Is/Is Not A Man
Hello ladies, I’m back! Anyone still out there?
Before I begin let me apologize for my extended absence. I suffered serious injury at my day job which seriously impacted on my ability to type (and still does!). I’m learning, slowly, to use Dragon Dictation but between my poor proofreading skills and Dragon’s occasional decent into some sort of drug-induced delusions I feel it’s only fair to warn you that there is a certain measurable probability that you will occasionally see a completely incoherent sentence. Bear with me, this is a work in progress.
In my absence not a few trans-related stories came across the wire and at least one sizable controversy has blown up. I will attempt in this space to tie together two seemingly somewhat unrelated stories to make one point that’s been on my mind. I’ll need a couple of disclaimers along the way so hear me out until the end before you decide if you should be offended.
The major controversy of course is the ongoing debate between RuPaul and certain of his supporters including most of the drag community but also some part of the vocal transgender activist crowd and a large contingent of other vocal transgender persons, mostly trans women, over the proper use if any of the words “tranny” and “she male”. This has been ongoing for some time now with no sense that either side has moved off their initial position. Virtually any politically aware trans woman you may know has eventually felt compelled to form a viewpoint on the question whether or not they’re anxious to speak it.
Parallel to this the advent of the new season of “Orange is the New Black” (and if you aren’t watching this – what the hell is wrong with you? Yes, it’s THAT good!) Has prompted a huge rise in visibility of Laverne Cox, one of the show’s actors. Cox has been thrust into the role of something resembling the “face of” transgenderism due to this exposure. And of course, as one might expect, increased exposure leads to increased bigotry from the haters. Sometimes was Cox as the de facto target. Such a column was penned for the National Review by a writer named Kevin D Williamson titled “Laverne Cox is Not a Woman.”
What disturbs me about these two stories particularly occurring as they do at the same time in the public consciousness is that it brings again to the surface the need to make the distinction that has become clouded by the use of the overarching term transgender. To be very clear it is not my purpose here to disparage any person who might be found by one definition or another under that umbrella. I have, as you might imagine from a previous writings, absolutely nothing against recreational gender nonconforming behavior. However, it becomes more and more obvious that for non-trans individuals an important distinction does need to be made. If Kevin D Williamson had said “RuPaul is not a woman” no one including RuPaul himself would have disputed this, it is a self-evident statement of fact. Likewise a statement of fact regarding the vast majority of drag queens and likely the sizable majority of self identified cross-dressers. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
What is wrong is that people like Williamson is either unaware of (and likely unwilling to hear of) the distinction between people like Cox and people like RuPaul. And the distinction is important. On all the civil rights issues of the day related to trans rights Cox (et al) has much more “skin in the game” than does RuPaul and his peers, given that – you know – the latter have no real stake at all in the question.
Look, to be frank, I don’t have a lot of passion for debates over words that “offend.” I won’t use of words that my sisters consider a slur out of respect for them but the word itself is no issue to me. Personally I would be very happy to grant RuPaul clear title to the “T-word” so long as the trade-off is that he and his fellow male drag queens never miss an opportunity to say “I’m not transgender” and we make it perfectly clear that there is unanimous consent that doing drag or otherwise cross-dressing does not make one by definition transgender, or transsexual. Which is not to say that there are not trans people doing both those things, but they are trans apart from doing those things not because they did. Because at the end of the day I want even the critics to understand that what you know about RuPaul tell you nothing at all about Laverne Cox.
[One additional clarification: I don’t consider myself a “separatist” on trans terminology. It’s not so much that I object to the term transgender as an inclusive term for all variations of in eight gender nonconforming conditions, but rather that I am troubled by including optional recreational or fetishistic behavior under that term in order to magnify the number of affected individuals. It seems to me that the cause is just as just if there are 100,000 affected individuals or 10 million. I don’t much care for the manipulative nature of a falsely inflated figure. You will often see me use the term transsexual rather than transgender to refer to myself because I think that the distinction is important, not in terms of being “poor trans than thou” but in terms of providing the maximum clarity to non-trans people of goodwill who seek to understand the situation we find ourselves in. I do not wish this column to seem hostile to anyone who identifies themselves in the trans community.]
photo by: Kevin Goebel