Dean Spade is My Soul Mate: Intersectional Impacts of Normative Appeals

            White, cis-normative, economically privileged, and professionally educated gay and lesbian communities stigmatize those who cannot fit into one or any of those normative categories via appeals to normativity in their politics.  My previous post discussed (yes, I’ll admit, ranted) how this appeal to normativity from trans-normative spaces alienates genderqueer expression from both trans and cis-gay circles, but I failed to mention any other intersectional identities, a crucial aspect to the ways in which neoliberalism operates within these normative gay communities. 

            Dean Spade opened my eyes to the ways in which intersectional identities fit within the dichotomous framework of “normative versus deviant” ways of being.  When mainstream society dictates what constitutes “normal” and “deviant,” every person who does not fit within categories of white, cis-male, heterosexual, upper middle class, able-bodied, English-speaking, middle-aged, American born, Christian-identified (and other categories I’m probably missing) within the United States gets thrown into this category of deviance with its own complicated and mainstream-dictated hierarchy. 

            Every deviant person, then, becomes placed in this category (and ultimately hierarchy) among all of those other deviantly-labeled people with whom they cannot all possibly identify or have similar experiences.  For instance, white and cis-normative upper middle class gay men are labeled “deviant” along with trans feminine economically disadvantaged identities of color.  The former group is only slightly deviant compared to the latter, and that shows through appeals to normativity that manifest themselves through “equality” legislation (Spade 59-66).  In these ways, this former group does not take into account the intersectional identities like those in the latter group despite the fact that both groups are labeled “deviant.”  So when slightly deviant groups get thrown into an umbrella of “deviance” with which to dichotomously compare to the normative category, the more deviant groups become even more oppressed as the slightly deviant groups push for inclusion into normative spaces (Spade 68). 

          This oppression of the more and more deviant groups manifests itself not only inadvertently in “equality” legislation, but also purposefully through blatant discrimination.  The former group of privileged gay men may not only overlook the ways in which to include intersectional oppression in their politics, but there may also exist racist, classist, misogynistic, transphobic, and/or even transmisogynistic undertones within their politics and everyday lives.  These privileged-but-deviantly-labeled individuals may become leaders of LGBT spaces on college campuses or faces of entire movements just to spew racist, sexist, and classist sentiment in their supposed call for “social justice.”

          These calls to normativity by slightly deviant categories lead to an even more unjust world.  For instance, cis-normative white upper middle class gays and lesbians have shifted their agenda to promote “the class and race privilege of a small number of elite gay and lesbian professionals while marginalizing or overtly excluding the needs and experiences of people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, indigenous people, trans people, and poor people” (Spade 65).  This kind of shift is evident when comparing the unjust deaths of Matthew Shepard, a cis white gay male, and Tyra Hunter, an African American trans woman. 

          Nowhere else is there an outcry against mainstream practices than when a slightly deviant cis, white, and economically privileged male dies unjustly.  The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, an out gay man in Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998, gained so much publicity that not only were countless books written on his life and death, but hate crime legislation was written as a response to his murder, and it was signed into law eleven years later by Barack Obama.  The Matthew Shepard Foundation even claims that Matthew’s murder was “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history” (Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” Page: see bottom for link). 

          Now take a look at the death of Tyra Hunter, an African-American trans woman in D.C. who died in August of 1995 of medical neglect from what could have been a non-fatal car crash.  Medical doctors and emergency personnel refused to treat her and let her die because of deep-seated anti-trans and racist sentiment, where emergency personnel laughed and pointed in disgust at her genitals, and medical doctors refused to treat her on the basis of a racial stereotype. 

          What books were written about Tyra?  If you count the Transgender Studies Reader, then there are two whole pages that discuss the discrimination involved in her death.  Wikipedia gives her about a paragraph (see bottom for link).  What legislation passed because of Tyra?  None.  The medical establishment was so intimately involved in her death that any legislation passed would point fingers at the system.  Unless you count a trans organization in Illinois named in her memory, nothing tangible came from this injustice except money during the trial to compensate for her death.  (Money… a fair exchange for life… thanks capitalism!)  Is Tyra’s murder (yes, I’m calling neglect to act on non-fatal injuries to the point of death murder) named one of the “most notorious” hate crimes in the US?  No.  It happened two years before Matthew Shepard died, and no one raised any outcry that gained media attention against the injustice of her death because she did not belong to the slightly deviant category that still demands inclusion in normative structures. 

          Tyra’s death was ignored, and the fact that Matthew’s death gained more media attention because he was the perfect slightly deviant representation of normativity the media could hold onto makes Tyra’s death and the countless other deaths of gender-deviant economically disadvantaged people of color invisible.  That’s right, invisible.  Appeals to normativity by slightly deviant gays and lesbians are appeals to the system that work to oppress those in the “more deviant” category of the deviance hierarchy.  Catering to a system that oppresses based on a “you versus us” dichotomy and ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual and gender identity disavow the lives of those deviantly-labeled individuals who fought representatives of the system (ie, police) to survive.  Seeking legislation to end “hate crimes” only appeals to those policemen who systematically ignore and perpetuate the violence against those who are furthest from inclusion in normative spaces.

          There is no real end to this kind of violence against racial, ability, economic, and gender minorities with the neoliberalist solutions of a normative gay and lesbian politic.  Mandy Carter, writer for a news site Color Lines, stresses the necessity of bridging the politics of the sexuality and gender movements with African-American movements.  The fact that intersecting identities challenge the implicitly degrading assumptions of each of these movements (LG movements as cis-white inclusive, African-American movements as cis-het inclusive, neither as trans-inclusive) indicate that a larger force of oppression is at work here. 

          When cis-white gays and lesbians are racist and transphobic, and when cis-African Americans are homophobic and transphobic, non-normative people of color in terms of gender and sexuality are left with no community with which to share stories and are left to their own devices to deal with violence from not only mainstream culture, but also from both less deviant communities to which they cannot belong.  This experience of being torn between two or more “less deviant” communities as a “more deviant” person applies to intersectional identities across the entire mainstream-dictated deviant spectrum.  On the simplest level of explanation via example, I experience dissonance between my lesbian and trans identities, Tyra between her trans and African American identities, and Dean Spade between his trans, queer (used in terms of sexuality because “gay” or “lesbian” cannot fit here), and working class identities. 

           In order to fight this “you versus us,” “deviant versus ‘normal’” dichotomy that mainstream culture sets up at the heart of its systematic and oppressive operations, we need to look at the differences dictating our deviance by mainstream culture instead of overlooking them.  We need to incorporate these differences into an intersectional politics that demands a complete restructuring of mainstream systems like law enforcement and wealth distribution to the point of self-determined governance that values collectivity (Spade 69).  Equality will never be achieved if we keep fighting for these slight equalities that continue to perpetuate injustice.

 

-Ash Kulak 

 

 Mandy Carter’s article about Tyra’s death and the intersections between white LGBT movements and Black movements:

http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/02/transgender_discrimination_study.html

Tyra Hunter’s sole paragraph from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyra_Hunter

More details on Tyra’s murder:

http://transgriot.blogspot.com/2007/08/trya-hunter-anniversary.html

Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” page:

http://www.matthewshepard.org/our-story

More information on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act: http://www.hslda.org/Legislation/National/2009/S.909/default.asp 

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More Appeals to Normativity? I give up.

            When cis-normative gay communities dump all gender transgressions onto the word “trans,” some trans communities themselves are resistant to pick up the queer pieces of their identities.  The inherent issue with the creation of an umbrella term so vast it covers all gender transgressive experience is that not every gender-transgressive person who self-identifies under this umbrella can possibly have the same experience as the next gender non-conforming human.  So when trans individuals seeking medical resources shove themselves into gender-normative boxes to cater to medical gatekeepers, they sacrifice the visibility and even viability of those who call themselves “trans” but refuse to let go of the incoherencies of their queer gender identities.

            Picking apart those who identify with the traditional trans narrative as wanted by medical gatekeepers is not, however, what I’m after with this post.  Anyone who identifies as trans should be able to identify with any narrative of their choosing.  This becomes complicated when we have a messy umbrella term defined by the mere presence of gender non-conformity and when medical gatekeepers dictate a one-sided trans experience that alienates those who do not identify under those strict guidelines, forces trans-identified individuals seeking medical resources to adopt narratives they may not necessarily identify with, and shoves those who do identify with the traditional narrative onto a pedestal of normativity that they may or may not desire.

            I’m going to focus here on trans masculine-leaning genderqueer humans because I have more personal experience with this kind of alienation from trans spaces.  Dean Spade describes this phenomenon very well.  If trans masculine-identified individuals have to appeal to a normative “I was a man born in a female body” narrative to get medical resources, then “the most ‘successful’ FTMs [resemble] khaki-clad frat boy clones” (Spade 28).  While this is an exaggeration, the point is that the “perfect” FTM seeks a normative (macho, hetero, misogynist, etc.) masculinity acceptable within mainstream society.  Where does that leave the rest of us genderqueers who identify as feminine or queer in terms of sexuality or feminist?  With nowhere to go.

            I know what this is like.  I don’t belong in cis-normative gay spaces because I’m not cis, and I don’t belong in trans masculine spaces because I’m not “trans enough.”  There are no resources for me within either community because either my gender transgressions throw me under this trans umbrella term, or because the normative focus in trans masculine spheres is transition so much that I cannot just exist in those spaces without being pushed to be gendered male or try T. 

            Here are a few examples.  I have a very complicated relationship with pronouns.  I abhor them.  I feel awkward when I am gendered as he and she, so for those who don’t acknowledge the existence of gender-neutral pronouns, I won’t ever feel like they’re getting it right.  I don’t feel “wholly joyous when I get called ‘sir’ or ‘boy’” (Spade 22) because I have this enormously complicated relationship with pronouns in general and with my own fluctuating gender performance in that moment.  How can I ever fit into trans masculine circles if I don’t have a deep desire for male pronouns or experience the same giddiness as most normative trans guys do when they are gendered male?

            I’m on the Indy Boyz listserv, an email list of those who identify as trans or trans masculine-leaning genderqueer in Indiana/Indianapolis area.  Almost every email that comes across my laptop echoes the same things over and over again.  Focus: transition.  One specific email I came across the other day came from a trans guy who just came out to himself after years of internal struggle.  It certainly surprised me when he spelled out a huge list of all of the things he hoped to accomplish (coming out immediately to his family, changing his name, starting T, saving for top surgery, finding a plastic surgeon, and finally having top surgery) just after he came out to himself. 

             While I acknowledge the validity of his experience, I wonder if the transition image of trans guys on the internet (which is usually the only accessible image of trans guys on the internet) influenced this guy’s immediate decision to act and pursue transition.  And if that is the case, why did he so easily conform to this transition image?  I believe it’s because genderqueer expression is policed out of normative trans masculine circles.  Medical gatekeepers have such strict guidelines for access to resources that trans guys themselves feel so compelled to police the gender expression of other trans guys or trans masculine-identified humans.

              The pressure to conform to this transition model within trans masculine circles is astounding.  Not only will other trans guys look at you sideways if you perform gender in ways that aren’t “man enough,” but some will also outright tell you that you are not “trans enough” to exist in a community for gender non-conforming people.  So gender non-conforming humans get kicked out of a gender non-conforming space because the normative trans guys are the new gender police.  Beautiful.  Just when I thought I had a community to go to where I could express my gender transgressions freely (because isn’t that what the umbrealla term trans is supposed to signify?), I am rejected because I’m not “trans enough,” and now I have no community with which to share stories.  If I can’t fit in with cis-normative gay communities, and if I can’t fit in with narrative-normative trans communities, I begin to ask the question “why bother?” (Spade 28).

            I would like to suggest an alternative way of thinking about genderqueer alienation before I start to fizzle down the “I do not want to live on this planet” path.  Gender policing alienates genderqueer expression.  When cis-normative or trans-normative individuals police queer gender expressions directly or indirectly, “they foreclose norm-resistant possibilities” (Spade 28).  Gender policing exists because we have a dichotomous normative versus deviant way of thinking about gender.  When mainstream society throws gender transgressions into an umbrella, they throw us into the “deviant” category and then chastise that category for existing and compare it to their own normative category set up as the false “original” or “normal” gender category. 

            This binary thinking exists to oppress anyone under the deviant umbrella category, and the oppression becomes more severe as one becomes more deviant because the oppression comes from both outside and within those in the umbrella itself who in some way appeal to the normative category.  In these ways, how can the trans community call itself a community when its creation was dictated by those who called us “other” and threw us into a term that cannot possibly encompass all of our queer identities?  Queer identities will always be alienated from “queer-identified” spaces whenever those spaces represent some overarching umbrella of deviance that cannot possibly represent everyone and/or somehow seeks normativity because it is part of a “you versus us” dichotomy.

             My frustration over these issues boiled over when I read Spade’s article.  As a gender non-conforming human, I feel like I ironically cannot fit within any queer space because most “queer” spaces have actually become slightly deviant versions of normative spaces.  I refuse to remain a part of a space that polices my behavior in an attempt to make me more normative.  After reading this article, I wanted to pack up and move away from every person on the planet because I can’t stand the pressure to choose pronouns or justify myself to people (both cis and trans) anymore.  Without the ability to find and access a community of people like me because the queer is alienated from most “queer” spaces, there’s no point in trying to belong to a community that continually tries to change me.  I’d rather separate from everyone than conform and live as at most half of myself.

              Maybe my pessimism has gone on far too long unchecked (I acknowledge the lengthiness and rant-like language of this blog), but until I find queers who can’t put a name to their sexualities or genders or lack of either, I will continue to be frustrated with “queer communities” that try to shove me into normative boxes.  I do not play by your gender rules, and I will not flail around in your normative spaces.  Why bother?

 

This is a link to the trans enough project.  It provides more solid examples of how (mostly) normative trans guys police gender expression.  The problematic part of this project is that it does not have a more diverse range of queer voices.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gukzQ5eLrVc 

 

-Ash Kulak

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: http://thelstop.org/2011/07/are-all-%E2%80%9Cwomyn%E2%80%9D-welcome-michfest-and-the-struggle-for-trans-inclusion%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8/

-Ash Kulak