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.

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