(Trans)gender Culture Clashes: Social Recognition and Determining the “Real”

by Carla Pfeffer

When I first spoke with Teresa, she had been dating her partner, Jess, for a year and a half. Over the course of our two-hour telephone call, she spoke to me about both the struggles and rewards of being a cisgender (non-transgender) woman partner of a transgender man. Teresa and Jess started dating a year after Jess began taking testosterone. Jess had top surgery while the two were partnered. Teresa described herself as strongly lesbian femme identified and she had primarily dated butch lesbians in the past. Because of her feminine appearance, she was often assumed by others to be unremarkably heterosexual, rendering her lesbian femme identity invisible. She found that one of the powerful aspects of partnering with butch lesbians was that her own lesbian femme identity suddenly became visible as strangers would “read” her partners as masculine women, but women nevertheless.

But being partnered with Jess was different. By the time Teresa was dating Jess, he was publicly recognized as a man all of the time, without exception. This social recognition of Jess as a man affected not only his position in the world, but Teresa’s as well. Teresa told me:

As a femme… I don’t feel like I’ve ever been seen as queer when I’ve been by myself. I think so often in my history of dating, that the people I dated would make me visibly queer. So it’s really interesting when the person I’m dating makes me invisible. And so I don’t gain any visibility as a lesbian or as someone who is queer when being out in public with Jess the way I would with past partners. So that’s really, really hard. However, in a way it sort of feels almost liberating because now I and only I am responsible for my queer visibility… I think that it’s sexism, honestly, that femmes are seen as invisible beings when really we’re radically queer in our own right and we’re just never given that credit.

One of the reasons I wanted to document experiences and identities like Teresa’s is because they are so often rendered invisible (or worse) in our society. They also hold the potential to teach us quite a bit about who decides who will be recognized and get to “count” as a man or a woman, straight or queer, conservative or radical, or in a space that exists between or outside of these categories altogether.

Over the past few weeks, I have been poring through the spate of social media (here, here, here, and here, for example) focusing on debates and tensions between anti-feminism, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and trans feminism about who gets to count—as women, as feminists, as radical, and as lesbians. The fact that these debates coincide with the latest iteration of the contentious Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival only makes them more timely and salient. During this same time, I learned that some of my own published research (here and here) on cisgender women partners of transgender men had been cited extensively by Sheila Jeffreys in her latest work (here). Within this text, Jeffreys frequently misgenders the partners of my research participants as women and refers to them as “transgenders” or “female-bodied transgenders” (p. 114). Jeffreys poaches verbatim quotes from my research participants and frequently writes “[sic]” in instances where participants use “he” or “him” to refer to their trans partners. When Jeffreys does use pronouns such as “he” or “him” to refer to the trans partners of my research participants, it is always surrounded by shudder quotes. These editorial gestures reveal Jeffrey’s appraisal of trans men’s illegitimacy as men. In one instance, Jeffreys describes the gender identities of the partners of my research participants as “carefully constructed myths” (p. 118). Jeffreys cherry picks my data for quotes to bolster her claims about the hurtful potential of gendered (and especially transgender) identities, omitting all context—particularly that which does not square with her claims.

Rather than deigning to engage directly with Jeffreys’ claims that trans individuals are not “real” men and women, or that delighting in masculinity, femininity, and butch or femme gender expression is inherently anti-feminist, I am increasingly more invested in asking the question: Why do people like Sheila Jeffreys get to decide? More precisely, through which processes do any of us obtain the cultural authority to adjudicate realness when it comes to sex, gender, and sexual identities, and to what ends and consequences? How do any of us become real or legitimate members of the groups to which we stake our claims? When the experiences and perspectives of people like Teresa and Jess are ridiculed or erased, their words and self identifications violently replaced without their consent—all in the name of feminism—the consequences extend far beyond the ideological. Jeffreys and recent social media debates over her (and similar) work should serve as a cautionary tale to feminist scholars who approach gender and gendered identities as inherently harmful. Such approaches deny the very lives and identities of those whose stories may provide useful lessons and insights about not only the dangers and pitfalls of gender, but also its nuances, pleasures, and potentials if we will recognize and listen to them. Gender can surely hurt, but as a growing body of research on transgender suicide and homicide (here, here, and here) attests, social exclusion, revilement, and erasure can kill.

Carla A. Pfeffer is assistant professor in sociology at Purdue University North Central. Her article, “Normative resistance and inventive pragmatism: Negotiating structure and agency in transgender families,” was published in the August 2012 issue of Gender & Society. Pfeffer has a forthcoming article, “‘I don’t like passing as a straight woman’: Queer negotiations of identity and social group membership,” in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

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3 thoughts on “(Trans)gender Culture Clashes: Social Recognition and Determining the “Real”

  1. Great piece, Carla! While there are many forms of feminist and gender-equality activism that are trans-inclusive, so-called “radical feminism” retains a strong attachment to biological essentialism. This idea that transgender people can change gender – what radical feminists typically position as a socially-produced ideology – but not sex – here positioned as a biological fact determined by chromosomes – has pervaded this line of feminist thought since Janice Raymond’s 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire. Such an argument creates a form of cisgender privilege, where cisgender people are awarded a form of authenticity that transgender people can never attain. This emphasis on biology also makes radical feminists sound almost indistinguishable from evangelical organizations that purport to be able to “cure” transgender people from “gender confusion” – which, indeed, is a strange alliance to imagine. While feminist sociology has largely moved beyond the 1990s tendency of using transgender people as the example of the culture/biology distinction, we need to put a more critical eye toward the transphobia and biological essentialism that pervades some feminist theorizing – particularly as scholars such as Jeffreys have established reputations and can gather a great deal of media attention to their viewpoints.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Kristen–especially as a fellow scholar whose work is extensively appropriated in Jeffreys’ latest work. It likely speaks to the growing visibility and effectiveness of trans-inclusive feminist scholarship and activism that coverage of trans-exclusionary radical feminist scholarship is even appearing in mainstream press after decades of relative dormancy.

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