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Hands off my umbrella!

I was first referred to Monica Roberts for her explanations of why RuPaul doesn’t count as trans. A few months later I asked a gay black man about trans self-identification in black communities, and he pointed me to Roberts.

I was, honestly, more convinced by the assertion (I don’t know if it’s true or not) that RuPaul rejects the term “transgender” for himself. Whether or not he counts as trans, I think Roberts made a strong case that he is not a prototypical black trans person, or an appropriate community spokesperson. It seems like she wasn’t content with that, and insisted on excluding RuPaul completely from the category of trans. She has now taken it upon herself to do the same for another person who is not even claiming to speak for trans people, B. Scott.

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I first heard of Scott last night when someone reposted a blog post of his on Tumblr; apparently he’s an entertainment journalist who does news, commentary and interviews on his blog, as well as a YouTube channel and podcast, but has branched out into more established media.

Scott identifies as a “proud gay man,” but his public persona is so high-glam femme that he is often perceived as a beautiful woman. At least one man felt embarrassed after trying to flirt with Scott, and lashed out in an immature way.

The current controversy started in June when Scott had been invited to appear at the 2013 BET Awards Pre-Show. He claims that at the last minute, after extensive wardrobe negotiations (people do this?) and interviewing one guest on camera, the BET staffers told him his outfit “wasn’t acceptable,” ordered him to change, and then told him he was being replaced for the rest of the pre-show.

Scott is now suing the network for “discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” In yesterday’s blog post, he wrote,

Over the years my love muffins and strangers alike have questioned me about my gender identity. What IS B. Scott? As a society we’ve been conditioned to believe that a person has to be ‘exactly’ this or ‘exactly’ that. Biologically, I am male — as my sex was determined at birth by my reproductive organs.

However, my spirit truly lies somewhere in between. It is that same spirit that has allowed me to become so comfortable in my skin, choose how I express myself, and contributes to how I live my day-to-day life.

Transgender is the state of one’s gender identity (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one’s assigned sex (identification by others as male, female or intersex based on physical/genetic sex). [source]

It is by that definition that I accept and welcome the ‘transgender’ label with open arms.

Makes sense, right? Scott self-identifies as “somewhere in between,” which counts as “neither or both,” and doesn’t match his assigned male sex. But that’s not enough for Monica Roberts:

Roberts’ reaction is really problematic. What bothers me the most is that she is prescribing and delineating appropriate transgender actions. It’s not enough for Scott to appear in heavy makeup, long hair and women’s clothes and shoes every time he is in front of a camera. He has to take hormones, declare a transition, and adopt a name that Roberts approves as feminine enough.
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As I wrote back in April, there are at least three conflicting definitions of transgender. Roberts is saying that in order for her to consider him trans, Scott has to follow her prescriptions.

Another thing that bothers me is that Roberts is not only claiming the right to define transgender, but the right to define the umbrella. The “umbrella” definition of transgender is an inclusive one that brings in drag queens and anyone else who’s remotely gender-variant. As umbrella proponent Jamison Green famously said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” Many prescriptive trans advocates explicitly reject the umbrella, many (like GLAAD) switch between the umbrella and their prescriptions, but Roberts claims that the umbrella is her prescriptions.

In a subsequent blog post, Roberts clarified that she worried that this identification was purely a legal strategy, and that Scott was only “embracing the transgender umbrella after resisting it for years.” “Until I get and see more evidence that B.Scott’s embrace of the transgender umbrella is genuine, permanent and not just related to this legal case, call me skeptical.”

Roberts knows a lot more about American black culture’s attitudes towards transness than I do, but I would be surprised if a gay black man who grooms himself like a woman and is often perceived as a woman would face very much less discrimination and harassment than a transitioning black trans woman. How often is Scott really able to draw on his male privilege?

Based on her reactions to RuPaul, my guess is that Roberts is worried that with his large following, Scott could emerge as a powerful trans leader and spokesperson without transitioning, eclipsing her own influence and those of other transitioned black trans people like Janet Mock* and Laverne Cox. Personally, I would welcome an influential non-transitioning trans person of any race to the cause. Any creative responses to trans feelings would be a relief from the relentless hormones-surgery-name-change drumbeat put out by Roberts, Mock and other trans spokespeople. And the transition buy-in that Roberts values so much doesn’t stop her from being divisive and exclusionary.

But regardless of whether you trust Scott to be true to the trans community, Roberts’ heavy-handed prescriptivism should alarm not just advocates of transgender inclusivity, but also feminists of all stripes. And her claiming the right to not just define transgender but to take the transgender umbrella away from us is just uncalled for.

(*Update: In this sympathetic interview, Janet Mock makes it clear that she’s not into that kind of boundary policing.)

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