Ari (creature of dust, child of God) (wisdomeagle) wrote,
Ari (creature of dust, child of God)

(in)visibilities: race and trans*

[IBARW caveat: I'm a white cisgendered able-bodied lesbian USian English-speaking middle-class college-educated Christian]

[Today: links to and discussions of articles about trans* PoC in the U.S. and Thailand, with bonus musings on identity, visibility, alliance, and privilege ]

[caveat the second: I use the word trans* to refer to a whole range of transitional/transitioning/pre-transition/post-transition identities and activisms -- transsexuality/transsexuals, transgenderism(?!)/transgender people, genderqueer, etc. This conflation elides the differences among people in these groups, their understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality, their goals as activists and as individuals, etc. It's also a very English-speaking-centric moniker that doesn't account for culturally-specific gender identities of people outside the white, English-speaking world. I tend to think of trans* as most close conceptually to "transgender" and with those trans*people who identify as queer in addition to trans* (obviously, not all do).]

First, two links, one awesome, one tooth-clenchingly not:
+Becoming a Black Man by Daisy Hernández

So, first of all, full disclosure, I love this article because I know the main interviewee (Louis Mitchell) and he is one of the most awesome people I've ever met. (And, like, I have gotten a SHOULDER RUB from someone who is FAMOUS ON THE INTERNET.) But seriously, it's a great article about trans* PoC in the U.S. My takeaway was this experience about the difference between the way African-American women and men experience racism:

Within months of starting male hormones, "I got pulled over 300 percent more than I had in the previous 23 years of driving, almost immediately. It was astounding," says Mitchell, who is Black and transitioned while living in the San Francisco area and now resides in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Targeted for "driving while Black" was not new to Mitchell, who is 46 years old. For example, a few years before transitioning, he had been questioned by a cop for simply sitting in his own car late at night. But "he didn't really sweat me too much once he came up to the car and divined that I was female," Mitchell recalls.

(Later in the article, transwomen discuss the flipside of this experience.)

During a panel discussion on trans* issues at Andover Newton Theological School, when Mitchell was asked about the legal issues affecting trans* people, he said he was legally a Black man -- and had all the rights thereof, not necessarily a positive thing. The legal right to be perceived, profiled, pulled over, prosecuted, and/or punished as a Black man in the U.S., woohoo?

-Thai School Offers Transsexual Toilet by Jonathan Head.

I listened to this BBC report on the radio the other day and was mad enough to spit, even though the actual topic under discussion is awesome. There's a large enough population of self-identified transgirls at Kampang Secondary School in Thailand that the Headmaster has created a third bathroom for them. BUT. Head does not know how to use appropriate pronouns or gender referents to refer to transpeople. AT ALL.

If you want to know how not to talk about trans*people? Here's how:
  • some decidedly girly-looking teenage boys preen their hair and apply face cream.
  • "We're not boys," he told me
  • The transgender boys in Kampang tend to stick together as a group, practising their somewhat exaggerated feminine mannerisms together and generally camping it up.
  • Why do so many Thai men want to become women?

When he interviews an adult transwoman, he does use appropriate pronouns (although "not born a woman"? Really? I wasn't born a woman either -- I was born a person, assigned a female gender and became a girl, and only now am I becoming an (adult) woman. Anyhow.) But when talking to/about the transgirls? He refuses to use the identities that they've chosen for themselves.

When it comes to genderqueer youth, it's definitely important not to jump the gun or make assumptions about them based on mannerisms or presentation -- obviously true of everyone, but especially important with youth who should be able to reach their own conclusions about their identity in their own time -- but it's clear from this article that these girls identify as girls. They're not boys, they don't want to be called boys, and they don't want to use the boys' bathroom because they are girls. They do their best to present as girls despite the dress codes (why does the school have trans* toilets but still have a gendered dress code?) and the fact that they're too young (by whose standards? But that's another issue for another day) for medical transition (hormones and/or surgery).

It seems like Head thinks that people earn the right to be called by their preferred pronouns when they achieve some sort of visible marker -- whether that's surgery or medical approval or just "passing" as their gender of preference.

For the record? A "transsexual man" is ftm and a "transsexual woman" is mtf. Refer to people by the gender they identify as, not the gender they were assigned at birth. Urgh this article made me spitting mad.

In the interest of trying not to impose my (white, US, English-speaking, queer-identified) understanding of trans* onto Thai transsexuals just like Head does in this article (minus the queer-identified and USian parts), I did a two-second google and discovered the following:

+A woman named Rachel informs us that:
The Thai word translated as "transvestite" or "shemale" is khatoey, also spelled katoey, kathoey and several other ways. The word doesn't really have the negative ring of those two English words
(Rachel is a white transwoman from the US... who's involved in fandom. She hasn't updated her website since 2004, but I wonder if she's on LJ? The world, it's SO TINY.)

+"Whiskey is Whiskey; You Can't Make a Cocktail From That!": Self-Identified Gay Thai Men in Bangkok by Jillana Enteeen is an interesting article about (like it says on the tin) gay Thai men that discusses kathoey as a traditional category that makes sense in Thai culture and how kathoey identities are changing in response to the arrival of Western ideas of queerness (and about the interaction between farang (gaymen) and kathoey (transwomen). Lots of good stuff here. (And the author has a bunch o' books and articles about queer sexualities in Thailand and netculture. Her webpage, including CV, is here.)

+Male, Female, and Transgender: Stereotypes and Self in Thailand by Sam Winter and Nuttawut Udomsak. A good introductory section on kathoey as a (changing) cultural category, and a survey of self-identified kathoey (who would probably be considered transwomen in the West.) An interesting article especially if you like statistics?


A point, and I do have one, is about visibility, and the differences between visible and invisible identities.

First of all, in a way, trans* and genderqueer people are the visible end of the queer spectrum. Not every butch woman or effeminate man is gay, and not everyone who "looks gay" is necessarily a butch woman or an effeminate man (there are [theoretically?] other cultural stylistic identifiers), but. Many do. Many transmen (at least in the US) come of age identifying (or being identified as) butch lesbians. Drag queens surely lie somewhere on the genderqueer spectrum. Etc. Genderqueer is visible. "Is that a man or a woman?" is visible. People who don't follow the cultural scripts for their assigned gender are visible, and the less they follow them, the more visible they are.

Some genderqueer people (especially those who might embrace that label) are intentionally visible and anti-assimilationist. They present the ambiguities of gender using their bodies and dress. Other people on the trans* spectrum don't choose to play with gender in this way but are more masculine or more feminine than people with their bodies are expected to be. They may be less intentional about their mannerisms, the pitch of their voice, etc., but they are still read as (gender)queer. People in transition may be 'read.' People who have successfully transitioned may be unable to hide certain markers of their assigned-at-birth gender. Etc.

And there's nothing more visible than using the big, honkin', in-the-middle bathroom with a big ol' pink-AND-blue stick figure person on it wtf.

Or consider that the transgirls at Kampang Secondary School need to visibly present as female in order to be identified the way they want to be. An older trans* activist in Thailand pointed out to Jonathan Head that when the girls are older, they'll want to use a woman's restroom. And for that to happen? And for people like Head to refer to them as "girls" "female" and "she," they'll need to be visibly not just feminine but female.

"Passing" ("passing" is a problematic term for, e.g., a transwoman successfully presenting herself as a woman, because she's not "passing" as a something she isn't [the way a biracial person might "pass" as white]; she is a woman succeeding in presenting herself correctly) is a goal for some trans* people; visibility is a goal for other trans* people. Perhaps the same trans* people, on different days of the month.

And for many trans* PoC, passing is not an option. For men like Louis Mitchell, the better they are able to present themselves as Black men, the more they are perceived by white people to be threatening and the more likely they are to be the targets of racist profiling and violence*.

Kathoey can choose surgery and hormones, have bathrooms built for them as teenagers, may present very effectively as women. But they can't change the gender marker on their legal identification, and according to the articles I've read, it's difficult for kathoey to get work outside of the entertainment industry.

hermionesviolin has a quote in her profile with which I strongly identify:
Why is the possibility of "passing" so insistently viewed as a great privilege ... and not understood as a terrible degradation and denial?
-Evelyn Torton Beck, Nice Jewish Girls

...but I do have the privilege of passing. Much as I sometimes wish that I were more visibly queer? I have options to pass, to hide, to avoid discrimination that visibly trans*folk don't, and that PoC don't, and that especially trans*PoC don't.

It's one of the things I'm struggling with as I attempt to learn how to be a better ally to trans*people. They/You are part of my tribe and we have a shared cultural history. Much as we currently try to distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity, there's a long history of lived overlap between the two that I think all queer people need to live with. I am queer; I am cultural kin to those trans*people who identify as queer, but I can pass as straight. I don't need or want expensive medical procedures; I can be understood as a lesbian just by saying, "I'm a lesbian." There are social constructs that I don't have access to (like legal marriage), but I don't encounter them on a daily basis the way I encounter, say, public restrooms. I have cisgendered privilege and being queer doesn't alleviate that.

And at the end of the day I've still got my invisible white privilege knapsack, too.

*not to imply that African-American women don't also face racist profiling and violence. It's just of a different sort.
Tags: gender, ibarw, linkage, queer for life!, race

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