“Shared girlhood,” Red Herrings, and the Creation of the Third Wave

Have you heard the one about the “shared girlhood”?

 

The “myth of shared girlhood” is an idea that has been developed recently by intersectional feminists to explain why it’s wrong for radical feminists to want women-only events that exclude people who were born male.  According to the doctrine of the myth of shared girlhood, there’s nothing that really makes anyone female, because there’s no one universal defining experience of girlhood.

It’s true that there is no universal experience of femaleness.  Not one.  For anything you can come up with–even things that are experienced by huge, huge percentages of women–some women, on an individual basis, don’t meet those qualifications.

According to the “myth of shared girlhood” analysis, this means that organization based around femaleness is inherently improper, and that since trans* individuals have shared some experiences that some women have had, they should be considered no different than any other woman who has had a different experience from the norm.

 

This analysis is outrageous.

 

There is no shared gay experience.  A gay man in Uganda, a lesbian woman in Vancouver–these people have incredibly different experiences of what it means to experience same-sex attraction and love.  This does not mean that there is no such thing as gay, or that gay people should be unwelcome to meet without straight people saying “but my parents don’t like my girlfriend and people sometimes called me anti-gay slurs, which is, you must admit, pretty similar to some things that have happened to some of you!”

There is no shared American Indian experience.  Some people of American Indian descent grow up on reservations, some don’t.  Among both groups, socioeconomic status can vary tremendously.  Different American Indian and First Nations groups have very different cultural norms and policies about assimilating into a white-dominated society.  It would be ridiculous for someone to say that American Indians should be forced to admit the American Indianhood of anyone who claimed it, simply because they claimed it and there is no universal experience of being an American Indian anyway.

There is no shared black experience.  Black kids in the Portland ‘burbs from an upper middle class background and black kids in the Florida panhandle experience very different “black in America” narratives.  No one says that a lack of “shared blackness” should make it so anyone who has felt oppressed about their racial role can simply declare themselves black, and thus avail themselves of affirmative action policies designed to redress ongoing racial bias and discrimination against black Americans.

There is no shared rape experience.  Rape survivors are a diverse group, including people from every demographic.  Some rape victims are infants, some are elderly.  Some are violently beaten, others are drugged, others are emotionally coerced.  That doesn’t mean that just anyone should be able to claim the status “rape victim,” or use the resources allotted for rape victims in our society.

There is no shared labor union experience.  There is no shared working-class experience.  There is no shared Midwestern experience.  There is no shared abuse victim experience.  There is no shared alcoholism experience.  There is no shared disability experience.  There is no shared Muslim experience.  There is no shared Communist experience.

 

Some people in the categories will always be outside of the most commonly shared experiences within that category.  Yet somehow, it’s only women who are expected to defend their “shared girlhood” and what that shared girlhood experience could possibly mean.  It’s only women who are told, when they share the experiences that they feel are powerful and defining for them as an oppressed class, that the sharing of those experiences is in itself oppressive, especially if it’s in a context of sharing them only with other people who were female from birth.

Other groups of oppressed people don’t have to justify themselves when they want to say “we’ve been oppressed, and we would like to say things in our group that aren’t necessarily very nice to the oppressing group, so all members who were raised as members of the oppressing group are invited to kindly keep the fuck out.”  When black people do that to white people, it’s not (generally) by way of saying to white people, “we think you’re a racist shitbag who would disrupt our conference with your mere presence.”  It’s not a way to say “you’re not a good enough ally to us.”  It’s just a way to say, hey, sometimes it’s a shitload harder to make salient points about oppression or even just to vent when your oppressor is right there in the room.

Different groups of women have had, and I suspect will continue to have, varying policies about who is and is not allowed into events that revolve around women’s issues.  In some groups, all people who share basic ideas about feminism and equality would be welcome to attend, regardless of sex or gender.  In other groups, gender identity may matter, in others, a person’s present anatomy (for instance, the ability to penetrate/impregnate) may matter, and in others, birth sex may matter.

The differences in attendance policies in these kinds of events are equivalent to differences in attendance policies from other organizing oppressed classes.  Sometimes, racially-based organizing groups will have events that are open for all people of all races and ethnicities, but other times, usually smaller groups of people of color will want to have events that are restricted to people who aren’t members of a particular race, national origin or ethnicity.  This happens all the time, and racial groups are not asked to provide any proof of a shared racial experience to exclude people who the group feels don’t belong in the group.

In the super-liberal city of Berkeley, California, a whites-only group met for some time to discuss racism at the Niebyl-Proctor Library, specifically excluding people of color.  I think that group’s existence is pretty gross, for a whole bunch of reasons, but it’s important to note that unlike radfem gatherings (which are picketed and targeted because they’re supposedly oppressive to trans* people), this whites-only group–which is no secret, and has even posted flyers in the neighborhood around where it meets, a neighborhood with a very racially diverse population–has to my knowledge never experienced a protest.

Yes, that’s right: it’s easier, politically–in the 21st century–in the liberal centers of the United States of America–to form a whites-only group than it is to form a group that includes only people who were female at birth.

Organization is impossible if it’s only done between people who have shared every experience–if we did that, we’d never have organized as a society beyond the family unit.  That’s what makes organization tricky: if everyone had exactly the same experiences, it’d undoubtedly be a whole lot easier.  That’s also why organization happens at many different levels.  While some activists want to be in broad, coalitional groups, others choose to be in organizing groups that exclude all but a narrow class of people in order to pinpoint issues or have discussions that they feel are more difficult to have in broad, coalitional contexts.

There has not been a single incident–not one–of radical feminists “crashing” trans* people’s gatherings, picketing outside them, or gaining access to a private trans* event with the goal of publicizing where it was occurring or who was attending.  In spite of the fact that many radical feminists have grave concerns about the ways in which trans* surgeries and hormone therapies are being marketed to pediatric patients, there haven’t even been protests of these.  Radical feminists have written about problems with the trans* movement, talked about the enshrining of gender as problematic among themselves–but they haven’t picketed or invaded anyone’s gatherings.

 

Women shouldn’t have to prove anything, including a “shared girlhood,” to be able to meet and organize with other female-born persons without being harassed.  The fact that liberal feminists are buying into this idea–that without a universally shared experience, it’s illogical and bigoted for a group to be able to define itself and exclude non-members–is a sign of how far feminist analysis has fallen since feminists started “doing” feminism online.

Why has this happened?  Because the internet’s the ultimate proving ground that women talk differently when they have to talk around men and be subject to men’s criticisms all the time.  The changes that have occurred to feminism since feminism became part of the blogosphere have been the exact kinds of changes you’d expect to see when women are having to do feminism in front of men. The environment that the second wave operated in was, in some ways, shitty for what it excluded, because the fact that feminist monographs, zines, and so forth were being distributed primarily among white, middle class women left a lot of women out.  However, men also basically didn’t give a fuck (except when they were reacting with horror to out of context bits of Intercourse), so women in academia were left to talk and debate about feminist issues without constant comment and intrusion from men declaring a need to be heard and dialogued with.

The internet changed all that.  Now, everything has to be released male-ready–or else.  Positions determined to be too radical are sanded down, and it’s de rigeur for third-wave feminists to angrily declare that they’re not like those other feminists who are mean and nasty to men, the man-haters, the bra-burners, the TERFs, the Andrea Dworkin, whoever’s the boogeyman identified by men in the comments sections and subreddits where women are trying to do feminism today.

So again and again, you see women taking pains not to offend any men with what they write, because we know what happens to women who write on the internet–especially, gracious me, under their own name!–and who don’t toe the party line.  Talk about sexism in video games, get rape threats.  Talk about feminism and the oppressiveness of gender roles, get rape threats.

That’s the part where men’s comments shape the third wave.  Then, there’s this little deal with the devil that no one talks about: if you can keep the perfect balance of angry about issues that make everyone angry while still making sure everyone sees you’re still buying into the basic tenets of patriarchy, you can shout “this is what a feminist looks like!” and get a book deal.  You can have a life where you make a living by blogging and talking about feminism, today.  There are plenty of people willing to schedule “empowering” visits from feminist women and pay reasonable sums for the privilege.  There is, of course, also a catch: you have to make your feminism palatable enough and positive enough that it acquires the air of a TED talk.  Feminism becomes tamed from something revolutionary, offering the possibility of systemic change, to something that is merely performative and about individual empowerment and choices.

When feminism is subjected to market forces and incessant male intrusion, it becomes the third wave: happy to decry the patriarchy, as long as it never gets upset about any of the bits where patriarchy makes you spend more money or be more available for sex.  Decry not the expense of a wedding or the idea itself, but the whiteness of the dress and its implications, and you too could be a fully book-dealed Internet Feminist(tm) who still gets the New York Times Vows column to cover your wedding and your tasteful, dove-gray wedding dress.  Rage against gender roles, but make sure people know that you believe high heels and porn are just fine when they’re expensive and made by people who pay lip service to feminist ideals.

Girls and women deserve better than the empower-washing of the entire world.  Girls and women deserve better than to be told that theirs is the one group that has to simply allow everyone in.  We deserve better than for our concerns to be mocked or met with threats and protests.  We deserve better than for people to throw strawmen like the “shared girlhood myth” at us when we assert our rights to organize and regulate our groups in the same way that other oppressed groups organize themselves.  We deserve better than to be subject to gaslighting when we say that groups of women change fundamentally when they are joined by either MTF people or simply men who identify as men.  I know it’s not crazy, because I can see the differences between online communities with different policies.

Imagine what internet feminism might have looked like if, from the beginning, women had simply refused to grant men access to the playhouse–and how very different third wave feminism is from that, how much more placating, more quick to soothe hurt feelings, more quick to capitulate and say “well, we all have our own opinions.”

Some days, I wish we could simply go back.  However, that option doesn’t exist, and we have no choice but to keep going forward.  Building women’s-only spaces, both on- and off-line, is one of the few ways for feminism to continue existing as anything other than the auxiliary wing of capitalism and corporatism.  “Let’s you and her fight, you have no experiences in common anyway” is a great tactic to keep women from organizing the single largest class of oppressed people on the planet.  Don’t eat that red herring; it’s been rotten from the first time it was brought out.

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The only thing you need to know about the aims of feminist-trashing transactivism

Trans activism, in terms of getting protections in place for transgender people in the workplace, in terms of working to prevent and prosecute hate crimes against trans people, in terms of getting appropriate medical, social and legal services for transgender people–who are oppressed for their violations of gender norms in ways that elevate their rates of homelessness and poverty–is absolutely amazing work, and I salute people who are working in it.  The kind of trans activism I’m going to be talking about is very specifically the kind confined to people whose time is spent in internet forums, chastising women for having discussions that are insufficiently inclusive.

I’m not going to talk about this issue much on this blog, except to say this:

The only thing you need to know about that kind of tumblr-style transactivism is that those same activists aren’t going into primarily men’s spaces and doing the textual equivalent of a disdainful throat clearing every time someone says “man up” or “grow a pair.”  When men say “wow, he’s got big brass ones, don’t he?”, they’re not mobbed by several people saying that testes aren’t particularly manly, many women have testes and many men do not.

It’s abundantly clear that the strategy of these trans activists involves criticism that is confined to women, nearly exclusively.  Women aren’t the ones who are committing violent acts against trans people.  Perhaps men’s language and idioms and issues need trans activism a whole lot more than people who are already fundamentally sympathetic to the cause of ending all gender based oppression.

Why Trans Children Actually Give the Lie to “Born This Way”

One of the most glaring parts of “born this way” transactivism that rings false is the idea that there have always, always been trans people who have experienced gender dysphoria in similar ways to people today.

This is pretty clearly not the case.

Listen to the trans narratives coming out of people today, and listen IN PARTICULAR to the trans narratives coming out about children.  Children who tried to cut off their own genitals, children who absolutely insist upon being treated as the opposite sex, children who scream and cry when clothing for the opposite sex is put on them (ignoring, of course, that at many points in human history, clothing for infants and young children was not gendered, that boys wore dresses, that boys wore much more pink than girls, et cetera)–now, think about this for a minute.

In all the medical and psychiatric literature of the 18th through 20th centuries, where were these children?  Here are just a few examples of “trans children” who are said to have attempted self-mutilation of their genitals.  Imagine, if you will, what Freud would have done with this–the field day that any psychologist of the early 20th century would have had if they’d encountered children with such significant dysphoria that they were hacking away at their body parts!  There are plenty of records of various psychological and physical maladies–some real and some not-so-real–in 18th and 19th century records.  Where are the children who insisted that they were the opposite sex and simply would not be moved?  Doctors at those times were NOT afraid of reporting and documenting supposedly “deviant” behavior.  It absolutely beggars belief that if transgenderism is inborn and manifests as children taking drastic and even mutilating steps toward their chosen gender, not one psychiatrist or psychologist or physician would have said, “wow, this is interesting, I’d better get a syndrome named after me!”

Because, see, that’s what actually happened with other types of issues that start to manifest in childhood.  We have records of children with autism.  We have records of children with cancer.  We have records of children with major psychological and neurological problems.  There was no conspiracy of silence surrounding transgender issues. 

Now, had trans children started to “come out of the closet,” as it were, it’s true that they’d have
probably been subjected to all kinds of horrific medical and psychiatric interventions designed to “correct” their dysphoria.  Some people will say that this means trans children stayed closeted, for their own good.  But how would trans children know?  No one would say to them, “by the way, if you think you’re the opposite sex, you can expect electroshock treatment to start in a couple of weeks.”

We have documentation of hundreds of medical and psychological conditions going back literally thousands of years.  To cite just a couple of examples, multiple sclerosis had been thoroughly described by the mid-19th century.  So had bipolar disorder (which was described by several different psychiatrists before the 20th century rolled around).  Ditto schizophrenia.  Autism was well-described by the mid-20th century (and had only missed out on earlier description because it was considered a form of schizophrenia). Case studies abound involving people with all kinds of incredibly unusual physical or mental workings–and yet, there was no penis-cutting epidemic, not even when children had less adult supervision and more access to cutting implements a lot more grown-up than safety scissors.

Trans activists today claim that without surgical intervention, dysphoria can be and often is fatal, because it will compel them to acts of self-harm.  Trans activists also claim about half of trans people have attempted suicide because of their desire to transition.  Where was this epidemic of pediatric death-wishes before doctors started telling parents that the only solution to their children’s dysphoria was expensive surgery and hormones?

Oh right–I know where it was.  It didn’t exist.  Listen, grownups: transition if you want, it’s very little skin off my ass.  But having your children medically sterilized, delaying the onset of their puberty, feeding them enough bullshit about gender that they have a desire to chop off their organs before they even know what those organs are for?  It’s Munchausen’s by proxy, and it’s child abuse.

“Born that way” makes it possible for doctors to alter little children’s genitals before they are old enough to consent, and to pump them full of drugs that have not been studied for use in pediatric patients or over the long term.  To keep their newfound gender, the children in question will have to pay, and pay, and pay, for the rest of their lives, just to stay on the hormone treatments.  “Born this way” transactivism isn’t just a problem because it enshrines gender as an innate human quality.  It’s also a problem because it makes ordinarily perfectly sane liberal people totally fine with allowing medical procedures on children that they would never, ever allow otherwise.

The trans child phenomenon is a product of our gender-obsessed, individual performance-obsessed culture, along with parents who think it’s sure fun to parade around their child in front of news cameras so they can talk about how special their kid is and how oppressed.  Munchausen’s by proxy, and the parents just SOAK UP the accolades.  Well, history foils you again, parents of “trans kids.”  Every shrink and doctor in the last 200 years–hell, 2000 years–would have given his or her eyeteeth to have had such a juicy disorder that it was causing little boys to chop off their penises.  They’d have come up with all kinds of specious reasoning for it based on their conception of the body and mind at the time, and we’d all be saying, “wow, if only they’d known those kids were trans and could be cured with surgery and hormones!”

But that’s not what’s happening, is it?  It’s all new territory, and any idea of talk therapy is immediately derided as transphobic and an erasure of trans identities.  It’s surgery and hormones–or at least the possibility of surgery and hormones, delaying puberty to make these things easier–or nothing at all.  This, in spite of the fact that surgery and hormones are shown to have little or no effect on the suicide rates of trans people or their levels of depression and anxiety.

Don’t end up on the wrong side of history, fifty years from now when a whole lot of these trans kids tell us what was actually going on in their homes, or when they lash out angrily at the people who altered their bodies permanently and prevented them from reproducing, all based on parental reactions to the child’s normal reactions to enforcement of gender roles.

Who Owns Gender?

This post is really brilliant, and encapsulates many of the issues I have with neuroessentialism and “born this way” trans* activism.

From the brilliant Delilah Campbell, who I hope comes across this blog, because I suspect we’d have a lot to talk about:

 

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

Hello to you in Gibraltar, Burkina Faso, or wherever you may be.

I’ve been keeping track of what countries my blog visitors come from, and was surprised (and excited!) to find that there are people reading this in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, and Burkina Faso.

If you’re from a far-flung locale, particularly if you’re from outside of English-speaking countries, I’d love to hear about how gender and gendering works where you’re from.  People outside of a “gender binary” exist everywhere, and the varieties of gender-nonconforming people depend largely on what available gender roles exist in society and what the consequences are of operating outside those roles.  Please feel free to leave a comment about gender non-conformity where you’re from, including any information about who is allowed to step outside gender roles–for instance, many societies have accepted third-gender positions for males who adopt some aspects of a female’s societal role, but lack a similar position for females wishing to adopt male social roles.

Welcome to the blog, folks from sixty nations(!), and please keep reading–there’ll be plenty more where this came from.

Two Stories, True Stories: On the Creation and Re-Creation of Gender in Memory

This is the story of two people.

***

Annie–we’ll call her Annie–was born unambiguously female, and from the time she was a very young child, everyone could tell that she was just about as girly as they came.  For several years, Annie would only wear skirts and dresses–never jeans or pants, and she’d cry if anyone made her dress “like a boy.”  As a very young girl, she played with dolls, had tea parties for her stuffed animals, and acted in a caretaker role for friends and family alike, even as a little child.  She grew her hair long, long, long, as long as possible.  She loved Disney princess movies and plundered her mother’s romance novels.

Annie was excited to get her first period, maybe because she had read too many Judy Blume books and thought it was terribly romantic in some senses, and later enjoyed sex both with herself and with others.  She maintained long-term friendships through her adolescence and young adulthood with a fairly small number of close female friends.  Annie reads celebrity gossip blogs from time to time, tries to keep relatively current with fashion trends on her limited budget, and communicates with her loved ones in an emotional, cautious way that is designed to take care with their feelings.  She pipes down during many discussions involving men, preferring to demur when it seems prudent (which is often) rather than making people think she’s a “bitch.”

***

Andy–we’ll call her Andy–was born unambiguously female in terms of her genitals and chromosomes, but everyone–everyone!–could see that something wasn’t quite normal in terms of her gender presentation, from basically the time she started to talk.  She showed very little interest in “girl clothes” as a toddler, going so far as to scream and throw tantrums if someone tried to dress her in pink or frills.  Andy preferred getting dirty in the garden to helping mom in the kitchen, and all her jeans had holes in them from the times she skinned her knees riding her bike, exploring the woods near her house, and so on.  Her parents worried that she was a lesbian.

Andy liked science, and math, and looking through her microscope and telescope.  She played with boys, and had little time for girls.  She was upset and quietly contemplative about getting her period for the first time, because it put her squarely into the “girl” category she was more and more uncomfortable with.  She became confrontational and angry, and started cutting her hair short, wearing oversized sweaters, baggy jeans, and steel-toed work boots, and never so much as learned to put on makeup.  People called her “Pat,” as a pejorative, referring to the androgynous character on Saturday Night Live.  Andy was uncomfortable with her changing, developing adolescent body, and uncomfortable with how it made people treat her.  While she was interested in sex, her non-conforming gender presentation made it difficult for her to find a relationship for some time.  As an adult, she has never been comfortable with the gender assigned to her–she prefers communicating in a very direct style, regardless of what it makes people think.  Andy today follows science and technology news, plays video games, and writes science fiction, often from a male point of view.  The majority of her friends are men.

***

If a person with Annie’s history chose to transition and start identifying as a man, most people would be quite surprised.  For someone with Andy’s past, though, it would seem like transition was simply a natural step–perhaps one she should have considered much sooner.

The problem with this is that Annie and Andy are the same person.  They’re both me.  In my life, my conformity with gender roles has waxed and waned, over and over again–in my life today, I present as significantly more “feminine” than I did six or seven years ago and much more than when I was in high school, though probably substantially less feminine than when I was a five year old.  I’m not genderqueer.  I’m not “cisgender,” which would imply a comfort level with my gender that in no way exists, but I’m also certainly not transgender.  I was just some regular girl-kid who went through all the ambivalence and anxiety that being female creates in our society, and became a woman-adult who never fully got comfortable with what it was I was supposed to be doing as a woman.

When people make the decision to transition, they do something quite ordinary involving their memory, something that we all do from time to time.  In my professional life, I often end up discussing with attorneys how they got started in their career.  It’s incredible how many of them believe that they were born to be attorneys–they can point out specific moments in childhood and adolescence where their latent attorney-ness fired off and was recognized by others.  They point, glowingly, to the time their second-grade teacher told them “you’ll be a lawyer someday,” or the day that they helped the bullied kid stand up to their bullies.

But, I always wonder: if they had become a doctor, instead, wouldn’t they have had some “doctor” moments, too?  A time when they put Band-Aids all over their teddy bear, or were very brave and even curious as the doctor stitched up a cut, watching the needle move through their skin with fascination instead of tears?  If they’d gone into business for themselves first, would they recall their childhood lemonade stand through the haze of nostalgia and memory and say they were born for business?

Almost all of us have some “lawyer moments” as children.  But we also almost all have some “doctor moments.”  Some teacher moments, some artist moments, some entrepreneurial moments.  We have them all, because human beings are complex, and in telling the stories of ourselves, we change what parts of our past matter, what parts are worth remembering and mentioning, based on our present self-image.  As human beings, we are attracted to consistent narrative–we thrive on stories, whether they’re about fictional characters, our friends, or ourselves.

We can modify our stories about ourselves in any number of ways without making those stories untrue.  As you identify more strongly with a trait, a profession, or an identity category, your life’s narrative will shift–imperceptibly at first, and then so strongly you couldn’t believe it was ever any other way–to making your story the story of The Person You Believe Yourself To Be Today. What’s more, we do it with other people: once a person decides that one of their children is the “compassionate one” and the other one is the “daring one,” or once one child is a lawyer and the other a nurse, parents often create these same kinds of revisionist narratives of their sons’ and daughters’ childhoods.

***

All this is by way of saying: I find it highly, highly suspect when anyone starts talking about gender non-conformity in their childhood or adolescence as proof that gender is brain-linked or that their transgender identity has been consistent since their early days.  I find it even more highly suspect when parents talk about gender non-conformity in their children as evidence that their children were simply always boys in girls’ bodies or vice versa.

Why?  Because I’ve seen the amazing lengths that memory can go to in order to produce that compelling, cohesive narrative.  Because transgenderism isn’t unique in leading people to embark on what amounts to autobiographical revisionism–in fact, this kind of revisionism happens to nearly everybody, for whatever it is that they hang their identity hat on.  Republicans, writers, religious converts, business leaders–whatever the core of your chosen identity, you will see aspects of that throughout your life, even though you might have seen very different aspects of your past as important if you had chosen a different basis for your identity.

That’s why the dominant media narrative of transgenderism follows the same narrative curve: child expresses displeasure with his or her sex organs or gender roles, child grows into moody, depressed adolescent, adolescent grows into adult who comes out of the closet and starts transition.  Sometimes we’re now skipping those second two parts, and keeping just the first one before delaying puberty, starting hormone injections, or even having surgery (I was just reading about a surgeon who will perform double mastectomies on children as young as 12).  The media has to put messy, complicated lives into a narrative their readers will care about, a consistent narrative without confusing loose ends that never get tied up.  The media ur-story about transition then begins to influence how individual transitioning people construct their own autobiographical trans narrative.

If I made a decision to transition, starting tomorrow, I could use Andy’s narrative in a heartbeat and get all the sympathy in the world.  It’s fairly close to the classic trans narrative.  It wouldn’t be the whole story, but no autobiography is, nor can it be–unless, perhaps, you, dear reader, are actually Marcel Proust, and have chosen to read this blog rather than engaging in many of the other fascinating activities available to you in the afterlife.

The point of all of this is not that revisionism is wrong, but merely that it happens, and is unavoidable when people begin to have a self-identity that depends on having a particular trait or belonging to a particular group.  We should be cautious about considering narratives of childhood or adolescence–whether they are biographical or autobiographical in nature–to be substantial evidence of inborn, unchanging traits or qualities.  To paraphrase Whitman: we are large, we contain multitudes.  In each of us as children were a hundred adult narratives waiting to be created and re-created, and every one had its own peculiar version of our earliest history.

Percentages, Prevalence, And Why Women Get Freaked Out By This Whole “Locker Room” Thing

One of the things I set out to do with this blog is to talk about why it is that trans* issues create a complex interplay of conflicts between groups.

The bathroom/locker room issue is one where I feel both sides are talking past each other, rather than to each other.  So let’s talk about it.  This is what I’ve seen, by reading things from both sides and trying to get past the intense personal rages that tend to frame these discussions on both sides.

Trans people, by and large, aren’t rapists and have no interest in sexually assaulting or causing any type of physical or emotional harm.  Many trans women, in particular, believe (often rightfully so) that their physical safety and mental health could be endangered by men in men’s locker rooms or bathrooms.

I accept all of this, completely.  However, what I don’t accept is the idea that no men will take advantage of there being a legitimated way to gain access to women’s spaces.  Let’s talk about some numbers.

It’s hard to estimate the actual number of men who are or will become rapists in the United States.  While very large percentages of women and smaller percentages of men are rape victims, studies suggest that a large majority of rapes are committed by rapists who rape several different individuals, resulting in there being a smaller percentage of rapists than rape victims.  However, the prevalence of rapists in the male population is still estimated at somewhere in the vicinity of 10 percent.

Let’s take a high school as our setting for a bathroom conflict of interests, so I can show you why it’s complicated to allow transwomen access to women’s spaces at some times, and why that doesn’t mean in any way that someone believes all trans women, most trans women, or even ANY trans women are rapists.

Let’s say this high school is about the size of the high school I attended back in the age of the dinosaurs–so about 1500 students.

That’s 750 males, 750 females.

Based on the prevalence of trans* people in the population (around three-tenths of a percent), if all trans* kids came out, there would be about 4-5 trans students in the school, 2-3 of whom would be trans girls.

Now, let’s say you have a locker room–it could be a locker room like the one I had to change in every day, the girls’ swimming locker room, in which full nudity was necessary for changing into and out of your bathing suit.  It’s my contention that the issue isn’t with the 2-3 trans girls, who are just trying to escape male violence that they could be exposed to in the men’s locker room.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the 75 rapists.

Out of 750 boys in the school, 75 of them are already or will become rapists at some point in their lifetime.  A number of the ones who do not become actual rapists will still be creeps of some variety, including your garden-variety flashers, subway masturbators, and abusers.

Do you sincerely believe that out of 75 men sociopathic enough to believe rape is something they’re entitled to, not one of those men would see a naked-girls-changing-clothing space as so worth invading that it’s also worth jumping through some gender hoops for?

Think of the most psychotic assholes who went to your high school.  If they were anything like the people who went to mine, they were males who’d have done basically anything to be creepy perverted assholes.  They knew how to suck up to people in power to make it all look unintentional, so they never got in trouble.

And all it takes is one.  When women’s locker rooms aren’t penis-free zones, the first rape that occurs makes women less likely to go to the gym, to participate in sports, to gain all of the benefits of physical activity that those locker rooms once gave them access to.  Women’s locker rooms, especially for pools and other spaces involving full nudity, were never comfortable places for me as a young woman–but neither were they places where I felt like I had to fear rape.

Now, this means–painfully clearly!–that there should be some place for trans* people to change and use the bathroom where they are not subject to that kind of risk, because those 75 rapists are still around in the men’s locker room.  Please know that I’m not saying that trans women should just use men’s facilities, risking harm.

The solution that seems most obvious to me would be to have a third locker room that involved exclusively individual-sized lockable stalls with good privacy, rather than a large open space for changing–which could be used by any person of any gender identity or sex to change in.  I suspect that some women who currently use women’s facilities might switch to such individual compartment changing rooms, since I have seen large numbers of girls and women who change in the bathroom, risking terrible accidents involving bikinis and toilet water, just so they won’t be seen naked, even by other women.  Not having had the ability to observe men in their native locker room habitats, I don’t know if the same thing goes for them.

If it turns out everyone prefers individual compartment rooms, great, let’s convert locker rooms into that–it wouldn’t be the first time that society had changed how we do rooms in order to create additional privacy.  Anyone who’s traveled abroad for some time, or who has studied history and how houses and castles used to look, has probably seen a row of toilet holes, with no dividers.  At some point, folks here decided that we’d really rather not watch our neighbors take a dump, regardless of their sex or how well acquainted we were.  It may be that it’s come time to do the same with locker rooms.

I think a lot of trans* people, and a lot of women (and, hell, probably some men, too, though I don’t know enough about their overall locker room shyness levels, as I said), would be able to use these facilities.  When trans* women say that this kind of situation isn’t enough (I’m thinking here of the Evergreen State situation, in which a transgender woman was first told she could use a separate auxiliary women’s changing room, but not the changing room where other women were), it sets off red flags in a lot of women’s heads. Why?  Because it suddenly looks like you’re not just trying to get away from an unsafe situation, but instead are creating a situation that others may perceive as potentially dangerous.

Sure, I understand the problems inherent to “separate but equal.”  There needs to be understanding on the trans* side, though, that women aren’t just making up these concerns about rapists and their inability to feel safe in a space that previously was free from possible invasion by men who’d like to rape them.

Even if we make an assumption that zero trans women with penises will use that penis for rape (a bad assumption, as I’d think there are some rapists in any group of that size), it doesn’t mean that a fear of rape by men who are manipulating their way into a locker room is irrational.  People born male are more than 30 times more likely to become a rapist than they are to transition into a feminine gender role, and that matters when it comes time for women to evaluate the risks of letting people with penises into spaces that had, heretofore, been penis-free.

There is no perfect solution, because we do not live in a perfect world.  We live in a world with rapists, manipulators, liars.  If there were no rape, we could easily have fully integrated communal bathrooms and changing rooms with no objections.  That’s not the world we live in.

If you want to understand the bathroom problem from another perspective, let’s consider the perspectives of four groups of people–non-transgender males, non-transgender females, MtF trans* people, and FtM trans* people–as locker rooms open from being sex-segregated to being segregated by man/woman gender identity and/or expression.

For non-transgender males, this change is either neutral (if you’re not a creep) or, if you’re a really incredibly gross dude, it could be positive to you, because you might be able to gain entry into a women’s space to gawk or rape.

For MtF transgender people, this change is significantly positive, removing them from a large majority of potential rapists and into a space where they feel more comfortable, happy, and at ease.

For non-transgender females, the change is neutral to negative.  Rape risks are real, and fears of manipulative men invading women’s spaces, sometimes even at great personal cost, are also real.

For FtM people, the change is unlikely to be positive and could be significantly negative.  If an FtM person is forced to go to the men’s locker room, they risk rape for their gender-nonconformity.  Their alternative is to stay in the women’s locker room, where they feel they do not belong.

So here’s the problem radical feminists have with that: do you notice the groups that are getting positive effects, and the groups that are getting negative ones?  People born with penises, regardless of the gender they identify as, are at worst looking at a policy change that is neutral to them.  People born with vaginas, on the other hand, regardless of their gender identity, are being hurt by this policy at worst and will find it neutral at best.

Now, let’s look at the three-bathroom idea, and how it affects those same groups of people:

Non-transgender men: this policy is neutral to positive for non-transgender men.  Men who are embarrassed to change in the company of other men may prefer the third room, resulting in a positive experience versus the current configuration.

Transgender MtF people: this policy is positive, with caveats, for MtF people.  It definitely decreases the risk of rape or harassment that could befall an MtF person in a men’s locker room.  However, the positives of this may be tempered for some MtF people by the fact that going to a separate locker room would seem like it was invalidating some aspect of their gender identity.

Non-transgender females: This policy would be neutral to positive for non-transgender females.  Some of these women would choose to use a third bathroom.

FtM people: This policy would be positive–few FtM people were able to use men’s locker rooms without fear of harassment or rape.  The policy allows FtM people to go into a safe space locker room that isn’t designated as being for the gender they do not identify with.

So, that’s the bathroom/locker room problem.  It’s complicated, and like I said, no solution is perfect because we don’t live in a perfect world.  But could we maybe take a few minutes for everyone to acknowledge that yes, both sides in this intense disagreement have very real fears about assault, rape, and identity, and that any good solution for these issues will, in fact, work by taking those fears into account rather than dismissing them out of hand?

One in Twelve

One in twelve trans people is murdered in their lifetime–one in eight trans women of color.

You’ve heard this statistic, right?  It comes up in just about any argument in which trans people want to talk about their experience of oppression.  It’s a horrifying statistic.

It’s also completely, demonstrably untrue–and its propagation has pernicious racist, sexist, and classist effects.  Strap yourselves in, kiddos, ’cause we’re going on a ride to Statisticsville, population YOU.

According to the best estimates available from trans* sources about the prevalence of transgenderism in the United States, approximately .3 percent of Americans identify as transgender.  That gives us a figure of just barely under a million trans people out of the 313 million folks living in the U.S. today.  Now, out of that number, some percentage of these people will be out.  Some of them are still babies, so they’re only going to come out later.  Some of them may never come out due to oppression, so let’s say that of this million, only half of them ever actually show that they’re trans in a way that would potentially lead to a hate crime.

That’d leave us with half a million trans people who would be out enough for trans hatred to manifest in terrible ways.  For the 1 in 12 statistic to be accurate, 41,667 of that half million would be murdered.  If the full million were out, the number is, of course, twice that high–83,333.

Now, we do have statistics about how many trans people have actually been murdered, but under-reporting is a concern.  The National Transgender Day of Remembrance has documented just 15 cases of trans people being murdered in the United States last year.  However, many people believe that most of the murders of transgender people may be misreported as violence against gay or lesbian people.  According to our best statistics, 30 people were murdered because of their sexual orientation or identity last year.

Now, let’s assume that every one of those murders was of a trans person, and that furthermore, the actual rate is double due to underreporting–that sixty trans people are killed every year, just for being trans, out of the 500,000 out trans people in the United States.  That’s an annual rate of 12 per 100,000.  Even using these statistics that have been weighted heavily toward indicating a higher murder rate, it would take an out trans lifespan of about 700 years for the 1 in 12 rate to be true.  We’re talking about an exaggeration of the statistics that, in the very least, represents trans activists and their allies blindly quoting a statistic that is overestimating the actual murder rate by ten times.  Even with the most generous readings possible of available statistics, the maximum chance a trans person has of being murdered in the United States is less than 1 in 100.

To put it another way, let’s assume that every out trans person has an average of 65 years in which they are out enough to risk violence for their identity (which is, again, weighted in favor of the trans* people and their allies–if we assumed a significantly shorter out time, the rate would need to be significantly higher per year).  This would require that in an average of 641 murders of trans people would have to occur–that in fact, in a year like 2011, in which 12,664 murders occurred according to the FBI, one in every 19 murders would be of a trans person.

Let’s talk about another group in America: black males.  Black males in the United States have a lifespan of 70.8 years.  Recent crime statistics show that nearly half of murder victims–5416 in 2011–were black males.  With around 19 million black males in the United States, this means that 1 in 3500 black males in the United States will be murdered this year alone, if we stay on par with 2011.  Over a lifespan of 70.8 years, this would mean that black males born today, assuming murder numbers and population stayed constant, have a…carry the 1…let’s see here.

Oh yes, about a 1 in 49 chance of being murdered in the United States.  Over twice the rate that trans people are murdered.

When trans activists claim that they’re being murdered at a rate of 1 in 12, they’re trying to claim the gold medal in the Oppression Olympics just by making up their own statistics.  In so doing, they’re leapfrogging their own oppression over groups of people whose murder rates are actually substantially higher than theirs.  For example, black women, while not murdered at the same rates as black men, are still significantly more likely to be murdered in their lifetimes than trans women.  Prostitutes, as a class, are significantly more likely to be murdered than trans women, when we’re using statistics that have any basis in reality.

But by using this 1 in 12 figure, what trans activists do is proclaim that they are being oppressed all out of proportion with other groups.  It’s a statistic meant to be alarming, meant to make people think that trans oppression is especially bad, that it is much, much worse than oppression of many other oppressed classes.  These made-up statistics, so easily debunked, should be something people are ashamed to repeat–except that they’re not.  You can see this statistic all over the internet, and every time it’s used, remind yourself that you’re seeing activists exploiting murders and making up hundreds of crimes that never happened just so that they can have immediate attention paid to their oppression, rather than the oppression of others being murdered at higher actual rates.

“But there’s no such thing as autogynephilia!”: Phone Sex, the Male Gaze, and How Blanchard and Trans* Activists Both Get It Wrong

Whenever radical feminists and trans* activists clash about trans* issues, there’s a major divide on the issue of something called “autogynephilia.”

Autogynephilia is often advanced as one of two forms of transsexuality for men–the other involves a very feminine homosexuality that manifests as transsexuality.  I don’t buy into Blanchard’s easy two-part typology. But at the same time, it’s ridiculous for trans* people and their allies to claim that autogynephilia isn’t real.

I know this, because I worked as a phone sex operator for a number of years.

During those years, I only had one woman caller–she wanted to know who her husband had been calling all this time, late at night.

However, I’d also hear another type of call from men who got off on the idea of themselves as women.  Sometimes, they’d call already using a falsetto.  Other times, they’d want me to suss out what they wanted, because that was part of the fun to them–being identified by a woman as someone who wanted to be feminized.

These callers were among my most lucrative, calling with more frequency and duration than almost any other caller.  It’s worth noting that–contrary to Blanchard’s hypothesis–not all of these callers identified as lesbians.  Here are some of the things that the callers who wanted to be feminized got off on:

 

*  Being “hypnotized” into believing they were growing breasts–and they always wanted incredibly large ones–and that their penises were shrinking and becoming a fuckable hole.

*  Being ordered to go to glory holes and rest stops and public men’s rooms dressed in very frilly women’s clothing, and to offer sexual services to men in those places.

*  Telling me about times when they had snuck into women’s spaces, including rest rooms and department store changing rooms, while dressed as women, and had masturbated in those spaces.

*  Telling me about times in their childhood when they had worn women’s clothing.

*  Having me tell them how to do their makeup or hair (yes, they would masturbate during this).

*  Telling me about going to stores selling feminine clothing and/or lingerie, and about shocking the (always female) workers there with their requests.

 

Whether they were sexually interested in men or women (and why men who are sexually interested in men call female phone sex operators is a whole other story), these autogynephiles had some significant similarities.

One of those similarities is that all of the autogynephiles who contacted me as a phone sex operator–and yes, I realize that makes it a very skewed sample–wanted fantasies involving them fitting into incredibly restrictive feminine beauty paradigms.  Many seemed to want to be a Barbie doll type, with incredibly large breasts, long, blonde hair, and tiny pert asses.  It’s worth noting that many of these men were in their forties and fifties.  You might say, well, but this is fantasy.  Lots of people would want to fantasize about looking different in their phone sex fantasies, right?  Nope.  Dudes on phone sex lines who aren’t autogynephiles tend to give fairly realistic descriptions, and I never heard one want to play at being young and handsome.

They also wanted to have overtly feminine presentations of a kind that required incredible amounts of performance.  Makeup, heels, the whole lot–as if these things were a requirement of “true” femaleness.

Another similarity is that they would view women as fuckholes.  Really, truly.  A huge part of what they fetishized, every single one of these autogynephilic men, is the notion of being a submissive, receptive partner during sex.  I never heard someone who wanted to become a woman in their fantasy, then dominate men with their epic new vagina.  I never heard someone who wanted to be a woman in their fantasy and then wanted to call the sexual shots in any way.  For many autogynephiles, specific feminine trappings were almost totemic in their power to divest them of their masculine power.  For one, putting on a pair of suntan pantyhose (has any actual woman with a very light skin tone worn these in twenty years?) was the moment that he adopted his falsetto and, with it, an attitude of receptiveness and “airheadedness” that he apparently viewed as intrinsically female.

In the view of these men, becoming a woman was incredibly sexy.  As someone who enjoyed making money, I tried to figure out some of the psychology behind the autogynephile.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about the male gaze.

From the perspective of the gazer, the male gaze can feel lonely.  It certainly would be wonderful to be the center of attention, thinks the gazer, who today more than ever does his gazing completely alone, without any social interaction with other people of either sex.  All over the internet, men identify with this lonely gaze, giving rise to everything from “pick-up” “artistry” to terms like “forever alone” and “friendzone.”  Some of these become men’s rights activists, and believe that the people their gaze is attracted to–beautiful women–have everything they could possibly want.  They develop a hatred for the object of their gaze, feeling that the gazed-upon is privileged with a life that, at least, never needs to be lonely.

Other men develop an affinity with the gazed-upon.  Many of the trans women I have known who would bristle at any notion that they are autogynephiles, start out as men who consider themselves to be sensitive and have primarily female friends.  Over time, their empathy with women friends is compounded by alienation from socialization with other males, who often reject this male because of his perceived non-conformity to male norms (expressed as being a “pussy” or “wimp” or “bitch”–all feminizing terms).  They then reject the notion of their own personal masculinity and the gender binary. They can’t, however, let go of the notion that there’s a “gender spectrum” in which some traits are masculine or feminine–that we’re all people and that the notion of gender consists of social roles designed to segregate the sexes.

These beliefs combine and form into the expression of a desire to be a woman, which is essentially retconned into their history from childhood onward.  Parts of the person’s childhood in which they breached gender roles are often brought up.  What’s not often brought up is the fact that all children breach gender roles–that in fact, children will commit breaches of rules of all sorts, and that this is generally the way that humans learn the rules of their society.  It’s not just a few kids who transgress gender roles, not even most.  It’s all of them, every single one, and transgression of gender boundaries is necessary because gender roles are bullshit that must be learned, which means rules breaches and corrections are just part of the fun.

Instead of being eroticized and objectified, in this scenario, the trans person is idealizing women in the same way that a white professor of American Indian languages and literature did when she once told my entire class that there were no profane or curse words in any American Indian language because “they don’t think that way.”  Women, the gazed-upon, become idealized from their gaze.  Left with a piteously deficient model of masculinity and an idealized one of femininity-on-a-pedestal, and with their heterosexual desires still intact, these men become MtFs who identify strongly as lesbians and eroticize lesbian sexuality because they believe it frees them from the power dynamics of heterosexuality while giving them access to spaces free from those “other” kinds of men–spaces where women feel safer and more free about letting themselves talk.  The MtF trans* people I have known who fit this dynamic have an almost fetishistic need to talk to women about personal things and to be let into a woman’s inner emotional space, even women they barely know.  They take a lot of pride in (and will happily tell you about, ad nauseam) their ability to get into a woman’s psyche and help her solve her problems.  They give lots of advice to women.

When someone who idealizes women in this way transitions to living as a woman, they often talk a lot about losing privilege.  What they are actually doing is, very often, nothing of the sort.  The trans activists who started out as Silicon Valley nerdy “forever alone” types (who comprised a huge number of callers over the years!) were economically and racially privileged men, but when it came to the patriarchy, they were being shit upon by traditional masculinity.  Instead, they’re seeking to move up, not down.  They want to move into women’s spaces, where their male socialization will make it easier for them to get ahead, be assertive, and be at the top of their social hierarchy with other women talking to them and ensuring that they don’t feel lonely.  Instead of hating the gazed-upon, this kind of person decides that the only freedom from the gazer’s existential loneliness is to become the gazed-upon.  Once in the territory of the gazed-upon, the person who has been socialized as a gazer can switch at will in their relationships with women, both sexual and otherwise, a privilege not afforded to female born persons.

For these MtF people, the idea that they might have retained some of the trappings of what they were taught as children, that they were treated differently as male children than they would have been as female children, is odious because it represents a challenge to the idea that they have no part in patriarchy.  They seem to believe that patriarchy is something you can simply walk away from, and say that you had no part in it, as long as you say the right words about your identity.  They don’t necessarily fetishize giant breasts and other similar patriarchal beauty dictates, but they do romanticize and fetishize lesbian relationships and sexuality, and they idealize femininity in general in a way that made me uncomfortable when I heard it during phone sex calls and more uncomfortable now that I am no longer involved in that industry.

It also makes me extremely uncomfortable to hear that there is no “universal experience of girlhood” from MtF people who want to intrude on spaces that have been designated for female people who were socialized as female since birth.  There’s also no universal experience of blackness, of disability, of many of the categories in which oppression occurs.  For members of other classes, this “universal experience” isn’t required for the members of that group to be able to meet without people who have not experienced oppression in the same context.  I’m also incredibly uncomfortable with MtF people who swear up and down that there is simply no such thing as autogynephilia.  There is.  Blanchard may not have been able to find out about all the types of autogynephiles there are, but men getting off on becoming women is something that happens–constantly, and in a way that is often so compelling that men will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars having their fantasies catered to by a willing woman.

Today, many women in liberal feminist spheres will give that to men wanting to get off on their ability to become the gazed-upon at will, completely free of charge.  One of the biggest reasons I am skeptical of the “born this way” school of transgenderism is that I have personally had to listen to hundreds of men who paid me to cater to their extremely sexualized, misogynistic fantasies of what it means to be transformed into a woman.  Don’t tell me autogynephilia doesn’t exist, when I made many thousands of dollars by learning enough about it to be able to cater to it in a way that played on the psychology behind it.  Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist to make your political point, when I have the reviews from many, many “girls” who were satisfied customers.

The sooner trans* people acknowledge that yes, creepy autogynephiles and people who idealize femininity in ultimately patriarchal ways are in their movement, the sooner it will be easier for radical feminists and trans activists to have a reasonable conversation about the complex conflicts involved in letting trans* women into women’s spaces.  Pretending that these people do not exist does a disservice to the women who know that they have been economically, emotionally, socially or physically coerced into helping men live out their fantasy lives as women.

Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy

When I say that transgenderism is culture bound, don’t get me wrong: I think every gender role and presentation is, in fact, dependent on culture.  The entire idea of gender, the roles that are developed and called “gender,” are based on the sex binary.  That’s why almost always, when you see gender roles, even if there are more than two, you can bet money that it’s just a matter of reclassifying people who don’t fit into a culture’s otherwise rigidly defined sex roles.

Which brings us to the indigenous people of North America.

I have a special kind of rage for any white person who claims to identify as a “Two Spirit” person.  It’s like wearing a hipster headdress: it proclaims loud and clear that you’re a white person who likes to appropriate American Indian culture while having little or nothing to do with the culture you’re appropriating.

The version of this that’s less enraging but more prevalent (think of it as the “dreamcatcher” of appropriation–common, misunderstood, and talked about in gross ways by all kinds of white people) is the white trans person who points to American Indian cultures as some kind of more accepting place for people with dysphoria/GID, because many of these cultures had a “third gender.”  This represents a misunderstanding of what, precisely, being two-spirit meant culturally, economically, and socially for many two-spirit people, and also represents a very limiting, naive, “all these people look the same to me” view of American Indian nations.

Before we start: lumping all non-gender-conforming people in indigenous North America into a single “third gender” or “berdache” or “two-spirit” label is problematic.  The cultures of pre-Columbian North America were incredibly distinct from each other, with significantly different gender roles to be observed even in Indian nations that were very close to each other.

What gets even more interesting when you look into the two-spirit phenomenon is where it doesn’t pop up–or doesn’t pop up with the same frequency.

The Iroquois Confederation historically had no two-spirit people in spite of keeping significantly more detailed documentation of the lives of its people than many other American Indian nations.  For that matter, neither did the Apache, who treated two-spirit people respectfully and cordially when they met them but did not themselves have two-spirit people as part of their culture.

What would make the Iroquois and Apache different?  It’s not a matter of genetics.  That’d only be possible if there were no intermarriages between American Indian people from different nations, and that’s simply not true.

The Iroquois had one of the most politically egalitarian societies for men and women in the world, at the time when white folks set out to destroy them systematically.  Women had significant amounts of political power, and the society was not simply matrilineal (which can sometimes still involve huge patriarchal gender role issues–hello, Orthodox Judaism!) but involved real equality of authority.

The Apache were famed for their skill in battle, which may mean you’ve never heard one of the most fascinating parts about their culture.  Because war was a near-constant fact for Apache adults, while adults tended to have sex-segregated roles in society, children were actually given a very non-gendered upbringing.  Girls were expected to know how to do “boy” things, and vice versa.  Why?  Think about the home front during World War II.  It’s a good idea if all your people know the basics, just so that when there are war parties gone, or a sex imbalance after raids, you don’t lose all of the missing/dead people’s knowledge and skill base.

Neither of these societies–which have in some ways more progressive and egalitarian places for women and/or girls than contemporary societies–had two-spirit people.  Was this because they were evil and repressive?

Let’s take the Lakota, one piece of the Sioux nation, as an alternate example.  Please note that I’m speaking about the Sioux nations from the perspective of someone who has taken time to learn a great deal of a Sioux language and has studied these cultures both in historical and contemporary contexts.  The Lakota have a longstanding tradition of two-spirit people, documented as far back as the written record goes.  Among the Lakota, polygyny was accepted, and gender roles were extremely clearly established for boys and girls from an extremely early age.

The Lakota two spirit people are never born women.  Almost all of them, historically, have been men.  Claims of intersexed/hermaphroditic people from the 19th/early 20th centuries should ALWAYS be taken with a significant grain of salt, because of the trouble Europeans in this era had distinguishing between homosexuality and hermaphroditism (both male and female homosexuals were often thought to have hermaphroditic qualities–a historical fact we’ll talk about in another entry!).

Were no Lakota women “born this way” while men were?  Let me postulate a different theory: that it’s men in power who impose gender roles, and that Lakota men’s patriarchal society had to have somewhere to put “men who don’t ‘act like’ men” because of male gender policing. Lakota people put two-spirit men in the part of the camp where women and children lived, which was generally not as well cared for and considered not as prestigious because of the patriarchal way that they lived.

While there were occasionally women in the Lakota and other Sioux nations that became part of war parties, they were not regarded as “male” in any way relating to their oppressed status at home.  There was no need for the patriarchal Sioux to create a category for gender non-conforming women, nor to give them special status or specific supposed talents (Lakota and Dakota two-spirit people are said to be excellent namers of children and are thought to be able to see visions of the future).  That’s something men do for men, because just by dint of having a penis, gender non-conforming men deserved to be able to have their own group and identity.

You see this in large numbers of patriarchal American Indian cultures: societies where there’s a firmly established “third” gender that men can elect to participate in (sometimes as older people, sometimes from an early age), while women’s gender roles are firmly entrenched and allow for little variance.  What’s amazing is that many people are invested in the notion that third gender was egalitarian.  Check out how careful this website is to show us both male and female two-spirit people–in fact, having more stories of female two-spirit people–while making no mention of the fact that female third gender individuals were incredibly rare compared to male ones.

Let’s take another example of a society that had a significantly different conception of gender and what it meant to be two-spirit.  The Dene people of Alberta are a First Nations group that historically believed children could be reincarnations of deceased relatives.  So far, so good, lots of cultures think that–hell, sometimes my own mother tells me I’m the reincarnation of my great grandfather.  But in Dene culture, if your parents saw the spirit of a woman enter your mother’s body when she was pregnant, regardless of your birth sex you could be referred to as “my daughter” by the man who believed his daughter’s spirit had been reincarnated into you.  You wouldn’t have to live as the sex of the person that you were thought to have been before, but would always be considered to in some way have a foot in each gender from your reincarnated past.

The Dene, it’s worth noting, forced women to go hungry at their husband’s discretion whenever the tribe was low on food.  Women in this society were among the most oppressed women in all of indigenous North America.  These supposedly progressive ways of viewing gender don’t come from cultures that actually treat women progressively.  Not once.

It’s very strange to watch the contemporary trans movement attempt to incorporate American Indian cultural conceptions of gender-nonconformity, because it’s so clearly an attempt to shoehorn people of the past into contemporary cultural labels.  In some third gender societies, two-spirit was simply a way to handle homosexuality within the group: homosexual men were considered not fully men, a halfway gender that wasn’t quite “normal.”  In others, it was a way to handle intersexed people in societies with rigid sex binaries.  In still others, it was for men who specifically preferred women’s work and roles, like weaving and cooking.

In almost none of these societies did two-spirit people born male identify *as women*.  We have no documented cases (in spite of documentation of other activities and feelings of “berdaches”/two-spirits in history) of two-spirit men anguishing over an inability to be fully recognized as a woman or to have a woman’s body.  They tended to identify as a different type of man, or something between masculine and feminine.

To systematically deprive historical two-spirit people of their own thoughts regarding their gender and what the historical record shows was their place in society–to misrepresent these people, who were often oppressed within their groups rather than lauded for their non-conformity, in spite of the all-too-common hagiographic contemporary notion of American Indian nations as places free from oppression–is to erase the nuance of real history in favor of a conception of history in which really, everyone’s just like you, you lucky 21st century son of a gun who has it all figured out.

The continuous use of two-spirit people as a way to show that transgenderism has existed in all societies–and the incredible lack of knowledge of the basics of indigenous North American cultures shown by many trans people who casually refer to there being transgender people in American Indian societies–is appropriative behavior.  It is taking the parts of a society that you think you like, without studying them much or looking at their origins, and deciding that the culture they’re from must really be deep and would really get you.  It’s de-contextualizing and de-humanizing, and erases differences between American Indian cultures as well as the fundamental ways those cultures historically were different from anything we have on the planet today.

What’s instead true is that American Indian nations that had more rigid gender roles and assigned women less power historically felt the need to strip male/female identities from non-conformers, while more egalitarian societies with less gender socialization lack two-spirit people because of, rather than in spite of, their lack of emphasis on sex-assigned gender roles.

 

–Deirdre Bell