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The trouble with transgender politics

The trouble with transgender politics

By Tamara K. Nopper

August 15, 2008

I have become increasingly interested in and troubled by transgender politics. I first learned what the term transgender meant when, almost a decade ago, I worked with a person who self-identified as trans. She no longer (or perhaps never did) identified with the physical body in which she inhabited. Eventually, she asked us to begin identifying her with male pronouns, altered her name slightly to drop a letter at the end that identified the name as female, and engaged in a series of behaviors that were, to put it mildly, masculine (and at times downright dudish), which, presumably, was to remind us that she was now a transgender man.

I was not yet familiar with the term transgender, something that my co-worker assumed I should have been since I was, at the time, enrolled in a Ph.D. program. According to my co-worker, I should have “known better.” While revealing his bourgeois belief that political enlightenment is actually encouraged in the U.S. academy, I was more intrigued with his assumption that I should politically care about his need to be accepted as another gender than what he had been assigned. I had never really thought of having another gender as a political option. I had only considered how men and women were exotified and disciplined, in a variety of ways, for not having bodies that were deemed appropriate. And given that my own Asian body, what many label as “thick,” was often treated as an illicit spectacle by a multiracial group of observers, I was already aware that a fixation on bodies is very much shaped by racial ideologies about what is viewed as appropriate physiology for one’s race. And I also knew that no one had an appropriate body unless the body was white.

Over the years I learned more about how transgender politics is an effort to challenge what people label the gender binary. This binary assumes that there exist only two genders, male and female. Sociologists often refer to sex as the biological distinctions between men and women and gender as the “socially constructed” division between the sexes. More nuanced work, such as that by Anne Fausto-Sterling, has addressed this false dichotomization between sex and gender. Fausto-Sterling points out that sex is also a socially defined category and that medical institutions play a major role in labeling physiology as either male or female, even when individuals may have sexual organs that are medically ambiguous or hermaphroditic. This labeling of physiology, regardless of non-ambiguity, is of course social and political in that sex assignment serves as a road map for how a person should be perceived by society, who the person should desire (within compulsory heterosexuality), and how the person perceives and presents oneself along norms considered appropriate for men or women.

This gender binary is part and parcel of modernist discourse. Drawing from and fortifying the history of eugenics and U.S. empire, this discourse assumes that nations and racial groups associated with them are on a continuum from primate to most civilized, i.e., modernized within a western, capitalist paradigm. As pointed out by both E. Frances White in her book Dark Continent of our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability and Louise Newman in her book White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, it is assumed that the stricter the gender roles between men and women, the more modern a society. The gender-role continuum is raced in that it was (and still is) assumed that white Americans and Europeans were the most developed in terms of national origins, physiologies, and gender divisions and roles. Thus, different racial and national groups (particularly Africans, Asians, and Native Americans) were depicted as having social and familial norms that were not appropriately hetero-normative.

This heterosexist conclusion was informed by medical diagnoses that determined that non-white people, particularly Blacks, had either excessive or diminutive physiologies. For example, as Siobhan B. Somerville describes in Queering the Colorline: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, the assumption of excessive genitalia among African Americans, particularly Black women, was of particular fixation among the medical and eugenicist communities and also contributed to the homophobic and white supremacist idea that homosexuality was determined by and indicative of racial/bodily deviance. Physiologies associated with deviation from the white “normal” body, were also associated with “deviant” gender and sexual identities, sexual desires, and inappropriate partner choices (from animals to other races to the same sex). In other words, a fixation on bodies, particularly genitalia, is part of a white supremacist agenda.

Unfortunately, many of the people I have met who promote transgender politics appear to miss this point. While sometimes drawing attention to the experiences of trans people of color, the transgender individuals I know or have met nevertheless tend to operate with a strict division between gender and race as two different types of categories. Many will accept the notion that race is a “social construction” but then claim that there is a true gender (or alternative gender not aligned with their assignments) existing within them that needs to be able to express itself publicly. While this expression generally, and perhaps ironically, relies on stereotypical performances of masculinity and femininity to be coherent, I am more interested in exploring the belief that non-transgender people should provide political space to trans individuals.

When I have asked friends why we should politically care about transgender politics, I am often told that we should support people’s ability to transition or express oneself as trans–and have political and legal protection for these transitions/expressions as well as financial resources to facilitate medical processes if need be–because this is who the person “really is.” I interpret this defense of trans politics as suggesting that gender (even if not the gender one was assigned) is “real,” and race is a “construction.” As such, transgender people are supposed to get our progressive support for being able to express who they “really are” and to have their bodies and bodily expressions align with the “true” (gendered) person existing inside.

This assumption has been widely accepted, although not debated, among progressives, particularly women (and by women, I am including white women). Indeed, it is not uncommon to have transgender people, particularly transgender men (people who identify as men) getting resources, podiums, and awards from what were previously women only and/or people of color only spaces. While political debate among women only and/or people of color only spaces is much needed, it is noteworthy that transgender men tend to confront women (and particularly women of color, who are at the bottom of the woman hierarchy) and (often queer) men of color for these resources more than they do white non-trans/straight men much in the same way that white anti-racists tend to confront people of color more than they do whites. What is also noteworthy is that progressive people of color who are not trans tend to shy away from real serious debate about transgender politics. While some of this is certainly due to the fact that some simply don’t want to deal with gender and sexuality issues beyond their own comfort, I suspect that some simply are quick to share resources out of fear of being labeled transphobic rather than out of some developed political commitment to the issue.

While transphobia certainly exists in both subtle and overt ways, this lack of debate has contributed to an assumption that the political elements that are at the heart of transphobia do not affect men and women of color who are not trans-identified and who may even be transphobic. It seems that some transgender proponents assume that it is only the trans body that is under scrutiny or fails to live up to appropriate (read white) norms of gender and sexuality. It is true that there is a particular fixation to determine the genitalia of people whose gender expression is not easily “readable” and that such a fixation is bound to a desire to sexually interrogate and physically and socially discipline the trans body. Yet this fixation with genitalia and with the sexual “nature” of the body and the violence associated with such preoccupations are not limited to trans bodies. They affect anyone whose body is not white, regardless of the person’s gender, sexuality, or politics regarding either. While many of us, as women of color who identify as women, will be identified by the state and individuals as women, we need to confront the fact that the non-white body is never fully free from serving as gendered and sexualized spectacle. That is, all of our bodies are subject to scrutiny, exotification, appraisal, intrusion, and violence. The same goes for men of color who identify as men, regardless of how much they want to ignore how vulnerable they are to gendered and sexualized violence perpetrated by men and women. In other words, simply being non-white in the world means that our bodies are subject to a violent white gaze (which non-whites may adopt) that determines how our bodies are ranked, interacted with, taken in, or punished.

The possibility of transgender politics, then, is not simply to reaffirm the “real” gender existing within the body. Such a reaffirmation neglects the reality that all non-white bodies, to varying degrees, are struggling to define what makes our bodies and our internal sense of self “real” in a world in which whiteness serves as the ultimate standard for gender and sexual normalcy and blackness as deviance. This struggle often leads to a variety of problematic behaviors among non-whites, including attempts to secure physical whiteness (and move away from being associated with physical blackness) through bodily alteration, appeals to patriarchy, masculinity, and homophobia in an effort to “reform” or “rehabilitate” bodies from being perceived as deviant, or, in the case of some trans people, the use of tropes of blackness to show they are “fucking with gender” (and in turn, reaffirming the idea of blackness as deviance). Rather the possibility of transgender politics lies in its potential critique of bodily fixation, gender divisions, heterosexuality, and modernist aspirations that informs our lived experiences with and activist challenges to white supremacy and anti-blackness. Such an approach would serve a less solipsistic agenda and rather work to push vital and urgent conversations about racialized gender and sexual violence that happens to, and between non-whites, trans and non-trans.

© Copyright Tamara K. Nopper 2008

  1. Sayeed Mulagata
    October 27, 2008 at 8:21 pm | #1

    Although I often disagree with you, I usually love reading your writing. This essay was way too dense, littered with academic jargon and you avoid the obvious question “Did Non Western Societies gender individuals? ” How did they or didn’t they? and what Lessons can this teach us today?

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