Trans Feminism: Partial Identification as a Way of Life

As I’ve had time to become more comfortable with my transition, I am at beginning the process of coming to terms with my guilt and anxiety over being a feminist who is transitioning to male. In many ways, I recognized that my feelings of guilt and anxiety were irrational from the start. For a long time, I had been able to find the rational arguments to combat the idea that trans men who transitioned were somehow committing an anti-feminist gesture or, at the very least, copping out of the difficulties of female and gender-deviant female oppression. That is, when I found the accusers worth attending to at all. But somehow, when it came to me, none of these perfectly rational arguments were good enough to combat the fear that – although other trans men hadn’t – perhaps somehow I had copped out of female and female gender-deviant oppression, perhaps I had entered into the privilege of the dominant social category of male, perhaps I had failed in the basic sentiment of female-identified sisterhood and demonstrated a basic political naivety by identifying with gay male culture. Out in academic circles, I feared losing the automatic welcome, and more, the interest that dyke feminist academics had reserved for me as a hypervisible young butch (it would appear) academic. A few instances at conferences in which prominent queer female academics who I had encountered before appeared to not recognize, much less to be interested in me sufficed to make me fear that this was one community that would no longer recognize me by sight. Most of my fears, however, reiterated the cranky alcohol-lubricated accusations of my butch lesbian Pops, now internalized and deployed against myself.

In my experience, though I am now perceived as male and experience all the male privilege I can as a faggy, adolescent-looking, small, and gender-ambiguous queer Asian man, I feel as much, if not more, rage and indignation at the sexist oppression that women face as before. Though I am not a woman, my identification with feminists and with feminist aims feels as immediate and urgent before, if not more. As is the case for many trans men, my experientially-based sense of rage at what women experience (much of which I no longer experience) is combined with a deep horror at the memory that, in the past, my experience of the injustice of sexist oppression was combined with the trauma of being misgendered by such oppression.

But feminism is not just a matter of feelings and identifications, authentic or not.  It is also a matter of deeds and analyses. And in this respect, I am a better feminist now than before. Whereas before, I tended to emphasize trans, queer, and racial oppression over sexist oppression, while insisting that the former were all already feminist issues, after transitioning, I felt compelled to take seriously the oppression that women experience as women and that lesbians experience as lesbian women. Now that I would no longer experience these forms of oppression, it seems to be my weighty responsibility to fully take stock of them. Finally, I felt that I had, rightly, higher standards to live up to as a male feminist than as a female feminist. Before, I could afford a certain cavalier attitude with regards to feminism as, by virtue of my very embodied existence, I was assumed to occupy a privileged feminist subject position. Now, only the quality of my feminist practices is capable of establishing my feminism. This year, I have given more serious scholarly attention to systems and logics of male dominance, and I have tried harder to convince students of their importance, than ever before.

To reiterate, and so that you understand what I’m been beating myself up about, my Pops has indirectly accused me and trans men in general:

  • of entering the socially dominant class: men.
  • of not taking patriarchy seriously. (“We dedicated our whole lives to fighting patriarchy, and now, you act like patriarchy doesn’t even matter. You all just want to be men. Where is the apology for patriarchy? I’m still waiting for the apology!”)

It is only now that the very reasonable arguments from before actually feel like they make sense. So, now that I actually believe them, here they are:

1.  Shouldn’t we question a feminist politics for which the daily experience of oppression based on being socially perceived as female is a prerequisite to being a proper feminist subject? Is the personal ongoing experience of the oppression of being perceived as a woman really feminism’s foundational affect? Are we disinterested in other sorts of feminist subjects and other affects and experiences of feminist subjecthood?

2. Feminism has, thus far, not been fully revolutionary for many reasons. One of them, however, is that a form of thought and activism that purports to challenge patriarchy but makes little effort to convince men of their stake in feminism and in challenging patriarchy can never fulfill its own society-wide revolutionary aims. For feminism to fully succeed, we need viable models, not only of feminist masculinity (which might include female masculinity), but also of feminist manhood. Feminist trans men are at the forefront of men who are currently crafting viable alternative feminist masculinities and feminist manhoods. Feminist men who manage to be feminists without condescension, hypocrisy, or self-serving ulterior motivates and who engage the world as such should, because of their very rarity, be objects of feminist cultivation. I have always believed in the underecognized project of cultivating feminist masculinities. I don’t see, however, why butch women should be the only ones who should get credit for such masculinities.

3. Trans men who are read as men may not experience the oppression that people perceived as women experience, but they do experience manifold other forms of gender-based oppression to which feminism would do well to attend. Trans men expose the ignorance of women and of lesbian women who consider themselves feminists while having absolutely no inkling of the forms of gender-based oppression that trans people experience in both institutional and interpersonal settings, of the systems of cissexism and ciscentrism that give rise to these experiences, and of the ways in which they themselves, with their knee-jerk accusations, unthinking presumptions, and invasive, entitled questions, contribute to this oppression.

4. If someone identifies as a “man,” what cruel feminist law dictates that he should, nevertheless, have to experience the oppression that women experience? Does this not seem like an irrational and cruel demand to make of him?

Accusations answered! Two of my Pop’s accusations, however, are less easily dispatched, for they focus on the politics of my identifications, attractions, and dispositions themselves. She accused me

  • of choosing the other side (men) and of thereby radically rejecting women and relationalities with women. (“You’re choosing them [a group of drunk white straight dudes] over me?” “What I am [a woman] is anathema to you”).
  • of falling into a pervasive pattern, prevalent within queer studies, popular culture, mainstream straight culture, and straight female culture, of finding gay men hipper, funner, funnier, more culturally interesting, more attractive, more charming, more sexually avant-guard, and more radical than lesbians and, in the process, blithely dismissing lesbian-feminism, rewarding gay men’s greater historical access to cultural representation, public space, capital, property and greater historical control over gay movement politics and queer academia, and reaffirming the privileging of hyper-representable, hyper-sexualized phallic sexuality.

I think it’s true that I have tended to idealize gay men and to demonize lesbians and that, in the process, I have indeed contributed to all the forms of cultural privilege already enjoyed by gay men over lesbians. I have tried to check this tendency lately, by thinking of lesbians as historically oppressed and disadvantaged to a greater extent than gay men, and as therefore especially deserving of respect and interest. I sought to temper my enthusiasm about gay men and to open my eyes to all that is problematic about gay male culture (body fascism, racism, misogyny, ageism, cluelessness about feminism, failure to acknowledge male privilege, and an increasingly privileged position within capitalism). I have recognized that I want to have rich and meaningful relations with feminist lesbians,  in particular, with an older generation of dyke activists and academics. I have recognized that I am capable of doing this, though I am not a lesbian and I do not identify with lesbian culture. At a conference, one of the prominent dyke feminists to whom I believed myself newly invisible shook my hand and remembered my name (which I don’t recall ever telling her), proving to me that I am not, in fact, exiled from queer academic feminist community.

In the process, I have realized that, though I may be a man, both my body and my past experience place me squarely in the in-between zone of gender. Before transitioning, I identified with gay men and gay male culture. Now I realize that I do not identify fully with either gay male or lesbian cultures. I realize that both were made by others for others than me precisely, though there may be a certain marginalized and contingent room within both for someone like me. Likewise, when gay and lesbian academics talk about gay and lesbian politics, histories, and identities, they are usually not talking precisely about the politics or the issues of someone like me. The typical identity politics response to this issue is to contend that trans people should have our own social space as well as our  own institutional space within academia. But these are only partial solutions.

The fact is that being trans –  if one’s nude body cannot be unproblematically categorized as male or female and if one has experienced a change in one’s sex identification over the course of one’s life – is a state of being in-between. But at the same time, not being able to identify fully and unproblematically as gay, lesbian, woman, or man and recognizing that the politics, issues, and experiences of those considered gay, lesbian, women, and men do not fully line up with yours and were not created with you in mind might be the starting point for a politics of inexact identification. I am not fully what people have in mind by woman, man, gay, or lesbian, yet I find feminist and queer politics and histories a matter of passionate and deeply personal interest, even as I seek to critique their exclusions, and even as I know that they did not develop for people like me. It is interesting to claim descendance from movements and histories who might not recognize me as their progeny and to claim space in communities that might not have room for me. This, nevertheless, feels more honest, both personally and intellectually, than either forcing myself to not transition so as to lay rightful claim to lesbian descendance or brainwashing myself into believing that I experience a total congruence with gay male culture.

The experiential fact is that there is a lack of fit, whether I’m hanging out with gay cis men or with lesbian women, and that this lack of fit is not just because of how I am perceived or because of the state of my body. There is a deeper alienation and unbelonging at work. Yet I struggle to understand this alienation and unbelonging not as cause for bitterness, fear, and loneliness, but as a resource. Though I find it nourishing and important to cultivate friendships with other trans people, I also try not to fool myself into longing for the old and worn identity politics solution – the belief that creating an identity category and an identity politics made only for people just like me will assuage my loneliness and give me the sense of belonging I crave. For identity is notoriously imaginary, and I may well find that other trans people can be as disappointingly and alienatingly unlike me as cis lesbians or gay cis men. The truth is that all identity categories are fraught by difference, their surface unity mined from within. I know that the sense of difference and sometimes alienation I feel is like that felt by many queers of color (the title of José Esteban Muñoz’s book, Disidentifications, says it all). I also know that as a mixed Puerto-Rican Malaysian whose Puerto-Ricaness is invisible to the naked eye, but whose Malaysianess is effectively phantasmatic, since I have had next to no contact with my Malaysian family, I have never had the option that other ethnic minorities in the U.S. have had of turning to their own ethnic group for refuge. What is my “own” ethnic group, and how can I feel a part of it? Likewise, there is really no such thing, for me, as intraracial sexuality. I have no choice but to engage exclusively in cross-racial sexuality, just as I have no choice but to engage in cross-racial socializing. Yes, I have never had the comfort of full belonging. Transition is exacerbating this to a point where it is easy to feel alienated, lonely, and afraid. Knowing, as I do, the faults of identity politics, I seek to make my transness the basis for passionate identifications that are aware of their own inexactness, that do not lose heart because of it, but that do recognize and critique, lovingly, the imperfections and the exclusions of the identity categories they claim.

This trans subjectivity can also be a model for queer scholarship in general, opening “gay” and “lesbian” history to reveal the manifold identifications, affects, imaginaries, desires and relationalities that are not, in fact, fully legible under the dominant sign of contemporary “gay” and “lesbian” identity. Acknowledging this might us do justice to the irreducible heterogeneity at the heart and at the margins of gay and lesbian identity. I get a personal pleasure from mapping the ways in which specific historical non-normative sexual subject positions diverge from the dominant contemporary model of gay and lesbian identity because, as a mixed-race trans person, it is in my interest to break these definitions open and apart. But I do this because, at the same time, I identify passionately with them.

So what does it mean to name myself the descendant of histories that might not want to recognize me as their progeny? It means understanding history to be a nonlinear process that comprises multiple temporalities, multiple histories, multiple origins, and multiple futures. It means recognizing that there is a transgender past that, having coalesced into contemporary gay and lesbian identity, is now disavowed by it, precisely so that someone like me is made to appear adrift, without historical or political antecedents. It means recognizing that the cisgender purity in whose name one is exiled from “gay” and “lesbian” was a falsification, a myth, from the start. All these concepts are exciting to grasp. What is harder is understand, affectively, is how one can do away with the desire for full identity and perfect belonging without feeling a sense of fear, loneliness, and loss; and how one can have the courage to identify with, and even to love, identities and cultures to which one knows one does not fully belong, which one knows have historically maligned and exiled trans folk. The trick is to feel at home in in-betweeness without losing one’s capacity for relationality, for identification, for passion and attraction, and without experiencing difference as always a disappointment and a shock. To not have “a people,” but to relate partially to many peoples while embracing one’s own internal multiplicity.

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4 Responses to Trans Feminism: Partial Identification as a Way of Life

  1. Larkin says:

    Wow… Yes. There is so much here.
    I want to come back later and write more of a response to you.
    Thank you.

  2. m says:

    Your text is really helpful to read because at the moment I struggle with some of these issues as well. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Justa Notha says:

    I really appreciated this post. We definitely need more men to be engaged in feminism, and I think you are in a unique position to help bridge that gap.

    Although I realize its a completely different I’ve felt dome similar qualms about going from identifying as bi to identifying as Lesbian. Although it feels completely right to only want to be with women, I feel like I’m giving up on the struggle for bi acceptance in exchange for Lesbian privilege.

    I also know what it’s like to find yourself valuing another culture over your own, another culture that was not made for you, and will never completely accept or include you. Im white, and I feel the same way about black culture that you do about the gay male culture.

    But I think that it’s ok. It’s ok to long for belonging, ok to be attracted to cultures that are different, normal to feel estranged–I don’t think anyone feels completely accepted and included, even in their affinity groups.
    It’s unfortunate that groups are so quick to reject people they see as “other” rather than opening up the tent to everyone.

  4. Faggot Boi says:

    I think the difference is that I am a gay man, so I am not appropriating or seeking acceptance in a culture that is foreign to me. But at the same time, gay male culture was not developed with gay men like me in mind, particularly thinking historically.

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