Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Otherkin Need To Stop Calling It "Transgender Privilege"

Today I got to read something absolutely horrible and insulting but at the same time not entirely unexpected, as somebody who occasionally navigates the therian community and practically always navigates the transgender community:

First caption reads:
"trans privilege is having sex reassignment surgery be a real thing, while nowhere offers
'species reassignment surgery' for otherkin."

Second caption reads:
"Jenn reblogging for truth. While species reassignment surgery obviously isn't possible,
being otherkin or transspecies is considered FAR less acceptable than being transgender.
Trans privilege is not commonly talked about but it exists."

Before I get into my arguments, I'm going to mention a few things to keep in mind about the way I'm framing this issue today:
  • This article is an attempt at talking about a somewhat fringe form of transphobia by otherkin and therians, but it is written from an otherkin-affirming perspective.  This essay is not meant to argue against the existence of otherkinness or therianthropy.
  • I am writing under the assumption that otherkin and therians can be considered an underprivileged or oppressed category.
  • Most of my transgender-related examples are specific to medically transitioning transsexuals, because that is what I am and where my experience is.  Many of these examples will translate to other transgender identities, others won't.
  • Most of my otherkin and therianthropy related examples are based on experiences in the therian community, because that is where my experience lies.

I'm going to quick explain something because I just know that there will be transgender people out there who repost this awful graphic just to make fun of otherkin, and as I've already written before I'm not OK with that.  In fact, in many ways I am a dissident in the transgender community because many of the things transgender people typically dislike about otherkin and therians (such as using words like "transspecies," "species dysphoria," and other appropriative terminology) are things I am more sympathetic to or at least not particularly offended by.  I think it's important to recognize the use of these terms is rooted to a lack of useful vocabulary that is readily understood outside the otherkin community.  That said, although I'm not going to say "this is a free pass," I'm not going to focus on that part of the issue except to mention that it's peripherally related.

Anyway, among many people in this population there is a serious lack of understanding of transgender issues that leads to such concepts as the one in the above Tumblr post, featuring people talking about "transgender privilege."  This isn't some isolated insensitive incident, it's something that I've found is quite common, especially during discussions about the appropriative terminology I talked about in the last paragraph.  In many of these communities there seems to be a perception that transgender people have a wealth of acceptance, credibility, and privilege that therians and otherkin don't have and--more importantly and insultingly--transgender people are singled out as oppressors of therians and otherkin by virtue of it.

This reflects an astounding lack of consideration not only for transgender peoples' experiences, but for how oppression works and what kind of discourse is appropriate for framing these issues.

First I'm going to talk about what otherkin and therians have often described as a medical access privilege by trans people.  The argument goes that trans people are privileged because we have surgical and hormonal options available to us, while otherkin and therians do not.  But medical access is an inaccurate and insulting characterization.

It's important to understand that the existence of gender affirmation surgeries and treatment among trans people does not mean that people can actually access these things.  In many insurance plans, transgender surgery is specifically singled out as medically unnecessary and denied coverage.  Not only that, in many states and countries access to these surgeries is necessary in order to get things like ID changes, and having an inaccurate or mismatched documents can result in a lot of trouble for you.  I was unable to take a very well-paying job recently in large part because my birth certificate doesn't match my driver's license and won't for several years because I will likely need to pay for the whole thing out of pocket.  Transgender related treatments are constantly viewed with suspicion by cisgender people who assume that our medical care is purely cosmetic and therefore unnecessary.  It's a mistake to assume transgender people have universal legitimacy.  We don't.

Most changes trans people go through are also not surgical... our bodies begin to develop differently on their own because we change the ratio of sex hormones in our bodies.  Change the ratio so there is more testosterone than estrogen, and that sparks the body's natural ability to grow facial and body hair, increase muscle, change where fat is stored, and so forth.  That potential is built into our physiology.  This is not comparable to the desire to have a more animal-like body.  There is no hormone you can introduce at an early stage of life that will cause you to develop into a cat or a wolf, let alone a dragon or a mermaid, nor any that will push your body toward developing that way later in life.  This is a physical medical limitation, it's not necessarily related to perceived legitimacy.  If people widely accepted otherkin, it would still not be possible to transition in the same way transgender people do, at least not for a very long time.

Many of the procedures trans people have available to us would not be available were it not for one big thing: They are necessary for cisgender people, too.  Although nowadays it's more common for surgeons and endocrinologists to work specifically with trans people, these treatments were developed for cisgender people and continue to be accessed more easily by them (for instance, although this is changing, a cisgender man whose penis needs to be amputated may have a phalloplasty covered by insurance by a provider that would not necessarily cover a phalloplasty for a trans man, and a cis man would not have the same requirement for therapy and other hoops trans men must jump through).

That said, transgender-related treatment is still largely regulated by cisgender gatekeepers and is a practice that had to be developed over decades (and is still developing).  Talking about this as if it's a privilege to have surgery available to us ignores a huge wealth of access issues and several years of incremental progress throughout history.  And just on an aside, there are body modifications that have been used to grant a more animal-like appearance.  The most famous was Stalking Cat, who had extensive body modification done to look more like a feline, but there are others: Tom Leppard, Katzen the Tiger Lady, and so forth.  These procedures do not necessarily result in a heavily realistic transition (and the people who choose them are not necessarily otherkin), but if surgical transition is really a serious priority in this community then it should be expected that more people will start to seek these and other options out.  Most importantly, this is something that can be done without blasting ignorant comments insisting trans people are privileged over otherkin.

And that's assuming that transition is something that is actually in the best interests of otherkin and therians.  And for the record: I'm not saying that it isn't, I'm saying that it has been very well-documented that transition and integration into one's identified gender is beneficial to transgender people.  This is something that just doesn't have a good, documented comparison in the otherkin community yet.  There are people who carve out identities and lifestyles that are extremely therapeutic to them, but this is not the same as the full-time integration associated with transsexuals.

Next, it's important to recognize that while it's perfectly acceptable to talk about the lack of therapeutic and transitional options available to the otherkin community, there are many, many things cisgender otherkin do not have to deal with that transgender people often must live with on a regular basis.

A person's gender and ability to integrate into society as that gender is reflected in every aspect of their life... it affects what restrooms we can use, what schools we can attend, what youth groups we can attend, what services we can receive.  It is enshrined on our legal documents, used as an identifying factor on things like our driver's licenses, birth certificates, and passports.  Transgender people are singled out specifically to not be protected by things like employment discrimination laws.  It's reflected in the very basic language people used to describe us, in pronouns, in names.  The lack of ability to have these things honored and reconciled manifests itself in daily microaggressions and oppressions for transgender people.  These are things people do not experience specifically because they are otherkin.  Being otherkin is not something people need to worry about changing on a passport, being otherkin will not in and of itself get you rejected from Smith college or Michfest or the Boy Scouts or from competing in sports.  People do not write legislation or policies that specifically disadvantage therians or otherkin.  It will not affect what restrooms you are able to use (no matter what ignorant jokes South Park makes about it).

Speaking of South Park, the episode in question here also brings to mind an important point about media representation.  The plot point where Mr. Broflovski becomes a dolphin is meant to be an insulting thinkpiece-type characterization of transgender people, it's not actually a cut on therians (the ignorant use of "transspecies" arguments by cisgender people is, by the way, one of the sources with discomfort with transgender-rooted arguments by otherkin and therians).  Transgender people are commonly used as throwaway jokes in media.  Otherkin and therians do not have the visibility necessary to be a recognizable theme in the same way and aside from some sensationalized "Taboo" type depictions are likely to be absent.

I'm focusing on small, everpresent things, but it's important to note at least in passing that transgender people experience a high rate of unemployment, hate crimes, homelessness, and murder (most of these concentrated on intersections between gender identity and race, income, or sex worker status).  Upon searching for information on how affected otherkin are by these factors, I found only one coherent example of somebody who could have been considered fired for being a therian.  Aside from being made fun of--something we have in common, not something unique to otherkin--I have found no suggestion that being otherkin is loaded with the same hazards as being transgender.

But you know what?  I'm not using these things to make up some insulting concept like "otherkin privilege" or "therian privilege."  People who do not experience these advantages typically have cisgender privilege, not otherkin privilege.

And that is the base reason why this concept is so problematic.  If we talk about otherkinness and therianthropy as oppressed categories, as disadvantaged categories, as statuses that should be talked about in terms of power and privilege, it is not appropriate to call the absence of that status "transgender privilege."  It needs to be talked about in terms of the privilege of being comfortable with one's human identity.  Fixating on transgender people as if we are unique oppressors of otherkin is utterly and unquestionably transphobic, and this is something that community needs to be calling out and enforcing.

One of the most appalling responses I ever got during a discussion like this was something like "nuh uh, transgender people can't control  the language we used because it is up to the oppressed to decide!"  This is the sort of thing that strikes me as having been coined by a person who maybe read a few social justice 101 essays but didn't actually understand them.  "The oppressed get to control the language" is something that applies to oppressor-oppressed relationship.  That's not the relationship trans people have to otherkin, though.  We're talking about two communities that are both disadvantaged, and rather than talk about fully human-identified people as a whole these are people who are singling out one of the most documentedly disadvantaged classes of people as their oppressors instead.

It's interesting and telling in this light that so many people are willing to talk about people like me--who are transsexual but also have some sort of therian identity--out there as ambassadors for this insulting way of looking at things.  The therian community has a high percentage of transgender-identified people... and that alone should be cluing people in to the inappropriateness of that terminology.  If somebody both identifies as a cat therian and has been able to medically transition from male to female--and there are people like this who exist--does this person have this "transgender privilege" you speak of?  Are you understanding now why this terminology makes no sense and needs to be dropped into a fucking black hole?

To use a more commonly spoken about example, transgender people are ourselves disadvantaged within the LGBT community, with gay men and lesbians being better represented, getting more media coverage, and having their issues most heavily funded.  It would be ludicrous to refer to that as "gay privilege."  It is cisgender privilege.

In conclusion, this argument has nothing to do with the legitimacy or lack thereof of otherkin, therians, and other people who have commonly disregarded identities.  It has to do with the community's insistence on framing their issues in a way that is not in line with social justice principles and understanding.