Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

passable: transnormativity, privilege, or both?

       i was at a focus group for trans* feminine folk. Well, it was actually a group of trans women, but i was there and am not a woman so I amended the name in my head. i went for a reason: i wanted the health center to become more inclusive and to provide better service — this is probably unsurprising, but i had some thoughts on how to do that.

       During the group i talked about how it would be useful for medical practitioners to not assume that everyone has the same narrative. This seems basic to me, but surprises all the women in the room. They’d all strongly identified as women and seemed very invested in being read as such, whereas i’m not and am invested in being read as trans*. In that space, i claimed the identity of being a faggot with tits.

       It was out in the open that i was different than these women. i’d made them aware, and explicityly challenged their assumptions. So, i was surprised at what happened next.

       As the meeting was winding down, one of the women smiled at me, looked me up and down and said, “you look good, you’re really passable.” i felt like i’d been smacked in the face. i sighed, but recognizing that this was intended to be a compliment, i searched for a smile and thanked her.
       i left, my brain clouded by shock, gasping for sense. i’d told these folks that i didn’t identify as a woman, that i tried really hard to be visible as trans*. Had she not heard any of that? Was she incapable of perceiving my genderqueer presentation?

       i was deeply hurt and fairly confused. My identity was dismissed completely. After sitting in a room with these folks for three hours, she still assumed my experience to be identical to hers. Even after telling her i’d lowered my hormone levels to maintain a more androgynous body, she somehow thought it would be an honor, not an insult, to tell me i was passable.

       It felt as if i was being lauded for hiding my transness. After the long difficult road that brought me to my current state of trans* empowerment and intentional visibility, i was aghast to find out that i might be passable. What’s more, it felt transphobic, even though it came from a trans* person. If a cis person had said something similar, they’d be devaluing my transness by extoling my beauty based on cis standards, the only difference that this seemed to come from a place of internalized cisnormativity.

       The second this thought struck my brain however, i remembered my own sites of internalization. Although i work incredibly hard to recognize those sites and don’t impose them as standards on others, i can acknowledge that this tendency comes from a real place. Our society sets up norms of how people should identify and what those identities should look like. It then links those norms to a social hierarchy based on who fits and who doesn’t.

       So, I’ve realized that if i seem to pass to someone, they probably view it as a privilege. They may superimpose their own struggle to pass and congratulate me for seeming to achieve their goal. The truth of the matter, that i often don’t pass (which is sometimes a really great thing and sometimes quite scary), is irrelevant to this scenario. She saw something in me that seemed desirable to her and complimented that.

       i was left with several questions and very few answers as of yet. How do i receive compliments that feel like insults with grace, especially when they come from my community How do i simultaneously push back on the idea that because i’m trans* and male assigned at birth, i must be a woman? How do i also work to push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman? How do i do those things while respecting the reality that many trans* women don’t want to challenge those ideas and their identities are valid. How do i balance my gender, my activism, and my respect for others? When those conflict, is it possible to honor each concern? When it isn’t possible, what should take precedent? i don’t have answers yet, but I’m incredibly excited about this set of questions.