Trans: the phoniest community in Britain?
Note to transgender activists: getting together on the web to discuss your vulnerability does not make you a community.
The suicide earlier this month of the British trans teacher Lucy Meadows, following what has been described as ‘monstering and harassment by the press’, has prompted outrage among something calling itself the ‘trans community’. What is this community? Is there, or could there ever be, any such thing?
The vulnerability of trans people in the face of media scrutiny is a recurring theme in the arguments of this ‘community’. In December 2011, the trans-advocacy group, Trans Media Watch (TMW), made a presentation to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics about the (mis)representation of trans people in the tabloid newspapers. At the start of this year, the Sunday broadsheet the Observer got into hot water for allowing Julie Burchill to air her not very trans-friendly views. All hell broke loose. Within days, Burchill’s article had been withdrawn from the Observer website, along with all of the mostly critical comments. The Observer editor apologised for any offence caused.
Why has the ‘trans community’ become so proactive at taking offence? TMW said the following in its submission to Leveson: ‘On a regular basis, transgender members of the public suddenly find themselves the unwanted subject of intrusive and mocking press attention… No public interest is served by this degrading and exploitative coverage. However, because the victims of these stories are often inexperienced in dealing with the media… the press simply carries on inflicting these wrongful practices with impunity. It is our assertion that in no other circumstance would psychologically or socially vulnerable private individuals, often receiving personal medical interventions, be made the subject of this [kind of] attention.’
What stands out here is the description of trans people as ‘psychologically or socially vulnerable private individuals’. This is key to understanding the nature of the so-called trans community. Because it is as a result of trans people’s presumed vulnerability that a community has rather patronisingly been formed on their behalf, to represent their interests, by very small groups of activists.
I use the term ‘trans community’ advisedly. In reality, there is no such thing as a trans community. Rather, there are either communities that include trans people (but not exclusively) or there are communities that are organised around trans issues. Insofar as these groups are autonomous, and can at least partly act independently of trans-advocacy groups and state sponsorship, they can serve a positive function. But a ‘trans community’ itself exists only within its advocates’ imaginations. They make this idea seem real to themselves and then present themselves as the community’s authentic representatives.
There are no real people converging in real or online spaces to constitute the trans community. It is, first and foremost, a community of shared characteristics, an abstraction: the so-called ‘trans umbrella’. This umbrella covers anyone with some degree of uncertainty about their gender identity. As the website of the Gender Identity Research and Education Society puts it: ‘Transgenderism is used as an inclusive term, describing all those whose gender expression falls outside the typical gender norms; for example, those who cross-dress intermittently for a variety of reasons.’
This means that a married man who occasionally cross-dresses or fantasises about being a woman in secret is a de facto member of the trans community. Whether he likes it or not, the advocates of trans awareness can incorporate him as an imaginary victim within their imaginary community.
That I reject the model of trans identity focused around vulnerability and victimhood is not meant to belittle the very real trials and tribulations experienced by some trans people, sometimes from an uncomprehending public; we can all feel vulnerable from time to time. But being described as permanently vulnerable, being made to perform the role of a vulnerable victim, does not help trans people – it disempowers them.
The more this fictional, disorientated, weak and vulnerable caricature is adopted by trans people, the more real it becomes. Genuine engagement with the seemingly hostile world around you then becomes more, not less, difficult. Instead of relating to other people on the basis of real lived experiences, which may be troublesome and unpleasant at times, trans people are encouraged to relate only to their own kind, to members of their ‘community’.
What is particularly troubling about this trans identity game is its effect on the relationship between trans people, constructed as a community, and the rest of society. It doesn’t help to bring people together; it divides them into groups uncertain of how to relate to one another. So, before you can even speak to me, you have to know whether to address me as he or she. Do I identify as transgendered, transsexual, transvestite, a cross-dresser, gender queer, drag queen, bi-gendered, trans woman, or trans man?
Then there are the things you are not allowed to say. You cannot use the term ‘sex change’ because that privileges my original (sorry, ‘assigned’) gender over my acquired (or ‘true’) one. You are not allowed to enquire about the details of my transition and most definitely not whether I have had, or intend to have, lower surgery. (In other words, you can’t ask if my bits are still intact.)
Those of us who have a long-standing experience of gender dissonance (some people don’t like the term ‘gender dyphoria’ because, as a medical term, it implies mental illness), may understand how to use this plethora of terminology correctly. But to the layman it is daunting; it causes so much uncertainty that everyday people just feel incapable of communicating with trans people. Even trans people are affected and fear making mistakes. A trans woman friend of mine was mortified when she accidentally introduced me to an audience as Chris rather than Chrissie.
This byzantine language game is beloved of the self-styled trans advocate, however. This bundle of self-righteousness, usually a a non-trans (or ‘cisgendered’) person, likes nothing more than a chance to show off his or her intimate knowledge of the nomenclature of trans-sensitive words. Take this exchange on Twitter between @jonanamary and @suzanne_moore, the journalist whose use of the phrase ‘Brazilian transsexual’ gave rise to the recent Observer/Burchill controversy over trans depictions: ‘I loved your piece on anger – except for the shock transphobia (“a Brazilian transsexual”) – why on earth did you include it?’ The next tweet adds: ‘calling someone “a transsexual” is like calling someone “a gay” – really creepy. “Trans woman” would’ve been better.’
This was the Twitter post that sparked a Twitterstorm, leading eventually to Julie Burchill writing that now infamous ‘transphobic’ article. All because someone had the gall (or was it ignorance?) to use the word ‘transsexual’ as a noun rather than as an adjective. Sadly, this is what happens when an offence-sensitive community of the vulnerable (no matter how imaginary that community is) is pitched against the rest of society: there are blow-ups over the most silly and insignificant things.
Chrissie Daz is a writer and cabaret performer living in Birmingham.