Your Feminism Is Transmisogyny Repackaged (Repost)

Disclaimer: I am a white trans woman exploring the role of transmisogyny in the colonial history of the United States and how that affects all current forms of feminism. I may experience transmisogyny, but I do not experience the ways in which it intersects with racism, and so my perspective is incomplete. Please keep that in mind as you proceed through this paper.

Trigger and Content Warnings

Before disclosing potential triggers, I wish to point out immediately that two-spirit identity is not a trans identity. In contexts that embraced gender variancy (Indigenous communities in what we now call the United States), there is no such thing as trans or cis. Applying the term ‘transgender’ to two-spirit identity is a colonizing act. In this paper, I will say “perceived as transgender” or “read as trans” or some other variation when referring to two-spirit identities from a Western context. This is also part of the reason I do not use the asterisk when I say trans, as the asterisk includes identities which are not necessarily trans, such as two-spirit identities, intersex people, and cis cross-dressers. I am also aware that some romantic and sexual relationships in Indigenous communities could also be viewed as ‘queer’ from our Western context. This is not an element I am looking into within this essay. I may write about it at a later time, but for the intents and purposes of this essay, I will not delve into that dynamic. Moving forward…

Trigger warnings: Anti-black racism present in an image I use to demonstrate the effects of colonialism and Western thought as they relate to dominance and control of the Other; cissexism, and one transmisogynistic slur to demonstrate how widely accepted transmisogyny is (Janice Raymond’s book).

Content warnings: This essay examines the role of transmisogyny in the United States. I will describe briefly the rationale behind “Americanizing” the Indigenous person, and in writing this essay, I made certain stylistic and wording choices to reflect the toxicity of this rationale.

Both my trigger and content warnings are flexible. If folks reading this essay find something triggering, of which I did not mention in this section, you can send me a message, and I will add it as soon as I can.

Introduction

In this essay, I will be examining closely the still-dominant role of transmisogyny as it relates to whiteness. I will also explain why the only acceptable genders under whiteness are cisgenders. These have enormous implications for contemporary feminism and its work. My perspective as a trans woman is by and large rejected within feminism. I am still viewed as a “man in a dress” who is invading women’s spaces to make it about “himself.” Thank you, Janice Raymond, for writing The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Although transmisogyny is nothing new in feminist spaces, that book helped to perpetuate and reinforce that hate more than any other that came before.

Embracing transmisogyny in feminism, however, goes much, much further back than Janice Raymond’s book. It goes further back than Cathy Brennan, the Stonewall Riots, Gender Identity Watch, and Name The Problem. Transmisogyny is embedded into the history of feminism, but before I can talk about the history, I feel I must illuminate how contemporary feminism still invokes transmisogyny.

Problematizing Understandings And Discourses on Patriarchy Within Feminism

From bell hooks’ essay, “Understanding Patriarchy,” she defines it as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Basically, a society organized around the inherent dominance of males. Note, all definitions of patriarchy set up the dichotomy of men vs. women, as the gender binary is inherent to patriarchy. Also notice bell hooks’ use of ‘the weak’ to describe all things feminine.

For patriarchy to function, “the two genders” must perform roles that serve its ends, and for people to perform these roles, they must feel naturally compelled to fulfill them. So gender roles are assigned to “the two genders,” and these genders are assigned to people immediately upon birth, and even pre-birth with ultrasound technology, because under patriarchy, gender is biological and therefore static. Men and women perform specific duties under a patriarchal society as they are assigned to them, and men must always be at the forefront because that is their birthright. Men are taught to control their environment, and women are taught to control their bodies to appease men. Patriarchy packages gender as “this is your lot.” You cannot change it, you cannot disagree with it, and if you attempt to, you will be severely punished and put back into your cage.

But this understanding of patriarchy only encompasses cisgender people. The first giveaway for that is the language of “male” and “female,” because it applies gender to biological sex. This conflation of sex and gender has been used to erase, dismiss, and degender trans people, especially those on the trans feminine spectrum. One of the most common things I hear as a trans woman is, “Right, you identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male” or some other variation therein. My gender is reduced to my genitals, and my genitals then become the definitive feature of my gender. Sounds familiar, right? Gender is being equated with biological sex, and this is a major tenet of patriarchy. So then, if sex is equated with gender, where does this understanding of patriarchy place transgender people exactly? Trans people’s self-concept of their gender does not match up with the external pressures placed on them (assigned sex). Trans people are forever excluded from the binary under patriarchy, because, by definition and history, the binary rejects all non-cis identities. Now let’s get into the history.

Colonial History of the United States

In pre-colonization times, in what we now know as the United States, a number of tribes embraced gender variancy. The following is a list of terms found in Indigenous languages to describe people with penises/vaginas (PWP/PWV) two-spirits (translation in brackets): Crow: boté, bate, bade; Cree: ayekkwe, a:yahkwew (“split testicles,” i.e., sterile); Lakota: winkte (“would be woman”) Dreams of Double woman; Navajo: nutlys, natli, nadleehi (“he changes,” “being transformed”) , Zuni: lhamana (PWP), katsotse (PWV) (Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in Native North America. p. 214-222), however, and this is not an exhaustive list, and these terms have been largely compiled by people who are not of these communities and backgrounds. They are subject to error and misinterpretation. What is important to note here is the wide array of gender variancy in Indigenous communities, and that gender was not something fixed. The only role biology played was in the language used for certain individual two-spirits (refer back to Zuni terms), not necessarily in the validity of these identities.

But for white Europeans, gender was fixed and very, very important, but in a different sense. In fact, gender was so important that entire societies and institutions were constructed around it. Gender was essential in the survival of their culture, their economics, and more. White Europeans just weren’t satisfied with what power they had, and so felt the need to explore. They had to find new lands in order to expand their empires, as they were in power struggles with neighboring countries. Then came Columbus. The brutal, monstrous, exploitative “explorer” that so many of us learned about when we were younger, though back then he was portrayed as adventurous, brave, and driven. What Columbus started, other white Europeans continued. They colonized the land and people, and they established for themselves a new society.

Before I can dive in deeper, I must first briefly describe how colonization operates. Colonization operates as a mechanism of white supremacy, works on behalf of whiteness, and colonialism is built around white solidarity and consensus, “otherizing” non-white groups, paranoia, defensiveness, and violence. A major tenet of colonialism, and Western culture altogether, is to take and control nature, and so you will see Indigenous people, and people of color broadly, conflated with nature and (trigger warning: anti-Black racism) primality, whereas Western society is conflated with culture, civility, generosity (notice how in this painting, white people are generally in positions of power, standing up, better posture, etc) and divinity/grace. Femininity is also conflated with nature: onetwo, and three, and so in these cases we can see how Western thought could easily be used to create a power relationship over the Other, however that is established. In other words, white Westerners are synonymous with “the right to power,” and everyone else is synonymous with “the need to be ruled.” The Other must be governed by the white Westerners, as that is their birthright. To control and “liberate” the natural, to bring it to civility, and that the Other should be grateful for their generosity and time.

When Columbus came over, he also brought with him the white European conception of gender: the gender binary under patriarchy. And because gender was understood as biological and fixed, any form of gender variancy/non-conformity (especially by those who we would now label as DMAB–designated male at birth) was subject to “correction.” The reasons DMAB people were more subject to “correction” than their DFAB counterparts are as follows: Men are not supposed to embrace femininity from a white Westerner’s point of view; Masculinity (even for those who are DFAB) is embraced so long as it serves the ends of patriarchy; And conceptions of masculinity are built around the values of control and domination of the feminine.

When white settlers started to see unfamiliar presentations of gender, they must have been both disturbed and frightened. Gender variancy could have been seen as Indigenous people taking control of nature, as their genders were not static. They had done something the white settlers seemed incapable of, which challenged their notions of gender and how it operated within the world. “Why would these men wear women’s clothes? Why do they act like women? That is not how men act.” But because Indigenous folk were not white, their conception of gender could not be viewed as correct, as that disrupted white supremacy and male supremacy simultaneously. To preserve and protect their socio-political systems, to preserve their supremacy, it became necessary to instill patriarchy in Indigenous populations. It became necessary to eliminate all gender variancy, specifically those who were perceived as ‘men’ embracing femininity.

To colonize a people, you must not only colonize their bodies, you must also colonize their minds. To colonize their minds, white settlers sought to erase Indigenous traditions, and this was done extremely effectively through the boarding schools. The boarding school system became more formalized under the Grants’ Peace Policy of 1869-1870, which turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. Government funds were set aside in order to erect new schools to be ran by churches and missionary societies (“American Indian Education in the United States: Indoctrination for Subordination to Colonialism,” in Annette Jaimes’ State of Native America). These boarding schools were off-reservation, and the first one, Carlisle, was founded in 1879. The children of Indigenous people were kidnapped from their homes at an early age, not returning until they were young adults. This was justified by colonialist modes of thought and white saviorship, “Kill the Indian in order to save the Man” as well as “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit” (Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by “Friends of the Indian”).

And so whiteness continued to encroach upon Indigenous conceptions of gender, replacing it with the gender binary by omitting the possibility of gender variancy in the boarding schools. The gender variancy in the Indigenous communities declined, as their children were unable to learn their languages, their cultures, and the roles of two-spirit identities. White Europeans used their elimination of the Indigenous person to implement their own power structure, one that cemented their place at the top. Our nation set up institutions, structures, economic practices, culture, and more to guarantee its immortality, in a sense.

What this says about our context is this: Everything we know about gender today is a complete and utter lie meant to serve the white patriarchy.

 

What This Means for Feminism

Feminism, because it emerged under the white patriarchy, is built upon colonialism, and therefore transmisogyny. This is inescapable and must be addressed. The only acceptable genders under the white patriarchy are cisgenders, as we currently understand them. Gender variancy and non-conformity are not tolerated, unless this is practiced by those who are DFAB–because under the white patriarchy, the only place for DFAB people to go is closer towards masculinity, and masculinity is the ideal. Rosie the Riveter, anybody? She represented strength and productivity. This was embraced by a whole nation (albeit temporarily) because it served white, patriarchal, capitalist interests. It served the military industrial complex. Have we seen that again? Absolutely.

Women can now serve in combat roles. I use the term ‘women’ there very loosely, as I know it only pertains to cis women in this context (and basically every context). Trans women are viewed as men, so they could already serve in combat so long as they kept their trans status hidden. Women in combat are tolerated under our systems because it serves the interests of the hegemony. We’ve also seen it in movies like She’s The Man, Mulan, and others. A takeaway message from these movies is “You can do masculinity so long as it serves men, their structures, their desires, etc.”

Why is this the case? Referring back to the previous section on problematizing patriarchy, feminist frameworks of patriarchy more often than not come down to a dichotomy of men vs. women. Gender in these models is still fixed and biological. Sure, what ‘woman’ and ‘man’ mean in these models can change, but only in a social/cultural sense; biology is still the underlying component in feminist conceptions of womanhood and manhood. No identity that could be considered trans by our society can ever be included in the binary, even so-called binary trans identities. All trans people are Other’d by the current gender system. All trans people are harmed by it.

Feminism claims to be helping in this regard, but frankly, I can’t buy into that. When feminism is predicated on transmisogyny and transphobia broadly, when it is predicated on colonialism and therefore whiteness, then it cannot fully challenge the gender order. If feminism is cis-centric, then these harmful gender systems and ideologies are enabled and, in many ways, affirmed and validated.

 

Conclusion

Any feminism that embraces the dichotomy of men vs. women simultaneously embraces white supremacist colonialism, because that is what our conceptions of patriarchy are built upon. This will forever be the case until transmisogyny is eliminated from feminism to a considerable degree. If there must be some sort of dichotomy set up to understand patriarchy, then I contend it should be patriarchal masculinity vs. all other genders. This is far more inclusive and encompassing than current conceptions. To eliminate transmisogyny, and by extension seriously challenge colonial, Western thought, it is not enough to have trans women and trans feminine people at the table, because the foundations of feminism were built without us in mind. The very foundations of feminism must be shaken, must be challenged altogether. If feminism cannot be shaken, then maybe it’s high-time to start a new movement and academic body, one that centers trans femininity and, more importantly, trans women of color.

 

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I’m Not Sorry

Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure what I want the goal of this piece to be, but I want to write it regardless. No, it’s not perfect, but I still believe I have the right to tell my own story on my own terms. For many students on campus who are marginalized, I’m sure they too have feelings of anxiety and dread. I am not here to discount their experiences, but I only wish to speak for my own.

To the best of my knowledge, I am one of two trans people on my campus of 10,000 students (both undergrad and grad). My school is a Catholic University, which has a conservative bend within its policies. Not only this, but I am hyper visible on my campus because I am a trans woman who is pre-everything and femme presenting. I really, really stand out. I can’t walk across any part of campus without folks nudging their friends, pointing at me, having students yell “tranny” and “faggot” from their dorm windows, hearing people whisper “What is that?” Using my school’s gym wearing something as insignificant and as small as nail polish has incited people to ask me “What’s on your nails? Is that for a sociology class?” Or when I’ve had to hear “Ash? But your ID says…” in a pretty public setting. I can’t even order a damn cup of coffee without the people at the counter addressing me as “sir” with the most asinine amount of sternness, trying to remind me of my stubble or my apple. In classrooms, students ask me invasive questions about my gender that they would never ask a person they read as cis. He, he, him, his, him, sir, man, dude, he, him, man, and these same misgenderers have the nerve to ask “What? Why are you mad? Be patient with me,” as if this is not the 1000th time that day.

Casual cissexism, and transmisogyny more specifically, are never addressed in spaces unless by me. The bystanderism exuded by my peers is omnipresent. Their absence is everywhere. In the activist communities on my campus, people treat me as though I need to represent all trans voices, and if I’m not working to their (cis) ends, then I need to be silent. As a co-facilitator of my school’s first ever trans 101 workshop, a cis white woman spoke over/for me and seemed to take the lead of the workshop, only really relaying to me to make sure she got some information right. I was essentially token diversity for cis people to pat themselves on the back for “being inclusive.”

These are just some of the experiences I’ve had as a trans woman on a college campus. I feel a constant sense of dread, so much so that I don’t even want to set foot on campus. I try taking the long ways to certain buildings to avoid large crowds of people, but then that means I’m isolated and potentially easier to spot. I’ll make sure to find the places with the least amount of traffic just to avoid being seen. Being visible isn’t always a good thing, because you have to ask who is seeing you.

So, on a campus filled with people I read as white, cis, affluent, and able-bodied, that puts me in a pretty unsafe position. This is not to mention that trans women, especially trans women of color, experience a disproportionate amount of violence compared to the rest of the trans community. Of course I don’t believe I’m going to be murdered on campus, but I am constantly thinking about the heightened degree of violence that I can potentially experience, even as a white trans woman (Quick aside: any white trans person who pretends that whiteness doesn’t act as a buffer is full of it). When I hear students shout something transmisogynistic at me or leer at me, I start thinking about the quickest way back to my car, where the nearest alarm is that I can ring, how to talk my way out of physical violence by way of derailment, where the closest dorm building is, checking around for pub safe (unsure if they would actually help), and I start to wonder if my two years of boxing will have to come into use as a last resort.

This happens every time I come onto my campus, and if I don’t come onto campus, then I can’t go to class. If I don’t go to class, I’ll fail. If I fail, then I can’t get my degree in Justice & Peace Studies. That could potentially mean more loans, which means debt. But if I don’t get my degree, what place is going to hire a degree-less, bisexual, battered trans woman who suffers from night terrors, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, some of which are heightened by my transness? This is also to mention that yes, my disabilities absolutely can and do get in the way of my work. If I don’t get my degree, will I be able to make enough money to support myself? Will I be able to pay for hormones even, or the gender therapy required in the state I live in to be able to access hormones to begin with? If I don’t express my gender in a way that feels authentic and real to me, then how quickly will I fall back into the suicidal ideation and self-harm that’s plagued me since 5th grade? Will I be able to afford therapy for my depression and anxiety? Will survival sex work become something I have to seriously consider? Will I have to do cam work?

I don’t have a choice. I have to go to school in order to attain some level of security, even though the school is an unsafe, hostile environment. I am forced to attend a school in which I am clearly unwelcome. My energy is constantly sapped by not only the potential danger and essential self-care during the day, but also by well-meaning student activist groups and ad hoc faculty groups.

I feel as though I am perceived as a battery. My energy must always be charging any and every project whether or not I am compensated. I’m rarely ever compensated financially for the work I’m able to do on a professional level for these folks, such as workshop development and facilitation, trainings, and my spoken word poetry (though, admittedly, I do not have a large platform for my poetry). Along with this, I am also rarely given credit when I lead these things. By these groups, I am consistently tokenized, used for their ends, and when I suggest initiatives, they are quietly dismissed in favor of… well, typical white, cis liberal shenanigans, as in “Building awareness” and “Intellectual discourse.” These are the cornerstones of status quo-reinforcing structures.

I am not here to waste time in intellectual spaces. Note: Intellectual spaces are not the same as safe spaces for marginalized people. I have come to regard these intellectual spaces as hardly useful at best and dangerous at worst. These spaces romanticize oppression, using other people’s struggles as intellectual cannon fodder for their own benefit. It is not activism, it is selfish. It is oppressive. It is academics touting themselves as liberators for “being aware” and “possessing knowledge.” I’m not here for that. I used to work in such spaces, but I know better now. I no longer facilitate, encourage, or energize spaces that are purely intellectual. They are a waste of resources, because conversations on oppression and one’s complicity in them should be happening regardless of whether or not a space is centered on it.

And yet, these well-meaning students and faculty members still seek me out. My perspective only seems sought after when it energizes the career and activist goals of cis, white people, particularly women. They are not asking me how to make things better for trans people on campus, they are asking me to give myself over to their causes. My energy is only valuable when it helps build their resumés, and my causes are apparently not important enough to work on. When this observation fully formed in my mind and I could identify it, it led me to disengage from student activist groups on my campus, and it has brought me to a number of arts/activist groups off-campus. From my perspective, student activist groups on my campus are less concerned about challenging the status quo and are more preoccupied with patting themselves on the back for any vaguely progressive thing they do.

Yet somehow, this always ends up with me being blamed for “not doing enough,” or “not being in attendance.” Too often do spaces place the responsibility on those who are marginalized. “We can’t fix our space without you!” Yes you can. Do your homework. There are thousands of websites and books and articles that cover these exact subjects written by marginalized people. If you’re reading this, that means you can start googling. In fact, I’ll give you a start here, here, and here. You have to critically self-reflect. You have to question your motivations, and you have to face the hard truth that you, all of us, are complicit in perpetuating oppression. If you bring trans people into your group and haven’t made a serious effort to address your own cissexism and the cissexism in your space, you put us in danger. Our safety is threatened, and it was all for the sake of “diversifying” your space. That’s pretty disgusting that you would prioritize your diversity quota above the safety of marginalized people, another common feature of intellectual spaces.

I understand what I’m saying about these groups is going to upset some people reading this, and I’m not the tiniest bit sorry. I’m not sorry for being a trans woman who demands to be paid for the work she does, especially when she’s consistently tokenized, used as a resumé builder, and put at risk just for being on her campus. I’m not sorry for disengaging from groups and people who only seem to value me as a battery for cisness. I am not obligated to change those groups for you. I am not obligated to challenge those behaviors for you. My existence is not centered around bettering your spaces for you on your terms. My existence is not for you, and I am tired of doing the heavy lifting for you when you could have done the most basic google search.

Stop treating marginalized identities, of which you don’t have, as space-inspectors, as batteries, and as token diversity. I will never forget when you turned your back to transmisogyny. I will never forget that time you didn’t correct others on my pronouns in a public space, but then came up to me afterwards and went “Golly, wasn’t that fucked up?” I will never forget how you spoke on transmisogyny with authority as I was in the room instead of addressing your cisness and your complicity. I will never forget how you told me “Well, wouldn’t it be a better idea to focus on the majority of students instead of a smaller subsection?” I’m never going to forget any of that, nor would it be wise for me to do so. I have to preserve myself in a place bent on my physical and symbolic annihilation, and I will never apologize for speaking my truth.

Gender Is Not Performance

Trigger warning: I use the language oppressors use to degender trans people as a way to reflect how gender is constructed in the United States.

For a little while, I was immersed in queer theory as a lens for understanding myself and the world around me. Given where I was at, it made perfect sense: gender is a performance of cultural fictions. But now, I realize just how incomplete this framework is. I mostly attribute that to how new it is, and as with any other framework, it is always important to problematize where said framework is currently at. For those who don’t know, queer theory emerged in the early 1990’s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory is a part of post-structuralism. If you aren’t sure what post-structuralism is, somebody happened to explain it very well in a Yahoo Answers post. That post avoids a ton of jargon and is something I believe to be a great summary of post-structuralism, though I would still recommend further reading at Princeton. If you’re not wanting to read more, here’s a 10-minute, three-part video series that examines it. In other words, you have zero excuse not to have some understanding of post-structuralism before reading on.

That’s a bit of context for you, and in writing this piece, I don’t expect my readers to have a complete (if you read the stuff/watched the video series, the word ‘complete’ should be dripping with irony) understanding of post-structuralism or queer theory. Nothing’s wrong with that, and so I’ll provide the context I feel is most relevant and necessary. I highly recommend being on the lookout for any biases I bring in, such as my whiteness, educational privilege, and class privilege. It is in itself a privilege to engage in theoretical gender discourse, so that needs to be named as well before proceeding.

Gender Cannot Be Performed, Only Expressed

What inspired this piece has been recent conversations I’ve had with friends, where we concluded that saying “gender is performance” is inherently racist and transmisogynistic. Queer theory, not so coincidentally, is a perpetrator of both of these, and because queer theory is such a powerful influencer in queer and trans spaces, I need to address it directly.

Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of queer theory, characterized gender as something that is practiced/performed. For some people, this practice produces the effect of a static or “normal” gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what is often considered to be someone’s “true gender”, a narrative that is sustained by “[…] the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them” (Gender Trouble, p. 179).

So what the hell is Butler talking about, right? In short, gender is a social position or status that is assigned to you by others based on obvious physical characteristics (what you’re wearing, apparent sex characteristics, etc.) and behaviors, i.e. “acting girly.” How people position you is based on their frame of reference, which is informed by dominant narratives. Butler would likely argue that people can only perform gender in the way it is presented to them. In the United States, that means the white patriarchy is what’s presenting gender. You can be boy or girl, but wait! If you’re “born a boy,” you can’t do girl stuff. If you’re “born a girl,” you can’t do boy stuff. The white patriarchy does not have any other options, and you can conform to these narratives, or you can experience violence based on non-conformity.

But do you see what the focus is on? The focus in Butler’s work, and too much of queer theory, is focused on how people “do gender.” I bet some, if not most, of you missed how I employed that exact language in talking about what options the white patriarchy offers, and in how I described gender as a social position or status. That’s the problem. It is not about being gender, it is about “doing gender.”

This leaves a lot of room for people to say that “gender isn’t real, just a social construct.” That statement erases the realities that all trans people live. Gender is very real, and to say that gender only exists as a consequence of this particular social construct is reductive and just straight up wrong. Gender is socially constructed, yes, but that’s not all of it. There is a sort of social determinism required for this understanding to make sense, that people only “pick” a gender because it’s been placed in front of them. Gender does not only exist as a consequence.

Gender is a part of that sense of self, else there would be no need for words like transgender and cisgender. Both of these terms acknowledge the individual determination of one’s identity as they defer or match up with conventional ideas of gender. In fact, words for non-binary genders also emerged to reflect this part of one’s internal sense of self. Being trans means that your internal sense of gender disagrees with the gender assigned to you. Being cis means your internal sense of gender agrees with the gender assigned to you. As Toni D’orsay puts it, “Roughly translated, the whole thing means that a Trans person is aware that they are a woman, man, both, or neither, at the same core level as they are aware of themselves as a person, distinct from other people” (Source).

It is impossible merely to perform something that is intrinsically a part of one’s being. Because gender is a part of you, you must be expressing it. And what’s the difference between expression and performance? Performance means the act of doing something (successfully), using knowledge instead of just possessing it. Think acting; think Jared Leto. Expression, on the other hand, means to communicate who you are. Gender is not performance, because gender is not something you take on. It is in part something you take on, because we all live in a gendered world, but more accurately, gender is one aspect by which you understand yourself and move through the world. As my friend voz told me countless times, “You are a self-gendered person operating in a gendered world.”

Given all of that, I will now briefly describe why characterizing gender as performance is both racist and transmisogynistic.

Characterizing Gender as Performance Serves Whiteness

First, it is very important to point at who set up gender in what is now known as the United States: white settlers. Essentially, all things constructed about gender in the United States are eurocentric (read: white). It follows then that this construction of gender serves whiteness: eurocentric beauty standards, the abolition (by way of genocide and boarding schools) of gender systems in Indigenous communities, and a whole lot more all point to this construction of gender serving white people. To say gender is performative gives us white folks a whole lot of room to appropriate, exploit, and devalue “performances” that defer from white patriarchal standards. Why? Because us white people have the “truest” performance of gender, because everyone else in the United States has been forced into our gender system. Our experience of gender is the only legitimate one–now quick! Think of the history of feminism! Never having to acknowledge that gender is a part of someone’s being creates space for us to easily dismiss and/or co-opt other “performances,” especially when they don’t line up with the standards of the white patriarchy. Everything is then ours, because nothing is truly anybody’s in this framework, except for white people. It’s only true and authentic if white people do it. Conceiving of gender as performance energizes whiteness.

Why Characterizing Gender as Performance Is Transmisogynistic

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “gender performance?” Probably a drag queen, right? Something similar might come to mind if I had said “gender bending.” Why is femininity always seen as mockery? Artificial? Inherently fake? To demonstrate why, makeup is associated with femininity, something people (usually women) put on in order to change the way they look or to enhance features they already have. What is also associated with this? Deception by way of creating a new image. Words that people use to insult folks who wear makeup: fake, plastic. Who is deception associated with most often? Trans feminine people. What’s being energized when gender is conceived as a performance? Transmisogyny, because if femininity is constantly associated with deception, then how could it ever be a legitimate part of someone’s identity? Think about the way that ties into the last section. If nothing is ever a part of someone’s identity and only performance, then it is up for grabs at all times. Trans femininity, in the context of gender as performance, then belongs to everybody else and is presupposed to be weak and submissive. Making sense now? Good.

Conclusion

Do not trust white DFAB queer theory just yet. Gender is not a performance, it is an expression of one’s internal sense of self. To say that gender is performance energizes both whiteness and transmisogyny. The implications perpetuate oppression. Saying that gender is an expression of one’s internal sense of self affirms everybody. However, I do understand that calling something an expression rather than a performance will not suddenly stop oppressors from bending our identities to their whim,  but the moment we begin to build into academia and movements that gender is performative is the moment we accept defeat, and I’m not about to accept that. Not now, not ever, and I implore you don’t either. Do not embrace frameworks that remove your agency. Do not embrace frameworks that imply your identity is artificial. They are nothing more than the same old repackaged as brand new.

Activism And Self-Love

For all the folks involved in the work, it is news to nobody that this stuff gets really tough. Some days are excruciatingly difficult, and other days you really wonder if your life will actually leave any kind of dent on these oppressive systems. Being an activist is hard. Living as a marginalized person is hard. In this post, I do not necessarily want to address how to fix everything (because I don’t know how to), but I do want to talk about self-love for activists.

I am an educator and writer who dabbles in multiple forms: essays, short stories, novels, page poetry, and spoken word. Lately, I have been focusing a lot on the essay writing portion while dabbling in page poetry and short stories. My educational efforts have me interning at a public charter school, where I work with this school’s feminist club and GSA (gender and sexuality alliance) and has me facilitating workshops, writing groups, and a discussion group called Gender Chats. Outside of my internship, I also facilitate another discussion group called Queer Theory Wednesday, co-facilitated my college’s first Trans 101 workshop for staff and faculty, worked as a team lead for Free Arts MN, helped develop and facilitate an 8-week workshop series for Face Forward MN on art and identity as well as performing some spoken word poetry for them, and a whole lot of other things that I don’t want to list off. This is, in essence, my “activist resumé.” I keep myself very busy with the work I do, and there are times where I feel I have taken on too much, am overwhelmed.

To help demonstrate this, I have recently gotten involved in an off-campus study program called HECUA. In figuring out my internship for the program, I visited the Plymouth Youth Center, where I would be working with students who were labeled “at-risk” (a very problematic and harmful label) and predominantly Black. These students also had EBD’s (emotional behavioral disorders), and I was warned right away that these students would, in all likeliness, find ways to mock my trans womanhood. Given that I am pre-everything, and sensitive about my identity, I declined this internship for the one at the public charter school I had mentioned previously.

In taking up the other internship, I knew I would have a bit of an easier time. I mean really, this public charter school had all-gender bathrooms. In reflecting on this decision, I labeled myself as weak. I didn’t think I was strong enough, confident enough in my identity to work with people who would seriously challenge me on it. At this time, I defined strength as the ability to consistently defend my humanity against any and all adversity.

I am confident that my definition had come to be that way because 1) I’m the only trans woman on my campus, 2) I’m very isolated from trans women/femme people on other campuses, of which there are three out trans women/femme people, and 3) I feel as though I experience a heightened amount of transmisogyny and am always the only trans woman in the room. If I didn’t defend myself, I couldn’t expect anyone else to stick up for trans women because the majority of my friends are DFAB trans/trans masculine people who benefit from transmisogyny. This also instigated what I call “justified paranoia.” I have to assume transmisogyny in others for my own safety. This means I constantly have my guard up in one way or another.

I’ll be the first to admit that this paranoia and defensiveness made me a pretty unlikable character for a while. These things also pushed me to be far less patient with others when they messed up with me. So what would have happened if I had worked with the Plymouth Youth Center? A student, or a number of students, would potentially mock my trans womanhood. Couple that with my already heightened paranoia and defensiveness, I would have either withdrawn and isolated myself from these students or I would have not-so-kindly told a student to “Shut up.”

But you know what else would have been a major dynamic in that? My whiteness. What would either of my actions have potentially done to a young Black man? I would have just been another white person pulling the same old shit with Black youth. It doesn’t matter what my background story is in this case. If I had snapped, that would have the impact of a white person asserting their authority over Black youth. That’s white supremacy. If I had isolated myself, withdrew myself, then what message does that send? It sends the message, “I don’t care enough to work with you.” Whiteness will always assert itself in my interactions and relationships with people of color regardless of how I approach the situation. It is always there, because I am a white person who grew up in a racist society, and I need to unpack that. I do not exist in a vacuum. I am not a self-made person. Anybody who can leverage power, regardless of what situation they’re in, needs to be aware of that privilege and when it rears itself.

I spent a good while reflecting on myself and where I was at, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just not in an emotional or mental state to effectively work across differences which may have been heightened, given the circumstances. I decided that if I chose to intern at the Plymouth Youth Center, I would have caused more harm than health. My own situation had me on edge with everybody, and putting more vulnerable youth at risk to my not-so-healthy self was not something that needed to happen. I had to exercise honesty with myself in regards to where I was at and where I would be more useful. I couldn’t, at the time, work with students who had EBD’s. I simply didn’t have the patience with others to do so. Given the racial component of the situation, my presence would have been especially toxic, even if I had been reacting to transmisogyny.

People too often make self-love synonymous with self-care. Self-care is a component of self-love, not the other way around. For me, self-love also means facing ugly truths about yourself. Self-love means being honest with yourself about where you just aren’t capable or qualified. In all cases, the exercise of self-love requires a certain degree of self-awareness and situational awareness. For my case, self-love is not my excuse for inaction, but the explanation. It was a form of violence-prevention. I knew I would not be able to work effectively in the setting that was the Plymouth Youth Center.

Self-love is also the realization that you can’t do everything about everything. You can’t be all things to all people all at once, and sometimes that means stepping back and just not getting involved in something, especially if you feel that you would be toxic. You have to take care of your own needs before you can support others in addressing their own. As my partner, Ollie, puts it in one of their poems, “There is a reason airplane emergency instructions insist parents fasten their own masks before those of their children. | Activism without self-preservation is a sea of masked children and dead parents.”

You can also follow my partner at their youtube page and blog.

On The Word ‘Queer’

The word ‘queer’ is often used in so-called radical LGBTQP+ spaces to refer to one’s sexuality or as a shorthand for the community as a whole. It is a reclaimed word, an act of reverse engineering to turn an oppressor’s weapon into armor. Sometimes people within the LGBTQP+ community will say “I’m queer” to ignorant cis-hetero folks instead of having to explain their sexuality as the wibbly-wobbly thing it probably is. I’ve done it, some of my friends have done it, and I’m positive other folks do the same. ‘Queer’ has also been used to suggest things about gender, such that certain genders (that are trans) and expressions/performances of gender are more or less transgressive than others. This places trans women like myself in a very uncomfortable position, and that nudged me to the realization that perhaps ‘queer’ isn’t for me.

Queerness has evolved into a political identity, culture, and academic body (queer theory), and it believes that all forms of sexism/cissexism arise from the patriarchal gender system: the gender binary. Julia Serrano summarizes this ideology very well in her chapter on subversivism: “All forms of sexism [and cissexism] arise from the binary gender system. Since this binary gender system is everywhere—in our thoughts, language, traditions, behaviors, etc.—the only way we can overturn it is to actively undermine the system from within. Thus, in order to challenge sexism, people must “perform” their genders in ways that bend, break, and blur all of the imaginary distinctions that exist between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, and so on, presumably leading to a systemwide binary meltdown” (346, Whipping Girl). Queer spaces are predicated on subversivism, because that is what they aim to do: queer gender and sexuality, to blur these constructions and ultimately create room for total freedom of gender and sexuality.

But what these spaces do is something… not quite as revolutionary as they would hope. The assumption that queer spaces accommodate all genders and sexualities is a myth. They consistently pull from the same gender system they claim to despise, and where this places trans women is dangerous. Not only do we as trans women have to deal with the patriarchy’s oppressive gender system in our daily lives, we can’t even go into spaces that are supposed to be inclusive of us without experiencing similar aggressions toward our bodies and our identities. Many of the quotes from my piece on being in solidarity with trans women have come from these queer spaces.

Queer spaces, in glorifying transgressive, subversive gender performances and expressions, create an Other, which is then labeled as “conservative,” “non-subversive.” The important question to ask, then, is who and what is labeled as the Other? Before we can answer this, we need to know what is marked as bold and radical under patriarchy: masculinity, not femininity. And who do you see dominating queer spaces? You see DFAB white people with the bow ties, the vests, the blazers, things that are more often than not marked as masculine. What androgyny (neutral gender expression) has come to mean in these spaces, too, is a masculine presentation by DFAB people who are overwhelmingly white.

What’s this mean for people on the trans femme spectrum? It means we are not welcome. It means we are not subversive. Because these spaces inherently value trans masculinity over trans femininity, they do little else than create a new binary system that, once again, positions trans women/femme people as lesser. So really, how are these spaces any different from plain old transmisogyny? How are they edgy? Radical? This is just more of the same for me.

As a trans woman, I do not believe ‘queer’ is an appropriate label for myself, given the devaluation of trans femininity within the spaces that stem from queer identity. The way queerness is practiced is dangerous to me as a trans woman. Although I will respect your personal identifier and understand that queerness isn’t monolithic, I can’t help but have a knee-jerk reaction. I have to put my guard up when I hear that word, because any space or person that is not addressing their transmisogyny ultimately seeks my annihilation.

How To Be in Solidarity with Trans Women

Content/Trigger Warnings: This piece employs transmisogynistic language said by others.

A large number of people just have no idea how to interact with trans women. A lot of you say degendering, belittling, dismissive things to us. And by a lot of you, I really mean everyone who isn’t a trans woman. Now, the reason I need to be so clear about that is because practically everyone benefits from transmisogyny. All of you cis folk already know you’re in that category, so this piece is still written with you in mind, but the focus will be on others.

For me personally, I do not feel all that safe in 99.99999999% of queer and trans spaces, because they are dominated by DFAB, non-binary, trans masculine queers who are far more often than not white. I’ve had trans men derail conversations about TERFs (more accurately, TWERFs — trans women exclusionary radical feminists) and made it about themselves, and how TERF is not necessarily an accessible term because they had to google it. I’ve been in spaces where trans masc people, and DFAB trans people in general but especially trans masc folks, will ignore and silence my voice in order to preserve their own echo chamber of affirmation. I’ve had people all over tell me that women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are somehow damaging to the trans community. It’s very easy to point at trans women, especially trans women of color, as the problem, isn’t it?

Let me provide a list of things people say that immediately clue me into their transmisogyny. All of these have been said to me. (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR TRANSMISOGYNY):

  • “I’m too queer for your binary!” (Classic queer elitism that is thinly-veiled transmisogyny and biphobia.)
  • “I’m a gender abolitionist.” (The last time someone wanted to abolish gender, it resulted in the genocide of Indigenous communities in what we now know as the United States. TERFs also claim they want to abolish gender. What does that say about you then?)
  • “Protect your Mother Earth!” (White people using this, this is transmisogynistic because when people think Mother Earth, they think about birthing, reproduction. This narrows womanhood to DFAB bodies only, which not only makes it transmisogynistic, but also cissexist because of what it suggests about DFAB bodies.)
  • “Anyone who reinforces the gender binary hurts my identity.” (Where does this position trans women? Think about it.)
  • “Trans women have male privilege.” (This will be a post for a later time, but know that I find it to be simultaneously false and transmisogynistic.)
  • “You’re reinforcing gender roles/stereotypes.” (Ah, right, I keep forgetting how being trans reinforces white patriarchal gender roles.)
  • “I love ecofeminism.” (Ecofeminism has a long history of transmisogyny.–ask yourself, did the article I linked to misname the problem? If so, who benefits and how?)
  • “Can we play dress up??” (Always, always, always teeters on the edge of fetishization, if not already stepping over and jumping rope on the other side. Trans women are treated as kinks and sexual objects.)
  • “You identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male.” (No, I’m a woman, so all my parts are female. To deny that is to deny that I am a woman. I gender my parts, not you. My designation at birth is not my destination.)
  • “Fake boobs look weird.” (Think about the implications this has for trans women and DMAB trans femme people who want top surgery. How does it other them? What does it say about trans women/femme people who have gone through/want surgery?)
  • “I just don’t think binary trans people are subversive.” (Sigh… Luckily, Julia Serano has already written extensively about this. This rhetoric is always employed against trans women, because femininity is marked as Other, but masculinity is marked as bold and radical.)
  • “I loved the Michigan Womyn’s Festival.” (Michigan Womyn’s Festival has a womyn-born-womyn policy that excludes trans women, but it does not exclude trans men and DFAB trans people broadly.)
  • “Why are you angry? You’re leveraging your male privilege!” (Ahh, because trans women can’t be strong and assertive women. This also reduces trans women to their genitals. It is far too easy to demonize and silence trans women for standing up for themselves, because it is very profitable to do so.)
  • “All-female open mic.” (There’s some womyn-born-womyn rhetoric there if I’ve ever seen it.)

To be completely honest, y’all are exhausting. Really, really exhausting for me emotionally, mentally, and physically. You drain me. And this is coming from a white trans woman, so imagine how trans women of color feel about what y’all do. These phrases, and actions related to them, come up so often in my own life. What do all of these phrases have in common? The implication that trans women are illegitimate, cheap knock-offs, “men in dresses.” That is incredibly damaging, and if it’s damaging for trans women/femme people, it’s damaging to the trans community broadly.

Being in solidarity with trans women and DMAB trans femme people is more than just not saying harmful things to us. It is not about posting articles on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, it’s about challenging your everyday interactions with trans women and DMAB trans femme people. It’s about questioning what dynamic your cis or DFAB trans identity plays when you talk to me about anything. How do you speak to me? When do you speak over me? Are you speaking for me, and is it appropriate for you to do so? Are you enabling transmisogyny by remaining silent around your friends? Is the transmisogyny in your queer/trans space being addressed and talked about? What goes through your head when I talk about my experiences and why? How have you been conditioned to hate trans femininity? How do you benefit if you dismiss and reduce my experiences as a trans woman?

I don’t care how many articles you post about transmisogyny (though that doesn’t mean you should stop posting them). I don’t care how often you read about its history and current implications. Studying does not mean you are unpacking your own biases, blindspots, and prejudices. It does not mean that you are actively adjusting your oppressive behaviors. That’s what I want to see. I want to see you critically analyzing not only your own behaviors, but your relationships with trans women/femme people as well as your relationships with others in general who are possibly enabling you to continue being a transmisogynist.

If you’re not, then kindly sit all the way down.