Cis people need to internalize trans pain

It’s no secret that being trans is hard. It’s hard because of the outside forces that make it difficult-to-impossible to do basic everyday things that people who are not trans get to take for granted. Like go to the bathroom, or be addressed appropriately, or be able to trust that your doctor will probably not ask irrelevant and invasive questions when you have the flu. This is transphobia, a belief system which seeks to punish trans people for existing, which believes that their humanity is compromised by their gender, because humanity should rightly exist in two, specific, mutually dependent, static categories. (It never has and it never will). Transphobia denies people families, jobs, homes, education, access, basic safety and so on: injustice at every turn, as the transgender discrimination survey puts it.


But there’s another force that transgender people have to contend with. Trans as a gender modality should not be intrinsically painful, and if it is, it is not only because of blatant discrimination. Cisgender normativity is different to transphobia, the same way heteronormativity is different to homophobia, and similar to the way white privilege is difference to outright racism. The -phobias and -isms express a hatred of the other, an intolerance for difference, an investment in the relations of power that keep those in power at the center. The -normativities are not outright assertions of dislike or destruction. Instead, they simply assume that the other does not exist in the everyday operations of the world. If you want space, as an other to the center, you have to actively claim it, in the face of normativity. This functions to keep others in their place as outsiders. It reminds them they are not “normal.” It denies them access to the same fundamental human rights, on a cultural and spiritual level, as (pick your combination) white, cis, moneyed, hetero, and sometimes also men are automatically granted. It can be exhausting at best and, over time, extremely corrosive at worst, to have to continually assert your existence to people who just don’t consider you there at all.


But more than this, one of the effects of the deep, deep roots of cisnormativity, which assumes a binary gender structure as the underpinning of what it means to be human, is that most of us internalize this assumption. It’s usually impossible not to. I’ve written at length about how and why binary gender has until recently informed Western culture’s ways of structuring the subject, of shaping how we each can come into knowledge of ourselves as individuals. S.J. Langer has written about some of the consequences for trans people when, from the very beginning of the building of their senses of selves, their caregivers misrecognize who they are, often even before they themselves can know. This is because of the assumption that they must, by definition, be cis. This assumed starting point for all humanity is one incarnation of cisnormativity.


The result can be a deeply embodied sense of wrongness, of being out of place, which exists in the pre-verbal part of the brain as an awful source of profound dysphoria you might not ever be able to name. Sometimes you may not have an idea of what is wrong because you do not have the concepts available to you, because your family and your school and your community are operating on the assumption that binary gender is all there is. Struggling your way to being able to conceive of yourself under these circumstances can be an extremely costly psychological battle. Not everyone survives it, not everyone emerges without deep wounds, and it is one way being trans is made to be so much more difficult.


As neuroscientifically-endorsed attachment theory, like the work of Alan Schore or Dan Siegel has shown, we are all reliant on the experience of being correctly mirrored. This is a necessary part of an infant’s development of a sense of self: it’s only by seeing ourselves in another that we know we are coherent selves, as our brains are forming in early childhood. It’s how we learn to self-regulate, to feel empathy. It’s what makes us human, what enters us into community with others and with ourselves. So when someone is putting together a sense of self in a world that assumes cisnormativity, not only do they eventually have to assert their existence to their family, their society, their culture, they also first often have to struggle through an internal landscape which is cluttered with obstacles.


Sometimes realizing you are trans means gradually bringing into consciousness a feeling of wrongness you have lived with your whole life, and then starting to try and make sense of it. This means groping for understanding through a level of white noise that is inside you because of the assumptions of the world outside you. As a person assigned female at birth in a family, community, and society which had specific meanings for me that did not fit me at all, I feel a cognate sense of relation. But at least I had some things I could take for granted as I struggled with this: I may have been a failed girl, but I was not a failed human. The terms I was searching for were foreign to me at the time, but they were not unimaginable to those around me.


We cis people have an important responsibility to take here. If we stop assuming our privilege, we also engage deeply with altering the binary structure of gender our culture takes for granted. We can make a real difference to some of the pain transgender people have to feel because of the system that informs and endorses us. I often write and talk about how this work benefits all of us, how binary gender limits everyone, how we are not doing trans and non-binary people any favors when we stop being transphobic or cisnormative: we are doing ourselves good. But the point I want to make today is a little different. It’s this: it’s already too hard to be a gender independent person, an outlier, an outlaw, creative or queer or trans with gender. It’s made harder by a world that, in addition to often hating trans people for the difference and/ or challenge they represent to what we take for granted, also behaves at a base level as though they were conceptually impossible. This is not only damaging on the external level, microaggressions and all. It can also be devastating to someone trying to figure out who they are, to come to terms with what’s inside them, when the terms they have been given actively get in their way. Cisgender privilege hurts on many levels. It can sometimes be deadly, if it makes it so difficult for a human who is not cis to be able to access who it is they are, that they cannot survive that process.


Our work is to internalize that trans and non-binary personality formations and expressions are as real and as human as the ones we have been used to taking for granted until now. We do this in part by understanding the damage we do when we continue to embody our gender privilege. This damage is not only enabling the perpetuation of transphobia in the outside world. It’s also making it harder for some people to be trans in the innermost, most private places where we each find and know ourselves. When we stop assuming that cis experience is and should be the norm, we will stop fussing about pronouns and bathrooms. But we will also make room in our culture for everyone, and make it easier for everyone, and on a very real level, make it safer to be trans.

The shit that Castor Semenya has to put up with

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the discrimination faced by the South African runner, Castor Semenya. This past week, the Court of Arbitration in Sport upheld a ruling by the IAAF that she may not run in women’s competitions unless she takes medication to lower her testosterone levels to some imagined “norm” for female people. The IAAF helpfully added that she is welcome to run in men’s events if she doesn’t want to take this medication.

 In my last blog I referenced the work that in some cases was, oh, you know, 20 years old, that proves why the rigid binary demarcation of hormones along gendered lines is scientifically inaccurate, and that the investment in correct hormone levels across some binary norm is an invested political fiction. And if you want a latest summary, there is Gina Rippon’s excellent new book, The Gendered Brain, which takes a comprehensive look at the self-fulfilling prophecies of much of the science of gender difference, including hormones.

 There has been, and continues to be, lots of pushback against this ruling, with many people making the point that the best athletes tend to have a biological advantage, and that Michael Phelps also has an natal condition which gives him an advantage over his competitors – but he is considered admirable, not freakish. Here is Trevor Noah on the topic. And make no mistake, Semenya is being disciplined for not being female enough – or for being “as good as a man.” She is being punished for exceeding some artificial notion of what a woman is, because she is winning.   

Here is a really good recent article outlining the flaws in the IAAF judgment, including calling out the transphobic undertones of this ruling and detailing the bad science behind its assumptions. It also points out that the speed advantage Semenya’s naturally high testosterone levels afford her is really not that big, and is utterly unquantifiable. The article, in The Conversation, sums up all the reasons why the ruling is confused, unethical, unreasonable, discriminatory, incoherent, based on false science and reductive thinking, and unjust.

There is one thing none of the protests I have read so far mentions. In addition to the racism, the implicit transphobia, and the gender policing, it seems to me that one of the reasons this is happening to Castor Semenya is because she does not look, at least to Western eyes, “properly” feminine: she is butch. And she is married to a woman. She both “looks” and “behaves” “like a man,” that old chestnut about same-sex-loving women. So I think there is a point to be made about homophobia, too, in this toxic mix. Racism + Gender Policing + Misogyny + Homophobia = The Shit That Castor Semenya Has To Put Up With.

Sis’Castor, you are too good for them.







This week I saw the movie, Captain Marvel. I’m so grateful that middle class white women are finally being given the credit we deserve for all the years we worked our asses off trying to save the world. Yes, I am being a little sarcastic. I also think with real affection and respect about all the middle class white women I’ve met in my twenty years working in non-profits and in mental health who are genuinely committed to the work they do and the populations they serve. And there is a very real politics that comes with being this kind of woman doing this kind of work. I think it has changed somewhat in the last two decades, since I first started being one of these white women. But in my day, at least in South Africa, non-profits were dominated in leadership positions by well-intentioned white women, whose organizations tended to serve people who were not middle class white women. Good intentions are not enough to manage the complexities of this situation.


It is not only a problem of white liberals speaking for society’s others. It also calls into focus a fundamental and really quite shitty aspect of being a white woman: as a woman, you bear part of the brunt of thousands of years of Western cultural chauvinism, and the patriarchal oppression that enabled it. As a middle class white woman, not only do you have class privilege and white privilege, which means you get to take for granted a whole series of benefits and entitlements, but you also carry the burden of all the things that were done by Empire in your name. By this I mean to acknowledge the ways in which various kinds of violence against men of color have been perpetuated in the name of “protecting” white women. I also mean to acknowledge the ways in which women of color have been made to bear the abjected aspects of female sexuality on our behalf. We white women have benefitted from these exercises of power, and been made subject by them. Aspects of this dilemma are invoked for me precisely by the figure of the hard-working middle class white woman, saving the universe, either by working for little pay in socially under-valued jobs where she nevertheless holds specific kinds of economic and institutional power, or by this movie, the story of how Carol Danvers discovers her grit and comes into her power. In the discussion that follows, I’ll be representing from memory the things characters say, so please note that the content represented as speech is not actual verbatim quotes.


The film seeks to address sexism: early in the movie, Captain Marvel is told her weakness is that she is “too emotional”; her final repartee to this criticism is, as she kicks smarmy Yon-Roggs’s ass, “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” It is kinda cool and satisfying. It’s clear that this, Marvel’s first superhero movie to feature exclusively female heroes, is taking the glass ceiling seriously.  


But here’s the thing: Carol’s best friend is a black woman, Maria Rambeau, who has a black daughter, Monica. Who says to her mom, when Carol asks Maria to blast into space with her to fight evil aliens and Maria tells her she can’t because she has a child to care for, “Mom, what kind of example are you setting for me?”


Interestingly, Monica Rambeau is the name of one of the many alternative comic book Captain Marvels, this one from the early 1980s. So the film is indicating that Maria’s child grows up to be like her Aunty Carol. There is a shot in the film, towards the end, when Carol takes off to go into space and help the refugee Skrull families find a new home (see? Middle class white women work so hard to make the universe a better place!), that presages this. Monica and Carol say a touching goodbye, and then Monica stands outside the front steps of her house looking up into the sky after Carol, a beautiful smile on her beautiful face, as Carol zooms into the stratosphere.


On the one hand, I love the sisterhood being represented here. On the other hand, it makes me cringe. There is too much unacknowledged whiteness at work here. Black people are once again cast as the supports to white people. Black women are once again the facilitators. And Carol is the inspiration for Monica, in what runs the risk of being an uncomfortable recasting of the White Man’s Burden. This is all especially noticeable in a film that is so conscious about its gender politics.


Perhaps most egregious, there’s a very real history of mainstream feminism not acknowledging the difference that race makes to a woman’s experience in the world. Monica’s message to her apparently single mother, to leave her child and go to work, to not set the “bad” example of being a woman who stays at home, sums it up. The desire to leave the home to work in the world was historically a middle class white woman’s desire, and a white woman’s privilege. For centuries, the right to stay at home with one’s children was denied many black women.


I’m not saying Maria can’t be her own person, and Monica can’t be a child of the class for whom going out to work is desirable as a gender norm. But taken all together, the movie seems to me to whitewash a much more complex relationship between women, and one that deserves to be treated more carefully. Or it runs the risk of reinscribing the mistake made by well-intentioned middle class white women. Again.