Monday, July 13, 2015

Why I Steadfastly Support Crossdressers' Right to "Trans" Identity

A quick addition from July 21, 2015:  Since I wrote this essay there was a case of a Pride event banning drag performance, leading to an ensuing shitstorm of people arguing over whether or not drag is transphobic or otherwise offensive.  I figured I'd mention, since it's so topical and this essay is so new, that my opinion on drag performers is nearly identical to my opinion on crossdressers, and in fact many of the same arguments against crossdressers having the right to identify as "trans" are also applied to drag performers, especially drag queens.  That said, although there are offensive drag performances and performers in existence, drag performers are perfectly entitled to consider themselves trans if they so choose.

I am in the process of re-writing one of my old essays--an incredibly popular one--because although I have not really changed my opinion on any of the points I wrote about, the fact remains that I wrote it over two years ago and I'm no longer so much a fan of the style of writing I was using at that time, and since it's one of the main first articles people get to, I want it to be more presentable.  In that process I found some Tumblr blogs that were linking to the post, one of which made very clear that the person writing is not in agreement with my assessment that crossdressers be welcomed under the trans umbrella.

Things in the trans and queer communities change an awful lot in a short period of time.  And in most of those cases, although I may roll my eyes about something or disagree with the underlying reasons people argue over it, I go with them because the "old way" is just not important enough to me to engage in those fights.

While I was doing the eye-rolling this time, it did occur to me that although I mentioned in my asterisk essay that I support crossdressers identifying as "trans" if they want to, I didn't really explain why that is.  So people are hastily making damn sure people understand they totally disagree with what is essentially a call for inclusiveness and respect.  This makes me suspect a few things.  First, a lot of trans people are trying to talk authoritatively about recent history they never actually participated in.  Second, a lot of trans people don't actually understand the amount of diversity among people who identify as crossdressers.  Third, people don't actually understand what I mean when I say I support crossdressers being included in the trans umbrella to begin with.

"Are you telling me I have to identify as trans, now?"  This was what a friend of mine replied when I first mentioned the ire toward my opinion on this a couple of months ago.  He is a fetishistic crossdresser who is comfortable with his male birth assignment.  He is a cis man.  Clothing--whether as an occasional kink or as an everyday thing--does  not determine gender identity.

Could somebody ostensibly in his situation call himself trans... and be right?  Sure.  The thing is, knowing somebody occasionally crossdresses during sex doesn't say anything about how they actually conceive of their gender identity with relation to that.  That's something that only they can know or sense.

It's a mistake to think that when I make this argument I'm saying that everybody who has ever crossdressed is somehow under the trans umbrella.  Rather, crossdressing is a diverse practice that is done by a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and many of those reasons absolutely warrant description as "trans."

There's a crossdresser I occasionally see at local trans events, who I'll call D.  D lives a double life.  Around his wife and kids, D is a typical man with a regular day job who is called "Dad" and "husband," dresses in typical men's clothing, is in fact an average man.  Several nights, D wears women's clothing and takes on a different persona, going out to bars and having fun and going to a lot of transgender-related events and support groups, including speaking about her experiences in group discussions and on panels.  She wholeheartedly identifies as transgender even though she only crossdresses part time and refers to herself accordingly.

Mutual friends have privately argued that D is probably a trans woman who doesn't want to transition because she doesn't want to lose her family.  The thing is, though, that this really doesn't matter.  As it stands now, D identifies as a crossdresser and only dresses in women's clothing part-time.  For me to jump on the bandwagon and insist that crossdressers can't call themselves "trans" due to it I'd have to insist that people like D either can't be trusted to describe their gender identities in a manner appropriate to them at that time or demean the amount of work they do in the trans community.

If D really is a closeted trans woman... does it really matter?  A lot of trans women go through stages where they identify as crossdressers, and until very recently it was almost a prerequisite due to lack of access to good resources.  I know that when I came out most of the support groups around my area were frequented by trans women and male crossdressers in almost equal numbers.  As a trans man, I went through a stage where I strongly identified as a crossdresser as well, and I absolutely identified as both a woman and as transgender.  Shifting attitudes among the newer trans set don't really warrant an excuse to take transness away from people who identify with that narrative, regardless of age or other factors.

But here's the main point: People who identify as trans usually have a reason to hold that identity.  Just because somebody only crossdresses part-time doesn't mean that it's not a salient and important part of their core identity.  How is that not trans?

Peoples' drive to omit crossdressers from the trans umbrella in many ways stems as a response to appropriative behavior among some crossdressing men.  The idea is that by calling themselves trans they are appropriating trans women's struggle without going through the same oppression trans women do.  And I do not doubt that there are crossdressers who do this (I've certainly heard D say some utterly sketchy and dismissive shit, mostly in the arena of "how easy kids have it today").

It's a huge mistake, though, to make amount of oppression or understanding of oppression the litmus test for whether or not somebody can identify as trans.  It's true that a man who dresses as a woman--even publicly--is not experiencing the same things as a trans woman.  He is at lower risk, he can in effect take it off like a costume and fade into obscurity at any point he chooses.  But every trans identity comes with its own set of risks at different levels of intensity.  Statistically with all other factors equal, trans women face more risk of physical violence than trans men.  Trans people of color face more risk than white trans people.  Trans people who blend in with cis people easily may be at minimal risk from the general public unless we're outed in some way.  Nonbinary people's risk varies radically based on expression... there are nonbinary folk out there who seem from the outside to have gender expressions lining up just fine with those of their assigned sex, but they're still trans.

Appropriation is also something that happens within the generally-accepted trans umbrella and shouldn't be singled out as a thing crossdressers do.  I can hardly stomach going to local Transgender Day of Remembrance events or read a whole lot about them because they're often organized by trans men in such a way that implies the staggering rate of anti-trans murder significantly applies to us.  There are white trans women who seriously believe (or at least say they believe) that they experience the same oppression as a black trans woman or other trans woman of color.  There are trans people who side with J. Michael Bailey and radical feminists.

An important thing to note is this:  Being an asshole or ignorant as fuck about trans issues doesn't make you not trans.  There are plenty of binary trans people--people who would never reasonably expect to be told they're not trans--who are total pieces of shit to other trans people, who talk about trans issues without understanding them, who try to be "one of the good ones" by coddling cis people, and who engage in all sorts of ridiculously bad behavior.

There is a divide between different groups of trans people and just how distinct they consider crossdressers.  White trans people who transition young--some of (but certainly not all of) the most vocal opponents of crossdresser inclusion in the trans community--are less likely to have gone through a lengthy period of crossdressing before transition, and the trans communities they find themselves in are more likely to be relatively homogenous.  Trans men as well are not quite as likely to have gone through a period identifying as crossdressers (although some of us certainly have).

Trans communities of color have historically been very likely to blur the distinction between binary trans people, crossdressers, and drag performers out of necessity and similarity of experience.  Older trans people as well have often gone through years and years of crossdressing to cope with that.  The mentality that crossdressers are somehow so irredeemably different from the rest of us that they need to be distinct and excluded doesn't accurately represent the whole diversity of the trans community at all, where different sub-communities have chosen to categorize each other differently (whether by chance or to survive).

Sometimes the issue is more that people confuse crossdressers with other trans people.  There are plenty of asinine arguments against transition that hinge on connecting us with people who crossdress, whether for fun, as a core aspect of identity, or as a sexual fetish.

And I'm not going to go into that too deeply, for one reason: It doesn't fucking matter.  This drive mirrors some of the same goddamn reasons cis gays have tried shoving trans people out of the LGBT community.  You can't just exclude an entire group of people because you think they make the rest of us "look bad."

You know, Chaz Bono said some things when he was more relevant that made the trans male community look pretty fucking bad, but he's still a trans man, and don't get me started on Caitlyn Jenner.  Throughout trans history there have been trans people who have misrepresented the community, and others who have been used by cis people to misrepresent the community.  And they're still trans, regardless.

Finally, I want to talk a little about history here.   Trans people love talking about how we need to know our history, by which they often seem to mean "people need to remember that trans women started the Stonewall uprising."  And while that's certainly a priority, I feel like people aren't recognizing that the trans community has changed rapidly in its perception of itself over the past decade or so, including the language it uses to describe itself and other concepts.

Like, it was not super long ago at all that the phrases "FTM" and "MTF" were not universally considered problematic, and the acronyms we used to replace those--"AFAB" and "AMAB"--are receiving the same treatment now.  But there are people who use all four of these terms for themselves, because we all come to the trans community at different times in our community's history and we have the right to define for ourselves what those terms mean to us.  Most people have forgotten that there have been periods of time and pockets of community where nonbinary people preferred not to consider themselves trans and were talked about separately, or when "genderqueer" was used to mean what "nonbinary" means today.  And similarly, a lot of people forgot or never experienced that crossdressers had been included under the trans umbrella for years--and quite explicitly so--and that the wider community acceptance for just assuming they can't be considered trans ever is relatively recent.

There aren't a whole lot of hills I'm willing to die on as far as transgender related language.  So many other little quirks and fads and attempts at creating The Next Big Problematic Thing I just roll my eyes about, call people what they want to be called, and move on with my life.  But I'll be damned if I'm going to endorse excluding a group of people who have been in my community for years because the bad analysis of some joker on Tumblr or the people who unwittingly took that analysis as if it were universally sound, because it just isn't.