May 09, 2007

The Problem with Trans 101s

I have always felt awkward doing trans 101s. I always feel like there is too much talk and not enough action. People seem to learn "about" trans people without actually having to commit to making any changes. They can stare at us and ask all sorts of questions but it doesn't seem to get us anywhere. When I do trainings, I like to focus on the barriers that trans people face in accessing basic everyday resources. I tend to use resources like a flow chart on the disproportionate poverty and homelessness faced by trans communities or one about incarceration in trans communities.

I always frame it as focusing on the systems that hurt us and how people can create change rather than obsessing about how we identify or what our bodies look like. I say things like "if it's private on you, it's private on me."

However, I have never been good at articulating my general "ick" factor at most trans 101s. Today, I read something by Dean Spade that explains the problems with a lot of trans 101s. I hope you take the time to read it and that if you are involved in trans groups, or trans organizing, that you share it with the people you work with. Here are a few quotes from the piece:

From the articles I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed a basic formula to these trans primer sections, which usually precede the analysis of law or policy the article focuses on. The point of these primers is “trans people are human.” To get to humanness, three key things are always cited: 1) intersex conditions exist, 2) some native American cultures had non-binary gender formations 3) studies show that trans people have “female brains in male bodies” or “male brains in female bodies.” I’m interested in thinking about the labor that each of these three pieces of evidence perform. How does the legitimacy and humanity of trans people get confirmed by a racist notion of the “ancientness” of non-binaristic gender through the (usually overgeneralized and inaccurate) portrayal of gender in native cultures? How do intersex conditions purportedly function as a “safe” articulation of the reality of gender variance? Why are inverted brains necessary to establish a basis for an article about, say, cases where trans people get their kids taken away from them or lose jobs for being trans?
He goes on to quote his own writing about how trans communities could be better represented.
“In terms of how I want to represent trans communities and see trans communities represented, I do have some new ideas about that recently. I think the thing I’d like to see most is for films, trainings, shows, speeches, panels and other public education tools to stop trying to answer the questions “Why are people trans? How do they feel about themselves? What are they like?” and start focusing just on “What are the obstacles to trans people’s survival and equality? What does discrimination look like? How can it be prevented?” I think that as soon as the first set of questions are in play, trans people are objects of fascination. We’re suddenly defending our very existence, participating in the assumption that we are strange, unusual, interesting, and, ultimately, that our humanity has to be proven and defended. When people attend trainings, film screenings, and events that attempt to make trans people human by explaining who we are and why we are this way we further entrench the objectifying method of viewing us that is already indoctrinates people who view us on Montel Williams or Jerry Springer and Law and Order. What we really want to be training people to do is to stop seeing trans people as rarified objects, to stop asking trans people inappropriate questions about our bodies, sexualities and life histories, to stop creating policies that demand trans people disclose genital status when non-trans people are never asked to do so, and to begin to be able to identify obstacles that they are participating in or creating to trans people’s equality and survival. This is a totally different framework for trans public education. It would include documentary film where trans people didn’t do the usual things, like talk about their childhoods and surgeries and put on make-up or binders in front of the camera, but instead where trans people, never having to explain themselves, talked about their issues with Medicaid or prisons or schools or shelters.
Read the whole piece. Share it with people and keep making changes.


Anonymous said...

just a footnote, but Gwen Smith of the Remembering Our Dead web site has a nifty drinking game for the seemingly endless reels of transgender docudramas which are often "identity theater on parade" rather than discussions of social justice needs.

One part: Take a drink if:

"A transwoman is shown doing a stereotypically feminine action, like shopping in the mall, or a transman is shown doing something stereo typically masculine, such as playing a sport.

"If a transman is shown putting on and/or straightening a tie.

"If old photographs are used to try and show that a transperson used to visually fit into their birth gender."

It has circulated widely but here's a link:


icarus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
icarus said...

i <3 Dean Spade a whole bunch.

Mark D. Snyder said...

Fabulous post!