Trans: Distinction or Discrimination?

David Valentine posits that the origins of the term “transgender” surround a switch from queer self-identification within a marginalized community under the term “gay”  (43) to the distinction between the categories “gender” and “sexuality” (59), which created a way for self-identified gay-but-gender-normative individuals to assume a subtle superiority over gender non-conforming individuals by positing gay experience as private and thus justified and trans experience as public and thus subject to critique by mainstream society (64).  What fascinates me about his argument, then, is that gender normative gay individuals in this context propose the superiority of “gay” over “trans” while also shoving their own histories in gender transgressions beneath what we come to know as trans history. 

            Nowhere else do gender normative gay individuals claim a superiority over marginalized gender non-conforming groups than through the removal of homosexuality from and the addition of GID to the DSM (58).  While the language concerning transgender identification is changing in DSM 5, “gender dysphoria” will continue to exist in the DSM, which links transness to a psychological diagnosis.  Keeping gender dysphoria in the DSM keeps gender a public concern, while removing homosexuality from it enables sexuality to remain private (Valentine 64).  What strikes me the most from this, then, is the implicit assertion that while public displays of gender non-conformity are to be looked down upon publicly, private expressions of sexuality are to be forgotten or denied as something which heteronormative mainstream society refuses to deal with.  If sexuality, specifically queer sexuality, is relegated to the “private” sphere, then it is no longer able to be seen and thus no longer exists in the mainstream eye.  The word “private” is an excuse for mainstream society to refuse to deal with queer sexualities, and gender normative gay individuals somehow relish this claim to invisibility (Valentine 55) as a way to hide their “private” selves in order to fit in at the expense of widespread gender non-normative oppression both within and outside of LGB spaces.

            Gender normative gay individuals have an extraordinary audacity, then, to make claims on normality that alienate trans communities and relegate themselves to invisibility within mainstream spheres.  These claims on normality are so large that they extend to an elementary school-like exclusion of certain types of people from spaces based on transgressions of gender.  For instance, the term “lesbian” is so limiting that only a very small number of individuals can accurately categorize themselves under that identity label.  One not only has to be female-identified and female-bodied, but she also has to be attracted only to those who are also female-identified and female-bodied to be a lesbian.  This restriction exists so lesbians can hold onto the claim of normality and gender normativity within gay communities, which stigmatizes gender non-conforming communities. 

            A prime example of this kind of playground exclusion from lesbian spaces is the refusal by the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to sell trans women tickets.  While an alternative festival option for trans women called Camp Trans happens every year across the street, refusing to let womyn into a womyn-only space just because a medical doctor did not assign them the letter F at birth should be unacceptable to a community that has been continuously marginalized by mainstream culture throughout the past century.  But this desire to be seen as “normal,” to be rendered invisible, silences those who would otherwise take a stand. 

            Blogger “Malic” for “The L Stop” posits that “marginalized communities can alienate their own,” and this MichFest debate marks one example of how the primarily gay and lesbian communities force any gender transgressors out of their space via any means necessary under any excuse necessary so they can appeal to normative mainstream culture.  For instance, Nancy Burkholder was forced to leave the Festival in 1991 because she was not anatomically female (Malic).  Some Festival-goers justify this and other forced removals with excuses that degrade trans women and imply their lack of “true” or “real” femaleness with remarks like, “the potential presence of a penis might be triggering” or “‘men in dresses’ [are] offensive to the feminist movement” (Malic). 

            The ironic part about all of this is that the “ancestors” of the gay and lesbian movements were both gender transgressors and gender conforming.  Valentine comments on the muddied history of which queer group instigated Stonewall as a way to show us that gay and lesbian history is not free from gender transgression, and that contemporary trans groups take all of the blows for the history that is just as much a part of gay and lesbian groups as it is trans groups (64).  This double injustice on the part of gay and lesbian individuals to cater to mainstream culture by excluding trans folks to claim normality and pointing fingers at trans groups for a shared history points to a resounding unfairness that should not continue to be ignored.  No matter where the word “transgender” came from, no one group deserves to be the laughing stock of what used to be a combined category just so another group can claim rights to “normality,” whatever that means anyway.

Malic’s post:

-Ash Kulak


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