TG & Identity Politics

TG & Identity Politics

Copyright © Callan Williams, 1996

Are identity politics the salvation of TG people,  or the downfall of them?  It is a question worth  discussing.

I got a packet from Dallas Denny, with Chrysalis  10 and AEGIS News 6 & 7.  The theme of this  Chrysalis is Transgender Gothic, with an image  of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting on  the front, doctored by JoAnn Roberts to have the  heads of Virginia Prince and Harry Benjamin.

It contains my IFGE speech, where I call for  transcending the Prince-Benjamin model.   Dallas’ big piece is on the myth of the  Heterosexual Crossdresser, and the  communities and people who remain  untouched by the traditional gender community  — and how labeling has left them out in the cold.

Both pieces focus on the limits of the old  models, on how the groupings of people into  convenient labels and concepts limit all of us.

AEGIS News #7 is lead by Vision 2001, Dallas’s  analysis of the TG communities national groups.   Jessica Xavier writes the lead on politics, noting  that to be effective, we have to create people  whose primary identification is “transgendered,”  like the gays and lesbians have done — and if we  don’t do that, we will fail as a movement.

I also read a piece in The Sunday Gazette by Carl  Strock who went up to the National Women’s  Studies Conference up at Skidmore.  He came  away with amusement at the triumph of identity  politics, of how people grouped themselves  under labels, and how limiting that was — even  though it seemed to be the central cannon of  women’s studies.  In fact, the conference theme  was Boundaries: What separates and connects us?  I  suspect the answer to both questions was labels  — identity politics.

The biggest gift that The Prince brought to  transgendered people was identity politics.   Labels and separations — not only of those who  were not femiphiles or heterosexual  crossdressers, but even of those who were sort  of crossdressers but disagreed with The Prince,  as Dallas points out in her essay.  And to this  day, we debate the costs of that gift — the  balance between group idenitity and group  separation.

The question we have today is a tricky one.  Do  we, for political reasons, embrace identity  politics, as Jessica Xavier suggests, or do we,  again for political reasons, transcend identity  politics, as Dallas and I suggest?

Where are transgendered people to get an  identity?  Our birth families are very different  than we are, and are almost unanimously un- accepting, forcing us to lie about who we are, to  create a false self.  We don’t get support in our  schools or churches either, limiting our  geographic or spiritual identities.

Lesbian and Gay people have the same issues,  but they do get support from their lovers.  They  create families of choice out of a drive for  companionship and sexual satisfaction.  But  Transgendered people don’t have those drives.   We don’t share an attraction to partners like us.

We end up coming together under concepts,  under banners.  And for a long while, those  banners were simple: transsexual, het- crossdresser, drag queen.  Problem is that we  don’t fit neatly there — the labels were forced,  and they were not, as Jessica Xavier notes with  some frustration, our primary labels.  If TS we  wanted to become women (or for some, men) if  TV, we were normal het males, and drag  queens, normal gay men. We wanted to stay  away from the TG label.

And why not stay away?  What is the benefit of  the TG label?  Does it carry status, power,  glamour, affirmation?  In most cases, no — it  only carries entree to a few support groups —  ane often they were simply places of fear and  sublimation.

On a personal level, the transgender label, the  history and a few role models, can help us find  our own worth, transcend our own shame.  But  after all is said and done, we have to live inside  of a community, and while some have  postulated the creation of utopian transgender  communities, none exist.  The best we can get is  queer communities, like the gay ghettos of San  Francisco, Toronto, Atlanta, and so on.

I suspect that we would find that the level of  immersion of a gay or lesbian person into the  local gay or lesbian community is directly  related to how they primarily identify.  If they  are active, they are lesbians or gays first — but  for many, who have settled like any other  person, they may be lawyers, perents, blacks,  town dwellers, council-members, Christians or  some other identity first.  It is a question of the  group you see as being your first home — and  acknowledgment that we all live in many  groups, many worlds.

Life, for most people, is beyond the simplistic  views of identity politics.  And the gift of  identity politics that Virginia Prince brought to  the gender community is a double edged  sword, cutting the space for TG people to be  themselves — and cutting separations between  TG people and others in their community.

Politically oriented people will jump and run,  tell us that the only way to be effective is to be  part of a distinct group that can follow them and  fight for rights — by giving time, energy and  money to support the battles.

But many of us will wonder how that helps us  be more effective in the communities in which  we live.

Transgendered people have always been, and  probably will always be rare.  One or two per  nomadic tribe of 50 or so was enough.  They  have also always spoken for individual  expression — there was never a handbook on  how to be a shaman, only stories and tales that  lead us to find our own personal ways of power  and transcendence.

To be effective, transgendered people must  create alliances with many others around them —  it is not sufficient to find an isolated community  where only TG people live, for such a thing has  never existed.

Can we really find our voices as transgendered  people using the sword of identity politics?  I  don’t think so — the separations it creates cut us  off from our natural powers of bridging worlds,  of showing connection, of cutting across  boundaries.

But that doesn’t stop people from trying to  introduce more identity politics into the world  of transgender, and using the fear of separation  to drive people together.  “If you are not with  us, you will be alone, isolated, harassed, killed.   Only by standing together can we be powerful!”

Lily Tomlin: “We are all in this alone.”  I think, that  while I would never want to give up my  connections to other transgendered people, I  never want to primarily think of myself as  transgendered — or any other label relating to  that, like TS or TV.  I want to be essentially  human, and connect with other humans.

Are identity politics the salvation of TG people,  or the downfall of them?  It is a question worth discussing.
Chrysalis Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 4 (Winter, 1996-1997), page 10

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