Our Bodies and Lives: Transsexual Knowledge and Resistance

Cissexuals often opine about what they believe is the reason why transsexuals seek trans-related health care, such as hormones and surgery. This includes speculating about what are the social, political and/or cultural ramifications of our accessing this care. Too often our bodies and lives are seen as a threat to preconceived, cissexual assumptions about the world. As such, cissexism predominates these presumptions about us, and is backed up by a pervasive transphobic system of discrimination, exclusion and violence that oppresses us as a group of people.

In a way, our transsexuals bodies and lives are like contested "colonies." I'm not saying transsexuals bodies and lives are actual colonies – because they're not – but the domination and exploitation of our bodies and lives follows the logic of colonization. That is, external forces are vying for the full or partial political control over our bodies and lives. These "colonizers" include academics, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, feminists, queer theorists, theologians, politicians, pundits and even our own lovers, families and friends, and complete strangers who are constantly applying abstract theory onto our bodies and lives. In effect, these "colonizers" dominate and exploit us, the indigenous group, by seizing our bodies and lives to further theories and political agendas that don't actually account for our lived reality, and yet further our oppression as a group. (Read more...)

Cissexuals often opine about what they believe is the reason why transsexuals seek trans-related health care, such as hormones and surgery. This includes speculating about what are the social, political and/or cultural ramifications of our accessing this care. Too often our bodies and lives are seen as a threat to preconceived, cissexual assumptions about the world. As such, cissexism predominates these presumptions about us, and is backed up by a pervasive transphobic system of discrimination, exclusion and violence that oppresses us as a group of people.

In a way, our transsexuals bodies and lives are like contested "colonies." I'm not saying transsexuals bodies and lives are actual colonies – because they're not – but the domination and exploitation of our bodies and lives follows the logic of colonization. That is, external forces are vying for the full or partial political control over our bodies and lives. These "colonizers" include academics, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, feminists, queer theorists, theologians, politicians, pundits and even our own lovers, families and friends, and complete strangers who are constantly applying abstract theory onto our bodies and lives. In effect, these "colonizers" dominate and exploit us, the indigenous group, by seizing our bodies and lives to further theories and political agendas that don't actually account for our lived reality, and yet further our oppression as a group.

The on-going issue of vegetarian-ecofeminists perpetuating cissexism and transphobia is an example of this process of domination and exploitation. Recently I've encountered two troubling cases in which vegetarian-ecofeminists pontificate on what they believe are the reasons why transsexuals, specifically transsexual men, seek trans-related health care. Both inevitably disparage the lives and health needs of transsexual men by claiming that female-to-male transsexuals are self-hating women who mutilate their bodies in a misguided attempt to escape violence against women and patriarchal domination.

While couching their anti-transsexual discourse in paternalistic concerns for "young women" "mutilating" their bodies in order to conform their lives to a gender construction, what needs to be understood is that these vegetarian-ecofeminists (as well as other "feminists" and some queer theorists) are in fact exploiting those of us who are transsexual as pawns in their abstract, academic theories about who is or who isn't a woman or a man, and who is or isn't subverting the gender binary and/or smashing the patriarchy. However, this discourse is radically divorced from our lived reality.

Our lived, everyday reality concern things like being able to access health care and public restrooms, being allowed to make a living, being safe on the street, securing housing, and the like. However, our bodies and lives are merely resources for these vegetarian-ecofeminists to further their own political power. The minutia of our day-to-day experience and our presence in our own skin is not of any serious concern to them.

Questioning Cissexual Politics

Yet, we can question the cissexual constructs that dominate and exploit our lives by affirming our oppositional knowledge. In Fighting Words, Patricia Hill Collins explains the importance of oppositional knowledge in resisting oppression:

Given the significance of elite discourses in maintaining power relations, knowledge produced by, for, and/or in behalf of African-American women becomes vitally important in resiting oppression. Such oppositional knowledge typically aims to foster Black women's opposition to oppression and their search for justice. Since oppression applies to group relationships under unjust power relations, justice, as a construct, requires group-based or structural change. For Black women as a collectivity, emancipation, liberation, or empowerment as a group rests on two interrelated goals. One is the goal of self-definition, or the power to name one's own reality. Self-determination, or aiming for the power to decide one's own destiny, is the second fundamental goal. Ideally, oppositional knowledge developed by, for, and/or in defense of African-American women should foster the group's self-definition and self-determination.

These words speak true for transsexuals, just as they do for Black women – indeed, some Black women are transsexuals. In terms of resisting cissexism and stopping transphobia, it's important that transsexuals produce our own group's self-definition and self-determination, contrary to the elitist discourses of so-called "feminists" who perpetuate our oppression. What is essential is that we recognize cissexual assumptions about our bodies and lives as demonstrations of cissexual privilege backed up by an inequity of power.

Power is the ability to exercise control. It is having access to systems and resources as legitimated by individuals and societal institutions. Certainly, cissexual, anti-transsexual vegetarian-ecofeminists are exercising control over our bodies and lives when they purport to know – that is, define – the reason why transsexuals get sex changes. Given their socially privileged position, they can declaim transsexuals all they want without ever having to consider our everyday lived experience. Of course cissexism supports a system that invests them and other cissexuals with legitimacy as individuals and in societal institutions, while also denying us our self-determination.

If I were to write an essay on "Questioning Cissexual Politics," then I'd be writing from the marginalized position. That is, while the experience of transsexuals is a hot topic of political discussions and academic debates, the political status of cissexuals is taken for granted and goes unquestioned. Cissexual bodies and lives are the norm and standard by which transsexual bodies and lives are defined and determined.

However, questioning cissexual politics is exactly what is needed right now. This is similar to how anti-racists interrogate and challenge the politics of Whiteness. Works that question cissexual politics help move transsexuals from margin to center by confronting the power and privilege supported by cissexism and transphobic domination.

A textbook example of cissexual appropriation

I happen to have recently been looking at a classic example of cissexual appropriation of transsexual struggles. In short, a blogger appropriated an issue of trans oppression to talk about a completely separate issue without ever challenging the underlying transphobia. She actively perpetuated transphobia through both her words and her silence.

The post, Men in Women's Bathrooms, Is Your State Next? starts with an attack email from Focus on the Family that falsely states that a nondiscrimination bill would allow men to use women's rooms. (Typically not a crime anyway, just to be clear; it's the people in bathrooms who like to do the policing.)

But rather than respond to the falsehoods she quoted by stating 1) the bill does no such thing 2) trans women are not men and 3) trans women are not sexual predators, the blogger let these assumptions pass without comment. Is it any wonder then, that all three notions show up as fact in the comments?

Furthermore, she actively perpetuated the falsehoods herself by stating, "Trans communities fight for the right to use the appropriate ones, conservative groups scream about young girls safety and male predators in them." She presents these two equally valid concerns as somehow being in opposition--exactly the false proposition that the Right wants us to think.

But neither cis nor trans women want male predators in the women's room. That common ground is missed when cissexual women buy into the framework set up by conservative hate groups, when we think people "out there" are the problem.

The post poses a question for discussion: "Why is it that people feel a picture of a stick figure in a dress on a door keeps them safe?" But one cannot bring up the issue of bathroom safety without addressing the violence that cissexual women perpetuate against trans and gender nonconforming women in women's rooms. I don't stand outside of women's rooms while Ida pees because I'm concerned that "conservative groups" or "male predators" are going to harm her--it's the cissexual women in the bathroom that we both fear. The ones who think they are keeping their space "safe."

The post's other question for discussion is "What does that say about our larger beliefs about gender?" Which is the big-time appropriation question because two sentences earlier she described bathrooms as "a space which by nature is unpoliced, unregulated and fundamentally just an unlocked door with a sign on it." How can we begin to have a reality-based conversation about gender if we don't start from the fact that sex-segregated bathrooms are one of the most policed, regulated, might-as-well-be-locked spaces?

After the comment train wreck was well in progress, the OP commented, "I'm realizing that I made a mistake here with this post."

"You are right--I took what is an issue about trans rights (the protective legislation that FotF is so freaked out about [note the still not correcting the FotF falsehood about the legislation]) and led it into a conversation about bathroom space in general and why people are so afraid to question the gender segregation of those spaces. While the conversations are linked, I can see why it would be upsetting for some to use that flow for a post."

Because it's just about the "flow for a post" not about the issue of people actually using those bathrooms in the real world. If she wants to challenge her readers to consider unisex bathrooms, she could start by challenging them about why they stare at and challenge masculine women and visibly trans women in women's rooms. Then we might see and explore the actual issue--fear of men--and leave the gender variant folks in peace.

"I'll try and think of other ways to bring up these conversations about gender and gendered space without using trans experience as a lead in." Because if one doesn't bring up trans issues, then one doesn't have to confront cissexual privilege. (Yes, the female-assigned blogger IDs as genderqueer, which illustrates that gender nonconformity does not make one an automatic ally to transsexual people.)