by Maxwell Van Cooper | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2017
“I just don’t understand why you have to box yourself into
these categories. I mean, aren’t we all just human? Why do
you have to label yourself like that?”
A family member at dinner, Christmas Eve, 2016.
Lasts approximately three hours.
Maxwell is a family name. My uncle has it, my grandmother has it, her father… I don’t know its origin story. My mother wanted to give it to me as a middle name, as tradition, but also so that if I ever wanted to be a writer, I would have a pen name at hand. Its origin story for me really began at age sixteen, when I went by Max for the first time. I wore baggy clothes until my then-boyfriend informed me tight clothes were sexier. I stopped immediately. I never thought I wanted to be a boy. I knew my favorite characters were Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s novels and Viola from She’s the Man. But I loved dresses, so none of this meant anything, of course.
I tried Sophie again in college because I felt so detached from and alienated by this mysterious concept of womanhood. I desperately wanted to be a girl. I had always been feminine, so it was fine. It was totally fine—and then it wasn’t. Dysphoria is like a slow burn, or a month-long itch that you can’t scratch—it’s there in your most vulnerable moment, constantly teetering at the periphery of your brain. But that’s not what made me trans. The queer and trans culture at Oberlin that I so desperately needed, that so openly embraced me and said it’s okay: That’s not what made me trans. I actually rejected the word transgender for the first two years after I came out as non-binary. Maybe it was too foreign, too assertive. Maybe because I still liked dresses, which I still connected with womanness. But it was also because in my head, I saw transgenderism as something painful, something that was etched into history with violence and oppression. It didn’t feel like my place, as a white upper-middle-class queer gallivanting around Oberlin calling themself a twink, to hold the weight of that word—or maybe I didn’t want it.
And yet there is something about the word transgender that is so enticing in its mysteriousness, so embracing and transgressive. I found myself questioning what the word meant, and what it meant for my own gender-straying. I found myself interpolated in the word by my own standards, my community, and institutions of cis/heteronormativity. A word bent on defiance.
But the limits of the word seemed to elude me and many people within my community. We all knew what it meant, and yet some people were using it as an umbrella term for anything outside of cisgender, whereas some of my non-binary and trans friends were saying that it made them uncomfortable to see it used in such broad definition, for people whose experiences they couldn’t relate to. Then there were people like me, who were scared to recognize the potential of the word.
It wasn’t that we were all confused. The word’s definition is elusive through its history. But through its conception, we can trace why radically different people are adopting the word transgender, and how this miscommunication occurs.
“So you want to be a man?”
“No, not quite.”
“So you want to be a woman?”
“No, not exactly.”
“So you’re trying to become a man?”
Encounter with Planned Parenthood doctor while trying to
get T, August 18, 2017.
Lasts approximately fifteen minutes.
The Transgender Dilemma
Transgender as a word and concept has swiftly ascended into contemporary popular terminology. As early as the ’60s, trans people coined the word to counter the medicalized term transsexual, and by the early ’90s, trans activists such as Leslie Feinberg helped popularize the word to describe people who did not identify as transsexual, but were not cisgender either. Transgender became an umbrella term for gender nonconforming individuals. Yet as the word transsexual became obsolete due to its problematic context and history, transgender came to replace transsexual in the everyday American’s vocabulary. For the general public, transgender individuals resided within a traditional binary of gender. Transgenderism was still considered to be a “crossing of borders,” from one end of the binary to the other: FTM or MTF.
Jack Halberstam writes in his essay, “Transgender Butch,” “A common metaphor for transsexualism is a crossing of national borders from one place to another, from one state to another, from one gender to another.” Halberstam is able to situate the polemic of the border-crossing mythology, but he also points to the dangers of using border-crossing as a metaphor, since immigration is a real and lived experience for many people. He cautions “against detaching the metaphors of travel and home and migration from the actual experience of immigration in a world full of borders.”
Especially in the age of “Deporter-In-Chief” Obama, and then Trump’s America, we have begun to normalize a world in which ICE unlawfully barges into homes, families are separated, and children are kept in detention centers. Now more than ever we must be wary of the idea of border-crossing as a metaphor for transgenderism, because the transitory nature of transgenderism does not parallel the reality of the dangers of crossing borders and immigration.
Furthermore, using the border-crossing analogy for transgender folk situates them on one side or the other, and neglects the people caught in between: “If the borderlands are uninhabitable for some transsexuals who imagine that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally… Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross from A to B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity.”
The transgressive non-conforming people did find words specifically for these shared experiences caught in the borderlands. As words such as ‘gender-queer’ and ‘non-binary’ became prevalent in the early naughts, many queer individuals came to consider other words to describe the experience of gender outside a binary, and transgender became more and more equated with the border-crossing ideology. However, many trans and non-binary people still use transgender as a general term for gender deviance.
When I was writing “Dialogues on Gender” for Wilder Voice in 2015, I found a number of people with startlingly different conceptions of the word trans. But each use was so emotional, and so personal to their own experience, that they were difficult to reconcile. Because I didn’t identify as trans at the time, they were not mine to question. But I did start asking more trans friends if the umbrella term bothered them. The feedback I received, like our trans history, is controversial.
What isn’t controversial is a shared commonality in the formulation of gender identities that lay outside the norm. These genders are actualized first through self-recognition. However, in performing and identifying through non-conforming genders, some people are privileged with safety (through cis-passing), and others are not. Some experience body dysphoria, some will have to take on extensive financial burdens for hormones and surgeries, and others will not. The visibility of transness creates a hierarchy of whose voices we listen to, who we deem desirable, and who is accepted in cis or trans culture. We try to be critical of this, to consider which voices we privilege above others. But ultimately that hierarchy often shifts to white, ableist, and cis-normative standards and voices to take the space to be recognized, to be heard. Cis people are all aware of Caitlyn Jenner or Ruby Rose, but have never heard of Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Leslie Feinberg, Carlett Brown, Paul Preciado, or Marsha P. Johnson—all activists and theorists who fought for trans rights and recognition. Without these trans icons, many of us wouldn’t be able to live our truth today, and yet still, many trans people even do not know their names.
This problem of visibility, acceptance, and recognition has dominated the politics and ideology of the word trans. Ironically, Oberlin students reside within an epistemological binary of the word transgender. We remain divided between a structuralist binary (I am and you aren’t) or the invalidation of different experiences through hegemonic universalism (we are all the same by virtue of being transgressive). I aim to complicate these conceptions of the word transgender with a new framework, one of transgender cartography. By thinking of transgenderism as a fluid state of migration, we not only trouble the concept of border crossing, but also conceptualize how non-binary and transgender identities hold different places in challenging cis-normativity, while there is no real disunion between them.
“So you’re all lesbians?”
“Actually I’m transgender.”
“So you identify as… what?”
“A trans dude. Not a man exactly.”
“But what do you identify as?”
Conversation with friendly TERF butch at the
International Gay Rodeo, October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.
Subverting the Homeland
Poetry, tea packaging, and yoga studios all like to tell us our body is our home. For transgender and non-binary individuals, this idea of the body as the center of the home is problematic. Both transgender and non-binary people share a similar origin story: They were born into a world with assigned genders that marked them as XX or XY. These centers of origin politically informed them with forms of habitus: cultural habits that inform our language, our posture, the way we sit, dress, interact with each other—all forms of gender embodiment we can find stem from this false origin story. For some people this narrative will always snugly fit, or they will find their own subtle subversions and defiances: the tomboy, the twink, etc. Others take a more direct approach in which they either subvert their origin story in its entirety or migrate away from the homeland.
Home must be problematized. Halberstam writes, “If home has represented the comfort of place and the politics of location and the stability of belonging within such a dialectic, the border has stood for the politics of displacement, the hybridity of identity, and the economics of undocumented labor. There is little to be gained theoretically or materially from identifying either home or border as the true place of resistance. […] Home is a mythic site, a place to anchor some racial and ethnic identities even as those identities are wrenched out of context or pressured into assimilation.”
Before we depart from home, as a non-binary trans person I hope to make clear that this does not negate a shared experience or the multitude of ways that trans and non-binary people develop their identities. We’re not in the business of working within binaries. However, distinctions and clarity within language are crucial to our ability to describe those intersections and gaps in their full weight and complexity.
The transgender individual migrates away from their falsely proclaimed “home.” But the non-binary individual, rather than engage in this performative spatial transit, subverts their origin story. It does not matter if they do not change their performance from their assigned gender through clothing, body language, or other codes of gender. To the cis eye, they may not externally be recognizable as trans: incognito transgressors. For non-binary people, the subversion of the home does not appear through external values, but internally. By defying the binary they are able to make “masculine” and “feminine” bodies, styles, and definitions meaningless.
For the transgender individual, a migration emerges when the subject begins transitioning and challenging their former home to conflate with new queer and trans habitus, language, and culture that they create or discover. They embark on a migration across space, ascending nationality and heteronormativity, to discover a new corporeal site that locates their gender embodiment. They reconstitute their subjecthood by reconstructing the first words they hear, Congratulations, it’s a…
The transgender corporeal site is always moving, always transitioning, always humming. It is neither static nor structured, but a fluid evolving landscape that the trans subject roams through, in between spaces and nations, uninterrupted but for the heteronormative interference of American society. This new site’s impermanence is significant. While some transgender people may consider their gender static, many express movement and queerness as a dynamic destabilized ontology. Furthermore, this new site may incorporate many cultural phenomena of the former “home:” Trans people may operate or use many heteronormative behaviors or beliefs, and that doesn’t challenge their transness, because it is appropriated and subverted to fit their new ontological site of being.
“Why do you need to box yourself in? Why do you have to
announce yourself like that to the world?”
“For the same reason you do.”
Friendly TERF butch at the International Gay Rodeo,
October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.
The prefix trans means across, beyond, on the far side of, on the other side of, or on the outside of. Even linguistically we see migration and movement. Transgender subjects move away from their origin or home to a new ontological site that is not mapped by traditional conceptions of gender or established borders and nationality. Transgender individuals leave their citizenship of XX and XY, and live beyond the confines of heteronormative society. Citizenship in America is constituted in a capitalist framework, the primary unit of capitalism being (re)production, which queer and many trans people inherently fail successfully participate in. Neoliberal philosophy in particular is centered to focus on the individual and around the nuclear family—crafted heteronormative roles and hierarchies that trans and queer individuals likewise subvert or reside outside of. If citizenship is constituted in heteronormative, nationalist, legally binding terms, then the transgender subject resides as an outlaw to the state and nationalism—that is to say, trans people are not confined by nationality or borders in their creation of cartography. By not recognizing colonial arbitrary lines in maps that act as violent borders in their own cartography, transgender people are able to attempt to subvert neocolonialism.
Furthermore, a fundamental aspect of colonialism was the exportation of Western gender roles to colonized countries. Even the word “transsexual” was imported to countries through the DSM, and constituted a form of gender deviance that erased many peaceful gender variances in non-Western countries. The weight of colonialist gender norms has informed our conceptions of the nuclear family and contemporary heteronormativity. Transness becomes an active, subversive departure: It is inherently anti-colonial to resist these gender norms, to resist colonial artifacts of borders and maps, to move through uncharted territory without claiming ownership.
Through their transitioning (which never really starts or ends in a linear sense, but rather erupts and shifts throughout their lives) transgender individuals go beyond figurative and literal borders to find their new corporeal sites. This may lead them physically to different countries, such as Thailand (the most popular destination for gender affirming surgeries). It may physically mean traveling across countries and states to access hormones, to find community, to find their own subjecthood. It also may mean staying physically exactly where they already are, but transcending figurative heteronormative and colonialist structures and borders. Shifting and twisting, reaching and growing, the transgender subject transitions to create their own melding of gendered habitus, externally or internally. In this way, each transgender person is their own cartographer, creating maps that do not rely on arbitrary violent lines of colonialism but travel across new networks and ontological sites.
In terms of navigation, we can use the work of two foundational queer theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s framework of striated and smooth space, to consider the bordered land of nations and heteronormativity compared to the fluid space the transgender individual inhabits. Striated muscle presents tissue in semi-parallel lines, each with a clear and strict pathway and uninhabited spaces in between. Striated space can be seen as state-held space, formed through fixed landmarks and centers; it is marked with homogeneity through industrialization and globalization. Smooth space, on the other hand, is fluid, open, and allows for nomadic movement, organic pathways like those seen in nature. Cities and borders could be considered striated space, spaces that designate the area that people are able to pass through, spaces only accessible by state-sanctioned entry points, while smooth space is uninterrupted and fluctuating, such as a plain or a desert. There is no origin or point of entry allotted—it is open-ended and extensive. This methodology is useful for understanding the smooth space the transgender subject occupies, and the striated space that the state and heteronormativity represent as interference that transgender subjects must navigate around.
The terrain of transgender topography may have ridges, valleys, and mountain ranges that create challenges in a transgender subject’s migration, but it is also marked with the smooth land, with no pathways in sight, no highways or intersections to be seen. The transgender subject moves through space in queer time, not marked linearly by birth, puberty, marriage, children, and death, but through rebirth, second puberties, finding communities, gender disruption and variance. Transgender people move through their own Foucaultian genealogical time framework—events disrupting linear time, repetition without origin, movement against a teleological narrative.
We don’t see our own cartography from the perspective of a person surveying a map; we are living, fucking, breathing, and shitting our own cartography, marking the map through the various realizations and performances of gender, etching our way through the intersections of our identities. Our cartography may overlap, we may share similar roads, but all diverge into their own locales. The geography of these maps is not broken up by borders but by natural pathways, and in this way transgender cartography subverts colonial barriers and arbitrary borders. Transgender individuals live in a diaspora of gender, having left their homeland and engaging in new and alien terrain, passing through striated space that they cannot assimilate into. They are dispelled by their place of origin and many cannot return, but transfer cultural identity codes to their ontological sites, and in this way, keep moving, keep growing.
Another way to think of these pathways is as a rhizome. A rhizome is a bulbous root plant, but Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor with multiple chains, entrances, and branches connected to a center. It is the multiplicity of the rhizome’s branches that is key: “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” The smaller lines branching off can be seen as “lines of flight” that signify ruptures in multiplicity, “[extending] the line of flight to the point it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.”
If we think of transgender space through cartography, we see pathways or rhizomatic branches and intersections emerge. The multiplicity of rhizomes lends itself to the various assemblages of trans movement across space. The rhizome is the rhythm that leaves etchings across the map as trans people journey and create their transgender cartography. While some branches or pathways may appear from a distance as highways, or shared experiences of performing transness, others digress into lines of flight, or their own individual paths. A trans person may meet another trans person and see the commonalities in their journey—perhaps two people begin taking estrogen at the same time—but ultimately individuals recognize one another. They move onward in their own voyage, finding unfamiliar landscapes that constitute their gender.
It is too simplistic to say transgender people cross borders. It also is a disservice to the stories of cis and trans people who must literally cross over these real and violent borders, who embark to new nations.
The border-crossing analogy echoes colonial exploration—who has the privilege to leave home and to return, versus those who remain trapped in the borderlands. Transgender people do not cross over borders; their gender resides outside of these borders, beyond colonial maps. Transgender people are their own cartographers, mapping their journey through lines of flight, weaving new smooth spaces in gendered terrain unseen to the cis eye.
am I hard
am I curved
or jagged am I
will you burn me at the stake (???)
have you heard about the diaspora (???)
—Kai Joy, “diaspora (Have you heard ::: (???))”
Neither language nor space is apolitical. There is always the “who” at play: Who dictates what is correct or proper language? Who is anointed with the power to define others? Who creates lines across land and calls them borders? Who is allowed to cross these lines, and who is not? In both language and space, there are positions of power to be held, and privileged voices that attempt to segregate space and classify language. As the theorist Costica Bradatan says, “The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: What you do, what you’ve been doing all your life—even the name of your calling—is something others who have that power can decide.”
The naming of the self is a crucial part of transgender and non-binary identities. It is recognition of the self as other that separates us from cisgender identities. We name our individual selves the moment we recognize this discursive identity. It is this power that we—the transgender community—hold, and must hold, for cisgender people will try to disparage and dismiss this power. They have attempted to strip us of it. They have used medicalized frameworks to tell us we are sick, they have used vulgar language to belittle and harm us. It is not up to cisgender people to name us.
The power of language coexists with space. Geography may inform our “mother” tongue, neocolonialism may force imperial languages down others’ throats. We have seen the resistance though, through multilingual diasporas, through the recordings and teaching of vanishing languages. Space and language are not isolated from one another, and I hope to challenge the institutionalized frameworks of neocolonialism through a new conception of what language can mean and what abolishing borders can look like.
This essay is not to designate the “right” framework of how to think of transgenderism versus non-binary identities, but rather to provide an alternative to the messy and confusing history of transgender language. We need to own our linguistic history, because it defines our contemporary reality. “All awareness is a linguistic affair” is a pragmatist slogan used by Wilfrid Sellars. If language constructs our awareness and augments our reality, then it is imperative that we understand the historical and political context of the word transgender, and that we are thoughtful about the hierarchical nature of whose voices are upheld as trans. We need to acknowledge our own hierarchies, of whose voice we privilege, of who we give the space to speak. We need to acknowledge that transgenderism is only one facet of identity our community members hold, and that race, class, nationality, citizenship, and disabilities also constitute how we interact with our gender and with others’. Most of all, we must be critical of the language we use, of the naming we give each other.
If history cannot define transgenderism for us, it is up to us, gender outlaws and incognito transgressors, to define it.