Articles / Categorization / Verbal Hygiene

“Trans women” and the erasure of transvestites

Transgender politics is notoriously full of terminological arguments. It’s an age-old expression of power: the right to decide which categories people get put in, who belongs and who doesn’t, who is condemned and who is spared, who is mocked and who is praised.

These arguments are compounded by the problems that we humans have in categorizing anything in a way that we can agree on. Last week I had a chance to talk with George Lakoff, who has done a lot to raise awareness of the problems with traditional definitions of categories, and he agreed that these problems have a greater impact when it comes to categorizing people.

Because of this, I generally try to avoid talking about transgender people, and instead focus on trans feelings, beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, the rest of the trans world hasn’t seen the value in this, and keeps arguing about how to categorize people. One of the worst things people do is to apply their categories uncritically to people from other cultures at other times, without their approval or consent.

This came up a few days ago when someone called Nat tweeted this:

As Nat explained to me, the target of this tweet was the organization Stonewall UK, which is apparently run by a bunch of rich white dudes in suits. I agree that it’s problematic for an organization called Stonewall to be run by people who don’t look anything like the people who started the Stonewall Riots, but I objected to Nat’s use of “trans women” to describe the actual rioters.

The people who started the Stonewall Riots did not call themselves “trans women of color.” “Trans women” is a recent coinage, from the past ten years, and “of color” is only slightly older. If they wanted to categorize themselves by race they were “black” (maybe “Negro”) and “Puerto Rican,” and if they categorized themselves by gender expression they were “transvestites” and “queens.” After the riots, the organization that Sylvia Rivera founded was called the Street Transvestites Action Network. (She later changed it to Street Transgender Action Network, but never to anything containing the term “trans women.”)

Rioters at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.
Rioters at the Stonewall Inn, 1969.
The problem with referring to the Stonewall activists as “trans women” is that that category is reserved for transitioners. Some of the Stonewall veterans had partly transitioned, and some transitioned later (including Rivera), but many lived part time and never transitioned. Would they transition if they were in their teens and twenties today? Maybe, maybe not.

Nat tweeted to me, “I was under the impression that trans* included -vestite?” Yes, trans* includes -vestite. “Trans woman” does not – except when they’re co-opting us to get money or political support.

When have you ever heard “trans woman” used to describe someone who’s not transitioning? RuPaul has been explicitly excluded from the category – and apart from being wealthy she probably bears the greatest resemblance to the Stonewall rioters of any celebrity today. If you can find a non-transitioner in any list of contemporary “trans women,” I’d love to see it. I’ve never seen Eddie Izzard or Rye Silverman in one. And in the few tweets I’ve read from @theNatFantastic, I’ve never seen a contemporary non-transitioner as a trans woman.

So no, you don’t get to go around talking about “trans women” never mentioning a non-transitioner, and then turn around and claim non-transitioning heroes as “trans women.” The Stonewall rioters were not trans women. They were transvestites. They’re my heroes, not yours.

Here’s the kicker, which prompted Nat to tell me to “chill the fuck out”: there is a systematic exclusion of non-transitioners from the “trans community,” and “trans women” leaders are actively involved in this exclusion. “Trans women” are doing exactly the same thing as Nat’s “rich white dudes in suits.” Nat’s tweet was part of this exclusion.

Maybe it’s because I sometimes look like a white dude in a suit, but I’ve found a lot more acceptance and support from rich white dudes in suits than I ever have from “trans women,” many of whom are rich and white and wear suits.

Let’s all remember that the Stonewall Riots were started by Black and Puerto Rican transvestites. Their legacy belongs to the world, but more to Black people, Puerto Ricans and transvestites than to the rest of us. And most of all to Black and Puerto Rican transvestites, who still flock to Greenwich Village to this day. Maybe we should let them decide what to do with it.

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