Friday, February 28, 2014

How To Be A Nice Person On The Internet And Not Speak For Others

this is a response to some discussion threads happening on twitter recently among some queer games people that center around a bunch of tweets made by a transwoman, which i have quoted in full below. the tweets led to a discussion about exclusivity in queer circles, in this case the queer gaming one - and the perceived endless infighting and divisiveness among it. i talked a little bit about some of my experiences with this a couple months ago on this blog, for those interested.

the below quote will probably be upsetting and/or triggering for some to read. and so i'm going to place a TRIGGER WARNING! on this whole article for that reason, for that and for some of the things i'm bringing up later. i understand that several people might not want them to be brought up again, but i think it's important to look at the language of the offending tweets for the ideas they represent so that we can better understand how these things often manifest themselves. i'm not interested in singling out or calling out the person who posted this or saying they're a bad person, or whatever. i'm not going to name them either, and i don't believe it's important to anyway. i also understand that people can be inclined to say more upsetting things than they usually would in the midst of angry tweeting, but that doesn't change the overall sentiment, which is something i've heard multiple people i know express to varying degrees.

note that i cleaned up some of the spelling and shorthand of the tweets a bit so it's more obvious what's being talked about:

for anyone who hasn't spent tons of time around angry, jaded trans women, here's a vocabulary term you might not know: "theys"

"theys": white skinny FAAB (female-assigned at birth) intellectually-genderqueer women's studies students who think being trans is a contest to have the most intellectually rigorous gender identity, who experience masculinity as a fun thing they can put on to experience liberation and privilege, but can still totally fit themselves into women's spaces, and for whom "visibility" is the foremost goal, who think they're more oppressed than trans women because not everyone understands their gender.

The Theys think that because They're trans, They're not implicated in transmisogyny.

In reality, They're the most direct descendants of the original post-gender transmisogynistic early feminists.

Now, just as I hate all men but have a couple men in my life that I love and trust deeply, I also dislike Theys but have some in my life.

In fact, one of my best friends is a They.

That said, my rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off. I recommend it to all women, especially trans women.

"theys" as a descriptor strikes a pretty strong chord, since it's the most direct way to signify an other ("they", by definition, signifies a group of people who is not you) and it bears an uneasy resemblance to xenophobic language used against immigrants and PoC, especially when the author says their "rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off". in this case, it's also a snarky way to redefine and disrespect the language of people who choose to identify by "they". By portraying "theys" as privileged, skinny, white women's studies majors it also presents a caricature of queer people that is similar to the one portrayed hatefully outside the West as the embodiment of queer culture - endless privilege, excess, entitlement, and self-righteousness. the choice of language is what probably makes this the one of the more extreme examples of this sentiment that i've seen expressed online.

still, i'm going to have to admit this is a sentiment, however ugly it's worded here, that i've felt in the past was true a lot of the time - even if i never really openly expressed it (at least on these terms). there is a general sense among many transwomen i've known that women's spaces are traditionally built as a haven for "FAAB" people, not for us and our concerns, and therefore there's less willingness to trust or identify with things that happen in women's spaces. this is a very valid concern, because it's a thing that still seems to happen. even if transwomen are now treated with much more respect and compassion than we have been in the past, there's still a lot of misunderstanding and white-washing of our experiences in ways that can be, quite frankly, insulting and dehumanizing. there's often nearly not enough room in these spaces to allow for differences of experience to where every individual person feels comfortable being themselves. and so maybe transwomen dominate queer game and tech spaces, but we are much less of a presence elsewhere. and we have much less likelihood of being accepted by and taken into dominant cultural narratives that traditionally fetishize "FAAB" people's bodies but still (in the end) will probably see us as disgusting impostors.

but also - creating an exclusive community to cater to our supposed experiences as transwomen doesn't do much of anything fix the problem of spaces lacking inclusivity! in actuality, it even excludes a lot of transwomen! there are many different axes of oppression, after all. what about race, what about immigration status, what about disability, what about sexual trauma, what about income level, what about body image, what about culture? you may think you're doing a great service by righteously speaking for people who fit your particular group, when in reality you're speaking for maybe 10-20% of the people who do. you might not, in fact, be very aware or conscious of their experiences at all. but that sure seems like a lot if you're well-connected on social media! and so the idea of a universal transwoman "experience" may be a nice thing to entertain to feel connected to others with some similar experiences, but it starts to evaporate the more deeply you go into exploring all these different axes. people continue to feel excluded, and then they create their own exclusive communities catering more to their specific concerns, and then they make someone else who fits some but not all of those categories feel excluded again. and it just goes on, and on.

and let's talk about the fetishization of "FAAB" bodies. if you feel like you find both "female" and "male" cultural conceptions of gender incredibly limiting because of the way they've directly enforced an idea of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and presentation on you, what should you do? accept "i am a woman", or "i am a man" and all the implications that may or may not come with that, both internally (to you) and externally (to any other people)? or maybe you choose a term that at least, hopefully, somewhat better expresses your indifference towards these narrow conceptions of gender that are having a limiting effect on who you are and what you can do. and maybe that term isn't perfect, but maybe it does help you escape some of the ideological barriers placed around you.

i understand (firsthand) that gender dysphoria is a different thing altogether from just feeling alienation from abstract cultural constructions of gender, yet they're so often so deeply intertwined that it can be hard for many to understand how and why they're different. i identify as a woman, but i fully admit that the idea of "woman" wasn't shoved down my throat growing up in the way that it is for FAAB people, and because of that i was allowed more of an opportunity to create my own definition of what that means for me. i also feel like i probably fit the stereotype of "woman" better than a lot of people - i often feel much more comfortable with a more traditionally "femme" appearance. FAAB people are often taught that there are things you just can't or shouldn't do, because you're supposedly this idea of a "woman", which supposedly means you just can't do some things - like big creative things, or science or mathy things! i experienced something much different - feeling like i had to be a Big Deal and Super Smart for anyone to care about me or anything i said at all. both of these are oppressive ideas to implant into people early on, and it's often hard for one side to see the other's experience as being truly oppressive.

speaking of bodily dysphoria, one very big reason a person who identifies as genderqueer but who does not experience gender dysphoria in the way trans people do might do so because of past trauma involving their bodies - like, say, rape. this is NOT to say that all of their identity is necessarily a response to that trauma - but that it can be a factor a lot of people overlook because of outward signs of privilege. i understand that this is a dangerous issue to bring up because it's used to shame and dismiss a lot of queer identities, but i want to remind others that by dismissing FAAB folks in the way the original tweet does, they might be participating in rape culture. bodily dysphoria is a thing that happens to a lot of people for many different reasons, not just ones related to a particular gender orientation. so some "FAAB" folks may not feel like a "man" in the full-on gender dysphoria sense, but they may desire to have the sort of power that was inflicted on them instead of feeling like a powerless victim (as well as experiencing less ideological barriers placed on their identity, etc). and so, adopting a genderqueer identity might allow them to feel less like another victim of rape culture.

when dominant culture fetishizes your body, and fetishizes this very idea of "femininity", and conditions males to see women as sex objects and prizes, i can see why you might have some pretty fucking legitimate concerns - even if you not necessarily experiencing gender dysphoria - for not wanting to identify as a "female"! especially when it is directly triggering to a very real traumatic experience you've undergone. this is something people who've not had this experience will, fundamentally, just not understand. this is also an 100% real and valid way to respond, and does absolutely not mean you're "making up" these feelings or anything like that, nor does it mean you're not experiencing dysphoria for many other reasons. as a survivor, there is nothing i could say that would ever really come close to describe the enormity of pain i've experienced. and, of course, i'm not saying that plenty of MAAB (male-assigned at birth) people don't experience rape too. particularly transwomen. i'm one of those people, after all. but because of that, i feel like i have more insight into how rape culture can define the terms of this discussion than people who haven't gone through it do.

let's talk about terms, also. i understand we make FAAB and MAAB distinctions so we can talk about existing power dynamics. but like, it certainly doesn't feel good for me to be described as MAAB, and i can't imagine most transmen feeling good about being called FAAB either. and so maybe they are nebulous distinctions that only exist because of cultural conditioning and we shouldn't be giving credence to them? maybe by using them we end up falling back into the "Language of Our Oppressors" category?

look - many people feel excluded, and many people experience horrifying levels of pain and suffering at the hands of a dominant culture that erases, oftentimes actively destroys their being, their autonomy, their existence. and so maybe we can have a little empathy and acknowledge that it isn't always about us - and we even may be complicit in someone else's suffering on one of those axes we hadn't thought about? maybe we can also recognize that making generalizations or broad statements about the experiences of us and others is what directly creates the sorts of environments that lead to exclusion and infighting?

instead, as a rule, whenever making broad statements, how about we just always assume there are any number of people outside our own experience who will have insight on many issues that we, fundamentally, just lack? this is something we sure don't like seem to like doing, particularly in the "first world", because it feels better not to think about it.

and hey, okay, it's great that you feel empowered for saying that thing but maybe your empowerment doesn't have to always involve making someone else feel like a piece of shit! it'd be nice to see a lot more effort made to understand the nature of those experiences outside our own, to understand that they are not an attack on our being and to not speak for them, or over them, or defensively in reaction to them, because we recognize the kind of spaces that creates: ones defined by infighting, exclusion, silencing, repression, emotional outbursts, defensiveness, misdirected rage, and hurt feelings. this goes for anyone and everyone. it doesn't feel good for anyone involved to have those spaces, so why do we keep making them that way? we need to listen and empathize to create the kind of spaces we wish had been created for us. and that means: have some fucking respect.

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