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It’s Complicated: On Being “Academically” Transgender

by Lexi Kamen Turner (1st year Film Studies BA student, KCL iFemSoc Events Organiser)

“Are you gay?”
“No.”
“Straight, then?”
“No.”
“So, you’re bi?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

I don’t miss those conversations. Trying to explain that, as well being queer/pan/omni/whatever, my attraction to women was in a way I could only describe as lesbian, before I had discarded completely with the old name and pronouns was an uphill struggle of Sisyphean proportions. Whatever percentage of my last post on here I spent deriding the easy-for-cis-people-to-swallow and utterly normative story of “always feeing like an X trapped in a Y’s body” (pardon the pun) and playing with these toys instead of those toys etc etc, I couldn’t help but desire a narrative as concise as that. I imagine most other trans* folk probably feel the same, too.

That said: in some ways, my story is very simple. I didn’t feel right, I tried different things to feel righter, many of them disastrously self-destructive, and then I aspired to be the very truest to myself that I could manage. I still fall victim to the desire for “simplicity,” but that is largely because I cannot help but still occasionally fall victim to the cisheteronormative society that dominated so much of the misinformation I was given about people like me in my younger years, and what most people throughout the world accept willingly. Speaking only for myself, the swirling grey mass of malaise and confusion that filled my head and heart for the first two decades of my life was more complex than any written or spoken word on the issues of gender identity ever could be: whether it was the warm, welcoming grooviness of Kate Bornstein’s books on gender outlaws, the smokey sexiness of Justin Vivian Bond, the analytic discourse of Judith Butler, the impassioned and visceral battle cries of Sylvia Rivera, the profoundly important activism and comedy of Riki Wilchins, the documentaries of Susan Stryker, the cutting relatability of Julia Serano and Natalie Reed… I took it all in and, for one of the first times in my life, gained a sense of nigh-ecstatic clarity to know that I had no obligation to live according to the stipulations of a birth certificate, the signing for which I distinctly do not remember being around to witness; that other people had transitioned before and had achieved fulfilment from it, no matter the resistance society gave them.

As such, discovering and engaging with all discussions of gender and Feminism and liberation relating to it was like oxygen in contrast to the suffocation of dysphoria and I did not stop to consider any sort of order in which I should read all this literature; certainly not one relating to the “academic” level of the work. As I shared videos, recordings and literature related to transition and Transfeminism amongst my cis friends, the people who engaged with the material were not defined by their education but by their willingness.

So, when Lisa Millbank of RadTransFem left this comment underneath our Reading List,
readinglistcomment

(NB: I have of course changed the reading list since)

I was given pause for thought.

The funny thing about coming out / transitioning – much like being someone in recovery from trauma, a professional artist, a writer or, for that matter, setting up a society – is that within almost no time at all, you’ll discover that someone else is wondering how you “managed it.” They want to know what resources you turned to, which figures you venerate, what sort of support network you were able to find/establish. Then answer for me, and everyone else is a very simple “whatever I could get.” As such, the concept of starting with the “simpler” texts and moving on to the more “advanced” ones later struck me as something only someone with a limited degree of investment in understanding the plights and issues related to Transfeminism and gender theory would have the desire to do. This also of course ignores the horses-for-courses aspect of all of these pursuits: there may well be people who find themselves experiencing too much of a personality clash with the writings of Kate Bornstein or Julia Serano or Natalie Reed, but feel right at home, following Judith Butler on a journey through Beauvoir, Wittig and Lacan.

As Lisa Millbank has since Monday posted on the subject of “simple” vs “advanced” writing:

The way I see it, our different “worlds of sense” (María Lugones) are closer together or further apart, and a journey to a distant world of sense may be an “advanced” journey for me, but not-even-a-journey for someone else for whom that world is one of her homes. So in naming some journeys more “advanced” than others, we’re de facto measuring their distance from a “centre” of thought/sense, a centre which corresponds closely to cultural defaults.

I have more thoughts around the fact that pieces of writing aren’t just passive reflections of “worlds of sense”, but acts in themselves, acts which may be designed to make the reader feel small, bore them, liberate them, immobilise their thought, enhance the writer’s access to power, demonstrate loyalty or disloyalty to different thought systems, etc. But “advanced” doesn’t seem like a good, direct way to name journeys/worlds which differ in those ways.

The term “academic” has a problematic ambiguity, considering its second meaning relates specifically to the concept of theoretical/hypothetical existence, with too much of an emphasis on “understanding.” As far as I am concerned, trans* folk rarely need the understanding of cis people. When one’s recent history is one of anarchy and protest, there is only so far to which one is willing to be assimilated into public consciousness. Rather, our existence as people is regularly forgotten by people who would put a majority of texts relating to our existence in the “advanced/academic” camp: we are made problems to be solved at some stage, but no rush if you don’t feel like tackling the subject.

The lexicon relating to this problem-solving approach to trans* people is one of the most easy-to-spot signs of the permeation of cissexism into even the most allegedly close and well-meaning people. Tonnes of trans* folk are ejected from their family homes, from bathrooms, from shelters, from hospitals purely because it is too “difficult” for the cis folk to “understand;” where cis women are celebrated for their mystique, we must be dissected, one way or another. (I should perhaps stress that this is a “celebration” only in official name only; cis women are discussed horrifically and regularly but most respected talk show hosts stop short of asking them to describe in detail their genitalia. Whilst a tabloid is not above showing the world what a cis woman looks like without makeup, an interviewer would rarely expect to get away with that to the point that she would then still be expected to give the interview after, unlike trans* people who are forced to put up with “before-and-after” shots almost every time.)

Disgusting charlatan Dan Savage stated that “Tumblr-enabled debates about sexual identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual interests take on the flavor of those how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates that obsessed theologians in the Middle Ages.” Although he was, in my opinion, as per usual, trying to silence any voice at risk of proving his sexist transphobic, bi-erasing, racist (etc) “activism” to be as irrelevant as it truly is, he might have had a point when it comes to the presentation of these issues when done so for the benefit of cis / non-Queer eyes to read. I regularly find myself simplifying my own identity for the benefit of those who struggle with the very concept of transfemininity on the most basic of levels. Too often do we find ourselves either simplified out of existence or disregarded as being “too complex” to be bothered about right now, when everyone in the world has an idea of what a gay marriage might look like. The demands placed on trans* people to make information about them palatable, having spent so many years in a society where the information on trans* people was rendered obscure by design is a frustrating task. It was cissexism that taught us to hate ourselves and we should not be talked over or pigeon-holed in our desire to make information about us available. But, please understand, cis folk: it is not for you. It is the trans* youths who are at risk of ill-health and self-destructive behaviour if they are not given the tools to understanding what it is to be transgender. Cis people should be able not to attack us without ever having read Leslie Feinberg, one would hope.

Regardless of whether our societal status is a monster or as a thought experiment, we are dehumanized via this process. As Susan Stryker writes in her breathtaking piece My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage

[Transgender] rage itself is generated by the subject’s situation in  a field governed by the unstable but indissoluble relationship between language and materiality, a situation in which language organizes and brings into signification matter that simultaneously eludes definitive representation and demands its own perpetual re-articulation in symbolic terms.

If we are not people first, we are nothing at all; no lived human experience is academic.

 

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2 thoughts on “It’s Complicated: On Being “Academically” Transgender

  1. J.J.M.E.G. says:

    For the benefit of readers who hadn’t seen the old reading list (which I helped compile), it had two Lisa Millbank articles, one – on the concept of the Patriarchal Bargain – under ‘Online Reading’, one – Understanding Transmisogyny – under ‘Advanced Material’ (sub-title: ‘Some more challenging material’).

    The original list was put together by various people, at various times, with limited coördination. It was an ad hoc and makeshift creation, for quite a new group, but an improvement on nothing. So yes, it was (and is) rather idiosyncratic, and probably doesn’t even touch upon vast swathes of very important ground.

    The idea behind ‘Advanced Material’ was that people who were new to feminism not come across something like Spivak, and be put off. (I’m a Spivak fan, but I’ve yet to find anyone of any background who didn’t find reading her work a struggle, albeit often an entirely worthwhile & enriching one. Same could be said for Kant, or Marx.)

    So that was the intention, but our intentions are not the point. The new list is a lot better. I hope it will be something people continue to contribute to. It being added to through the years by people from all sorts of different backgrounds, and who’ve engaged in the many different feminist / womanist traditions, would be wonderful to see. 🙂

    I’d just like to add that the problem of writing from socially disadvantaged people being described as ‘too academic’ is a perennial one. I think Lisa Millbank’s writings against this are some of the best & most concise stuff out there, and I’m really pleased that a bad list has elicited an excellent piece like Lexi’s, on the constant struggle of compromise & reiteration that our society demands of us. I think the point about ‘permeation’ of cissexism is exactly right, and something I think will always be a struggle, for pretty much anyone.

  2. We’ve learned something this week, and continue to learn 🙂
    My posts tend to come from a place of subjective experience, which includes subjective experience whilst engaging with – as many would describe – “advanced” gender/queer theory for multiple reasons, including a desire to make all trans* discourse sound more immediate and also the fact that I’m just not that good at writing objective, citation based stuff straight onto a blog (I’m sure I’ll be posting the writing of mine that does that sort of thing as well, though, but that’ll be copypastes from KCL essays etc)

    Obviously, the thing that is, whilst not necessarily phenomenal, notable about the use of such terms on the reading list as it was is that they were clearly in no way meant to be negative descriptors of the referenced works. But it’s by tackling that stuff when all of the best intentions are meant and further education is most desired that we can unite in fighting the decided resistance against Feminism, “Trans” prefix or not.

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