Last week I posted a response to an email sent to the NYU Gender Listserv that requested a trans person for a panel. I received 25 emails of thanks from people who expressed that they had a similar response (and only one hateful anonymous message). I paste the text of my email below because unfortunately my comments are a response to an all to common situation.
On Sunday, I was horrified to see in my inbox a subject line that read “Transgender person Needed ASAP”. I know this is not normally a listserv for discussion, but for posting of events where dialogue hopefully takes place, so let this perhaps stand as a call to organize an event around the issues I raise in the following. Though I would hope on a gender studies listserv people would not need me to make what is egregious about this subject line obvious, and I use this rhetorical strategy with hesitancy, I will suggest one consider a subject line that read “Black person Needed ASAP”. A trans person is needed to educate the always already cisgender American Psychological Association (APA). Any trans person will do, no knowledge of psychology or psychoanalysis needed to be on the panel (hear a sigh from grad students all over, desperate to add APA presentation to CV).
What an odd way for us to grant visceral knowledge some validity–only as spectacle, outsider, “other” can a trans person speak in this context. Yes, any trans person–whether they’re a trans woman or man, whether they’re binary-identified or non-, whether they’re relatively rich or poor, of color or not, out and activist or stealth and just trying to get by under the radar, all distinctions absent from this request–would have valuable experiences, but no, not any trans person will do as a panelist on an APA panel. This paradoxically devalues trans scholarship and lived trans experience by conflating the two and everything in between. Would a trans botanist have much to contribute to this panel? I’m also very sadly reminded of Dr. V, the physicist and inventor who committed suicide after a Grantland article’s author thought her status as trans more interesting than her invention. This suicide happened because cis people could not see trans people as fully human. This is what the subject line “Transgender person Needed ASAP” and the later request “I need a presenter who treats and/or is also transgender” play into.
The request that follows is no less egregious than the subject line would indicate. There is much written on the problematic dynamic when a person in a marginalized group is asked to come educate a group of people. (Start here: http://www.
“This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women–in the face of tremendous resistance–as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
I’m also shocked at the audacity to suggest that the trans person on this panel will become a “pioneer” as if, first of all, there aren’t already massive trans movements occurring, and second, that a panel organized by cis people would start a trans movement. It’s also worth noting the racial and colonial problematics with the term “pioneer”.
There is another dynamic at play here too–that this transgender person really is needed as soon as possible. They have one week to prepare their submission, the week of Thanksgiving no less; though, really, the call is not so much for a paper, as for a body that can be gawked at and prodded with questions. This is not atypical when marginalized people are invited to participate in oppressive spaces in the name of inclusivity–particularly when people are writing about issues that are so far removed from what they actually know about.
This is further reflected in the way the psychoanalytic literature on LGBTQ issues is reported. The problem isn’t that “heterosexism” is old-fashioned or politically incorrect–though the term “hermaphroditic” is, to say very the least. Additionally, both race and class are absent from this call–as well as, stunningly, sexual orientation–as the LGBTQ perspective is treated as singular and universal and trans issues are conflated with sexuality. The call should not be for tolerance and acceptance of diversity. The ignorance of real issues facing trans people is reflected in this misguided suggestion as well as the claim that “the modern and progressive approach is that we must help people mourn the loss of the body that one transforms with hormones and reconstructive surgery to fit the psychological bedrock of a different gender from one’s natal body”. This is a misreading of the literature on trans mourning, and one placed into a new context that ignores all the things that trans people need help with such as lost jobs, homelessness, family estrangement, hate crime, and institutional discrimination.
In the future, I hope that this listserv will not be used for such requests.