Riki Wilchins on the TG spectrum

Posted by – October 19, 2003

from Riki Wilchins’ Gender Queer :

“Transgender was intended as an umbrella term, then a name of inclusion. But umbrellas don’t work well when one group holds them up. Today, trans activism is often focused on the problems (bathroom access, name change, workplace transition, and hate crimes) faced by those who have been most active in its success: postoperative male-to-female transexuals (any similarity to the author is purely coincidental).

Yet there is little being done today to address the needs of drag people, butches, cross-dressers, transexuals who do not seek surgery, or (besides the Intersex Society of North America) intersexuals. Cross-dressers especially have suffered from lack of representation, although they number in the millions and experience severe problems associated with child custody, job discrimination, hate crimes, and punitive divorce precedents.

Thus has transgender, a voice that originated from the margins, begun to produce its own marginalized voices. And in part because – as an identity organized around “transgression” – there is a growing debate over who is “most transgressive.” How does one decide such questions? For instance, as one transexual put it, “I’m not this part-time. I can’t hang my body in the closet and pass on Monday.” There is no doubt, from one perspective, that cross-dressers enjoy some advantages. They are large in numbers, most only dress occasionally, and they can do so in the privacy of their own homes. Does that mean they would live that way if they had a choice? Does it really make them “less transgressive”?

In fact, nobody wants men in dresses. There are no “out” cross-dressers, and almost no political organization wants them or wants to speak in their name. “A man in a dress” is the original “absurd result” that judges, juries, even legislators try to avoid at all costs when rendering verdicts or crafting laws. “Men in dresses” isn’t the next hit movie: It’s a punch line in the next joke.

Among genderqueer youth, it is no longer rare to hear complaints of being frozen out of transgender groups because they don’t want to change their bodies. In an identity that favors transexuals, changing one’s body has become a litmus test for transgression. . . .

Since trans activists have loudly and justifiably complained about being “most transgressive” and about being consigned to the bottom rung of gay and feminist concerns, so it is doubly unfortunate to see them developing hierarchies of their own, in which transpeople must compete for legitimacy and in which their own margins soemtimes go unrecognized. Indeed, like assertions over who has more “privilege,” debates over who is most “transgressive” are a form of reverse discrimination that seeks to confer status based on who has it worst. Which is to say, debates over identity are always divisive and never conclusive. They are divisive because at heart they are about conferring status, always a zero-sum game. For one person to win, another must lose. They are inconclusive because there are no objective criteria by which to decide. Winning such debates is always a function of who sets the rules and who gets to judge. And since postsurgical transexuals are most often in a position to judge, at the moment, the rules tend to favor their life experiences . . .

There is no denying that after a persistent 10-year struggle, the T in LGBT is here to stay. Will the new gay embrace of transgender be successful? Will gay organizations actually devote any real resources to transgender, and if so, will they give us anything more than transexual rights? On this, the jury is still out. Although a few organizations have led the way, most organizations have not brought to bear anything like real muscle, and what muscle there is continues to be channeled into “gender identity” and transexual concerns. In the meantime, butches, queens, fairies, high femmes, tomboys, sissy boys and cross-dressers have completely vanished from civil discourse. They are never mentioned in public statements by any major progressive organization. For political purposes, they have ceased to exist. Gender itself remains invisible as a progressive issue. If it is mentioned at all, it is carefully confined to transgender. . . . With gender stretched out across the whole surface of individuals’ relations with society, maybe it’s time to quit attacking the problem piecemeal, waiting for the next issue to appear on the front page of the New York Times. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge gender stereotypes as a problem we all share, a central concern, a way to come together: a human rights issue for us all.”

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