Beyond the Binary: Question Eighteen
July 1, 2013 § 1 Comment
Wow…that was some weekend. I’ll be blogging about Transpose Pride in a little bit, but first back to the Q&A. Panel bios here.
How much difference does having a genderqueer gender identity make to people’s experiences of cisprivilege and transphobia? How does this differ from e.g. being visibly non gender conforming?
Jennie: For me this is ccomplicated because I have a degree of public visibility so I can never be sure if a stranger has identified me as trans and/or intersex or not, regardless of my appearance and what I may or may not have said in their presence. With that in mind, I can’t easily know if I’m experiencing cisprivilege in a lot of situations. I do encounter different forms of transphobia, however, because people sometimes confide it in me, not realising how that’s lkely to make me feel (that said, I imagine any decent person would be miffed, at least); and because sometimes my transsness surprises people, making them more likely to freak out.
I do find myself in awkward situations on a semi-regular basis when I’m invited to join women’s groups – i.e. I’m offered a form of cis privilege, but I would never feel comfortable taking advantage of it. This can mean I’m forced to come out in situations where it’s socially or politically difficult, and then I feel as if the conversation has been derailed and everyone will always think of me as obsessed with something that I really don’t want to have at the centre of my life (i.e. I’d rather be seen simply as a film critic, not as a genderqueer film critic).
GrrlAlex: Strangely, by being congruently ‘trans’ and genderqueering I find I get a lot of positive reactions, respect and compliments from the broader society. As I have written previously, the consideration of both internalised homophobia in males, and the importance at a socio-interpersonal level of visual aesthetic may have much to say when it comes to exploring and understanding transphobia.
CN: I find this question really interesting, as the majority of discrimination I face comes from people who certainly don’t respect the fact that I’m trans (the kind of people who wouldn’t acknowledge trans people as anything but freaks who need to be straightened out), but who view me as a ‘woman who is transgressing’ gender (I would say trans in an adjectival/descriptive sense), and who needs to be punished for doing so. I think we need to remember that ‘identity’ doesn’t always factor into the prejudice we face – I’ve known many cis people who’ve experienced discrimination and abuse for being visibly gender non-conforming, quite a lot of trans people who are assumed to be cis in their actual gender, and a lot of trans people who are misgendered and assumed to be cis as their assigned sex. So, really, I believe the impact of being genderqueer on someone’s experiences of transphobia and (assumed) cis privilege will vary wildly from person to person.
Hel: In terms of the types of transphobia/cissexism that genderqueer/non-binary/etc people face, here’s what sprung to my mind (speaking purely about my own cultural context). Almost always being misgendered/misread in social contexts – except in certain spaces, most people will see you as male or female (and if you’re presenting in a way that confuses or troubles these categories, they may demand to know ‘which one’ you are). Similarly, being legally misgendered – there are very few ways to record gender as other than ‘M’ or ‘F’. As discussed earlier, Brighton City Council has introduced ‘Mx’ as a title, which is something of a historic first – but on the other hand, ‘X’ passports got rejected quite recently, and equal marriage laws seem to be getting themselves in a muddle about the distinction between genderqueer and intersex. And representations of genderqueer people in the mainstream media are vanishingly rare – I don’t think I can actually think of a film with an expressly genderqueer-identified character that’s been shown/distributed outside LGBTQ spaces (I’d love to know if there are any, though!). I suppose what this comes down to is to invisibility: the prevalent cultural idea that genders other than male and female just don’t exist. (I’ve been told on a few occasions things like “genderqueer is a made-up word”, “you’re just saying you’re genderqueer because ‘lesbian’ isn’t cool”, etc.)
With regards to cis privilege – I don’t think genderqueer people have cis privilege. Genderqueer people can still struggle with dysphoria, access to medical intervention, being misgendered, being discriminated against on the basis of gender identity, internalised cissexism/self-hatred, the neverending public bathroom dilemma, and so on. I do think that some genderqueer people (myself included) can have a conditional passing-as-cis privilege, in that they’re not read as being trans if they don’t disclose their trans status. I think this is particularly true if they continue to ‘live as’ their birth-assigned gender in legal terms – because, as above, if you can’t legally transition to somewhere outside the binary, then why go through the long and frustrating process of legally transitioning to a gender that still isn’t quite right? (Obviously some genderqueer people do – but based on the trans people I know (anecdotal evidence, so take it with a pinch of salt), genderqueer people are less likely to ‘legally’ transition than trans people who identify as male or female.)
In terms of being visibly gender-non-conforming (which, obviously, may or may not overlap/intersect with having a genderqueer/non-binary/etc identity) – I think it has an effect on how people interact with you in public spaces. Not necessarily increasing the number of catcalls someone gets – goodness knows that if you’re read as a woman, street harassment is horribly common anyway – but a higher percentage demanding things like “are you a man or woman?”. I’d say that trans women and transfeminine people get the worst of this – both in terms of abusive language, and violence – because it’s seen as more socially acceptable for a presumed ‘woman’ to wear male-coded clothing than a presumed ‘man’ to wear female-coded clothing (thanks, patriarchy and transmisogyny!). I’m not sure how able I am to comment usefully on the experience of being visibly gender-non-conforming, though, since I don’t tend to be read as other than a cis woman – I’ve been called a lesbian or a dyke by random people on the street a couple of times, but that’s it.
Nat: Having a ‘genderqueer identity’ can mean many things and doesn’t necessarily mean sharing this information with others. Identities can be kept entirely private; seen as a piece of personal information that isn’t relevant to others. They can be selectively shared, perhaps only with loved ones or supportive friends. They can be openly but passively shared as public information that anyone may discover, but no one is required to act on. They can also be more actively shared, as a set of pronouns or gender neutral (or otherwise gender variant) language, a gender variant name or some other active mark of understanding and acceptance that other people should respect.
If a genderqueer or nonbinary person is not visibly gender nonconforming, they will have a form of ‘passing privilege’ or ‘conditional cisgender privilege’ of being able to pass through hostile spaces without being recognised as transgressive, but this is likely to be withdrawn or eroded as their identity becomes more apparent.
Someone who is openly and actively genderqueer or nonbinary in all aspects of their life, who might be described as having undergone ‘social transition’ to some form of genderqueer or nonbinary role, but is not recognised as gender nonconforming from appearance alone, is likely to experience different types of privilege and prejudice than someone who is visibly gender nonconforming. Their ‘passing privilege’ is limited to the point where they assert their identity, such as by giving a gender variant name or correcting pronouns or other incorrectly gendered language. They are likely to experience disrespect and misgending in many circumstances. This may be more likely to manifest as erasure or being treated as binary gendered, but can also manifest as outright transphobia. I have also witnessed something similar to the unpleasant and unwanted ‘I can turn you straight’ conversations that occurs when someone with a monosexual orientation attempts to seduce a known to be nonbinary person who they are attracted to in a misgendering way.
Being visibly gender variant (i.e. by appearance alone) can also mean many things and doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re immediately seen as nonconforming. ‘Visibility’ can be due to presentation/expression through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body language etc; hiding or mixing binary gender cues. It can also be due to the mix of sex hormones in the body, or which puberty or puberties the body has been through in the past. How all these factors interact with each other and with how one identifies and asserts this identity is complex and hard to predict.
Some people are visibly gender variant in a way that’s perceived as transgressive and challenging. This may involve being seen to intentionally violate gender role and presentation taboos, or to have transgressive combinations of gender cues. These people are more likely to receive overt harassment, but the nature of that harassment varies depending on how they’re perceived.
Other visibly gender variant people are ambiguous or androgynous in a way that defies casual binary gender assignment but which is not necessarily perceived to be the result of gender nonconformity. Rather than ‘passing’ this is ‘blending’, where one is visibly different but ‘ambiguously transgressive’. In this state it is not clear to others if one is intentionally or accidentally ambiguous, and so it becomes impolite or transgressive itself to comment upon the ambiguity. This may result in strangers awkwardly avoiding gendered language or asking leading questions in the hope of discovering the person’s ‘true’ gender (see the 1990s Saturday Night Live ‘Pat’ sketches). This blending in is another conditional privilege and may be withdrawn if one is determined to be definitely transgender. I have observed that I blend much less and so receive more hostility if I’m wearing something that might cue the observer to my being transgender or gender nonconforming.
I have observed that the way I’m perceived has varied greatly with age. As I’ve aged I’ve seemed to become more ambiguous in perceived age, perhaps less so in gender, and oddly as a 33 year old, one of the most transgressive things I can do now is to state my age and remove the option for people to assume I’m much younger than I am.