Let’s save the self-serving crap about me coming back for the end of this post. I’d like to talk about pronouns, which is something on which I think we, as a community, have allowed our ongoing conversation to stagnate. It’s now accepted as trans 101 that you refer to a trans person (or any person, for that matter) with the pronoun(s) they request, and if you don’t know their pronouns, you ask, or avoid pronouns entirely. In the extremely rare cases where you are unaware of a person’s pronoun, unable to ask them, and are required to use pronouns–an example of this is if you are a journalist writing about a murder victim or otherwise unreachable person, and need to use pronouns for literary form or your work won’t be published–then you use the best information you have available to you on what pronoun that person most likelywould want, and use that. Obviously, the exception clause tends to lead to binarism, and that’s bad, but serves to counter outright biological essentialism, which I think it’s fair to say, would be worse. There needs to be a way to talk about trans people whose voices can’t be heard, or to show proper respect to trans people we have not yet spoken to, which minimizes our binarist and cissexist assumptions about individuals. However, those aren’t the only isms that we need to be aware of, and to realize this, we need to take a trip down history (or, more accurately, unsettling present) lane to critically examine the relationship between trans* women and binary/nonbinary trans politics. The reason I would like to force this conversation again is that we solve the binarism inherent in assuming a pronoun for people by simply calling people we don’t know the pronoun for “zie,” which I would like to argue is harmful to trans* women.
Historically speaking, trans women have been the faces of the transgender movement that get the most exposure, the most cultural visibility, and the least respect. Contrary to some of the earlier assumptions of the modern trans politics movement, the comparison between the oppression of trans men and the oppression of trans women isn’t simply “erasure vs. scorn,” because none of our increased visibility or exposure is positive or representative. Media depictions of trans women are either complete fantasy caricatures, or if an actual trans woman is being depicted, the woman is almost always very early in her transition, very collusive with the demands of their depictor (such as that she be shown donning makeup, and always in the most frilly of clothing), and completely limited to one-dimensional development. The list of complicated trans women in fiction is extremely short, and shorter still if we discount those whose complicatedness stems solely from her being trans. Dil, from The Crying Game, is the only example I can come up with, and even that depiction fails the litmus test of being truly positive (she’s still a “deceiver” trope, she’s still a sex worker, and she actually cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy for her man).
Unfortunately, this exposure has lead to an endless cycle where our society creates fictional trans women that are complete caricatures, and then nonfiction media finds real-life trans women that it can manipulate into validating those caricatures. Some of the notions that this tactic has been used to enforce include: SRS = woman, trans women < cis women, trans women’s greatest aspiration is to be cis, SRS = transition, all trans women are hyperfeminine, all trans women are heterosexual, and, the notion that I’m focusing on, that trans women are somewhere between men and “real” women, in an inescapable third gender category.
Inescapable third gender is one of the issues trans men have never had the same history with as their female counterparts, although it would be incorrect to say that it hasn’t affected both of us. This is because “male” is a default class–i.e. when we are presented with a character which does not fit into an obvious male or female body shape, we assume that the character is male most of the time. Artists of fantasy games draw “sexless” characters with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and use male voice actors for them, implying that being sexless is only intellectually different from being male. Ask yourself–when was the last time you saw a robot in fiction who looked male, but had no gender identity, or whose gender was unrelated to its purpose? What about a female-looking robot of the same qualifications? I can’t even think of a female-looking robot who simply happens to be female-looking or female, but isn’t very deliberately evocative of a cis female body shape or female-identified. This all adds up to the notion that male is a default class, and female is a special class–anything non-female is grouped together, and femaleness is a category one must specifically qualify for.
With this in mind, it becomes a very different thing to third-gender a trans man and a trans woman. In the case of a trans man, this is simply saying “you’re not a man, but since you’re not a woman either, you’re pretty much a man anyway.” In the case of a trans woman, this is tantamount to “you’re not a woman, but I don’t want to feel like I’m a jerk, so I’m going to thinly veil that I’m calling you a man.” Both of these are harmful, but it happens more often to trans women, and is far, far more likely to actually result in our exclusion from women-only activities and spaces than trans men are to be excluded from men-only activities and spaces. Furthermore, trans men actually benefit in some cases from being third-gendered, because they are granted access to both women-only and men-only spaces.
The solution to the unknown pronoun issue that has gained casual popularity (“zie” as a gender-neutral pronoun) is harmful to trans women, because it returns us to a third-gender status. If everybody is third-gender until proven female, then we are doing the same thing as calling everybody “he” until we know their pronoun–even though we do this so that we don’t misgender anybody, this act of associating visible transness with a third-gender pronoun has historical pain in it for women. Trans*radical communities already have a tendency to favor the viewpoints of the most “subversive” gender identities (i.e. trans men and nonbinary people), and part of checking our transmisogyny is recognizing that trans women are historically ignored, and we need a new assumed pronoun–and we need to use it a lot less.
Self-serving promise: I’d like to announce that I am yet again going to try and post regularly. A combination of factors has sparked me wanting to return to the blogosphere, a big part of which is the fact that I apparently have grown somewhat more relevant in my absence. Here’s hoping I live up to it?