The Umbrella

Posted by – July 27, 2008

There’s been a recent thread on the message boards about the relative usefulness & accuracy of the “transgender umbrella” & quite frankly, I’m stumped by people who have a problem with the idea. I don’t see that it’s a complicated idea: that people who “trans” gender in some way – change, permanently or temporarily, their gender, or question the binary, etc. – have something in common. It doesn’t mean you’re all alike. It doesn’t mean you share all causes or issues or complaints. It doesn’t mean anything except that at some point, you question(ed) the assignment of an F or an M on your birth certificate as an accurate description of your gender at all times.

What I expect underlays the complications is an expectation of harmony, or unity, under that umbrella. That’s not going to happen, simply because different types of people under the umbrella have different experiences, identities, and definitely different complications with expressing that identity in the world. The post-op young transitioner who is happily married to a man may pass seamlessly as a woman, but only stealth keeps it that way. The crossdresser needs places to change, & community that isn’t heterocentric or homophobic. The genderqueer person wants to be acknowledge that they do not have a single gender, or any gender, or a consistent gender, or a binary-driven gender, depending on how they express being genderqueer.

There’s a lovely amount of variety.

What I think happens is that some forms of transness are considered “less than.” I can understand why a trans woman might feel her femininity mocked, or made questionable, by a crossdresser’s evocations of feminity. I’ve felt the same way when faced with some crossdressers’ interpretation of feminine. But I can’t imagine disliking crossdressers as a group because of that. After all, as many partners & feminists have experienced, transness in general tends to blow up a cissexual’s notions of gender in the first place, with its emphasis on nature & not nurture. We don’t dislike trans people as a result (well, some people do, of course, but I’m assuming most people reading this think that’s kind of dumb, if not outright prejudice.)

It’s not as if I’m not horrified by the behavior of some white folks, or other women, or writers, or Brooklynites, but I can’t deny I have something in common with them, either.

17 Comments on The Umbrella

  1. Madame George says:

    Thank you Helen. It is a beautiful entry.

  2. suzeallyn says:

    I think one of the most bothersome issues about the umbrella word of Transgender is the inclusion (or not) of fetishists.

  3. Grace.Annam says:

    Well put, Helen. Very early in my transition I joined a discussion group which was restricted to people who had, or intended to, transition physically. It seemed like a friendly bunch of people until the issue of transgender inclusion came up. I was dismayed by the sudden level of vitriol directed toward any trans person who was not transitioning physically, and also by the number of dismissive diatribes directed at me when I spoke up in favor of diversity.
    It seemed to me a no-brainer that there could be one label (transsexual) for people who transition permanently in public, and probably physically, and another label (transgender) for anyone who doesn’t adhere to the gender binary, including transsexuals.
    But I was surprised (and rather mystified) to find that some trans women simply refused to be included in any category with drag queens or gender queer. A few of them went so far as to assert that they were no longer transsexual, or women of transsexual experience, but simply women, full stop.
    It seemed to me a form of denial. Even if the magic bullet is invented tomorrow and I can attain a female body in every way, including chromosomes and all physical structures, I will still have the life experience of having lived in a male body.
    So, long story short, I agree. It’s mystifying. In its most extreme form, I regard it as a form of denial. And it can get pretty unpleasant.

    Grace

  4. Catrina says:

    Interesting Helen:

    Just to add…. what about GID people whose gender identities can shift sometimes daily? Wake up on Monday, consciousness says, “I am female.” Wake up on Wednesday, consciousness says, “I am male….” (as an extreme example) or something like that. There have been reported cases where mtf TS people have undergone partial transition to suddenly shift back to a male states of consciousness. (and vice versa) Rare, but it happens.

    Some MPD people have been know to be misdiagnosed. It is really GID.

  5. Jane_S says:

    I’m one of the women with a problem with “the umbrella” in the message board thread that inspired this post. This blog is close to the exact thing that I’ve been trying to explain is sort of troublesome for women like me. The shortest way to explain the problem is to note that:

    (1) “Operation tracked transsexuals” have rather large, rather clear needs that can gain rather a lot of sympathy if they stand on their own where thoughtful cis people can think about a detailed and clear story and see how a life of tragedy can be vastly improved by a small amount of accommodation (like access to basic health care and amendment of those birth certificates you mentioned). The only part of the gender binary we *necessarily* challenge is the notion that people are always assigned to the right side of the binary at birth, and don’t need sympathy or help if the assignment goes wrong.

    (2) It’s hard to even give a *unique name* to this group (not transgender or trans or non-op transsexual or genderqueer) but if they are outnumbered 100 to 1 by het male cross dressers and 100 to 1 by gay guys then whenever they are brought up in those contexts the message that really helps them will be massively diluted (200 to 1), possibly to the point of outright erasure. (And that’s assuming they don’t get yelled at for bringing up their uniqueness and the differences of their situation. Which happens.)

    > It doesn’t mean anything except that at some point, you
    > question(ed) the assignment of an F or an M on your birth
    > certificate as an accurate description of your gender at all
    > times.

    Yes, that’s all an *abstract umbrella* can mean. And to the degree, Helen, that you, just as you are, might be transgender for maybe having entertained the notion that maybe “male” would be a better thing to be in your birth cert, that wouldn’t be such a big deal (if that was the case for you). But if you were just as you are but *with* a “male” on your birth certificate at some point in the past then you wouldn’t have been able to marry Betty in the first place. And you would have had to scrape up maybe $30,000 while being a stigmatized and visibly gender variant teen or twenty-something to get, physically, to the place you are now.

    To blow birth certificates off this way indicates that you have no idea what it’s like to have years of your life twisted around like a pretzel because the government and the medical professions’s notion of you *constantly* failed to match who you really are every day. Like you blowing this off this way seems to me like someone who isn’t in prison thinking it’s interesting that in some mostly harmless ways they’ve broken the law occasionally and maybe theoretically belong on the other side of the bars. And I spent my childhood unjustly imprisoned, and then 5 years scratching a hole in rotting cement every night with a fork to be on the same side of the bars as you, and now you want me to laugh about it, woman to woman, and notice how “lovely” the “variety” around the “transgender” experience is.

    As though that experience wasn’t traumatic. Or serious. Or something that might actually produce a little denial sometimes in ways that might prompt understanding and sympathy rather than disparagement.

    > The post-op young transitioner who is happily married to a man may
    > pass seamlessly as a woman, but only stealth keeps it that way.

    No. Stealth doesn’t keep me happily married. Stealth doesn’t erase “seams” in my “passing”… stealth is more like me not talking constantly to my friends about highly stigmatized medical treatments I had as a child. Imagine a woman who told every single person she met that she’d had an abortion when she was 16, and then she kept talking about it whenever gender or feminism came up (and like hey it would be understandable in some ways). But she’d be “the abortion woman” in her friend’s minds. *That’s* why I’m not personally disclosed in my day to day life but only do online activism like this response to your blog. And in these cases I mostly talk about my choices as being about “disclosure” rather than “stealth” because otherwise it’s not like a cross dresser “passing” as female, it’s about *being* female but having a misunderstood secret.

    There’s definitely a *political* reason for transsexuals to do things that might make them “the operation woman” as far as spreading the message about a pressing need we had as young people (needs many young people still have unmet), but most of us don’t want to donate our entire lives to that cause, you know? It would be nice if the message could be spread by some less drastic measure… like if our more numerous allies who have some experience with transsexual issues but aren’t actually transsexual themselves could help a little?

    And instead, the umbrella acts to *dilute* this message and make posts like the one I’m making more necessary.

    > After all, as many partners & feminists have experienced, transness
    > in general tends to blow up a cissexual’s notions of gender in the
    > first place, with its emphasis on nature & not nurture.

    Except my personal story seems to me to emphasize the way nature is so powerful. I certainly *wasn’t* nurtured to be feminine or have body issues. Most of my childhood can be seen as a constant 24/7 12 year campaign to “butch up a little girl”. And it worked a little bit, but not much more than a good feminist upbringing would that included constantly encouraging your daughter to hang out at construction sites and pick up nails while dad hammered on stuff. I had rather a lot of “take your daughter to work” days, growing up in the late 80′s before it was quite as mainstream as it is now.

    And for that matter, the “it’s mostly nurture except in the minds of naïve cis people” framing is actively harmful to trans children. For example there was a study (‘I Can Accept My Child is Transsexual but if I Ever See Him in a Dress I’ll Hit Him’: Dilemmas in Parenting a Transgendered Adolescent) that found that parents acceptance was correlated with thinking of trans issues as primarily an innate or “biological” reality. And there are good scientific reasons to *suspect* that that’s actually the honest truth in this case.

    And siding with nurture here and dismissing the notion that “gender has a natural basis” for trans stuff? That’s spreading a message of non-acceptance that, if believed, really does go with adolescent girls being slapped in the face and called monstrous gay freaks by their father. If your words have the power to change beliefs and the study is correct in the way beliefs change parental behavior then… um… were you just not aware of the issue or were you arguing *against* the naturalness of a basically permanent gender identity for some other (presumably more pressing) reason?

    Like, there’s nothing wrong with being gay. But also, it’s not the same thing as being trans. And in neither case is it something that helps to be framed as merely “cultural”. And there’s nothing wrong with being a cross dresser, but it’s *also* not the same thing as being trans. But gay guys at least aren’t trying to work in especially close alliance with trans women. Cross dressers are because of this umbrella deal.

    > The crossdresser needs places to change, & community that isn’t
    > heterocentric or homophobic.

    So how about they change at home and solve the problem? And start talking about how great gays and lesbians are and working under the queer and kinky umbrellas and solve the other issue? Am I missing something? Was that need supposed to be “roughly the same as” and get “roughly the same billing as” the pragmatic issues that transsexuals face? Seriously? One sentence about each, right next to each other so they’re associated in people’s minds, so that makes it fair? Where the one sentence about operative transsexuals didn’t even mention our needs but dismissed our femaleness with words like “stealth” and “seams”?

    > It’s not as if I’m not horrified by the behavior of some white
    > folks, or other women, or writers, or Brooklynites, but I can’t
    > deny I have something in common with them, either.

    It’s not that I’m horrified or even embarrassed by people under the umbrella. I’m sex-positive, kink-positive, do my best to be a queer ally, and so on… It’s that “umbrella-people” keep getting the story about transsexuals *almost completely* wrong and being “bad allies” in some rather comprehensive ways.

    It’s not the pride of transsexual women that’s being hurt by the political umbrella, it’s our basic survival. It’s being a “trans minority within a transgender minority” where our needs and issues are constantly being erased by our supposed allies. If we have serious needs and if it’s almost impossible to find them expressed in an undiluted form, then we’re in for pretty bad lives. And the umbrella *does* seem to be dilutive. And I think the needs of young transsexual people *are* quite serious. Hence… I’m not such a big fan of the umbrella in it’s current form :-(

    Like imagine if people from East Brunswick in the south to New Haven in the north, and from Morristown in the west and the Hamptons in east… what if they had a problem with their city budgets and all voted to start redirecting taxes collected by the local governments of Brooklyn and Manhattan and the Bronx and other “core New York” areas to repair potholes in the streets across the greater metropolitan region? And when people from Brooklyn and Manhattan complained that most of them didn’t even have cars and their mass transit was breaking down for lack of money and food wasn’t getting into the city they were told that they were just embarrassed about the poverty of the region and were only a small selfish part of the metropolitan area anyway (as far as people from California could tell) and to stop complaining about the way voters in Stamford and all the other surrounding cities were somehow empowered to redirect their local tax revenue even by, say, (this part of the metaphor is a stretch I know) collecting taxes on all profit generated from the image of the New York skyline everywhere in the country (which you know, has a pretty big mythos surrounding it).

    That’s what I’m trying to say.

    There’s a myth around some people at the center of the transgender umbrella. It’s the myth of the transsexual woman. And transsexual women have different needs than the outlying community of gender variant people. And cross dressers are generally not facing choices between sex work and a life trapped in gender limbo and body/social issues from hell. And unless transsexual women do something at least a little bit “politically selfish”, the whole metropolitan region is going to have problems with a “rotting urban core” that’s created in part by an erasure of needs and a redirection of political resources. I grew up in the core. And I survived. And it was mostly because I was lucky, not because of anything special about me or admirable choices I made. And I don’t want to be mean or selfish (god knows it’s “unfeminine” to be selfish :-P), but I don’t see how I can’t help the people I “grew up with” without being a bit selfish here.

    I just wish other people under the umbrella who are doing the “redirection of political resources” thing would admit that they were being a bit selfish too. Like transsexuals are *carrying* the umbrella by virtue of being so mythological and it seems like right now like the umbrella we’re being asked to carry is one of those patio umbrellas with a hole in the center next to the pole so the costly fabric protects the people around the edge of the table rather than the pole. I’d like some fabric over the middle please.

    Actually, I’d like *more* fabric for the middle than over the edges. It’s pretty soaked in center, and there’s the additionional metabolic cost of holding the pole, and there are people dying of hypothermia from these conditions. Like… sex work and AIDS…. *literally* dying. It would be nice if the umbrella at least provided cover from the rain… and instead I’m correcting harmful misconceptions.

    I’m not saying that the transgender umbrella is totally misconceived or that we don’t have a “metropolitan region” under the umbrella with real interdependence. We can mutually benefit each other. I’m saying the needs of girls at the center sometimes seem like they are being erased by the needs of married men in the suburbs who outnumber them and it would be cool if there was at least some recognition of the fact and maybe the people on the edges could try to be better allies? If the core were better tended, the outlaying regions that aren’t so mythical might find themselves improved too. An effective alliance helps *everybody*… That’s why it’s called an alliance.

  6. lizzy says:

    As If I could say ” I’m not like all other humans , so please don’t put me under the human umbrella “. My liking being lumped under there has no bearing, it’s where I am.
    Yes there are a shit load of different kinds of men and woman, but we are all humans. The variety of folks that might come under the TG umbrella is staggering, but yep, ya all fit under there someplace.
    I find myself fitting under a lot of places, a friend up in P Town this past week said ” Liz, your way more queer than DJ” and he was right. So I fit under the queer umbrella, but DJ does not. Big Whoop, lot’s of us, me included, need to just get on with it, we tend to take ourselves way too serious sometimes.

  7. VivaZoya says:

    Under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh,
    sorrycouldntstopmeself.

  8. marci says:

    Well, to be sure, there is a big big difference between a fetishistic crossdresser and a so-called transwoman, and I can understand wanting not to be included under the same umbrella. On the other hand, what goes around comes around, so I can also see why women would not want to be under the same umbrella (or bathroom) as transwomen, as the latter are genetic men, most of whom have not grown up experiencing life as a female and so have no real perspective on what it means to live the life of a woman. Umbrellas can only be so big; someone’s always gonna be left out. But, the bigger the umbrella, the harder to carry.

  9. helenboyd says:

    jane – just for starters, & i have to think about your post more & get back to you about it – but i meant to say that “nature” is given great argument by trans people in a way that makes “nurture” seem the weaker idea. personally i think it’s a combination of the two, but i would have preferred it to be nurture. after meeting trans people, i’m absolutely sure it isn’t.

  10. helenboyd says:

    likewise, NYS does that very thing to NYC all the time. we pay for most of upstate, actually. & there are times NYS has carried NYC (like in the 1970s). i think that’s a very relevant analogy, as i can imagine that those under the trans umbrella might be able to work out a similar solution (ie, those that have more resources help those with fewer).

  11. Phoebe says:

    Jane – The first thing to say is that I often feel as smothered by the ‘detailed and clear’ standard TS story as you seem to be by the umbrella. My story is not at all clear, but I am no less TS for all that. There may be a political advantage to pretending that things are that simple, but the danger is that if you define things too narrowly, you end up leaving out some of the people you think you are helping. IMO, truth is more important and more long-lasting than expediency.

    Also, I have to say I don’t ever see anything like 100-1 het CDs to TSs. I mean, no one has any real idea, and yes, there are an awful lot of closeted CDs, but even in a very TG-friendly place like Seattle, what I *encounter* is more like 5-1, with about another 5-1 that are TG, but not CD and not clearly surgery-tracked. So I really don’t see the kind of dilution of message that you are worrying about being reflected in the world. Enough so that it is communicated that it can be complicated, but the standard TS narrative is still the dominant meme that I see out there.

  12. Natasha says:

    It’s a pity that whenever someone questions the validity of the umbrella, that’s always instantly taken as an attack on crossdressers.

    My argument goes like this.

    I identify as female. I’m not delusional though – I recognise that my body was quite ordinarily male until I took the usual medical steps to change it, so I’m happy enough to add the transsexual prefix. But that doesn’t change that I identify as female. This is an important point. I changed my body to suit my self-identification. I didn’t change my self-identification.

    Many other people who occupy positions under the trans umbrella do not identify as female. They identify as genderqueer, or male, or third-sex, or trans or whatever.

    For me the issue isn’t so much what’s politically expedient, or of how outsiders view people under the umbrella, it’s one simply of self-identity, and my identity is a bright, clear dividing line for me.

    I can accept that there are people who identify as male but want to wear women’s clothes. I can accept that there are people who want to queer gender, and people who feel they’re neither male nor female.

    But that doesn’t mean that I have to count myself amongst them. I simply cannot, because to do so undermines my own self-identity as female.

    Simply put, I’ve got no interest in trashing the binary, no interest in pushing the boundaries, no interest in queering gender.

    The main issue I have with the umbrella is its all-encompassing nature. Being under it or not isn’t something that one is allowed to do for themselves. I find it just as constricting as the original expectation that I was male. Simply saying “you and I are not the same” isn’t allowed.

  13. Sarah Lake says:

    For fifty years now, it’s been possible for somebody, born with an apparently male body, to transition with the aid of hormones [and probably surgery] and live as female, providing testosterone had not wrought too much havoc and their genes were on their side .. albeit with severely compromised legal rights.

    Perhaps only in the last ten years a number of new developments have occurred. FFS has improved hugely. SRS has improved hugely. Political developments in the EU and in a number of states in the US as well as other countries, with a ‘Western’ culture, have brought increasing legal protection to transitioners. It is now possible for considerably more people to transition to a state which to all intents and purposes enables them to live undisputedly as the opposite to their assigned/apparent birth sex. The proviso of course is that they have the money or live in a country with a health service which will support such a transition.

    I would like this information widely acknowledged because, if I had understood this as a child and even more so as a teenager, my life could have been very different. I am not so sure that others, with a different experience to mine, share my enthusiasm.

    There is a dichotomy. Those, who feel a need for medical transition, are finding it increasingly possible and satisfactory. When it is universally possible, the story ends for people like this. I am one such. I have now no selfish reason to remain political. My transition is complete. My body feels good. In the UK I have all the legal rights I require. There are still some social problems from my pre-transtion life which affect those I love and by association me of course. I would like Trans kids, who share my experience, to be fully informed and supported so that they are able to transition as I have and these social problems never arise. I am not so sure that others, with a different experience to mine, share this enthusiasm.

    Ah, Social problems …. yes, if you want to transition in a less binary way, there will still be social problems. I’m very sympathetic but like Natasha, Jane and others, I feel they were never, or only temporarily, my problems. I am however more than a little aware that many of us, who are over a certain age, do have social problems, which are not going to go away unless we and our loved ones suffer amnesia. So I think what I hope is that one day not too far off we can take down the umbrella and find the sky is blue for all. For the time being, I’m very grateful that some kind of tatty umbrella was there for me during the stage I needed it and I actually feel … from my [surprising to me] viewpoint of gender privilege … in a position to be gracious … if that doesn’t sound too patronising!

  14. Betty says:

    Yeesh.

    Why is it so hard for people to separate their personal story from a larger common narrative? Or, is the abstract “we” such an alien idea?

    I don’t know.

    I think Helen was getting at some of the more basic things groups of people have in common, not a defense of the “umbrella” as some kind of restrictive box.

    The things people have in common are generally so tenuous and fragile that it’s no wonder that we yearn for threads that strengthen that fabric. There is nothing controversial in saying that there is a group of people on this planet who experience a gender identity in opposition to what was declared at birth.

    Yes, we do it differently.

    No, we’re not all the same.

    Yes, we have different needs.

    No, your experience is not actually universal within the group.

    I dunno.

    I guess it’s only an umbrella if you feel like being under it. People will be people and all that.

    And as an aside: At what point can we kill the “scary crossdresser” meme? Jeebus, listening to some of you conjures up some less funny version of Shaun of the Dead’s zombies. It’s weak, people, and frankly is beginning to just sound ignorant.

    :D

  15. Catrina says:

    Maybe it is wise also to consider the dynamics of a changing social structure too when considering any consideration of an umbrella.

    Yes, without any conflict to any commentary herein, personal or otherwise, evaluative or narrative, the oscillation of what Betty well describes is dynamic. Yes, it has been possible to “shift” for about fifty years. Yet, can we ponder that April Ashley was subjected to electro shock therapy before she moved to Paris? She had to escape the medical profession or she would have been literally killed by those trying to “save her”!

    Being gay was considered an affliction. Being TS was tantamount to ????

    The psychological community too, has changed so much in its perception. Maybe it is not just about acceptance or inclusiveness. Even that changes in time and life. Maybe there is a hidden psychological convergence that has not yet appeared but unifies more than we think.

  16. gillian cameron says:

    A while back, on another group to which I belong, a transitioned woman claimed that anyone who is NOT transsexual and transitioned does not qualify to be considered “transgendered.” I’m beginning to think that we need a board of governors or at least a rule book. But that would mean we would have to come to a consensus.

    I have encountered transphobic gays and homophobic transpeople (I wish we had better collective nouns), transsexuals who look down their noses at crossdressers while the crossdressers are returning the compliment (while either denying they are fetishists or celebrating the fact), amongst countless other internecine squabbles.

    Last time I looked, the community which resides (whether they want to or not) beneath this “umbrella” were still pretty stigmatized outside it. Even amongst the sympathetic and accepting Goddess types I’ve been hanging with, I’ve had a LOT of explaining to do. And even among them there are the “womyn-born-womyn” types who would be less inclined than James Dobson to accept a transwoman as simply a woman. In short, to a still very large section of the general population, this argument as to who is and isn’t “under the umbrella” would seem simply ludicrous.

    I don’t remember filling out any applications to become part of this community. Susan Stanton may have gotten a toaster, but I sure didn’t. (And last time I heard, because of yet more divisive talk on Ms. Stanton’s part, there were plenty of folks who would have gladly put that toaster in a more strategic spot than her hands.) The fact is we don’t have a single defining organization, but we sure do have a bunch of silly pecking orders. I wouldn’t want the former, but we certainly don’t need the latter.

    I think the most important thing for anyone who wants to leave the “umbrella” to consider is this: those outside are still going to judge the rest of us by your actions and words. I don’t care a fig what you consider yourself, I just don’t want to bear the brunt of anything dumb which you might do or say.

    And I’ll try to behave myself too.

    BTW. Hi. I’m Gillian. I’ve been lurking around her for some time and I figured it was time I opened my big mouth.

  17. helenboyd says:

    okay, here’s what i’ve been thinking.

    focusing, as an activist, on what you personally think is the most important issue/population of the trans population is fine. everyone does. there are people who focus on youth issues, on young transitioner issues, partner issues, etc. as i’ve said before: there is a LOT of need in the trans community, & people tend to respond to what moves them the most emotionally, where they see the greatest need.

    & there’s nothing wrong with that. to me, it’s natural for a partner to start providing partner resources, while kids of trans provide for others like them, while young transitioners raise funds for other young transitioners.

    getting other people onboard usually requires finding others like you. believe me, i faced a lot of hostility for working on partners’ issues. it comes with the program.

    so to me, the issue is: the trans community is at an interesting time, where, if you see a need that isn’t being met, you can step up & find a way to meet it. write blog articles, form groups. raise money. do whatever you need to do to get people to hear about the particular group you’re worried about.

    or as Harvey Fierstein has said to the guys who complain that they’re not represented at pride parades: “then show up.” & to me, that’s all you can do. no one is going to do what you think the most important work is unless someone is willing to step into a leadership role viz that work.

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