Ethnocentrism in Trans Discourse

In my previous post ‘A Trans* Glossary‘ I sought to provide some meanings behind terms that I’ll be using here, and some explanations behind them. That was always going to be a problematic exercise, because I am writing from personal experience, and attempting to define any term will implictly impose those definitions on other people. This wasn’t my aim, but hey, intent is magic, and it shouldn’t give me a free pass. I ought to have made it much clearer that the glossary was by no means definitive, and doesn’t apply to everyone at all.

One example would be in regards to my use of ‘trans*’ as opposed to ‘trans’. I’ve been told that it’s not really appropriate to limit ‘trans’ to binary people when using ‘trans*’ more generally. ‘Trans’ without the asterisk can be, and often is used, to include non-binary trans folk too, and I didn’t mean to insinuate otherwise.

Basically, let people define themselves, and don’t tell them how to define.

This does present a problem in that it can make it difficult to discuss society in general, because of the different personal interpretation of various terms. I’ll do my best to take account of those interpretations, but if I do screw up, and I probably will, I appreciate being let known so I can try and do better.

But sometimes the attempt itself is the problem.

A trans woman of color called me out on Twitter over my glossary over its whiteness. At first, I assumed it was because I hadn’t included mentions of such groups as the South Asian Hirja, or the Thai Kathoey, but I was missing that it was the discourse itself at fault.

Western trans discourse is ethnocentric. Often without meaning to be, and frequently by people who often try to take account of racial privilege. But that’s a thing about privilege – it’s usually least obvious to those who have it. Certainly I’m more aware of it when it comes to cis privilege than many cis people. But as I said, I am white. I’m white, and so I write from a white perspective. As a result I’m going to get a lot wrong in terms of erasing the experience of people of color. I don’t do it on purpose, but it will happen anyway, because privilege is like that. I do appreciate being let known when I screw up.

Western trans discourse is ethnocentric. In its aim to be all-inclusive in terms of gender identity, it pushes cultural identity into the background, and this is a problem because the terms we have based around gender are highly cultural. Gender isn’t the same thing between different cultures, and trying to fit the genders of people from those cultures into a Western model is clearly colonialist.

This especially applies to attempts by Western, usually white, trans* people to use Hirja people, Kathoey people, two-spirit people, or any other group perceived on the Western gender model as being ‘third-gender’ or equivalent, as evidence in their attempts to prove that trans* people have always existed, and exist worldwide. It’s tokenism.

It’s also reductionism to place all ‘gender diversity’ globally under the ‘transgender umbrella’. It erases cultural differences, and assumes links that may not exist. Many of the people concerned would also reject this term, because they may not see their own ‘gender identity’ as being ‘transgender’, or may reject the concept of a ‘gender identity’ altogether – these are modern Western terms used in modern Western culture and assuming they have global (or, for that matter, historical) relevance is mistaken. I’m cautious having mentioned the ‘historical’ aspect – for while there are many incidents of Western historical figures who seem to transgress gender in a modern understanding, such as Roman Empreror Elagabalus or the Chevalier d’Eon – it would be a mistake to regard modern Western trans discourse as more developed, or for that matter, more artificial. Many models of gender aside from the modern Western one are romanticized in this sense, assuming they are harmonious and in tune with nature or whatever, which ignores their realities and again frames them within a Western understanding of gender (white people who identify as ‘two-spirit’ in the appropriative sense are very guilty of this). This isn’t your utopia.

Much of the model of trans discourse we now use in the West is simply a developed version of the proposals by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in the early 20th century, although while he coined terms such as “transsexual”, he didn’t define them as narrowly as we do now – the tightening of labels and definitions can be attributed to Harry Benjamin, who took over Hirschfeld’s work after the National Socialists raided and destroyed his centre of research. The terms are useful, but they are artificial, and understanding this helps make clear how applying them globally (and, for that matter, historically) across other races, ethnicities and cultures is harmful and colonialist.

Remember what I said about we do not get to define others?

I’m going to link some articles which explain this further.

“My purpose in doing this is to critique the way perspectives of whiteness echo, largely unacknowledged, through transgender (and queer) theorising and to thus inspire more critical thinking about the racialised aspects of transgender bodies and gender liminal ways of being.”

  • Another article, ‘Romancing the Transgender Native‘ also details similar issues, but I was unable to find an accessible version online. Transgender Globe have a summary here:

Because of the utopian world set up by the authors of many scholarly articles regarding the “Third Gender” the authors of this article responded by providing a list of critiques.

  1. By categorizing all people not identifying as male or female into one category you lose the diversity. This in turn “simplifies the description” of each culture and further oppresses them.
  2. By using the “Third Gender” as a means for classifying people it begins to pigeonhole and allow for “prejudge” a culture.
  3. Gender is determined by culture. The idea of gender cannot be changed by acts of will, but only through social actions.
  • Finally, Talia Bettcher has a taught unit on this issue here which contains some useful points, such as:

It is highly problematic to use the term transgender to apply to people who seem “gender variant” regardless of cultural and/or historical context. The word transgender is located within a specific ideology or world-view which gives it its meaning. To understand different cultural forms of life with this ideology can constitute a kind of dubious imposition of cultural framework on “others” and therefore a kind of erasure. Moreover, by attempting to understand diverse cultural forms within a historically situated ideology, it is clear that some degree of distortion will occur. This is especially dubious when this erasure occurs in the interests of promoting a particular historically and culturally situated political agenda. For example, narratives which appeal to the existence of transgender people in non-Western cultures (“prior” to the imposition of binaristic gender norms) in order to legitimate contemporary U.S. transgender identities within the context of a civil rights movement are surely problematic.

So yes, I screwed up before, and I appreciate being called out over it.

It does make further writing in this blog difficult, however, needing to take account of this. It makes things less simply, but then again, simplifying the world is a danger, because it usually means erasure of other’s experience. Life is complex. It is fractal.

I’ll make sure that in future posts, I shall state that what I write is within my own, white, Western experience, for that is what I am best able to write about. I get to define myself, even if I don’t get to define others. When I use the terms I use in the glossary, it is within that context.

I’ll probably get it wrong – as I said, privilege is like that. But I’ll do my best, and I’ll try to learn from my mistakes.

A Trans* Glossary

EDIT 06/13/2013: There are a few issues with this glossary that I address in a subsequent post, especially the problem that is, alongside much of contemporary Western trans discourse, is ethnocentric. This glossary is not meant to be definitive or indeed tell anyone else how to define.

 

Hi again. I’m aware that I launched into things without explaining all the terms that I use. This is mostly because these terms are everyday for me now, and so I use them without a second thought, in the same way certain industries or communities have their own terms that pepper regular conversations but would be confusing and possibly alienating to those unused to them. And even for those of us who do use those terms, we often find that what we mean precisely by those terms varies. It’s not uncommon to find trans* people debating the use of certain words or terms, and what consensus there is is far from unanimous. Language is, after all, power, and terminology gives us the ability to explain who we are, what we experience, things that affect us, and what we can do about them.

As a result, I’ve written a small trans glossary of certain trans-related terms, and what meanings I ascribe to them. I’ve tried to explain a little about the backgrounds of these words, because what may seem obvious to me now wouldn’t have been obvious to me before, and may be entirely unfamiliar for many cis people (and ‘cis’ itself is a term that’s only gradually gaining currency outside of specific trans* and activist circles).

Anyway, let’s begin.

Trans* – the little asterisk there is a little confusing at first, and can make sentences look like they have been randomly scattered with stars. Asterisks are used as wildcards, and this is the case here. It can mean transsexual (usually: someone who identifies with the gender ‘opposite’ to the gender they were assigned at birth, such as most trans men and trans women) or transgender (a broader umbrella term which can include ‘transsexual’ but also includes people who do not identify with any particular gender, or ‘both’ genders, or a different gender, or a fluctuating gender, (and so on) – these people are also known as non-binary due to not fitting in to the traditional binary gender system. Transgender can also include people who identify as genderqueer which, like ‘queer’ in terms of sexuality, is a more fluid and personally-defined term than the more rigid other categories. British musician CN Lester has a series on genderqueer/non-binary people by genderqueer/non-binary people that explains this far better than I can, given that I don’t identify this way).

Sometimes, you’ll see people arguing that the asterisk is unnecessary as ‘trans’ on its own should include all these people, but some genderqueer/non-binary people have felt that ‘trans’ too often means ‘binary’. For this reason, I’ll try to use ‘trans*’ in a more general sense and ‘trans’ in a more-specific binary sense with my posts, but again, as someone who identifies as a woman, it’s easier for me to write about what I know.

Cis – the opposite of ‘trans’. That’s it. It’s somehow a controversial term, despite many of the people arguing this having no trouble with ‘heterosexual’. ‘Cis’ and ‘Trans’ are chemistry terms taken from the Latin, and mean ‘on the same side’ and ‘on the other side’ respectively. They can be found outside of chemistry too, in certain geographical descriptions such as ‘Cisalpine Gaul‘ and ‘Transalpine Gaul’. ‘Trans’ is used as a prefix in this same sense in many words and terms, including ‘transplant’, ‘transport’, ‘transmission’ and ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’ but ‘Cis’ isn’t, which might be part of the reason it seems so unfamiliar to many people. So why bother with it? For the same reason we have ‘heterosexual’ – if you only ever define people who differ from a preconceived ‘normal’, you are othering them. Imagine dividing up a group of people and telling half of them that they were the red team, but saying nothing to the others. How would they be defined? I think a lot of the backlash against ‘cis’ is down to people uncomfortable with the label being applied to them because they feel ‘normal’. This approach doesn’t consider how trans* people must feel, constantly having this label applied to them, and seems to suggest that whatever else the person railing against ‘cis’ may say, they do see trans* people as distinctly ‘other’.

‘Cis’ is also taken to mean things it does not. It does not mean ‘fits in well with sociological gender roles’ or ‘conforms to preconceived notions of gendered appearance’. A cis woman who has short hair, binds her breasts, and behaves in a way society considers ‘masculine’ is still cis. And a trans woman who as short hair, binds her breasts, and behaves in a way society considers ‘masculine’ is still trans. The gender that matters for ‘cis/trans*’ is the congruence between the gender someone was assigned at birth (see further down the glossary) and the gender they identify as (as for this point, and the concept of ‘gender identity’ in general, stay tuned for a future post).

Put simply, if you use ‘trans’ (or ‘trans*’), then you should also use ‘cis’, because they go together like other binaries, and the absence of one implies the existence of the other (‘trans*’ is a useful term here because genderqueer people can blur the lines between ‘cis’ and ‘trans’).

Before we had ‘cis’, you’d often come across the terms biological man/biological woman or genetic guy/girl for cis people, which logically seem to suggest that trans* people are in fact robots. To which I say: ERROR. DOES NOT COMPUTE. PLEASE REBOOT VOCABULARY.

Trans man/Trans woman – a man who is a trans/ a woman who is trans. Simple as that. I prefer to use these terms rather than ‘transman/transwoman’ as having these as compound nouns seems to suggest a separate categorisation to ‘man/woman’ rather than subcategories of these. I sometimes come across confusion on these terms in that people assume that the gendered word refers to the gender they were assigned at birth rather than the gender they identify as. Someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman is not a ‘trans man’ – that would be the opposite. The gender people identify as is essentially the gender they are, and this should always take precedence over the gender they were assigned at birth. This is the reason why the old terms FTM (female-to-male) and MTF (male-to-female) were dropped by most trans people – its focus is wrong. You may still come across these terms in some places, though I won’t use them anymore.

FAAB / MAAB ( ‘Female/Male Assigned At Birth’) – (or sometimes AFAB/AMAB insteada way of talking about the gender people are seen to be transitioning from, without misgendering them in the process (like the media ‘born a man’/’born a woman’ rhetoric does). It’s worth mentioning that some trans* people do regard themselves as having originally been this gender, but that does not include everyone by any means, so this is a preferred term. Some people will say CAFAB/CAMAB to add the term ‘coercively’ to show that this was done without their consent, but I personally don’t feel this is necessary. Whilst the FAAB/MAAB terminology is useful, it does have a tendency to be over-used where it is not really relevant, and this is a problem since the terms are often disliked because they are a defining term based around a gender to which the person in question does not identify. I believe they do have a valid use and are better than any equivalent terms, but only within this limited capacity – namely to talk about biology and pre-transition life experiences.

Transphobia – is totally an official word now that it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary. It shares similar roots to ‘homophobia’, ‘biphobia’ and ‘xenophobia’ in that it’s not a phobia in the sense of ‘fear of’ but rather ‘prejudice towards’. Transphobia’s shiny new OED definition reads “an extreme and irrational aversion to transsexuality and transsexual or transgender people”. Pretty much all trans* people are familiar with this, unfortunately. Transphobia is the group of men yelling slurs at you across the street, or the company terminating your employment right after you state your intention to transition. It’s saturated in society, and it’s very rarely challenged, so that transphobia can often not even be recognised by those who are not aware of it (a number of TV sitcoms go this way). Related to transphobia is cissexism which is similar but not as direct, though its effects can be. Cissexism is an assumption that trans* people are in some way inferior to cis people, or do not actually exist (in the sense that systems are designed for cis people only). Whilst transphobia is often a deliberate act, cissexism can be more subtle to those causing it, simply because of how trans* perspectives may not even occur to the person in question. The difference between transphobia and cissexism is to some degree academic, however, since both make the lives of trans* people more difficult and dangerous. The lack of needing to deal with this specific axis of oppression is why we talk about people who are not in some way trans* having cis privilege. Again, this doesn’t mean that people with cis privilege don’t get oppression and prejudice on other axes – cis people can suffer racism, homophobia, sexism, disablism, and so on just as trans people can. I have white privilege, just as I lack cis privilege, for example. The idea that oppression and privilege do not rest on a single axis is the core concept of intersectional feminism.

Stealth – is where a trans person will essentially go undercover to appear to the world as a cis person of their specific gender. This term, along with passing (being recognised as the gender you identify with) and passing privilege (the benefits that passing brings you, ie: reduced transphobia) are terms found in various minority groups, and I’ll address the topic of stealth in one of my future posts.

The Cotton Ceiling – was a concept suggested in 2012 whereby trans lesbians ‘suffer discrimination’ because cis lesbians will not consider them as viable partners. Again, I’ll do a post on this at some future opportunity, but by and large, whilst I can understand the frustration behind it and I know that odd trans dilemma of being considered both desexualised and hypersexualised at the same time, I really dislike it as a term and I’m glad it’s now mostly been dropped in discourse.

TERFs – this is an acronym meaning ‘Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists‘ and refers to a specific group of women whose interpretation of radical feminism entails that trans women are male, trans men are female, and that trans people as a whole serve to uphold the socially-constructed concept of gender to the detriment of women worldwide. They’re a difficult topic to write about as they themselves are straw-manned as often as they straw-man trans* people, but they do cause trans* people problems. I’ll address this when I can spare a whole post on the topic. I will note that the acronym distinguishes TERFs from ‘radical feminists’. Radical feminism, as opposed to intersectional feminism, essentially places patriarchal misogynistic oppression as the big problem that needs a radical solution, and is not necessarily cissexist – although certain TERFs would argue that such a radical feminism would not be a true radical feminism. Again, though, I’ll go into this in more depth at a later time.

Tranny – is a slur. Please don’t use it (unless you are trans* yourself and wish to reclaim it, and even then, please don’t use it about me, or any other trans* person without their expressed permission to do so). It’s often referred to as ‘the T-word‘ because even writing it out in full can be upsetting to many trans* people. It is not an abbreviation for ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ (although it can be for ‘transvestites’, who dress up/adopt the stereotypical mannerisms of ‘the opposite sex’ for entertainment, sexual gratification, or simply because they want to, but not because they identify that way). The use of the word is overwhelming negative – if you have the stomach for it, google it, or do a Twitter search for an even more representative sample; it will be mostly derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, or sexual objectification, or verbal abuse, or mockery, or porn, and so the list goes on. Its associations are so negative and dehumanising that the only times I have referred to myself with this word have been when I was genuinely suicidal. I can understand why some people may wish to reclaim it – as has been done to a certain extent with people who identify as dykes, or queers – but I personally do not feel able to. This all applies to other slurs like shemale, which has more of a porn context but is otherwise very similar.

SRS/GRS – ‘sex reassignment surgery’/’genital reassignment surgery’/’sex realignment surgery’/’genital realignment surgery’ and so forth. Often simply referred to by trans women as ‘surgery’ (trans men distinguish between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ surgeries). The media likes to call these ‘sex changes’ which makes it sound a bit like changing your phone company. By and large – this isn’t anyone’s business but the person involved, and anyone they may wish to share this information with, so I won’t dwell on it much, but I’m aware the acronyms used for it can be confusing for people unused to them. I will say quickly that surgery is by no means mandatory, and doesn’t affect how people identify, though many legal systems require it as a means to change legal markers such as birth certificates. Amongst trans women, some don’t want it, some don’t need it, some do need it, and so forth. It’s a big deal, for sure, but it’s not the crux of the matter in the sense that the media like to make it out to be.

That’s all for now. There may be more that I’ll think of as I continue this blog, in which case I’ll come back here and add to the list, but I think I’ve covered the main ones.

It’s worth stating that this is a trans* glossary, not the trans* glossary. As I said, other trans* people may have definitions of some of this words that disagree with my own, so I don’t claim that this list is objective. I write what I know, and what I believe.

Amber – (fossilized tree resin/ a pure color, located on the color wheel midway between yellow and orange)

The Uterus Issue

“No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight.”

Germaine Greer, ‘The Whole Woman’ (1999)

I’ve seen this argument be made many times, and it’s always darkly amusing, because it’s so blatantly wrong. The first recorded case of sex reassignment surgery in the modern sense was that of Lili Elbe, who died in 1931 following complications after an ovaries transplant. Since then, plenty of trans women (but by no means all) have longed to have functional ovaries, wombs, and all that would allow. Certainly I know many trans women personally who are distraught that they may never be able to carry a child to term, and I myself spent several hours in tears when this sunk in for me early in transition (thankfully, my ex was there to comfort me, but it still hurt like hell).

Don’t get me wrong. I’d not immediate rush to impregnate myself the second a hypothetical uterus transplant occurred. It’s more like that I’d like the option to be there. Of course, said option would also present the risk of getting pregnant accidentally, or even being impregnated against my own will. That’s why this whole issue is tied in so deeply to reproductive and abortion rights, and I’ll get into this later.

There’s also the menstruation issue, which is a bit of a complicated one. It’s not uncommon for trans women to be told by cis female friends that they are lucky for being able to dodge that one, but this isn’t so simple. It’s not that trans women desire the bloody underwear, the painful cramps, the migraines, and so on, but it’s what menstruation itself means. For one thing, it can feel very othering, reinforcing a difference between trans women and cis women that trans women cannot do anything about. For another, menstruation is part of fertility, and there are plenty of trans women who would love to have the chance to become pregnant. But, yeah, at least we don’t get the cramps.

Science is slowly advancing so that uterus transplants may one day be possible, although with the potential risks it could have to both mother and child, and the low importance of any trans application of medical breakthroughs, it’s unlikely to be anytime soon.

The painful truth is this: at the current time, trans women cannot menstruate, get pregnant, or give birth.

But trans men can.

Trans guys, or anyone trans who was assigned female at birth, do possess wombs, at least to begin with. This means they can get pregnant – willingly (in which case, the media will have another field day with ‘Pregnant Man‘ stories), or otherwise.

So trans men naturally deserve a say when it comes to issues of reproductive rights – especially that around the topic of abortions. Cis men are lambasted for trying to dictate the terms of the debate and tell (cis) women what they are allowed to do with their own bodies, and rightly so (I’ve been horrified at what Gov Perry has been doing over in Texas, and fully support the fight against it), but this obviously doesn’t apply to trans men, who can be (or could have been) affected by the very issues in question.

But you can’t have it both ways. Because if trans men deserve a say when it comes to abortion laws because of the parts they were born with, then by the same logic, trans women do not. And this is where another problem arises. Now, as I said earlier, I would love to be able to get pregnant myself, but it’s just not going to happen as medicine currently stands, and I’ve got to accept that. If I don’t menstruate myself, if I can’t get pregnant myself, then I shouldn’t get to tell those who do what to do about it.

But many trans women do anyway, even with the support of cis women and others, but it makes me uncomfortable to be honest. Arguments of “we’re all women, and this is a women’s issue” exclude trans men and FAAB people, and that’s really dangerous when there’s already a great deal of pressure on trans guys not to talk about it. I certainly wouldn’t want a trans dude to be told he can’t talk about abortion rights when he himself may be in need in one, just to validate my own sense of womanhood (and if your sense of womanhood is centered on someone’s ability to become pregnant, you are primarily viewing women as baby-carriers above all else, which is…problematic, to say the least).

This isn’t to say we can’t talk about it at all. We just shouldn’t get to the set the terms. I’m personally pro-choice and have taken part in protests against religious lobby groups who harass women outside abortion clinics. I’ll challenge anti-choice arguments, but it’s not like I can have an accidental pregnancy, so there’s a degree of understanding that I will be lacking.

I don’t think it’s quite the same as with cis men. Many trans women do experience misogyny at the hands of the patriarchy, and so have a large amount of common ground with cis women. The categorisation of abortion and pregnancy as a women’s issue also means that many trans women will typically hear a lot more about it, and be more aware of the specifics, than cis men. However, there’s still that thing that it doesn’t personally affect us.

I’m aware that there are cis women who do not have ovaries and/or wombs, or who can’t menstruate, or get pregnant. Do I believe they shouldn’t have a say, following that same logic as for trans women? This is a hard one for me, because I don’t feel they should be excluded, even though they themselves are not personally affected. I think background plays a part here – something similar to what I mentioned with shared experience under the patriarchy, but to a possibly greater extent, and furthermore, infertile cis women are typically less visible as a group than trans women. Trans women demanding a say in abortion rights comes across very badly – and rightly so.

There’s certainly an argument to made that (cis) men taking control of (cis) women’s reproductive rights is part of a wider attack on women, a patriarchal backlash against women who increasingly are unwilling to be objectified and denied their own agency. And that is true, so to some extent, it does affect us, but that’s not the main issue.

And again, it’s so easy to erase trans men and FAAB trans* people in this whole debate. Trans men are men, but they’re involved in this too. It all ties in with how trans men experience misogyny from a patriarchy that rejects their identities, either deliberately or otherwise, and that this does not in any way invalidate their gender. This is something I hope to touch on in a future blog post, although I can only say so much given my own position (that said, a number of quite prominent trans women do have a damaging tendency to ignore the fact that this occurs).

Maybe someday womb transplants could be an option presented to trans women who desire one (and there shouldn’t be any pressure either way). At that point, then a lot of this post no longer applies. I’d certainly like the chance – especially given I’ve had dreams about having babies of my own – but I’m not holding my breath. Until then, it’s not my issue. But I’ll still support everyone’s right to have agency over their own body. That’s not a man/woman thing. That’s being a decent human being.

(Throughout this blog post, I’ve not been mentioning any MAAB trans people who do not identify as women who may also wish to give birth. Many similar arguments apply as with trans women, including the key point that, as things currently stand, they cannot (give birth).)

Introduction to this Blog

Hi. I’m Amber. This is my blog to write about my own take on various issues based around gender, sexuality, identity, and feminism.

I’m in my twenties, and I’m a trans woman. I’m basically bisexual but it can vary depending on situation. I’m white, which is one area I do have massive privilege in. I have PTSD and anxiety from experiences I have been through, many related to being a young trans woman, but I try to carry on. I consider myself an intersectional feminist. And that’s all I’m going to say about myself for now.

I want to use this space to say things that might differ slightly from the mainstream trans voices out there. Well, we’re no hive mind, and we do not all speak for one another. I certainly know ‘my own side’ screw up on occasions, but I am often afraid to call them out on it. Well, whatever, I will stand by what I say here (unless I publish a retraction).

I don’t pretend to be anything other than subjective, but I try to consider other opinions. I’ve never been a fan of big online debates that end up getting very personal and very nasty.

I expect some people reading this will very quickly be able to work out who I am. It’s not a secret, but I’m not going to mention it here. Makes things easier that way.

Feel free to comment, but I reserve the right to moderate where I see fit.

See you around!

Amber