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Proceedings of the Transgender Activism Online Workshop (March 4th)

Edited by Ricc

 

On March 4h, as Trans_Muted, we inaugurated their first online workshop, titled “Transgender Activism.” The event saw the participation of three speakers and a dozen of attendees, which we had the pleasure of sharing a space for exchange of ideas, self-expression and solidarity. Crucial questions were raised (i.e., why are trans* and cis healthcare divided? What is a ‘trans-centred’ or a ‘gender non-conforming’ space?), new connections between people and groups were born. Overall, “Transgender Activism” was a promising success. These are its proceedings.


The workshop, consisted of three 30 minutes long talks, each followed by an open discussion. Dorian Rose - the founder of Trans_Muted - gave the first talk, titled Transgender Critical Theory, which introduced the concept of transgender critical theory - a mixing of critical theory and trans theory - and exemplified through a reading of the role of gender identity clinics within a system of perpetuation of cisnormativity.[1] The second talk, titled Radicalism & the Trans Movement, was given by J. S. Gupta. In their Jay has posited the classical Leninist question “what is to be done?” in reference to trans* liberation movements, recognising that the conflict against the cisnormativity system will not be “resolved” unless there will be “unquestionable victory on our side.”[2] Finally, Michel gave the talk Antinormativity & livability: queer theory and practices, where they addressed the problem of the sustainability of antinormative lives and expressions within a normative society.


Transgender Critical Theory


Some explanations first. Dorian defines transgender theory as “everything from a trans point of view”, and critical theory (historically, a critical response to the rise of fascism, or a critique of the system that gives rise to fascism) as a “critique of everything” and a critique of “the state of the things”, and consequently transgender critical theory as a “critique of everything from a trans point of view.” If, as many scholars seem to hold, being trans offers an epistemically privileged point of view (both for societal and inherent reasons), then, within limits, transness opens up the space for a critique of pretty much anything. Critical theory and trans theory have both points of connection and of divergence. Historical (re)analysis, deconstruction of narratives, and cultural, political and social analysis are practices common to both fields. However, historically speaking, critical theory and trans theory diverge on more conceptual matters. In particular:

- Critical theory assumes something like a sexual difference, namely the binary between (cis) woman and man, often as a ‘disavowed truth’ behind modern patriarchal ideologies. Trans theory, instead, substitutes the essentialist tenet of sexual difference with a (usually) non-essentialist idea of gender.

- Critical theory makes use of the tools of semiology, often in the context of textual or discursive analysis. Trans theory, on the other hand, refers to psychology and psychoanalysis, while of course not remaining alien to the interactions between psychology and identity on one hand and language on the other.

- Critical theory is the ‘parent’ of a lot of new theories, while ‘trans theory’ is also used as an umbrella term for a great number of new and often intersectional studies (i.e., trans black studies, transmasc studies, and so on).


Dorian makes the case that critical theory, despite its historical problematicities, remains an appropriate and appropriate-able tool of analysis. In particular, in can serve the purpose of delving into questions such as:

- The establishment of ‘trans’: what makes us trans, ‘us’ or ‘them’? (I.e., if we are trans because we do not identify with our assigned gender at birth, does it mean that transness conceptually relies on cisnormativity and gender assignations? Is this just a kind of ‘social definition’, which overlooks other aspects of transness? Or is it an essential one?)

- What role does trans theory itself play for us? How can we use a critical trans theory in activism? What does it mean to be trans today?


In order to answer these questions, we need to “go back to basics.” In particular, we need to give a fresh look at the cis/trans difference, redefine terminologies and meticulously deconstruct everything in sight (and out of it), through the support of historical insights into the formation of the state of things, “things as they are.” This is crucial to tackle the unconscious ways we may enact cisnormativity and intra-modal alienation.


For Dorian, the GIC is a perfect case-study. Who is the GIC for? Who isn’t it for? What does it serve to prove? How does it do it? Clearly, since not all people who seek to take hormones have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, not all dysphoric people seek to take hormones, plus not all people with dysphoria are trans and vice versa, and so on – GICs, as gatekeeping institutions meant to control the access to a certain kind of healthcare, are founded on the assumption of a certain categorization, a certain normative of what is a trans patient. The comparison between GICs and general practice makes the hidden systemic intentions behind the GIC institution even clearer: transgender care is judged as special (and therefore in need of special psychiatric control and policing, for example) only on the basis of a moral judgment of a trans patient’s own desire to be and feel better in their own terms. In other words, GICs only serve to segregate trans* related healthcare, and trans* people, from general healthcare.

All these issues and questions (the nature of trans healthcare, the relationship between gender and care, but also the deconstruction of medicalised gender normativity etc.) can be addressed through the tools of a critical trans theory.


Finally, Dorian points at other forms of alienation in other areas, such as at Pride events – where, for example, Tories are protected in the face of trans protest.


Discussion


During the first discussion, a number of interesting points have been raised. At first, the discussion has revolved around the ‘purpose’ of the GIC as a socio-medico-normative institution. It has been recognised that GICs grant cis medical professionals the authority to give trans people “permission to be”, moreover, only to “a small microcosm of trans people who cis people consider ‘acceptable’” (namely, those who for example fit within a binary, white, hetero norm, the ‘good trans’). Clearly, the distinction between trans and cis healthcare has no scientific basis: cis people can already access the same medicals treatments without having to undergo psychiatric inspection etc. As someone stated, “we should just go to endocrinologists if we want hormones, not going to a specific clinic.” It is also questionable why any clinic deals with matters of gender identity, since personal identity is not an empirical or ‘scientific’ phenomenon, but rather a private one (albeit socially negotiated), and for this it is good and respectful practice to respect any self-identification and self-expression without trying to probe into it and prove whether it is ‘objectively valid’ or not.


The discussion shifts to the importance of trans studies for liberatory movements and practices. In particular, it is recognised how trans representation within trans studies can be alienating. While it does not tend to be ‘problematic’ or wilfully ignorant, it often risks of amplifying and reifying the pressures trans people are subjected to. ‘Transness’ is commodified (i.e., as a ‘theoretically useful’ ‘epistemically privileged’ point of view on pain, discrimination, gender etc.), and the communication of one’s transness is often taken out of context, abstracted. Trans people are asked to explain and categorise themselves, make themselves digestible while alienating their own representation from their own immediate existence.

Now, it is generally necessary to implement social and legal rules within society, and it is shared opinion that such rules can be formulated only on the basis of abstractions and notions of ‘normality’. One can think of the rather ludicrous example of Jordan Peterson saying he needs gender stereotypes to know how to treat a woman he just met as a woman, and that he would not know how to treat non-binary people because society does not provide any textbook on that. At any case, the essential connection between the meaning of “norm” as normality (descriptive) and “norm” as “normative” (prescriptive) should be kept in mind. This way of understanding society and co-living is however in high contradiction with the basic nature of transness, which rather emphasises the moment of mutation, rendering its reification / commodification into categories useless and harmful.


While speaking about the ‘intersections’ of queer and trans identities, someone points out that ‘age’ and experience, within trans and queer culture, depend on how long one is been out: while everyone is equally trans and queer, a 20 years old who has been out for 10 years and a 30 years old who just came out (to themselves and/or to society) have very different experiences, and they have participated in very different kinds of cultural discourses during their lifetimes. ‘Experienced’ trans and queer people often become ‘role models’ and points of reference for the community, often even for peers or older people, probably because of a substantive lack of good representation within mainstream media. Soon enough, the elderly trans has the onus of supplementing for that lack, and explain transness / queerness to both the rest of the community and society at large. In other words, an incredible (and unfair) amount of labour and responsibility is put on the shoulders of a very selected number of people within the community.


Finally, we asked ourselves what we can do about it. If spreading more information, it is said, has been a losing strategy so far, perhaps changing the way information is spread might have more effects. However, what this means remains to be determined. Perhaps, as trans and queer people, we might have to change first and foremost the way we understand our own understanding, our own culture. In fact, what kind of culture needs ‘points of reference’ and ‘elderly’? What do ‘elderly’ have to teach? Is it really accumulated knowledge? Traditionally, the older generations serve the purpose of teaching ‘survival strategies’ to the new ones, transmitting them a kind of heritage which can be a blessing in a static world, or a curse in an everchanging one. However, while trans and queer culture does have this kind of tradition, when it comes to the meaning of being trans, its expression, explanation, establishment and communication, we can question whether or not something like an inheritance is even possible: do we inherit our transness from some kind of cultural lineage? Doesn’t every trans person rather add, with their own unique experience and reasons, something more to what it means to be trans?


Radicalism & the Trans Movement


Jay introduces the concepts of ‘idealism’ and ‘trans idealism’, opposing them to a view of trans existence and liberation more grounded in their actual material conditions, which they call ‘radicalism’. The perspective is that of a ‘transgender cultural revolution’.


Now what is ‘trans idealism’? First of all, idealism a way of approaching the world (such as religion) defined by a projection of ideas onto the world itself, assuming that the world is structured and works according to abstractions or idealisations. In particular, liberalism is a form of idealism (contrary to what people use to think, deeming it a form of pragmaticism), as it assumes that change is brought about by moderate reforms of the world, and that the world will simply accommodate the ideal that one tries to achieve. On the contrary, radicalism looks at the concrete materialities of the system and harnesses the potential for change that is present in their inner contradictions. Radicalism assumes that radical change is possible because it finds its possibility within the very roots of the problem; liberalism, on the contrary, remains a rather inertial view. Now, according to Jay, within the context of gender, cisgender ‘allies’ immediately show their idealism, their true colours, as they get uncomfortable whenever they are asked to accept and support transgender liberation on our own trans terms.[3] The liberal and comfortable version of the trans liberation movement reads it as a ‘feel-good movement’, oriented to vague notions of ‘safety’, ‘happiness’, ‘being yourself’ and so on (which, we might argue, not only reduce the revolutionary charge of trans spaces and discourses, but are also functional to capitalism). Here Dorian notes: “Perhaps seeing the trans movement as a feel-good movement is a psychological operations tactic, making any trans people who take action 'violent' and singling them out against 'the good trans'.” In this sense, we might posit, there is an essential connection between radicalism and the figure of the bad trans.


Discussion


As the discussion begins, we immediately notice an important assumption behind cis discourse: cis people think it is their right to be treated and identified on the basis of how they present rather than what they consent to and personally identify with. Cisgender people’s reaction to misgendering is telling. They will not take it as a deliberate or involuntary but systemic offence at their identity as cis (unlike trans people: once we understand that there is no such thing as ‘passing’, we recognise that we are either misgendered out of hate or out of cisnormative assumption, therefore, specifically as trans), but rather as an offence to their aesthetic – their look, behaviour etc. For example, “Do not I look man enough?”, coming from a cis man, rests on the assumption that a certain presentation 1) is inherently masculine and 2) compels / requires the other to understand it as masculine and affirm it. When this system of assumptions breaks down, violence arises, i.e., when a cis straight man reacts violently when he receives attentions from a gay man, as this is understood as a projection of femininity onto him (homophobic assumption), a negation of his gender.

Elaborating further, we might notice that, while it might sound paradoxical (given cis conservative obsession with essentialism on the one hand, and the connection between trans movements and the idea that gender is performative on the other), it is cis people’s identity which is traditionally ‘superficial’, ‘aesthetic’, a matter of successful or failed performance. Their misgendering happens exclusively at a surface level. Trans identities, on the contrary, are understood as inner identities, which can be expressed or repressed, validated or invalidated: in both cases, the possibility itself of transphobic misgendering reveals the difference between one’s identity and what happens to it, therefore, its ‘depth’, its ‘irreducibility’ to social validations and invalidations. Finally, it is exactly this irreducible withdrawn depth which opens up the space for the new to arise within the identity itself, therefore, for further change, growth, transition: there is always something more to us than what we are right now.


The discussion soon moves to the topic of social spaces: do we need or want trans-only spaces? Are they possible? Should we rather look for trans-centred spaces, or even gender non-conforming, gender diverse, gender expansive spaces?


While the demand for trans-only spaces is understandable (even without policing the entrance and asking for any evidence of transness, but only relying on cis people’s reasonableness), some observations have been raised which seemed to point in the direction of the overcoming rigid cis/trans dichotomies and the recognition of the role that trans spaces themselves can have in the destruction of cisnormativity.

Some noted that trans spaces can allow people who self-identify as cis but are maybe gender-questioning and not out to explore their gender and maybe come out. Such trans spaces can offer a safe space to come out or combat internsalised transphobia – a privilege that many trans people have not enjoyed in the past, and which should instead be fought for, as a way of strengthening the community and fighting the cisnormative rhetoric of pain. Others noticed that allowing cis people to accompany their trans friends can help the latter feel less intimidated when entering a new space for the first time, while also recognising the fact that trans-cis friendship do indeed exist.


The discussion approaches the topic of the definition of trans and queer spaces.[4] As Dorian stated, “here's nothing wrong with having a very detailed specification, but definitely something wrong with simplifying it only to omit people who might be included.” As queer spaces often revolve around shared experiences, in particular, shared experiences of discrimination and abnormalisation, we can ask whether defining the space on the basis of inner qualities such as ‘being trans’ always make sense. For example, as someone noticed, “intersex people are often left out of these conversations [and spaces] because they do identify as cis, while they're victim of some of the most brutal forms of oppression linked to gender variance. But when it comes to activism our struggles are so linked that it's worth questioning why we aren't allowing them in our spaces when their experience is informed by ostensibly the same oppression: what type of events need to exclude cis intersex people for trans safety?” In fact, we could go as far as to say that in reality “there is no trans-specific issue and the problem is linked to language.” This would be supported by the fact that the ‘trans’ that the cis gaze sees is not the trans that we are.


Finally Dorian commented, proposing a key rule to promote spaces that, while not letting anyone out, do not give up on its anti-normative identity: “safe space policies dictate that everyone agrees to prioritise the voices of the people who actually should speak.”



Anti-normativity & liveability: queer theory and practice


Michel’s talk is an attempt at “thinking queerness beyond every useless binary that makes life less liveable,” focusing on the sustainability of non-conformity and anti-normative activism. First, some definitions. A norm is something “constructed or considered as a standard.” In particular, we might be describing something like a statistical norm (i.e., a standard value within a set), or prescribing a norm to be followed as much as possible (i.e., quality standard for a product). Normativity, on the other hand, is the “psychological, social, and institutional pressure to conform to a standard.” In other words, ideas, societies, institutions, cultures etc. established systems of reinforcement to promote conformity to an arbitrary standard and punish deviancy. In this way, a majority is constituted, bot in statistical and representational terms.


Now, cisnormativity is the “assumption that all individuals are cisgender and that only cis is normal.” It is both a descriptive assumption (almost everyone is cis…) and a prescriptive one (…therefore everyone should be cis; who is not cis is therefore abnormal). Cisnormativity is closely tied with heteronormativity and the gender binary (the ideological and social system which understands gender as existing on a two-ended man-woman, masculine-feminine spectrum, with normality standing on the opposite ends of it), and it is a “system of cissexist and transphobic oppression.” In particular, the system reinforces compulsory cisness through: pathologisation – treating transness as a disorder or even a disease; erasure – the cancellation of realistic or positive representation of trans people in media, institutions etc., often replaced by caricatural and othering ones; the “trans enough” discourse – the conditional acceptance of some trans people, which sets the standard for trans people to follow in order to be recognised and validated as such, thereby excluding and further punishing those trans people who do not conform. Two examples of this discourse are the exclusion of non-binary people, which reinforces the gender binary, or the dysphoria-centred concept of transness, which reinforces pathologisation. Further, normativity is the basis of gatekeeping, “the activity of controlling who gets particular resources, power, or opportunities, and who does not.” An example of this is medical gatekeeping, the exclusion of certain trans people from gender-affirming healthcare and bodily autonomy for not being ‘trans enough’.


What is anti-normativity? Michel quotes N. Giffney on the concept of “queer”, the word expressing anti-normativity in the matters of gender and sex par excellance: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.”

Paradoxically enough, gatekeeping exists in lgbtqia+ spaces too, as queerness itself is normalised and standardised, more or less explicitly, in order to promote a normative idea of what anti-normativity should look like. As R. Wilchins states, “Using queer itself as a category of analysis seems to invite a new round of debate devoted to who is ‘really queer’. A voice that originated from one set of margins begins to create its own marginalized voices. These twin problems of identities – boundaries and hierarchies – emerge whenever we try to base politics on identity.”


These discourses can seed self-doubt into queer people and queer activists in particular: “how much of what I am is influenced by culture?”, “Am I, and is my activism ay less radical if I do something considered ‘not anti-normative enough’ even if it makes my life and other people’s lives better?”


In the words of Judith Butler, “The task of all of these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself. […] What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable only for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some. […] The critique of gender norms must be situated within the context of lives as they are lived and must be guided by the question of what maximizes the possibilities for a livable life, what minimizes the possibility of unbearable life or, indeed, social or literal death” (Undoing Gender).


As activism cannot be divided from both individual and community feelings and needs (the connection between emotions and politics has always been recognised by philosophy), the question of the emotional effects of standards of anti-normativity. Moreover, anti-normativity standards carry with them a great load of privilege. Michel’s proposal is that “we should give to queer anti-normativity the shape of liveability.” Antinormativity is to be seen as an approach, a method to take care of the needs of our community and loved ones, and eliminate what makes our lives difficult, dismantle violence – unworldling. This implies discarding all the dichotomies that compel us to choose between one or the other – ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘theory’ and ‘activism’, ‘anti-normativity’ and ‘liveability’, and understanding how the anti-normative value of every practice is contextual and dependent on those needs and desires of the queer people who are concerned.


Notes

[1] Among Dorian’s works published on Trans_Muted, we would like to remember the apt Where are All the Cis Patients in Gender Identity Clinics?, and their longest essay, A Transgender Analysis of Mario Mieli's Towards a Gay Communism.

[2] Jay is currently publishing on Trans_Muted a series of polemical articles by the title of Are TERFs Fascist? (Part 1: TERFs Fascism and Queerphobia; Part 2: Conspiracy and Patriarchy).

[3] We could ask: how do cis allies get uncomfortable? Why? What does it mean? What value does cis discomfort have?

[4] See the authors Leslie Feinberg and Shon Faye.

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