
i have no idea what to do with that. i am not suggesting that this means that nontransitioning genderqueer people are somehow “knuckling under” to cis power.
i’m curious about whether anyone else has experienced behavior like this.
I’m non-binary but I think I have experienced this or some things similar to this, or anyway, want to speak to this and the larger conversation that this was part of re: “non-binary people are less privileged than binary transsexual people”, which, nope.
When coming out (which for me involved changing my name and pronouns after several months of changing the way I “presented”), I had peers who argued that I should be satisfied/it would be more radical to be a ~non-traditional~ woman, which is a definitely different but similar flavor of “your gender is retrograde”, the solution to which is supposed to be “do not make any changes”.
Changing the way I presented included no longer shaving my face and chest hair, which my parents noticed before I came out to them. One parent was visibly relieved when I told him that I had not, in his words, “taken gender drugs”.
I think a way my family and other folks deal with me being trans – to varying degrees – is being comforted by the thought that I am not; not “like that”.
This is obviously not ideal for me. But it absolutely does not make transsexual people privileged over me and it should be pretty apparent why not.
this sounds very familiar and oh man, yeah. i wonder how many nb nontranssexual people have similar experiences to this? specifically, i’m curious about whether any of my nb nontranssexual followers have also been told, “well, at least you’re not going on scary hormone drug”?
and i replied:
sure. this is one of the places where my 2nd-gen dyke generation-gap stuff comes in, in the form of my mom being basically fine with how i am in the world, as long as she can deal with it within a frame of me retaining some elements of manhood. note: not masculinity [= social presentation / recognition], but status as man [= abstract caste/class – depending on which radical dykes’ phrasing you prefer – in her mind]. which mainly gets expressed through anti-HRT bullshit. i suspect i’ve had a similar number of blood-family arguments in which i’m advocating/defending HRT to many folks who’re actually using the stuff.
from where i sit, this is just about the value placed on manhood. in both versions.
in relation to trans guys, it’s “you can have [the privileges of] manhood without doing these things to your body”. which is, generally, accurate for many folks – as far as lived experience goes. that’s especially true for social status and the associated power goes within the social & sexual economy of straight trans men & nbs-oriented-towards-manhood and the nominally queer hetero women they date (a/k/a white “queer”) spaces, and increasingly so within other straight social spaces. but, as far as sexual economies go, it’s least true in gay male space – which may explain why it was not an effective argument for you /grin/.
and for trans women, it’s “act however you want, but at least keep your access to [the privileges of] manhood”. which is, generally, both (a) absolute bullshit as a meaningful possibility, as far as anyone nb-oriented-away-from-manhood’s actual experience of the world goes, and (b) entirely missing the point, which is moving away from manhood.
which is to say, at heart, that i don’t think this has much to do with the ‘nb vs binary’ stuff that various folks seem to be trying to make into a drama – from both sides of the line – based on reproducing (whether to repeat or to argue against) the rhetoric of political battles among white trans women in the 1990s while actively refusing to understand either their context or their content. [ask me, or someone else who was there, to explain them if you want to know] i think it’s just the same old same old. which is to say, as usual: it ain’t about trans, it’s about patriarchy.
valorization of manhood sucks when you want to embody masculinity without embracing misogyny; it sucks worse if you’re trying to escape both. the folks pressuring you can use the same language, though, because what they’re trying to maximize with the least effort and social cost is the same either way: manhood.
but if we’re serious about building analysis that actually comes out of our lives, and doesn’t simply adopt cis / straight / misogynist premises, we need to look a bit more closely than that shared phrasing.
I mean idk do any other trans men or women find that liberal cis people tend to be more uncomfortable with you than they are with emphatically nonbinary or genderqueer people?
I find cis people of a certain type—urban liberals—are creepily fascinated with genderqueer people and really like the idea of them. I think that fascination fulfills a really important need for cis people, which is the need to establish transness as something totally outside legitimate manhood or womanhood. Which is totally unfair and shitty because “outside of manhood and womanhood” shouldn’t have to be the only position from which a nonbinary identity can proceed, plus no one should be used to shore up cis anxiety.
Like, to put it more simply, I think a lot of cis people are more ok with the idea of a trans person who isn’t a man or a woman than they are with the idea of someone being, say, trans and a woman at the same time. Or trans and a man at the same time. Like on those forms that let you check male, female, or transgender.
I mean I think for most cis people trans people are always and already “nonbinary.”
Also liberal cis people get their gender-as-a-spectrum (less threatening than gender-as-a-system) from genderqueers who are generally more required to explain the legitimacy of their identity and less likely to demand inclusion in cis ppl’s gendered spaces. I think liberals in general hate the idea of people who are different from them but refuse to explain that difference or package for consumption while demanding the same rights as them. How would cis people even deal with trans people without their consumption of simplistic trans narratives? How do cis people deal with trans people who refuse to explain themselves?
and i replied:
tell me if it’s obnoxious for me to throw in my few cents – my experiences of being read line up with some more-emphatically-woman-identified trans folks, but my presentation is usually pretty different from theirs, and my relationship to the category’s different…
from what i see around me, as far as how folks get treated, yes absolutely when it comes to folks who’re read as originally female-assigned, when they present in a certain ‘genderqueer’ range of androgynous/ambiguous. and i think, as ever, that aza-min-mentsch and you are sharp-eyed at diagnosing what’s up in liberals’ minds…
and as usual, it’s messier for those of us who’re originally male-assigned. what i tend to see and experience is more about “how can i figure out a way to understand this person as a man, however failed?”. which i think is another mode of creepy fascination centering on trans-as-neither-nor, just in a way that rejects the terms folks put forward about themselves, rather than embracing them. i think pronoun use reflects this – in my majority-cis activist contexts, it seems to take orders of magnitude longer for shifts to “they” to get minimally consistent recognition when folks are moving from “he” than from “she”.
and the refusal to explain is, i think super important. one of the odd things about the current version of ‘genderqueer’ is how it’s so often about putting huge amounts of time and energy into explaining itself to cis people. which is one of the creepier ways that its focus on internal identity plays out to undermine other trans & genderdeviant folks’ ways of being in the world.
…(and, though it doesn’t tie directly into this dynamic, i can’t resist giving one recent example of how responses to a refusal to explain can get both icky and hilarious: an 18-or-20-year-old, after hearing two different names used for someone, asking a series of ‘you’re a what?’ ‘but you were born a boy?’ questions, while her mother tried to cut her off, repeating ‘of course she’s a girl’ and pointing to an exposed bra strap as incontrovertible evidence)…