“So apparently, I’m a Pretendbian. So in case you’ve been lucky enough not to hear, Pretendbian is this term radical feminist and transphobe Cathy Brennan came up with, for transwomen who are apparently “pretend” lesbians, trying to trick or force real lesbians into sleeping with them. She has put a list of pretendbians online and actually a couple of us are here tonight. This is all in response to the idea of the Cotton Ceiling, which Drew Deveaux termed for the ways transphobia and trans misogyny keep trans women from getting laid in the queer women’s communities.
Brennan’s been leading the charge on calling this idea “rapey” which I think is a pretty clever bit of messaging. Our cultural idea of rape is incredibly gendered, even though the latest statistics suggest it doesn’t actually reflect the reality of rape.
By calling trans women rapey, Brennan is implying that we’re men, trying to force women into sex. Since I’m on the Pretendbian site I should mention that I’m not actually a lesbian, and I don’t pretend to be one either. But more importantly I’d like to quote “Lefty T-Girl’s” great blog post on this controversy and say this. Cathy, we don’t want to have sex with you.
This particular attack is resonating with me with what feels like a transwoman right of passage. The ways I’ve been failed by my organizing and friend communities in the past year. Specifically the ways language has been used, however unintentionally, to undermine my identity.
This is kind of a weird topic for me because I kind of hate obsessing over language. Our words are so consistently inadequate. I care way more about basic human compassion than whether you know the right terms. Some of my best supporters come from friends who’ve known me a long time who may not be up on all the lingo and concepts but who I know will always respect my humanity. But I realize I haven’t educated these folks to be allies to the trans community more broadly. Because when it comes to people you don’t have intimate relationships with the words really do matter. Working to learn and respect the language is about working to learn and respect the different ways of seeing the world. One where I get to be just as much of a woman as any “cis” woman.
So first, there was the pushback against the word “cisgendered”. I came out as genderqueer and eventually trans in the reproductive justice organizing community working on this big conference at my undergrad school. So I felt a strong personal connection to that space. But last year when I went back to the conference to talk about how reproductive oppression impacts the trans community I was met with the constant attacks on this word. In meetings, in panels, on car rides, and it felt like I was being attacked in this space that I thought was for me.
None of the critiques held up, mostly based on the idea that cisgender would undermine folks identities as women – which says a lot about how these folks see women whose identities are modified by transgender. So what does cisgender actually do? It recognizes that we all figure out our own gender in relation to that first non-consentual gendering. The first thing that happens to us when we’re born. You know, when a doctor glanced at your crotch and says “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” , forcing you into one of two incredibly limiting gender boxes for the rest of your life. Even though there’s way more than two types of crotches.
We have words that mean you don’t identify with the gender that was assigned to you at birth. So we also need a word that means you do identify with the gender that was assigned to you at birth. That’s all cisgender does. So when people push back against a word like cisgender I like to think about what they’re actually resisting. In this case it’s the idea that we all get to determine our own gender identity. That some doctor can’t find the truth of our genders by looking at our crotches. I think that’s the real issue. In de-linking gender and crotches we’re saying no one’s gender is more true, or valid or real. So by taking away cisgender, or by standing by while others in the space took away the word, this community has effectively pushed me out. It wasn’t intentional, and I imagine the people who did the pushing would be disturbed to hear it described that way. It’s just that they took away the language I need to talk about my issues. By refusing this term they refused me full access to the term “woman”. In short, taking away the term “cis” is a great way to perpetuate cissexism. Because when you take away the word you can’t even name your oppression.
I’ve spent a lot of the past year thing about how a community that gave me the space to explore my identity could also be so undermining. That community let me access ideas of gender that seemed impossible in my Christian fundamentalist upbringing. But it also limited me in some very real ways. At the end of the day, a lot of folks in this space were only okay with my process up to a point. As long as my gender fit within their politics and their understanding of gender. And whether they were willing to admit this or not, they drew the line at me getting to be a woman. The same idea is played out in the feminist rhetoric responding to the anti-choice attacks which folks are saying that “we’re oppressed as women because of having a uterus or having a vagina”. Which ends up conflating “women” with “people who can make babies”.
I’ve called out this rhetoric and the dangerous way it excludes folks from health care access a couple times, including at that reproductive justice conference. I’ve been incredibly moved to see a number of “cis” feminists embracing a new understanding of reproductive health politics. But there’s also been some disturbing backlash. Folks seem more attached to holding on to their particular line of argument than looking at the real issues facing real people who need reproductive health care. Somehow, rhetoric that hasn’t actually led to winning on this issue is more important than expanding access and you know, respecting people’s genders. When folks are willing to undermine their own politics to hold onto essentialist language it makes it pretty clear how much they don’t see transwomen as women or transmen as men. Which makes it pretty hard to feel like I belong in a feminism that’s constantly talking like I don’t exist.
And then there’s the way this idea of gender has played out in my friendships. Specifically when talking about sex and crotches. I’m so going there. So I’m sitting with a group of friends and we’re drunkenly scarfing nachos when a queer “cis” woman friend starts in about the grossness of penises. And there’s that same sinking feeling from every time someone ranted against cisgender in my organizing space, and every time I read that we’re oppressed as women because we have vaginas.
I glance over at Gina, who I know is as uncomfortable with this line of thinking as I am. And I feel like a bad transactivist just sitting there letting my friend say these things. But I’ve tried to confront her about the way she talks about genitals before and it totally didn’t work. And also, it’s not my job to educate you while I’m stuffing my face and you start undermining my humanity.
And then there’s my complicated feelings. Because I know she’s talking about my crotch whether she’s thinking about that or not. And I know she ‘s in the “I date women and trans guys” frame, meaning cis women and trans guys, but penis doesn’t feel like it describes my crotch. I never really understood my body in that way, and my own self experience has always been more accurate than what some doctor might label my parts. And now, as hormones are creating a new arrangement of erogenous zones, as the biological functioning of my genitals changes, the word doesn’t even feel medically accurate. [unintelligible] I spend my long MUNI ride home furiously texting with Gina. As we’re processing what just happened like good little queers one thing keeps coming forward in my mind. “Yes that was fucked up and hurtful and I deserve better from my friends”. So why have I been willing to accept this sort of failure from my community for so long? Because we don’t even have the words. Being failed by my friends sucks. And we’re all being failed by our language. It’s pretty hard to advocate for tranwomen’s humanity when we tie gender to crotches and there’s not even space for our crotches in our words.
As soon as an idea gets set down in language it becomes constricting, limiting. We have to push the concept. And this often means creating new words to talk about the new issues that have come up. Language, like gender, is in process. But if we don’t set an idea down in language it doesn’t even get to exist. So let’s talk about that “I date women and trans guys” friend. By which folks means cis women and trans guys. By which they mean people with vaginas. Which could be pretty de-legitimizing to that guy you’re dating if that’s not how he sees his crotch. And which doesn’t even accurately describe the groups cis women and trans guys. There’s a ton of crotch diversity there too- like even people with penises.
Gender’s this big messy thing that we make out of so much shit. The person in this room that gets laid the absolute most only sees a tiny percentage of the crotches out there. Yet somehow, we manage to gender everybody. You’ve got cissexism and transphobia to deal with if you say you date women but you wouldn’t date a transwoman. Whether you’re someone I’m organizing with, my friend, or Cathy Brennan, who – update, I still don’t want to have sex with, but I do feel bad for you if your transmisogny makes it hard for you to admit to yourself how hot you think I am.
Look we’ve all got our attractions but that doesn’t mean they’re not political and informed by culture. Which brings me back to this. The language and ideas being deployed by my organizing community, by my friends, pack the same set of ideas Cathy Brennan is pushing. That the truth of gender lies in our crotches. At least she knows where her ideas are going at the end of the day. Essentially, reproductive rights organizers are saying they’re okay with my issues until they get in the way of their essentialism.
Tons of folks are constructing their sexualities in ways that undermine transgender identities. I’m over the shifty attempts to undermine my womanhood. Just come out and say it. You don’t think I’m a real woman because of my crotch. Or maybe? Stop thinking that gender and genitals are the same thing. Thank you.”
http://vimeo DOT com/39769021
[sic- I swear to god I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried- GM]