Warning: language and political stuff
ContraPoints is my personal YouTube superhero. Hands down, favorite social commentator on that platform. ContraPoints is also one of those rare public figures who I find routinely thought-provoking, in her videos as well as in her debates, wherein she actually engages with the ideas of the other side. I mean, as a transwoman myself she’s easy for me to root for- and I absolutely cop to that emotional bias -but for a long time trans issues have been used as bonding shorthand and a rallying point for conservatives, sometimes even among purblind centrists on the left.
Sam Harris, whose embrace of conservativism helped inspire me to start blogging, made his comfort with the right even more clear on a recent Joe Rogan appearance where he brought up trans awareness as an imminent threat to free speech. Laura Ingraham from Fox News recently had a discussion on her independent show about how trans people are going to abolish humanity and usher in a transhumanist cyborg revolution. Jordan Peterson has echoed nearly identical concerns, about trans people championing an ideology that runs against primal human nature and is designed to replace it. Between, let’s say, 2014 and 2016, YouTube was absolutely packed with “cringe compilations” of videos from the channels of non-binary people. Oh yeah, and Donald fucking Trump attempting to legally shut down the mention of transgenderism and transsexuality in medical literature last October and banning us from the military.
Transphobia is absolutely normalized and gender critical TERFS are only another way of normalizing and legitimizing it. (For those who don’t know: TERF is an acronym for trans exclusionary radical feminist) Gender critical TERFS are especially pernicious because they actually do a careful job of consolidating a lot of older transphobic beliefs and attitudes and rebranding them in ways that are approachable for lay-feminists. A lot of trans people could probably rattle off endless examples of this since, throughout our lives, they’ve been absolutely impossible to overlook, but most of the cisgendered laity are probably familiar with them as well.
For example, when Chaz Bono came out publicly, my mom said “I could see how a man might think ‘you don’t just get to have an operation and name change and become a man’ “. When a high profile person comes out as trans, this is kind of a common reaction. The generalized belief that trans identities were fake was made clear to me in early childhood, when one of my aunts came out as a transwoman. Everyone referred to her by her deadname and the wrong pronouns, or sometimes invent a demeaning portmanteau of the deadname and real name. During my upbringing in a small town in rural Alaska, if anyone was in any way not straight or cis, they would probably be referred to as “he, she, it”. Exactly like that, typically. Whoever was talking about them would finish whatever thought they had about this person and during the last time they used a pronoun they would say “he, she, it”. In other words, trans people are either fake (msigendering and deadnaming) or not human (“it”).
In the last few years there have been many genuine gains for transpeople and our visibility has improved, but rather like women and queers in general, contempt for us is so culturally ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to get away from. What’s more is that the west generally nurtures a crab-bucket or zero-sum game mentality, where any gains for yourself must necessarily entail disenfranchising someone else. Gender critical TERFS exploit the zero-sum game perspective by pairing female empowerment with the dehumanization of trans people.
The zero-sum game phenomenon has a lot to do with how transphobia is normalized: hostility toward queers is common enough on the right, but the right-leaning hipsters that adopt the language of libertarianism and the lazier left-leaning centrists frequently come together over hostility toward transpeople. In a zero-sum game, it makes sense to be primed to fight everyone, since your gain must necessarily hurt someone else, and having an agreed-upon common enemy can alleviate some tension by letting people come together while also satisfying the need for a sacrificial lamb.
A common enemy for everyone can even be an open door for other oppressed groups: by slamming trans people, gender critical TERFS attempt to create parity with males within the patriarchy. Whether this is intended by any single group of TERFS, it functions like that, since so many lay people on both the left and the right are prepared to attack trans people. Circumstantial evidence is never wholly conclusive, but if the pattern holds true often enough it becomes impossible to ignore. If the pattern keeps holding true and the involved parties deny it up and down, it starts to look like barefaced dishonesty.
ContraPoints brought this up herself in her recent video and it made me giddy with vindication. Near the end, she summarizes how many common TERF attacks on transpeople end up supporting the patriarchy more than attacking it. A common TERF opinion is that gender confirmation surgery validates the patriarchy by reducing manhood and womanhood to anatomical forms: therefore, for a transwomen (because, of course, they never address transmen), femininity is a weakness because it betrays submission to the patriarchy and masculinity is a weakness because it attests to the fact that they are not truly female. Any and all gender expression by a transwoman is a chink in their armor. One of them reveals the artifice of misogyny and the other reveals their essential maleness. What this boils down to is that TERFS allow the ciswomen in their ranks to use body shaming and attacks for gender non-conformity against transwomen, which steps right in line with common patriarchal attacks on women and queers. Essentially, TERFS are weaponizing the patriarchy while simultaneously claiming to be fighting against it.
I think I’ve made this clear already, but along with my vindication over well-constructed attacks on social evils that need to be attacked, parts of this video had a very personal resonance with me. One thing that most transpeople have been asked is that “you say you feel like a (man or woman), but what does a (man or woman) feel like?”
Contra rebutted this as handily as every other fallacy the video addressed, but it occurred to me that there was an even simpler answer than the one she gave: I don’t know and neither do you. Selfhood is a messy confluence of pre-existing psychological influences. At its most substantial, it is a consistency of patterns, but there is no single defining aspect. It reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook back in like 2011 when a bunch of states were beginning to recognize same sex marriages. The meme compared the United States to a bunch of other countries that have long since embraced marriage equality, or have legalized “gay marriage”. The caption of the meme said “or, as everyone else calls it, marriage.” The point was that gay people don’t get gay married any more than they gay park their gay cars or gay apply for gay jobs or take their gay dogs for gay walks.
This standard also applies to a lot of firmly felt identities. The layers of your identity are absolutely real but there is no single quality in your subjective experience that makes them what they are. To bring things back to the question posed by snide cispeople, “what does (male or female) feel like”, just try to answer that question for yourself. Men do not man park their man cars and women do not woman apply for woman jobs. Nor do men and women in general feel obligated to narrow down a single defining quality of their experience that makes them men or women.
So if there is no single defining characteristic, why transition? Good question. I’m a transperson and I don’t know why I was born anatomically male with female-oriented body dysphoria. I seriously don’t know why that exists in my brain. Bottom line, though, is that it does. Do breasts, a uterus and a vagina constitute the essence of womanhood? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean that women who survive breast cancer with mastectomies or that men with mutilated or genetically disabled penises and testicles do not experience anguish over what happened to them.
Men or women who have experienced trauma to their secondary sex characteristics often require corrective surgery and psychiatric care, and no one ever attacks them for reducing manhood or womanhood to body shapes. Or if they do, they’re in the minority. We could talk about social constructs and psychology until the cows come home, but the bottom line is that we all have some feeling of what our body is supposed to be, so much so that involuntary deviation from it, like dysphoria in a pre-transition transperson or the consequences of physical trauma, is psychologically damaging.
Everyone has these feelings but the thing that distinguishes them within transpeople is that their feeling of wholeness and connectedness with their own bodies matches up with the bodies of the opposite of their genetic sex. And this is not about some metaphysical division between mind and body- my experience, at least, has taught me that one relies on the other. I have always known I am female, but I have never known why. And, like many transpeople, I didn’t have the chance to openly and safely talk about my cross-gender feelings until adulthood, which means I had a nice couple of decades of living as a male and doing my best to function as a male. One of the oddest and most memorable experience of my pre-transition life were my friendships with hyper-sexual straight cismen. Quite simply, they did not relate to me like they did to other males. In public, my straight male friends would not often be seen around me. If I approached them in public, they would be polite but aloof. In private, though, I became a confidant.
Men often talk about their relationships with women between themselves, but among the straight men that I bonded with pre-transition, it became an almost urgent part of our friendships. I think this was because many of them were serial womanizers. What I mean by that is that they would try to have sex with as many women as possible, which entails trying to distance themselves from the woman they slept with last to make room for a new one. They often made it clear that they believed women were fundamentally unethical and untrustworthy and even seemed to hate women, but at the same time could not stop attempting to have sex with them. I was not, and never would be, “one of the guys”, but I was a sought-after listener for a tension that was guided by their socialization as men who must exploit women. I knew it and the straight men who bonded with me knew it as well, but the frank reason for it was rarely breeched. Now and then, when alcohol had relaxed some boundaries, they would ask me if I was gay, and I would honestly tell them that I was bisexual, but the investigation never went further than that.
Like I said, they knew it and I knew it. I had always known it. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I would fiercely resist any attempt by my parents, schools or peer groups to conform to traditional male gender signifiers, no matter how benign. Not only was it simply “not my thing”, but it was repulsive and I couldn’t bear it anywhere on my person. Children can remain androgynous for awhile and I think the psychological violence of my repulsion afforded me a certain amount of strength at times that I could not have had with a clear head. For example, in elementary school, I always took the girls’ pass to the bathroom. I would take it to the boys bathroom, but I would never, ever touch the boys’ bathroom pass. I only actually used the girls’ bathroom a few times, though, out of fear of what might happen if I pushed my luck any more then I already was.
Often, when I tell this story, people tell me I was brave for a little kid, but I really wasn’t- I was just viscerally upset by anything that signified that I was male. Most of my friends were girls my age and I would have epic meltdowns when my mother forced me to have typically male hair cuts. The older I got, the more I realized that the expectation that I “be a guy” was not going to go away. I also realized that, as I grew older, any deviation from my assigned gender role would require an explanation, explanations that I simply did not have. Like I’ve said ad nauseum, I do not know why, any more than any cis person knows why they are cis. This unsolvable problem was exacerbated by a predictable load of internalized transphobia and homophobia- when I was thirteen and experienced my first really strong attraction to a boy my age, I felt like I would rather die than act on those feelings- I would rather be dead then be anything so disgusting as what I truly was. Since I had seen others show nothing but contempt and hatred for anyone who was queer, I don’t think I could have felt any other way. So I began to realize that I had absolutely no options. My teenage years were ruined by gruesome nightmares and compulsive thoughts about genital mutilation.
In early adulthood, life sucked as hard as it ever had, but an extra dimension was added that was shockingly uncanny: I was commonly read and treated as a man. It was wrong and intolerable, but it was true, and it was psychedelic at times. I knew that I was aping the role I was assigned, simply because I didn’t think I could do anything else. And like I said about my friendships with serial womanizers, the men that I became friends with seemed to be aware of the fact that I wasn’t a man and even valued me for that reason, as a friend who, perhaps, was not as threatening as their own gender.
Then, after years of substance abuse and mental illness, I began to seriously consider what would enable me to live a happy and functional life, and I realized that the answer was nothing new.
*SIGH* Dang. Big personal digression is big. All that because ContraPoints briefly dealt with the TERFy essentialist “what does female/male feel like” question. The answer is that I don’t know, and neither do you. I don’t know why I’m trans any more than a cis person knows why they are cis or a straight person knows why they are straight or a gay person knows why they are gay. And, as Contra stated, the demand for a reason is always used selectively by people who feel like they are in a unique position to give or withhold the legitimacy of another’s identity. This kind of cultural gatekeeping is one of the main subjects of Susan Stryker’s amazing essay My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage. The essay relates Stryker’s experience as a transsexual to the creature in the novel Frankenstein, who, like a transsexual, is questioned by someone who claims to be able to give or withhold validation, who requires a justification for their existence.
I know that, to many modern readers, Stryker’s desire to appropriate the label of “monster” from transphobes and use it as a source of power may seem problematic. I find it comforting, especially since so many accuse us of not being human or of being threats to humanity. A huge step toward exorcising pain and misery is embracing it, of embracing the fact that it is your pain and your misery, and it is right for you to take possession of it. It’s also why I think one Anna Varney-Cantodea is worth a thousand RuPauls, since both Anna Varney-Cantodea and Susan Stryker frame the ownership of transgender anguish as a source of nourishing power.