The root of my own torn and broken heart is, as one would expect with me, lies deep under some sharp thinking.
The key feminist complaint about transpeople, specifically about transpeople assigned male at birth and asserting womanhood, is that growing up male bodied they can never, ever have the experience of being female in the world.
This means that they colonize and mock women, that they have no standing to be women, that unless they surrender their voice to the group, as people who went through puberty as female, anything they say reeks of male privilege and is inherently oppressive to women.
As recently as a few months ago, this argument made it into an oped piece in the New York Times.
Running into this argument is another belief set of feminism, that history and biology shouldn’t define and limit anyone. We are defined by our choices, not by the assumptions and expectations written onto our sexualized body. The goal is to empower everyone to move beyond gendered rules, to be people first, with a full range of choices.
Clearly, this is the premise I need to grasp politically, the one I fight for, that we are defined by the content of our character and not by the shape of our reproductive organs.
The collision between these two deeply held beliefs has always been difficult.
Is there a strong, fixed and unbreakable line between those who went through puberty as a female and those who went through puberty as a male? The intersexed would say no, of course.
Should we be fighting for liberation of gender beyond biology, or should we hold to our binary view of humans, only allowing movement inside of man & woman and never, ever between them?
In the 1990s I suggested that with images on drivers licences, there was no need for a sex marker on them. This would free us from sex based divisions.
A woman’s studies professor from the local university balked. “I couldn’t support that until sexual oppression ended,” she intoned.
To her, we need to keep the divisions up until they are meaningless, but how can they become meaningless unless we are willing to move beyond them and view humans as individuals and not separated into a binary by birth sex?
For those invested in identity politics, promulgating us vs them distinctions is at the heart of their power in the world. They have power in their own caste by accusing other castes of oppressing them. By selling a vision that it is others who have to change they consolidate their own authority within their sect.
The twisted thinking behind identity politics is clear. When we impose group identities on people we can never transcend the oppressing limits of group identities.
But the appeal of identity politics is strong and compelling. Identity politics attempts to speak for our experience of being separated and erased in the world. It venerates the shared experience of being reduced to group identification and the trauma and bangs that identification leaves on us.
I was attacked with the question “Are you so anti-essentialist that lived experience counts for nothing?” in 1998. My answer was clear: I value both essence and lived experience, but I don’t confuse them for being the same thing.
The questioner, immersed in identity politics, believed that their lived experience was a direct result of their essence. To me, though, essence is often hidden under group identification. As a transperson, that truth was clear to me. My essence wasn’t shaping my experience, the identification of my body was.
The argument that we are shaped by our lived experience and that lived experience is very much shaped by the sexing of our body in the world holds an enormous amount of truth, though. This defines sexism, just as how our experience of the world is shaped by the assignment of our race in the world defines racism.
Does holding onto those divisions serve us, or should feminism be about moving beyond those sexist separations to claim some other kind of essence?
People who celebrate identity politics don’t celebrate it because it moves those identity groupings to the side, rather their intent is to make sure their group gets its due in the world. They want to hold onto and honor their experience of separation by identifying blame, demanding reparations, and claiming their groups own piece of the pie.
There is great emotional resonance to pronouncing and sharing our shared experience in the world. We know what it felt like be treated like one of our group, knew how that hurt on our skin. That resonance may not get us to a world that transcends boundaries and binaries, but it keeps us connected, tied to a group identity.
Our experience of oppression in the world may be a less then helpful basis to create a new politics which transcends that kind of separation which can easily become oppressive, but it is a comforting and affirming basis for political effectiveness, as ward heelers in every ethnic neighborhood of Chicago would have been very happy to tell you.
And this is where my heart hits the road and bounces hard.
As much as those women who wanted to make the argument that feminism should maintain identity boundaries based on sexist separations and the lived experience of the group were wrong about the politics, the were right about one thing.
In a sexist, binary world, the experience of going through puberty identified as male is very, very different than the experience of being identified as female. As I wrote in 2002, I know that I will never be female in the world, never have the pure experience of a life that is profoundly shaped by my female body.
That has always been very tough for me, causing me stress and pain. I went to sleep praying that I would wake up a girl, but that was never, ever to be. And once I went through puberty, I knew that I didn’t have the kind of body that could be easily femaled in the world, taking on the appearance of someone who went through puberty as a female.
When I came to follow the tenets of first wave feminism, though, the notion that we are not defined and limited by our biology and history, I quickly ran into the identity politics of second wave feminism, venerating the sexist experience to consolidate a political base which identified me as always the oppressor, out of bounds unless I surrendered to political correctness.
The line I ran into is The Guy-In-A-Dress Line (1999) that boundary which polices sexual identity in this culture. It was this line that cut right through me and it is this line that stops me.
If the best I can ever be is a guy in a dress, some kind of odd, individualistic man who has a feminine wardrobe, then I am forever erased and destroyed.
Worse, I live that experience without a group of peers who are present to mirror and affirm that experience. No functional and comforting identity politics for me, or at least none I have found in the last thirty years.
When I got asked “Are you so anti-essentialist that lived experience counts for nothing?” I knew that the asker was both dismissing the essence I worked so hard to show in the world and the lived experience I had not a simply a male, but as a transperson with a feminine heart and a male body.
They were reducing me to a group identity that they assigned me, one that flattened and erased my essence and my lived experience.
It is theoretically possible for me to keep fighting for possibilities outside of identity politics, to try to squeeze into some tiny crack of eccentric freedom beyond binaries, but practically I know the limits of those possibilities very well.
I know how few people will come along with me on my train of thought. Most just don’t have time or attention to follow along, so they just write me off as noise. Asking me to simplify just demands that I erase myself, allowing me to serve others but not to serve my own needs.
It isn’t depression that leads me to the thought of erasure, rather it is erasure. I scream into the void almost everyday and the void just sucks down my energy without return.
Where is the acknowledgement of my essence and of my lived experience? How do I find comforting affirmation of how I am just one of other people like me?
The goal in the world is not letting what you want bury you in sadness, but in being smart enough to make the most of what you have.
For transpeople, though, a lifetime of trying often just leaves you steamrollered.