Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Seen and Not Seen: On Toilets, Transsexuals, and Terrorists

In the last week or two, a lot of my friends have been sharing this image:

[Image description: two young Black girls are holding hands and laughing in front of a GIRLS LOCKER ROOM sign. The caption above reads, "So, tell me, which girl shouldn't be allowed in?", while at the bottom of the picture are two hashtags, #beautifulgirls and #transgenderisnotscary. Facebook commenter 1 writes: "People would feel differently about is if they showed an actual transgender person in the picture, not that I'm against it at all but if you're going to make a pro-trans page then you should use actual transgender people." Commenter 2 replies: "This ad features my trans niece." Commenter 1 responds: "Oh, my bad then."]

I find this image, especially in conjunction with the accompanying comments, extremely revealing of the visual logic that underlies cis images of trans people. In light of the ever-growing spate of anti-trans bathroom bills (and certain responses to them, of which more below), I think it's worth unpacking what precisely we can deduce about how cis people do and don't see us.

For the commenter who objects to the photo, "an actual transgender person" is someone who is visibly recognizable as gender-variant, someone who can be seen to be non-cisgender. "People" (not himself, he insists) "would feel differently" if the picture portrayed an "actual" (i.e. visible) trans person -- and on this point he's not actually wrong, because the ad wouldn't make any sense if one of its subjects were visibly trans. The caption "So, tell me, which girl shouldn't be allowed in?" only makes sense if neither girl is visibly trans. The logic of the ad demands that transgender people be indistinguishable from cis people. This ad couldn't work with, and doesn't speak to, visibly trans people: people who are not conventionally "beautiful girls," people whom the cis gaze does designate as "scary." The commenter understands the category "trans people" to contain only visibly trans people, while the ad refuses any identification of trans people as visibly different from cis people.

At base, there are two disparate logics of gendered visibility at work here, and their disparity can be traced to the fundamental contradiction in the medical establishment's manner of bestowing gender on people. Birth-assigned genders rely on a logic of pure visibility: the doctor sees the fetal genitalia on an ultrasound and declares a gender on that visual basis. Trans people's genders are recognized on the basis of invisibility, on the pure interiority of a self-declared psychic gender (I'm talking here about the medical recognition of trans people's genders, which is usually required in order to receive hormones, surgeries, and a change of legal gender).

Now,  my reaction to the incommensurability of these two models is that the birth assignment model of gender is deeply flawed and harmful, and ought to be phased out. But a lot of people -- who may on some level be aware that there is a contradiction here, but who may not have thought through the exact details of it; or who may simply find the idea of such a radical overhaul of our gender system too scary -- respond by doubling down on birth-assigned genders (or "biological sex" as they like to call it), seeking some kind of deeper reality in which to anchor birth-assigned genders, whether that's chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, gonads, etc. The problem with this approach is that chromosomes and genitalia and internal reproductive organs and gonads don't align neatly in a binary-sex model. There's a lot more variation than that.

For those who are wedded to the concept of a biological sex binary and everything it represents, visibility is the primary metric of gender. This logic assumes that all trans people are instantly recognizable, "scary" and certainly not "beautiful" to the cis onlooker, and this is ostensibly what underlies bathroom bills like that of North Carolina. Some pro-trans responses to the bathroom bills -- like the ad above, or the phenomenon of cis-passing trans men taking selfies in women's restrooms -- react by privileging the logic of the non-visibly trans person, where the very invisibility of one's transness reveals the absurdity of the bill.

For one group, trans people's visibility is the problem; for the other, trans people's invisibility proves that there is no problem. The reality of cis views on trans visibility, however, is decidedly more complex than either side concedes.

Quite apart from throwing visibly trans people under the bus, the "we're just like you!" response overestimates the rationality of anti-trans bigotry. The increased visibility of transness in the public eye may have shaped the climate in which current anti-trans rhetoric is formed, but being anti-trans has never just been about cis people's fear and disgust of visibly trans folks. Arguably, the "trap" narrative of the cis-passing trans person who "tricks" a cis person into intimacy has a much longer pedigree in the bigoted imagination. For anti-trans bigots, the "man in a dress" (their view of a visibly trans person) is pitiful and laughable, but the "trap" (their view of a non-visibly trans person) is a devious degenerate.

In Assuming A Body (a book about which I am, incidentally, highly conflicted), Gayle Salamon invokes the figure of the terrorist as an analogue for anti-trans fears:
The primary anxiety today is not that transpeople [sic] will fail to pass, but that they will pass too well -- that they will walk among us, but we will not be able to tell them apart from us, an anxiety that mirrors current apprehensions about nationality, border control, and the war on terror with uncanny precision. [192]
If Salamon is right, then responses like the ad above or the bearded trans guys in women's rooms are not only unhelpful, but precisely counterproductive, stoking cis fears of trans non-visibility. And it doesn't take much reflection to recall that US cultural signifiers for terrorism float free of actual terrorist acts -- brown skin, thick beards, turbans -- such that bearing one or more of these signifiers marks one as Other, as enemy, completely independent of the actual definition of "terrorist." The anxiety that terrorists walk invisibly among us is cathected onto visible traits. People who attack a Sikh man don't care whether he is or is not a terrorist; they care that his turban is popularly construed as a visible symbol of an invisible threat, and they care about the message they can send to the invisible threat by attacking the visible symbol. In the same way, people who propose bathroom bills don't care whether or not they target actual trans people; they care about sending a message to us, and the message is that our existence is an affront to them.

Look: they know, okay? Anti-trans bigots know that some cis people "look" trans and some trans people "look" cis, and they do not care. Our visibility isn't the point. Our existence is.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Biomedical Technologies of Gender

I have a bad habit of accumulating interesting journal articles on my computer and only reading them months or years later. Such was the case with a 2012 Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health article called "Transgender Transitions: Sex/Gender Binaries in the Digital Age" by one Kay Siebler. The title is clumsy, but the convergence of transgender studies with internet studies is a research interest of mine, so the other day I finally got around to reading it.

I was disappointed. Siebler's argument boils down to a rehashing of that boring, ignorant claim that people who medically transition are reinforcing gender binaries, and if we were ~real true queers~ we wouldn't get hormones or surgeries (and we certainly wouldn't talk to each other about them). This idea is weirdly pervasive in queer circles, and it's predicated on fallacies.

What I find most troubling about this claim isn't its oversimplification of the relationship between individual's actions and the system of enforced gender binaries; nor its naive valorization of nonbinary identities as always inherently better and more liberatory than binary identities; nor even the way it holds trans people to a different standard than cis people. It's the way that, even as it purports to dismantle the gender binary, it naturalizes the sex binary and the cis body. For Siebler, and for many others who think similarly, binary sex assignment at birth is self-evident; the cis body and its gender are natural, a blank slate on which hormones and surgeries constitute unnatural intervention (if not mutilation). These are pernicious misconceptions: the cis body as given, unmarked, its sex preexisting and floating above the socio-material discourses in which its life is lived. These are the (platonic) ideals clung to by the "don't call me cis" crowd (with, and I always promise myself I'm not going to compare gender and race but I always end up doing it anyway, its irresistible echoes of "I'm not white, I'm Irish").

Look: all genders are biopolitical fictions. It's just that some are more strictly regulated and suppressed than others. The body is never a blank slate and genders are never natural. There's no ontological difference between a trans person taking hormones and the assignation of an infant to a socio-material category based on its genitalia, as discerned by the medical gaze at birth or before. Both are biomedical interventions. Both are leaps into the rapid-running river of the sex/gender system, and both require intense struggle to keep your head above the suffocating flow of discourse. The only real difference is that the birth assignment is socially and institutionally supported.

Ironically, I find a parallel frustration in the work of someone who is both acutely cognizant of the fictitious nature of cis genders and extremely in favor of doing whatever the hell you want with synthetic hormones: Paul Preciado. Preciado's Foucauldian analysis in Testo Junkie is so brilliant, such a lucid and convincing account of the operations of pharmacopornographic biopower, that it's kind of hilarious how thuddingly flat his conclusions fall. All that dazzling description of the global assemblages of sex and gender, and then all he can offer is a revolution through drag king workshops. It's like a parody of everything he has devoted the preceding 350 pages to dismantling. Perhaps I am jaded by too much queer theory of the "my preferred gender/sexual practices just so happen to be the most politically subversive" variety, but I find it hard to get excited about any revolution that entails occupying the postures of toxic masculinity, whatever the intent behind so doing. Bragging about your dick(s) and mistreating your girlfriend as revolutionary praxis? Count me out, bro.

For Preciado, biomedical technologies of gender are inherently revolutionary. For Siebers, they are inherently reactionary. Both of them are ignoring the ways we interact with existing gendered power structures.

Biomedical technologies of gender are systems in which we all partake, trans or cis, knowingly or otherwise. The cis/trans axis of power requires that trans people fight harder for their genders, prove and justify and earn them in ways cis people aren't required to do. The male/female axis of power denigrates women in material and discursive ways. Trans women's oppression at the intersection of these axes is multiplied as transmisogyny. This is, like, feminism 101. It's incredible how quickly it gets forgotten by people who want to make sweeping claims about trans folks.