Trans Rights & America’s Modern Left

I first began to legally and medically transition a little over a year before Trump was elected President. While my entire social group knew I was trans before that point and I had spoken to individual family members about it, I then had to make sure every person I cared about was on the same page. The reason why most LGBTQ people come out is because we get tired of living with the pain, humiliation and alienation of double lives and secrecy and want to live more complete lives with our whole world- not just a part of it.

When faced with the need to reach out to family members I had not yet spoken to and to come out at my work in order to plan appropriately, I began to feel the enormity of both the release of being out as well as the attendant risks. As someone with a public-facing job, there was simply no way around broaching the subject at work. There are many important things about us that are not visible on the surface- our values, psychological states, religiosity, spirituality, political commitments, etc. -so many things that can be sorted into a segregated private life that need not have any bearing on a public life. Transitioning from one gender to another cannot be one of them- at least not while you are transitioning.

I felt a very powerful sense of achieving real participation and control with my world. Perhaps for the first time ever, I began to grapple with the possibility that the world I live in has a place for me as well as everyone else. For an adult who never viscerally encountered this, the experience is dizzying and surreal. While the feeling of emancipation is nearly dream-like in its’ unprecedented power, the darker possibilities are equally powerful.

I had dealt with harassment on a more indirect and secretive scale before: once, while at a bar I frequented on weekends, I went to the bathroom and made no secret of it. This was a place where many people knew me as my authentic self and I felt no need to avoid using the women’s bathroom. Later, after a full night of drinks, I predictably had to use the ladies’ room again, only that time there was semen all over the toilet seat and the walls. A group of men cackled at me on my way out. At that point in my life I was no stranger to men behaving badly but this was the first time where something uncalled-for was known about and laughed at by a large number of people.

If this is what harassment can look like when a transwomen is still closeted, I began to seriously dread what might lay in store for me after openly transitioning. As I child, I heard stories about friends’ of friends’ who committed suicide and were found dressed in women’s clothing, which for my childhood left me too terrified to ever think about coming out in my hometown. It was a terror I had to overcome in order to come out, but I was now faced with fears that were all the more daunting for their shapelessness.

I had serious moral objections to Hilary Clinton as a Presidential candidate in 2016- Sanders, Stein and Johnson all reflected my values better -but I voted for her on the strength of one thing: her verbal commitment to trans rights. Clearly, I was a one issue voter, but this one issue carried all of my peace of mind with it. Hilary Clinton was one of two potential Presidents and her shot at the oval office alone was enough for me to take her dedication to trans rights seriously. An American President who was unambiguously committed to trans rights was simply too urgent of an issue for me not to vote on. Even Obama, during his first run for President, said that his view on LGBTQ rights was “evolving”- more frank support at that time may have cost him his Presidency. On the historical scale, American LGBTQ equality is new enough to be fragile and is absolutely not to be taken for granted- not then and not now.

At present, these stakes are no lower, but my view of American politics is less clouded by haunting and personal panic. For now it is, anyway. It’s not like there isn’t anything to panic about. We still do not know where the consequences of Trump’s assassination of Soleimani will lead in the end and nuclear war is a clear possibility. We may be mere decades (or years) from global catastrophe due to climate change. And right now the world is in the grip of a global pandemic. The industrial military complex and the fossil fuel industries now constitute existential dangers. Many Americans were already living the reality of our broken health care system and now COVID-19 has made it’s failings absolutely unavoidable.

The stakes right now are absolutely urgent and are complicated by the corruption, amorality and incompetence of the party that is faced with the task of running a candidate against Trump. Issues that I consider too important to ignore- such as the green new deal and avoiding nuclear war -were championed by candidates that the DNC acted together to thwart such as Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren seemed like a promising bet as well until her pivot on universal health care made manifest her willingness to be bought. If someone can’t stand up to big pharma, then they have zero potential to resist Wall Street, the fossil fuel industries and the military industrial complex.

Big money carries all of the weight on the mortally threatening sides of issues like climate change and global war and only Bernie Sanders made it clear that he was financially beholden only to ordinary people. I already mentioned in the last entry that, during the last debate before Super Tuesday, Sanders was the only candidate who said he would not defer to the prerogative of the DNC and the super delegates.

It’s been said that the Democratic Party worked harder to defeat Bernie Sanders than any Republican in recent memory. And it’s unavoidably true. Polling data predicted a clear victory for Sanders before Super Tuesday. When the rubber hit the road that night, there were several surprise endorsements and the attendant shifting of their respective bases. Pete Buttigieg, initially committed to sticking it out until the bitter end, received a private phone call from none other than Barack Obama telling him that, if he dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, then Sanders could be defeated.

Biden, who continues to run on his status as Vice President to Obama, was anointed as a one-man Sanders spoiler. Ever since the very earliest debates there has been a clear institutional preference for a non-threatening “electable” candidate who would be generic enough for widespread appeal. This approach has proven itself unreliable in the last two decades. Bill Clinton won in the early nineties by working across party lines and ever since then bipartisanship has been treated as a path to certain victory for Democrats. In 2016, Hilary Clinton was perceived as approachable to conservatives and independents and less polarizing than Sanders, and therefore a safe choice to run against Donald Trump.

If an institutionally anointed centrist loses against a candidate with the blessing of a social movement, it should not be that hard to do the math. After this latest Primary, though, it’s clear that the DNC still fails to do so. In addition to Biden’s indifference to most issues that I consider urgent, his presumed route to victory is based on a proven failure. If the lessons of the 2016 election aren’t enough, there is also a depressing resemblance to the 2004 race between John Kerry and George W. Bush. Or even the 2012 race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Incumbent Presidents have the built-in credibility of their first term and the validated passion of the base that elected them. In 2004 and 2012, institutionally-vetted “safe-bet” candidates failed to win against incumbent Presidents, and this is the strategy that the DNC is poised to implement now.

There is one issue, though, that Joe Biden appears to be firmly committed to that I find difficult to ignore. The Human Rights Campaign recently published an article on their website surveying Biden’s stances on LGBTQ issues. Not only does he express clear support for trans rights but the record of the Obama administration cannot be ignored. The State Department, during the Obama administration, made it significantly easier for trans people to change their names and gender signifiers on passports. In the HRC article, Biden is quoted as saying that he will do anything he can to make legal transition as easy and efficient as possible. He has even gone so far as to say that trans and non-binary people will be able to mark X for their gender on legal documents- no small thing, considering that support for non-binary individuals is frequently perceived as discrediting by the right and political independents.

Joe Biden also said that he would commit to not allowing trans people to be assigned to the prison for their birth sex. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was issued guidance during the Obama administration regarding the high risk of rape faced by incarcerated trans people. This was the Transgender Offender Manual, issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, and was rolled back during Trump’s first term in office. In addition to undoing the set-backs implemented by Trump, Biden says that he would even commit to making medically necessary transition-related care such as hormone replacement therapy available to prison inmates and the Justice Department will be tasked with enforcing national compliance with PREA standards. The White House under Joe Biden would also update the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports Supplementary Homicide Reports to record sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to bring more scrutiny to bear on anti-LGBTQ violence.

Considering the threat of violence and harassment many trans people live under, these promises deserve to be taken seriously. At the same time, progressives on the left have begun to perceive left-leaning social issues as distractions or consolation prizes to be offered in the absence of economic, environmental, medical or military policies. When Elizabeth Warren began to lose her clout as a progressive after welching on Medicare for all, she accused Bernie Sanders of being a secret sexist, contrary to his entire political record. This was (correctly, in my opinion) dismissed as an attempt to distract voters from her policy concessions. Warren also began to take up the cause of transwomen placed in men’s prisons shortly before gambling away her credibility.

This had the unfortunate consequence of giving progressives the impression that trans issues and women’s issues are lip-service that neo-liberals use to disguise their willingness to be bought on matters of climate change, foreign policy and economics. Using leftist social issues as a way to pacify the progressive movement that the Democratic establishment attempted to dismiss could have disastrous long-term consequences for the party. As monstrous as the ideas and policies of Trump and his movement are, Trump still knows enough not to alienate his base. The Democratic Party may have scattered its base to the four winds on Super Tuesday while telling them to suck it up and vote blue in the end.

Is it possible to use trans rights or feminism cynically as misdirection or a persuasive bit of lip-service? Absolutely. And I’m certain that Biden is hoping that his commitments to social issues will make up some of his lost ground with progressives. What’s more is that Biden had a pattern of supporting rigid and punitive drug laws in the eighties and remained an enthusiastic supporter of mass incarceration throughout the nineties. Joe Biden also collaborated with Strom Thurmond (yes, Strom fucking Thurmond) on a bill that expanded civil asset forfeiture in relation to drug crimes and, for those convicted, removed the possibility of parole at the federal level. I find this deeply disturbing, especially considering the unconstitutional nature of civil asset forfeiture- for those who don’t know, civil asset forfeiture is when the government seizes money or property because they suspect you are going to use it to commit a crime. The Biden-Thurmond bill expanded the use of civil asset forfeiture in relation to drug crimes.

This record cannot be ignored. But neither can the gains for LGBTQ individuals achieved under the Obama Administration and the extreme to which Trump has advanced anti-LGBTQ legislation. While I may have had a coming-out experience that was way less traumatic than what was endured by my queer elders, there are still vast numbers of American trans people who routinely face housing and employment discrimination and violence. I remain extremely doubtful of Biden’s ability to win against Trump and the pro-Trump social movement and there was never any reason to think that Biden would support a green new deal, anti-interventionism or Medicare for all. If his commitments to LGBTQ equality are to be believed, though, I’ll be happy to see him beat the odds. This is something I would very much like to be wrong about. If Biden was sincerely speaking his own truth in his forward to Sarah McBride’s book, when he stated that trans rights is the Civil Rights issue of our time, I think this deserves to be weighed seriously in balance with the rest of his record. I am disturbed by his lack of serious interest in a green new deal, easing us away from nuclear war or universal health care, but I cannot in good conscious ignore a candidate that may make serious gains for me and those like me.

This expressed support for trans people may drive me to vote blue again. Yet I cannot shake the possibility that this is part of an angle- recently, someone told me about a sales technique in which a customer is allowed to hold an item they want and then have it taken from their hands, or told to put it back. The idea is to give the mark a sense of ownership of the merchandise before they have paid for it, so that they will pay in order to keep the feeling of ownership. Values in an election can be used similarly: we will remove all of your values from our platform except for one- and that one may tempt you to pay with your vote. But with so much at stake that is not being addressed by such a candidate, I might wonder: am I giving my well-being and my dignity as a human being- and all those like me -the serious consideration it deserves, or am I fool?

https://www.hrc.org/resources/joe-biden-on-lgbtq-issues

Sooo the HRC article on Biden’s stance on LGBT issues has been taken down. Because that’s a good sign 😢

ContraPoints just did this awesome video on gender critical transphobia and I’m stoked about it

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.

 

The importance of non-binary language for those who are not

I have a lot of mixed feelings about bringing up this topic but since I brought it up in my very first post I feel like I should clarify what I meant.

Way back when I heard Jordan Peterson’s appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast and felt compelled to sound off publicly, I briefly mentioned my own relationship with non-binary language when I first began coming out.  The more personal and anecdotal stuff was secondary to my main points there, but upon re-reading it I don’t think I was very clear on what I meant.

Right away, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying everybody is non-binary.  A. that just isn’t true and B. it parallels a very fallacious line of thought about bisexuality.  In the past, when people have learned that I am bisexual, they’ve been a little incredulous.  A straight friend of mine from high school seemed to think that I’m interested exclusively in men and, for awhile, was surprised whenever he was reminded that I’m attracted to women as well.  One man, whom I was involved with for a long time, would sometimes say that, on the rare occasions he had sex with women, that they were essentially “the exception that proves the rule” (this person is gay.)  The point of these stories seemed to be that everyone has some degree of flexibility but there is an inevitable average that, for most intents and purposes, designates your orientation.

I don’t think this person knew about Alfred Kinsey, but his beliefs clearly mapped onto the concept of the Kinsey spectrum.  When Kinsey gathered his data for his two books on human sexuality, he surveyed innumerable people and reported that people who are exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual are rare, and that most people are “predominantly gay” or “predominantly straight”.  In essence, everyone is bisexual but everyone has an average that designates their sexual orientation more than the deviations from the average.  Back when my high school friend would be surprised by my attraction to women, he would sometimes express something similar.  I would say something like “you already know I’m bisexual” and he would say something like “yes but don’t you…desire men more than you desire women?”  The high school friend and the ex-partner seemed to be driving at the same thing: the term ‘bisexual’ is fundamentally not relevant.  Either you have a consistent average within more diverse possibilities, or you are simply refusing to “own up” to the fact that you are either gay or straight.

I don’t think people should be afraid of fluidity but I also think embracing fluidity can obfuscate other relevant averages.  On one hand, consider people who have been mostly straight except for one very deep and long lasting same sex attraction.  If that one relationship ends, such a person may simply continue being interested in the opposite sex.  The one break in the pattern does not, in and of itself, compel one to re-evaluate their identity.  Internalized homophobia could also come up in this context: if you think that gay people are foreign “others” who you think of as existing far from you, you might not mentally place yourself in that category.  On the other hand, there are people like me who simply do not have a consistent preference for the sex or gender of their partners.  For myself and other bisexuals, bisexuality itself is the average.

Forgive me if I’m taking a long time getting to the point, but I think this habit of mind bears mentioning.  With sexual orientation and gender, there are categories that are used the most and that people are the most familiar with, i.e. gay, straight, male and female.  The vast majority of people can relate to one of those four categories and their common acceptance can create doubt about people who do not relate to those four groups.  If it is commonly assumed that those four groups are universal and if someone has things in common with more than one of them, a lay person might think that some sort of male \ female straight \ gay identity must be there, even if it’s not obvious.  This has an unintentional consistency with “questioning” people who may feel alienated from commonly accepted groups but eventually come to identify with one of them.  This both alienates people who truly do not identify as gay or straight, male or female, and compels people to re-interpret their lives with previously unclear aspects of their identity re-defined as lucid.

Aaaaaannndd……at long last we’re now close to that “point” thing that seems to be all the rage these days.  In the Waking Up episode with Jordan Peterson, he expresses his anxiety with legal protection extending to non-binary individuals in particular.  In other situations, Peterson has described gender neutral pronouns like ze and hir as words that he “hates” and will never use.  From that point, I started getting anecdotal with my early twenties when I was struggling to come out and how Kate Bornstein’s explanation of being genderqueer was my first really accessible way of making sense of my feelings.

As I said at some length above, I do not want to say that everyone is non-binary in the same way that Alfred Kinsey encouraged people to think that everyone is bisexual, and that once you’ve nailed down your consistent average the wider flexibility ceases to matter.  As someone who used to identify as non-binary, I would never say anything that flippant.  But I’m not at all convinced that my lived experience is unique, or even very different from the average transgender person.

For me, the most basic and obvious reason for the usefulness of non-binary language is that the average transperson has internalized a script from the rest of society interrogating their existence.  Most transwomen, at some point in their lives, have heard something like “it takes more than a dress, heels and surgery to make a woman”.  Queer people in general are also likely to be asked why they are how they are.  I’ve heard some truly odd replies to this question when older transwomen have told me about other conversations that they’ve had.

In my own family, there’s a widely circulated story about a trans individual who said she wanted to be female because men open doors.  I don’t think I need to dwell on how absurd that is.  But if you have been told that you’re mentally ill and have had people demand an explanation from you over and over again, it definitely makes sense that you’d start to think that any answer would be better than no answer, that if you just say something, no matter how transparently false, it will take the heat off of you.  If someone badgers you to answer a question over and over again throughout your life, it makes sense that eventually you’d just want them to shut up and go away, and giving a random answer could be a learned way to do that.

Another surface level reason for why non-binary language is useful for trans people within the binary is their lived experience.  I have not had the childhood that a ciswoman or a cisman has had.  Cismen don’t have their peace of mind ruined by gender dysphoria and ciswoman have female anatomy.  As a bare bones concession to objective reality, I have a set of experiences as a transgender person that cispeople simply do not have and vice versa.  TERFs are infamous for pointing out the absence of wombs, vaginas, menstruation, etc.  Strictly speaking, these remarks are relevant, but not in the way that TERFs maintain that they are.  It doesn’t mean that transwomen are less female or that transmen are less male, but it does mean that there are experiences that trans people have that cispeople do not.

If that seems obvious to the point of being silly, let me break down some stuff about myself.  My body dysphoria compelled me to persistently seek out hormone replacement therapy and voice training.  The stress of my dysphoria compels me to make my body more female.  Regardless of what I believe about gender or consciously assert about myself, my bodily transition is definitely headed in a direction that fits within the binary.  I don’t know why that is and never have, so my dysphoria seems to have a subconscious origin.  According to the definitions, this makes me a transsexual woman, since the motivation comes from and relates to my sex.  A big part of my transition is making my body female, which in and of itself is an experience that both cismen and ciswomen do not have.  Although I’m female, only a minority of females need to transition.  It’s absolutely true that I don’t have a uterus and have never menstruated, but the same can be said of many women, and it fits with the larger phenomena of experiences unique to transpeople.  I don’t think owning this uniqueness causes anyone to lose, it certainly doesn’t invalidate anyone.  Only in a world where male and female are the only two gendered categories could that be invalidating.

An intuitive objection to this is that mainstream culture in general only accommodates the categories of male and female and to act like this does not have the power to isolate and harm people is naive.  I totally agree, but the consequences of social censure is not the same question as whether or not something is real.  A lot of us have had conversations with straight people who think that being queer is a “bad idea” because of all the ways that society punishes queerness.  This is also more or less what social conservatives mean when they say that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.

Asserting that someone disbelieves in something or will attempt to dissuade others from doing something is not evidence against it.  A statement of belief or disbelief is not objective evidence of anything.  So it’s absolutely true that society punishes people who do not conform to the binary, but that’s not the same question as whether or not non-binary experiences and language matter.  I think it even attests to the weakness of the binary that it alienates and oppresses people who identify within the binary, like transsexual women or men, who typically have to deal with a lifetime of reconciling their felt gender with a world that constantly demands an explanation or justification.

There is another objection to this that I really do have mixed feelings about, though; that trans people feeling alienated from the binary is a consequence of internalized transphobia.  That’s true and there’s nothing like the difference between a trans persons’ conscious assessment and beliefs and the persistence of body dysphoria to underscore how true it is.  Body dysphoria can compel someone to transition in the face of a lifetime of internalizing messages that they should not.  At the same time, though, I also believe that part of exorcising bad emotions is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel them.  If you have felt that being trans has caused society to make you feel unwelcome as either a man or a woman, then the next step could be to acknowledge that it’s okay not to be either.