Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Trans liberation and disability liberation: a necessary alliance

Today is (or, technically, yesterday was, as it's now about 4am here in the UK) Transgender Day of Remembrance, "set aside to memorialise those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice". Several bloggers I read wrote moving and powerful posts about this, which inspired me to write about what I believe to be both a natural and necessary alliance between disability and transgender issues...

One of my closest friends is a trans woman. It was her coming out as trans (at which point in fact we were not particularly close friends), and the ensuing conversations between us about identity (both gender and otherwise), disability (she also has a physical impairment), the psychiatric/mental health system, childhood experiences and other stuff, that led me to seek diagnosis for Asperger's at the age of 22, and ultimately to embrace "disabled" as an identity.

While I would never claim to appropriate her experience, there were levels of, particularly childhood, experience on which I connected more with her than with anyone I had ever known before - conversations which lasted from early afternoon until sunrise the next morning, and which felt like the deepest I had ever had in my life. Essentially, the experience that we both shared was that of having been brought up by (suburban, working-class-but-educated) parents under the assumption that each of us was a "normal boy", when in fact both of us were something else - an experience which is difficult to explain in many ways, because it is just as harmful and destructive as the experience of deliberate abuse, yet those responsible for it were acting not from any kind of malice but from a completely genuine desire to do good.

In fact, this is a defining characteristic of many if not most disabled people's lives (although particularly, specifically so for those whose impairment or other physical or mental "difference" is not diagnosed until adulthood) - false assumptions about who and what we are, resulting in well-meaning treatment that is as harmful as, or even more harmful than, malicious treatment would be. It is an experience that can be survived, even triumphed over, but not without scars - in some cases physically as a result of either "self-harm" or unnecessary and therefore harmful medical treatments, in pretty much all cases metaphorically in the form of reactive depression and PTSD. (Show me either a congenitally disabled person or a trans person who doesn't have PTSD, and I'll show you someone who must have been brought up in Utopia.)

I have seen my friend grow into a beautiful woman, while she has had to see me (in many ways) "regress" or "deteriorate". I have seen her grow into herself, while I am still not sure if I truly have a "self" to grow into. I have seen her dysphoria turned, quite literally, into euphoria by a simple little pill (the only medical-model solution for depression I have ever seen that actually worked, which makes a mockery of some so-called feminists' ideas about transitioning as a form of "self-hate" or "self-mutilation"), while there has been no such easy solution for me. This cannot have been easy for her: yet, through all of it, she has treated me continuously and consistently as a friend and an equal. There is no better definition of a friend, comrade, ally.

I believe that the disability rights/liberation movement and the trans* rights/liberation movement are natural allies, even if many within both of them have never considered that alliance. Both are about acceptance rather than elimination of physical and mental difference. Both are about freedom of choice, the inalienable right of the individual to have self-determination over, and to be regarded as the person with the best knowledge of, hir own brain and body. Both are about the depathologisation of that which the establishment persists in considering pathological. Both intersect with feminism in incredibly exciting ways which can enable feminism (if feminism lets them) to get beyond problems and dichotomies which it has struggled with for generations (see FRIDA and The Transfeminist Manifesto (PDF), and also, for intersections of both movements, the very awesome Emi Koyama). Both are about resistance against a patronising, patriarchal, paternalistic medical establishment which claims to know our bodies and minds better than we know them ourselves. Both are about human biodiversity.

There is considerable overlap, also, in the area of intersex conditions, which can be regarded both as physical impairment (and are often accompanied by, or "comorbid" with, other physical or mental impairments) and as a gender identity issue; Emi Koyama has written (although I haven't read it) a lecture with the awesome title of "Intersex at the Intersection of Queerness & Disability Theories". There is strong evidence that many people labelled "transsexual" may actually have one or more undiagnosed intersex conditions. The routine mutilation, often without their parents' either consent or knowledge, of intersex babies to make them "conform" to one binary gender or the other (which, of course, if the doctors get it wrong, leads to gender dysphoria and thus transsexualism) closely parallels the non-consensual sterilisation and other surgical mutilations of physically and/or mentally disabled children.

The long and sad history of trans* people murdered because of transphobia, and the horrifyingly widespread belief that those murders were justified because of those people's gender identity, is paralleled by the equally long and sad history of disabled people murdered (often under the guise of "mercy killing") by family members, "carers", medical professionals and institutions, and the similarly horrifyingly widespread belief that those killings were justified because of the victims' impairment or disability. Both groups were among the first to be killed (before Jews or any other ethnic minority) in the Holocaust.

This is why I think that it's absolutely awesome that disability bloggers such as Elizabeth McClung and Trinity have blogged about Transgender Day of Remembrance, and that Lisa Harney of Questioning Transphobia has posted a link to this video by Amanda Baggs. I would absolutely love to see a movement which actively brings together the disability and trans* movements (along with all kinds of other diversity-related movements), as "the human biodiversity movement", but in this lifetime, the disability movement and the trans* movement recognising and appreciating one another as allies is enough. Well, in trying to change the world, there's never really such a thing as "enough", but you know what I mean...

Transfeminist blogger Little Light wrote a truly awesome piece called "the seam of skin and scales", in which she declared "It is time for a feminism of the monstrous". While on an immediate level it's about her own identity and experience as a transsexual feminist, there is a hell of a lot in it that disabled people can equally well relate to. Disabled people too have been treated or regarded as monsters, freaks, subhumans, deviants, abominations, angels, demons, changelings, witches. Her writing sparked off a blog war with certain dogmatic "radical feminist" (IMO, their position is neither) bloggers who accused her of plagiarism (with no realistic case whatsoever).

What this is rooted in is the refusal of certain strands of feminism to accept trans* people's realities, in the same way that some of the "straw man" style critiques of disability rights are based on a refusal to accept disabled people's realities. In both cases, the issue is complicated by some well-meaning defenders of inclusion (consciously or unconsciously) embracing in reality the irrational positions that their respective movements have been stereotyped as holding.

Transphobic "feminists" tend to advance the position that transitioning is a "choice", and one which is harmful to the cause of feminism by "reinforcing feminine stereotypes" and/or "men invading women's spaces" in the case of trans women, or by "deserting womanhood to get male privilege" in the case of trans men. This - apart from having no relationship at all to reality except in the minds of people who have almost certainly never even knowingly spoken to a trans* person - completely ignores trans people's lived realities, of, for example, having known they were girls/boys from as early as they were capable of coherent thought (despite physical "evidence" of the opposite), or of having been continuously depressed to a suicidal extent (without anything other than gender dysphoria for that to be reactive to), along with other symptoms including physical pain, to be near-instantly "cured" on starting gender reassignment treatment. Trans*-ness is attributed solely to socio-political factors and even the possibility of its being the way a person was born is excluded without consideration. (For an example, see Sheila Jeffreys' claims here.)

(This is, of course, like all identity issues a complex and contested area - I have encountered (albeit only online and not in "real life") trans* people who claim that they did "choose" to transition, and did not "always" experience gender dysphoria, and I certainly don't wish to deny their realities. Ultimately, I don't think it matters if someone did choose their gender identity - I wrote about the same issue with regard to sexual orientation here... however, no one has the right to, or honestly can, deny the existence of those whose gender identity is, to them, innate.)

I see similarities here to a "straw man" version of the social model of disability, which is often advanced in order to deny it or reduce it to absurdity - i.e., that the social model supposedly states that impairment does not exist, or does not matter at all, and thus denies the reality of people whose impairments cannot be (fully) compensated for by social change. The earliest originators of the social model, such as Mike Oliver and Vic Finkelstein, shared with Marxists (from whom their critique was largely derived, albeit IMO going beyond Marxism in several crucial ways) and second wave feminists a focus on the sociological sphere and how it, rather than nature, was the source of many forms of oppression and injustice, patriarchy and disablism among them. Thus the early social model theorists did not write much about impairment, because the point of their writing was to take the focus away from impairment; however, there is nowhere that I know of, even in Finkelstein, that they deny its reality. However, this "straw man" causes many people, including disabled people, to reject the social model of disability altogether - much as the transphobia of much second-wave/radical feminism causes many trans* people to reject feminism altogether.

(On a more impairment -specific level, I see something kind of similar in some autism advocates who refuse to see autism as a "disability", or even as an "impairment".)

Disabled feminist writers (eg. Jenny Morris, Carol Thomas, Micheline Mason) have sought to redress this balance by "bringing impairment back in" to the social model, influenced by third-weave* feminist and ecofeminist writing about embodiment - arguing that diversity and difference need to be embraced, not denied, and that impairment as a lived reality inevitably informs our understanding of the world as disabled people, just as disablist oppression does, but that this can be seen as a positive thing, allowing as it does for plurality of experience...

*typo, but so appropriate I decided to leave it in ;)

Just as transphobia does not define transsexualism, so disablism cannot (wholly) define disability-as-identity. Just as even in a world completely free from disablism, impairment would continue to exist, and to affect some people negatively through factors such as pain, communication difficulties which cannot wholly be solved by technology, or shortened lifespan, and some impaired people would need medical interventions (whether drugs, surgery or both) in order to stay alive or have a decent quality of life, even in a feminist utopia where the shape of one's genitals has literally no significance socially, politically, economically or culturally (which would be (one aspect of) my utopia), there would still be people who would need hormone treatments and/or genital surgery to have a bearable life because of the physical condition (presently called gender dysphoria, in a gender-free utopia probably called something else) in which their "brain sex" and physical/hormonal sex do not match. Transsexualism is (like) impairment; transphobia is (like) disability.

Sadly, I am almost certain that there are transphobic disabled people and disablist trans* people, just as there are racist disabled people, homophobic black people, classist feminists, sexist working class people, etc, etc, etc. However, I can't help but dream of a banner of diversity under which all oppressed people can unite as allies in one another's struggles. For this to ever become anything like a reality, seeking out of parallels and interrogation of assumptions held about one group or movement by another is a permanent, ongoing necessity... and, just maybe, an alliance between the trans* liberation movement and the disability liberation movement could be the start of such a reality...


Lisa Harney said...

Shiva, this is great - I've wanted to write something like this but you've done it far better than I could have.

It's hard to explain how profoundly illuminating it is to read bloggers with disabilities who describe experiences virtually identical to my own, for different reasons.

As I said on Screw Bronze, it was Amanda's blog that gave me most of the language to articulate my reactions to the radical feminist transphobia that I've addressed, as well as her videos like the one I linked.

As with people of color, I encounter similarities that look like we'd make good, natural, allies, which ties into my disappointment with the way modern civil rights activism seems to be more about "What can I get for myself and who do I have to screw over?" (or maybe that's just the HRC and the affluent white gay men behind it).

I mean, when it's okay to use hate crimes against trans women as humor and it's okay for parents to say that sometimes they wish they could kill their autistic children, I'm seeing the same thing with a different mask.

Lisa Harney said...

Also, that blogwar with little light and The Seam of Skin and Scales really revealed the ugliness some feminists try to deny. One told little light she wasn't allowed to refer to any goddess ever - including a goddess from her own heritage as well as one who had trans women as priestesses. Heart tried to lay claim to the entirety of womanhood and shut little light out from touching it. She tried to innocently claim that she wasn't accusing anyone of plagiarism while cheering on those who explicitly said so, or that she wasn't being transphobic, while cheering on those who explicitly said such things.

That was a truly ugly occasion, and one I'm torn on blogging fully about.

Lisa Harney said...

Oh, I'll be posting at some length about this, about why the T is in the GLB and whether we really want to be, and other such political alliance stuff.

Thanks again for writing this.

Eli Clare said...

Thanks for this, which I found through Gimp Parade. I'm a disabled ftm-spectrum genderqueer. You might be interested in the following blog entry I wrote: http://pitbull-poet.livejournal.com/21560.html

Thanks again,

shiva said...

Oh wow. Are you *the* Eli Clare - as in the one who wrote "Exile and Pride - Disability, Queerness and Liberation"?

That book is utterly beyond awesome - i've got about a dozen blog posts i intend to write inspired by it...

I suppose this is the power of the internet - it's a bit mindblowing to find people who wrote books that i massively admire posting on my blog... :o

Er, yeah, as you can guess, i'm a fan...

elmindreda said...


I totally agree, and depending on the specific cause, there are more movements that could be useful allies (both ways) if only people stopped worrying about the "icky icky goo" of disability, queerness, mental disorders and all manner of other stigmatised differences.

You may enjoy Gender Warrior.