On “Passing”

Yes, this is another transgender rant. The Julie Bindel stuff is bringing a lot of nasty feminist ideas out of the woodwork. You don’t have to read this if you don’t want to.

Bigots come in many shapes and forms. The Rush Limbaughs of this world simply rant nastily about people that they don’t like. Limbaugh is honest about his bigotry (and so, for that matter, is Julie Bindel, though both of them may be quite dishonest in what they say about those they hate.) Some feminists, however, think they are much clever than that. They are very fond of producing neat intellectual justifications for their bigotries. A favorite tactic is to show how the despised group is like some other group that is much more widely despised (and with good reason). So yesterday I encountered the “transgender people are just as bad as racists” line. Fortunately the person who raised it quickly realized it was a blind alley and backtracked, but I’ve seen the same argument used before. Last time I looked it was on the Feminist SF Wiki.

How does that come about? It is all to do with the concept of “passing”.

Back when racism was a much worse problem than it is today, those people of color (or perhaps of mixed race) who were sufficiently light-skinned and straight-haired could sometimes get away with claiming to be “white”. This gave them a lot of social advantages, and given the level of discrimination it is hard to blame them, although obviously their less lucky colleagues were quite mad about it. These days “passing for white” is, at least in some parts of the world, more a question of pop stars and actors who adopt a “white” look, and are then imitated by kids. I don’t claim to know what goes on inside Michael Jackson’s head, but he does seem to be a bit disturbed.

So the transphobic feminist line is like this: “trans people pass themselves off as people of the other gender, so they are just like people who pass themselves off as people of another race.” Except, of course, they don’t say that, they often just mutter about how “passing is a race issue” in the hope that simply mentioning race will get people to assume that trans people are somehow being racist.

But let’s look at the question a little more deeply. The first thing to note about it is that it puts its big, clumsy foot right into the middle of a major issue within the trans community. (This is very useful for the feminists, because they can use it to divide and conquer.) Some people who identify as transgender have a very weak sense of gender identity, or perhaps it may be strong but they don’t identify as either male or female. As far as they are concerned, they are another gender (or perhaps many other genders). If one of those people were to attempt to “pass” as either male or female then perhaps that would be analogous to a black person “passing” as white. But those people are, in many cases, happy to be identified as “trans” rather than “male” or “female”. They don’t want to “pass”. The transgender people who want to “pass” are people who have a very strong sense of being either “male” or “female”. Telling them that they must present themselves as “trans” instead is effectively telling them that their gender identity is false and cannot be permitted.

So point 1 here is the deliberate creation of division with the trans community. For some feminists there are “good trannies” who self-identify as “trans” and always present themselves as such, and there are “bad trannies” who self-identify as “male” or “female”. I have seen people at WisCon push that line. (And oddly enough doctors often use the same divide, except for them “good trannies” are those who successfully assimilate into gender-normal society while “bad trannies” are those who insist on not conforming to the binary.)

And point 2 is that in discouraging passing feminists are striking at the very being of many transgender people. They are saying “you might think you are a man/woman, but you are not, and we won’t let you pretend to be one.” (“Pretend” being the operative word in that sentence.) In many ways this is very much like the Christian fundamentalist argument of, “God made you a man/woman, and you cannot change what God has decreed.”

The next issue is that of economic advantage. A person of color who “passes for white” may well be able to get a better job, be more successful socially and so on. That’s less so now that it was, but it is still a big issue. So by connecting trans issues with race issues through the use of the word “passing” feminists are subtly suggesting that trans people are not genuine in their feelings about their gender, but rather are using gender transition as a trick to gain economic advantage. I can sort of see why they feel like this in the case of trans men, in that if they do pass successfully then they will be at an economic advantage. But many trans men don’t pass well enough to realize that advantage, and even if they do, that’s not why they are trans. I have never yet met a trans person who has willingly subjected themselves to painful surgery, possibly dangerous hormone therapy, and massive levels of discrimination, just to get a better career. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

In any case, most transphobic feminists try to avoid admitting that trans men exist. Their ire is almost always directed at trans women. The idea that trans women transition to gain economic advantage is even more ludicrous. A while back I blogged about a study of trans people in employment which showed that trans women received significantly lower salaries after transitioning, although their skills had not changed at all. And I’m fairly sure that study only looked at trans people who are actually in employment – the lucky few. Even in San Francisco only 25% of the trans community has a full time job. In the rest of the world things are much worse. To suggest that trans women transition to gain economic advantage is beyond laughable, it is downright insulting.

And that’s before you ever get into the murder and suicide statistics.

But there is one way in which the “passing” analogy is absolutely spot on. White people who are racists hate the idea of people of color being able to “pass for white”, because if you can’t recognize them then you can’t discriminate against them. Racists are generally biological essentialists. They believe that your race (your DNA, your parentage) is all important, and that what you look like is secondary. Transphobic feminists are also biological essentialists. They believe that your chromosomes, or your genitalia, or whichever criterion they use to distinguish “real” women from “men”, are what is important, not what you look like. If a trans person can pass, then you don’t recognize her when you see her, and you can’t discriminate against her as you would want to.

Or, to put it another way, just who is “like racists” here?

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5 Responses to On “Passing”

  1. Twilight says:

    OK — I truly am not getting something. Perhaps it’s the flavor of feminists I’m familiar with — but gaining equal rights for women (and often, by extension, for gays/lesbians and, from my experience, any other “downtrodden” group) seems to be the focus for those that I know.

    What possible reason can there be for a class of folks (“feminists”) to want to deride any group, much less the relatively small transgender community?

    I can find neither logic nor advantage for that group to deride such a group — so what am I missing?

  2. Cheryl says:

    How about the “fact” that transgender people are “really” men, and therefore “the enemy”?

    No, really, they are men who are pretending to be women so that they can sneak into our restrooms and rape us. I’ve seen “feminists” be that silly. Just like fundies really.

    Thankfully they are few and far between these days, though views like that were apparently the norm in the 70s. Most feminists have since got over it (see Joanna Russ, for example), but there are the odd few holdouts like Germaine Greer who still rant on.

  3. Twilight says:

    Oh my — ok, i really didn’t get it — that would never have crossed my mind having worked with Transgenders (both pre and post-op) before…

    And having been in Berkeley in the ’70’s (admittedly as a teen) — I don’t remember meeting any one like that then either… I suppose I might just have missed them in my insulated jr. hi/HS world ;>.



  4. glenda larke says:

    Keep ranting, Cheryl, at least on this topic! It needs to be said again and again.

    I am reminded of the kind of weird non-logic that prompted this rant of mine over on my blog – about how do you convince someone that you are what you say your are, when they just refuse to hear…and think THEY know better.


  5. Cheryl says:

    Thanks Glenda. Not being taken at face value is one of the biggest hurdles that trans people face. Read almost any transphobic screed and you’ll find it full of discussion about what trans people “really” are, what delusions they must suffer, and what subconscious influences must be driving them to say and do things that are patently false. Psychologists are particularly bad in this respect, because of course their jobs are all about diagnosing craziness, so they just love dreaming up explanations as to why trans people are crazy. Oddly most of these seem to involve sexual perversion in some way. I can’t imagine why…

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