So confused

What transgender politics may reveal when they go to eleven

Rainbow flag, CC Ludovic Bertron

At the beginning of the year Now, a Toronto weekly, published “Love your body” (photographs are NSFW): a series of portraits and short interviews focused on the “body positivity movement”. I stumbled upon it yesterday, following a link on social media (I didn’t even know the outlet Now).

“NOW created the Love Your Body issue four years ago […] to counter the onslaught of body-shaming headlines every January. ‘Lose weight! Diet! New year, new you!’ They’re as pathetic as they are predictable. By featuring dozens of inspiring Torontonians willing to bare all and tell their stories of transformation, reclamation and acceptance, we hoped to shift the discussion from self-criticism to self-love.”

One of the people featured this year is William Lavinia (again, explicit photograph), a “performer and model” whose breasts were surgically removed (two big scars are clearly visible), is on hormone treatment, and keeps a vagina that “isn’t going anywhere”. Lavinia poses naked for Now, full frontal, and declares to have a body that is “beyond the binary”.

Some of Lavinia’s views, which are expressed in the accompanying article, got me thinking. I believe they epitomise some of the things that have gone awry with LGBT activism in recent years.

Science fiction gender symbols, GNU FDL Yobmod

Lavinia says:

The most offensive thing would be for someone to assume I’m a cis man. I remember asking my surgeon, ‘I want my scars to heal well, but will they still be there?’ I want people to see my chest and know I’m not cis.”

This is what surprised me the most. I thought that transgender people (like homosexuals, immigrants, and people belonging to other traditionally marginalised minorities) were advocating for other people to ignore their belonging to such minorities in most practical situations — not to make sure they always get tagged appropriately. In other words, I had assumed that the best future activists had in mind was one in which a person who happened to be dyslexic, Romani, obese and gay would be treated by default by his neighbours, acquaintances, workmates and political representatives simply as “a person”.

Individual traits that put you in a category of people who for so long suffered contempt, discrimination and even violence should be simply ignored in most social situations. Not because there is anything “wrong” or “shameful” about them, but simply because they do not matter in most social situations. To me, the best future would be one where Lavinia would be treated just as “a dude” (Lavinia’s own description).

In that future, people who got to meet Lavinia in Toronto, or to know about Lavinia, would “assume” that Lavinia is a man, was born a man (thus cisgender), was born with two functional legs, is older than thirteen, is not of Sudanese descent, has the ability to speak, is a Canadian citizen, has a father that is alive, and so on. Those, and many others, would be totally reasonable and non-discriminatory assumptions, based on Lavinia’s appearance, on Lavinia’s comments, on personal experience in the world, and on statistics. Those assumptions would be corrected eventually only if they matter in each situation. For example, a company interested in hiring Lavinia to speak in front of an audience in London would need to confirm that Lavinia can indeed speak, and speak in English; that Lavinia is entitled to a British visa, and whether the stage should accommodate a wheelchair or not. Ideally, they would not care if their guest is Muslim, cisgender, vegetarian, or black. A pharmacist, on the other hand, might need to know if Lavinia has testes, or can be pregnant, before they prescribe a drug with side effects.

The goal, I thought, was inclusion. Inclusion, and practical blindness towards traits that are largely irrelevant in most situations. Many (perhaps most) people under 40 living in liberal democracies already jumped on that bandwagon. I did, too.

For instance: I would address Lavinia using masculine pronouns if we met, as soon as I learnt about that preference, or got asked to do so by Lavinia (that is what Lavinia prefers, according to the bio on Twitter). I also support that public health systems perform sex reassignment surgery, free of charge, when that is deemed the best treatment for gender dysphoria (that has been the case in my country, Spain, for more than a decade now).

We, sensible progressives, thought that those were moves in the right direction. But as we get closer (in some countries) to acceptance of individuals and to irrelevance of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, the goalpost has moved: we now have to acknowledge, and never fail to recognise, that someone like Lavinia is transgender. Stick a label. Worship the label.

Also, it is one thing to support sex reassignment as a means to cure or alleviate a known mental condition (again, I am all for that). But to pick and choose anatomical features, to ask for the scars to remain visible forever, and to make those scars part of your “beyond the binary” gender or personality… Not being a medical doctor, that looks to me more like cosmetic surgery — and a strange one indeed. I wonder if gender dysphoria is in fact the disorder this surgery is trying to alleviate, or it is something else.

The other aspect of this quotation I want to draw your attention to is the “most offensive thing” part. To be assumed “cis” is for Lavinia not just annoying, or even offensive. It is “the most offensive thing”. Suddenly, to make one’s best to overcome old irrational prejudices and to treat someone like Lavinia just as one would treat any other man, is hugely offensive. No: one has to notice the label at all times, and celebrate it.

If you needed one counterexample to demolish that pervasive idea that subjective offence (pardon the tautology) is paramount, that it always carries moral clout in political debate… this is it. Apparently, failing to divine at first sight whether an individual is cisgender or transgender (perhaps by failing to read their minds) can cause tremendous offence to that person.

Danica Roem, first transgender person in a US state legislature, CC Ted Eytan

Lavinia also says:

“I run in queer circles where people are guarded around white men and I don’t want to cut conversations short when I enter a space. I’m always going to be a small, unthreatening dude, but I’m going to be a dude and it’s different.”

This looks to me like an acknowledgement that “queer circles” (and presumably LGBT communities in general) are often hostile towards white men.

Either Lavinia is noticing that now for the first time as a “dude”, or Lavinia knew all along but did nothing to fix the situation. In the former case, the moral thing to do would be to be vocal about it, and to work to make LGBT circles less hostile to men, from Lavinia’s new position as a white dude. If it’s the latter, Lavinia is admitting a share of responsibility in building an atmosphere that is “guarded” about white men, and now lamenting the results. This person has a unique perspective, having been first a “victim”, and now “privileged”. It would be a pity not to use that experience for the good.

Instead, you would think that Lavinia wants to eat the cake and have it too. Judging by recent moral panics in American college campuses, an individual is either oppressed and marginalised, or an accomplice in patriarchy, heteronormativity and white privilege. You can’t have it both ways. So, I welcome Lavinia to our club of white men. You are right, Lavinia: your old allies sometimes treat us unjustly.

Notice also how some activists are so keen on removing binary classifications for gender and sexual orientation, while at the same time remaining stubbornly attached to a binary idea of “us against them”: either you are an unconditional supporter of their ideas and policies, or you are an oppressor (or worse). We are now, paraphrasing Lavinia, “beyond the binary”… except when nuanced discussions about these topics arise.

I’m mourning the loss of being a safe space for femmes. The day is going to come when people aren’t going to think to ask me for a tampon and that bums me out because there’s a sisterhood in that.”

I’m not sure what to think about this. Gender reassignment must be a very difficult process, and I sympathise with that. But adopting one gender necessarily means abandoning the other (unless “beyond the binary” is supposed to mean “have it all”). I would expect Lavinia to be eager to replace sisterhood with brotherhood, and excited to become a member of the community of men. Lavinia is in a unique position now to contribute to make masculine environments “a safe space for femmes” too. What could feel better than that?

“I want them to remember that your parts are not your gender.”

This does sound compatible with “mainstream” LGBT activism, and I can agree: gender identity is more complex than a catalogue of anatomical features.

For Lavinia, however, gender seems to be about the parts that are, the parts that are not, and the parts that once were but are now visibly removed. If Lavinia’s gender is not defined by “parts”, it is striking that Lavinia goes to such great lengths to keep those scars and to showcase them.

“When people see my photo, I want them to understand there are any number of options for beauty and anyone can be a model.”

This is the least of my concerns with the article, but I differ and I’m going to state the obvious. Beauty is, almost by definition, a small subset of all things. Beautiful humans are only a few, much in the same way that pleasant music is only a tiny slice of all possible noise. Beauty is rare, and comes in gradations. Because of that, only a few can be successful models.

Of course, this is part of an interview focused on “body positivity”, and I get the inspirational message. What I want to highlight is that ideas of beauty should be irrelevant when discussing transgenderism. Inclusion and acceptance have nothing to do with beauty. To treat individuals who belong to certain minorities fairly is what is needed. There are no reasons to expect those individuals to be especially beautiful. Or dumb. Or nice. Or lazy. Not to mention stunning and brave.

CC Pax Ahimsa Gethen

I know that these are the views of just one individual, probably not representative of the whole transgender movement. But the fact that they are published uncritically, are presumably cherished by some (like Now magazine), and stay mostly unchallenged — I think that is symptomatic of the situation we are in, and how confused we all are.