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The Transgender Community’s Lack of Consensus Around Identity Politics (1998)

The Transgender Community’s Lack of Consensus Around Identity Politics (1998)

©1998, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1998). The transgender community’s lack of consensus around identity politics. Transgender Forum.






The Transgender Community’s Lack of Consensus

Around Identity Politics

By Dallas Denny


When anthropologist Anne Bolin studied a trans support group in the Midwest in the mid-1980s, she found its members had a limited number of choices as to identity. They could be drag queens. They could be crossdressers. They could be transsexuals. Not only were these the only three available options, but they were mutually exclusive. Upon joining, members were required to declare their identity and thereafter construct their lives accordingly. Transsexuals were expected to seek hormones, crosslive, have surgery, and then disappear into the woodwork. Crossdressers were supposed to do none of those things, but rather to be proudly male-identified, men who wore the clothing of the other sex but had no desire to be anything other than men. Drag queens could be as fabulous as they wished, so long as they stayed in the gay bars. Members who rebelled against these restrictions were considered troublemakers and asked to go elsewhere. [1]

The group Bolin studied was typical of, and even progressive, for the male-to-female groups of the day.

The fledgling transgender community of the 1980s was polarized around the issue of sexual orientation. The cry “I’m not gay!” was the hallmark of both male crossdressers and male-to-female transsexuals. Newsletters argued the advantages and disadvantages of working toward common goals with the gay men and lesbians. Most community members felt we had little in common with gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. Our issue, after all, was gender, not sexuality.

Within this decade consensus has been formed around these two issues. With regard to what we call ourselves, new options have opened. We no longer must choose between being crossdressers or transsexuals or drag queens. We have embraced new identities and developed an encompassing term—transgender— which allows us to inhabit practically any gendered space. Want to call yourself a non-op transsexual, a transgenderist, a two-spirit, a post-op lesbian, an androgyne, a klub kid, a crossliving crossdresser, a transfag, a butch femme or a femme butch? No problem. Indeed, when Bolin revisited the community in the mid-1990s, she experienced what she called A Splendor of Gender, in which the individuals she studied exhibited a wide variety of gendered presentations.

Also in this decade we have seen the emergence of sexual orientation as a major force—and perhaps the major force—in American politics. Suddenly gays and lesbians are respectable: more so, it sometimes seems, than Republicans, or at least the Republicans who suck up to the Radical Religious Right. The 90s have also brought widespread acceptance of transfolk by GLB organizations, many of which now boast names and mission statements modified to be transinclusive. Indeed, it’s now not the GLB but the GLBT community. Although assorted grumbles can be heard now and again from some in the trans community, we’ve gotten over the better part of our homophobia. Nowadays almost all our support groups are open to anyone regardless of sexual orientation, and many of us can be found in the ranks and on the boards of directors of G/L/B/T organizations.

Not everybody is happy about this alliance with gays and lesbians, of course, nor is everybody thrilled with the term transgender, but few would dispute that the issues which divided is in the 1990s have become largely nonissues. We’ve achieved consensus.

There is nowadays, however, an ideological area around which our community has become polarized, and that is identity politics.


A Brief Lesson in Identity Politics

If you’re fluent in postmodernspeak, you might want to skip to the next section. But if you haven’t read your Foucault and Butler and Wilchins, please read on.

Identity politics consists of the development of a new or alternative identity, which is followed by political cohesion around that identity. We talk about the gay and lesbian movement as if there were really such things as gay men and lesbians, or transvestite culture as if there were actually transvestites. Postmodernists argue such categories are culturally constructed, and hence largely illusory. They are not “natural” categories at all.

Terms like gay and lesbian and transsexual and transvestite may seem to adequately represent reality, but in fact they weren’t beamed down directly from the great computer in the sky. They were invented by someone, discussed, bandied about, and adopted, and eventually political coalitions were built around them. We’ve been able to witness this happening with the term transgender, which came out of nowhere less than ten years ago and is now the primary term by which most of us define ourselves and most of the rest of the world defines us. It has happened in much the same way with other identity categories.

Now obviously, political identities are convenient handles around which to organize, but the problem is we tend to forget they are socially constructed categories rather than representations of reality. Eventually, to most of us, including myself, they come to be seen as real, the more so since they represent consensual reality. We all know what gay men are, of course. I know and you know, and gay men know, and the radical right knows. Launching into a postmodern deconstructionist dissection of the categories of gay and man can seem like intellectual masturbation, pointless and of no utility. Still, the fact remains that one hundred years ago the fledgling term homosexual comprised a category in which one was presumed to possess the soul of the other sex. It spoke more to gender identity than to sexual orientation.

The other problem with identity categories is that once you define a term, some folks will fall outside its boundaries. These outsiders must eventually construct identity categories of their own.

When political gains are sought on the basis of identity politics, there are problems on a number of levels. The first is constructed categories are malleable and change over time, eventually becoming obsolete. There are, for instance, no rakes or libertines or Know-nothings in the twentieth century, although I assure you, several hundred years ago in Europe there were human beings who considered themselves rakes and libertines and one hundred and fifty years ago many Americans were proud to be Know-nothings. People built their social identities and often their careers on those categories, which meant something at the time but which are now extinct.

Laws built upon constructed categories will not stand the test of time. Even our more stable constructed terms like man, woman, and human may not endure in the long term. Historians, for instance, have recently been pointing out that woman as a separate category emerged only within the past five hundred or so years, which of course meant that the term man took on new meaning. Before this emergence, women were considered to be incomplete men. And as for being human, in a future in which people will be able to modify their bodies in new and creative ways, perhaps adding limbs or gills or cybernetic parts or genes from other species, the category will be forced to change. Will a spaceship powered by a human brain be human? Will an intelligent canid made of blended human and dog DNA be considered human? Perhaps, and perhaps not, but you can bet that when this technology comes to pass, new identity categories will arise—and they will be just as “real” as the identity categories of today.


How Identity Politics Divide Us

But enough theory! It’s risky for me to talk about postmodernism without invoking the murky post-Foucault language used by deconstructionists—if you don’t know what I mean, read Judith Butler, but be sure to take along a life preserver. What I really want to speak to in this essay is how identity politics—that is, campaigning for employment protection or protection from discrimination based on identity categories like gay, lesbian, and transgender—affects us.

When we fight for our rights on the basis of our constructed social identities, we of necessity exclude those with other identities. This leads to a series of political movements in which groups campaign separately for their rights rather than uniting to fight for rights which encompass all categories. In this country we have a civil rights movement based on race, a second movement based on gender (the women’s movement), a third on the basis of sexual orientation (the GLB movement), and a fourth—ours—which is based on gender identity. New movements are forming in our wake, including those of the intersex and leather communities. At some point one must ask: would the goals of these disparate groups formed around social identities be better served if instead of waging their separate campaigns they coalesced to fight for rights for everyone?

In the transgender community, some are comfortable with these separate but equal rights movements. Indeed, they work, after a fashion. But others in our community believe it’s time to drop the identity politics and campaign for rights for everyone, deliberately not shutting the door in the face on those who come after.

Quite a few community leaders take this position, most notably Riki Anne Wilchins. But quite a few other leaders have chosen the identity politics model. The most serious political divisions in our community—the struggle of the trans community against HRC, the growing criticism of Wilchins, and the recent difficulties within It’s Time, America! are based on this ideological divide. HRC is shutting the door in the face of transpeople because we’re outrageous and embarrassing. Riki Anne has positioned GenderPac as an organization which fights not only transgender, but all gender and sexual based oppression, and has embraced groups some of us find outrageous and embarrassing; and the ITA! brouhaha came about because its website contained information about those outrageous and embarrassing “flip-flopping” crossdressers who want to appear at work on day en homme and the next en femme.

Oh, the horror! The horror!


A Call to Take Up Our Pens

I don’t intend to argue here for the superiority of one position over the other—although the reader-between-the-lines should be able to detect my personal bias. Rather, I’ve attempted to lay the theoretical framework for post-identity politics and to point out that we have a real problem. As a community, we’ve never properly addressed whether we wish to adhere to the identity politics model or go with the post-identity politics model. Feelings run strong in both camps. The factions expend energy fighting each other rather than our real enemies—yet we’ve never really talked about this issue which divides us.

We’ve never adequately debated the relative merits of the two models. And not only have we not talked about it, many of us have never even heard of the postmodern model. Certainly, most of us don’t realize that our leaders are divided politically into two camps.

No wonder so many community members are bewildered by the amazing amount of hostility in the air!

We spent years debating what he should and should not call ourselves, and years discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of allying ourselves with the GLB community. But although in the real world we’re busily working toward—and with surprising frequency achieving—political gains using both the identity politics and post-identity politics models and fighting among ourselves which is best, we’ve never really talked it out.

Isn’t it about time?



[1] The guys got it. Although FTMs may have been polarized around other issues, they were not split around the issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. Perhaps this was because the majority of FTMs had backgrounds as lesbians and female crossdressers were all-but-invisible.