Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Medical Models and Watching Our Language

Tomorrow evening I will be traveling to Philadelphia for the 7th Annual Trans-Health Conference (I know, for once I post before an event happens!). As I perused the workshops offered at this three-day event I realized that for a while I had/have been trapped in the conundrum of discussing transgender identity within a medical model. A lot of issues for trans folks revolve around the medical and legal establishments, and as much as I hate this emphasis it becomes a necessity in a society that consistently demands documentation for all activities. My new NY ID card, which has a much longed-for “M” in the sex category, allows me access to men’s restrooms in clubs – a privilege consistently denied me in Minnesota where I was kicked out of multiple men’s restrooms.*

Within this medical model our status as certified (card-holding) citizens depends upon an ever-changing system of state and federal laws that can begin to stifle cultural imagination. If we define ourselves entirely by our bodies and our ID status then we leave no room for the multiple identities we know we embody. We should always remember the necessity of being safe (holding the necessary documents) and feeling comfortable (achieving the body we desire), however we should never confine ourselves to non-ally definitions of our identity. When this occurs, when transgender people play the access game by non-ally cigender assimilationist rules we often end up with disparaging mindsets.

The most recent of these is a statement I used to hear only from parents of transgender children or LGB activists educating themselves on transgender issues. But now transfolks, cigender politicians, doctors, and activists as well as transfolks ourselves are repeating this ridiculous sentiment. Again and again I see “transgender people are the last civil right group”. There are two main ways to decipher this statement. One interpretation is that transgender people are last possible group to struggle for recognition and basic human rights. The second interpretation is that the human rights struggles of transgender people are the last struggles to be realized – that all other civil rights struggles have been triumphantly reconciled.

While the issues of sex, class, and race brought up in the Democratic Presidential Race may have revealed to more U.S. citizens that these issues have not been so triumphantly resolved; there is still a residing idea that these “isms” are a thing of the past. Which is why these statements are so hurtful, they can either make invisible groups that have yet to see recognition of their movement or identity (as an inside example, gender non conforming people are consistently quieted in transgender debates) or further reify the idea that we live in a world where struggles for civil rights are a thing of the past.

Activists and allies: please. Please stop this. Stop saying we are the last group needing civil rights. If that were true we’d be saying that issues of white supremacy, ableism, sexism, heteronormativity and homophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism have all been resolved. Look at our situation. It is a direct result of being in a position created by sexism and homophobia. Our issues of medical access are class issues and racial issues. When we are told we don’t know the proper care for our own bodies that patronizing language is because of our relationship to issues of sexism and heteronormativity. The whiteness of transgender imagery is an issue of white supremacy. Our fear of identifying with disability rights groups is our fear of becoming more “ab-normal” than we already think we are, and our fear of disability is rooted in the upwardly mobile ideology of so many liberation movements later co-opted by rights movements. Our rights are not the “last” group of rights.

There is a lot of shit that comes with being transgender - and it can seem incredibly lonely at times – but using this language to describe our struggle only adds to this loneliness. Recently my partner mentioned to me that she doesn’t feel a part of transgender communities and movements. Despite being firmly genderqueer identified, and representing that identity in her art and writing, the whiteness and transition-oriented focus of the movement leaves her outside. Language isn’t everything, and there is often too much writing and speaking and too little action. But our words are powerful, and the way we think about words gives them power and meaning. We have to be careful about the way we word our emotions and our struggles in transgender communities are too heterogenic to be compartmentalized. Joining with other struggles – and recognizing that our issues are intertwined - will achieve a triumphant revolution that won’t be built on the invisible backs of others.

*A plus side of this bizarre practice is that the women’s restroom becomes by default the “undesirable” restroom – drag queens, transwomen, cigender women, transmen, and gender non-conforming people are all forced to use the women’s restroom. However, as perceived women are generally in the highest risk group for gender-based violence this creates a horrible situation of crowding a potentially dangerous space with drunken people as cigender men mince in and out of their separate bathroom. It also, lovingly, reinforces the idea that men come before women in all issues. I have been asked to write about this practice and I’m still thinking of doing so.


shiva said...

The same thing tends to often get said about the disability rights movement (in particular, with regard to the right to independent living). While i do think there are ways in which disabled people are oppressed that no other minority group that i know of is, i think this rhetoric is unhelpful for exactly the same reasons you state here about trans* rights...

Comparisons to "more accepted" civil rights moevements are OK, in the right context, IMO, but applying that the other minority being referred to already has all their rights issues solved definitely isn't. It's alliance and collaboration between minority rights movements we want, not envy and competition...

Mik Danger said...

Absolutely, I agree with your last statement. Thanks for reading and commenting (and for the nice things you said at Crip Chick's!) I'm blog rolling you too.