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.