Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

We need support to be men

This month there has been a lot of talk about support for alternatives to transition. In Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a group of “gender-critical trans women,” including several who identify as transgender or transsexual. In a reaction to the shutdown of the CAMH clinic, Alice Dreger talked about people who were gender non-conforming children and didn’t transition, linking to a book called Blood and Visions, a post by Debra Soh and an interview with Sarah Hoffman. Maria Catt wrote about her experiences taking and dispensing testosterone to female-bodied people. Joel Nowak hoisted a great comment by Juniper asking, “Where are the examples of (so many) people who have lived long and well WITHOUT surgeries or hormones?” 4th Wave Now expanded on Juniper’s post, highlighting the value of alternatives to transition in reducing the incidence of trans suicides.

Big hairy scary man
The author, big hairy scary man
We do need to hear more from examples of people who have successfully coped with gender dsyphoria without transitioning. So, let’s take a look at who’s represented in these articles:

  • Women who don’t suffer from chronic gender dysphoria (Goldberg, Dreger, Hoffman and 4th Wave Now)
  • Women who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning (Soh and Juniper)
  • People raised as girls who transitioned to living as men, then detransitioned (Catt and the authors of Blood and Visions)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, but are critical of transgender dogma and identify as male (the women interviewed by Goldberg)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, then detransitioned (Joel and the author of Third Way Trans)

These are all important stories, important voices. But there’s a population missing: men who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning. If people like Joel and Juniper are virtually invisible, people like me are actually invisible.

And yet our stories are hugely important. Most of the people I’ve mentioned have complained about transgender dogma, particularly as articulated by transitioned trans women, and particularly about the demands made by transitioned trans women for unconditional access to women’s spaces. Many have complained about the behavior of individual transitioned trans women, online and in person.

It’s very nice for transitioned trans women to be accepted (by some) as feminists. It’s absolutely essential for detransitioned trans women to be heard. But if what we’re looking for are alternatives to transition, we need to make space for people raised male to talk about how we deal with gender dysphoria without transitioning. And people need to listen to us, not just talk at us.

I’ve been blogging about this stuff for years, and for some reason I’m not mentioned by Goldberg or Dreger or Catt or Joel. I had some conversations with detransitioned trans men on Tumblr a few years ago, and they got very angry. I tried talking to the gender-critical trans women on Tumblr, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Joel about this on Twitter, but he cut me off. I simply posted about my gender-related feelings on my own blog, and gender-critical feminists mocked me on their blog.

I don’t think it’s me, but let’s assume that it is. Let’s assume that I somehow came off as a huge asshole. Why am I the only one blogging about this stuff? Why haven’t Goldberg or Dreger, who are journalists, gone and found some male-bodied people who have dealt with gender dysphoria without transitioning?

I have a simple theory about this. It’s one thing to deal with women, even gender non-conforming women and detransitioned trans men. Boys are pretty safe, especially “pink boys.” If you’re willing to be flexible, transitioned and even detransitioned trans women can be seen as womanly enough. They’ve had hair removal and lots of female socialization. But it’s another thing to deal with men. Big strong hairy muscular men with deep voices, talking about sports or gadgets or hunting, some of us in dresses.

Third Wave Trans has written one of the wisest things I’ve read about this: many people, including me, have been traumatized by men in their lives. I’ve largely gotten over my trauma, but lots of people have a hard time trusting men. Some have a hard time even being in the same room with men.

I get this. I’m not asking anyone to go beyond their comfort zone. If some people are unable to relate to men without being mistrustful or hostile – or at all – I’m not going to demand that they do.
But someone needs to talk to us. Someone needs to listen to us. Someone needs to help us to be out and proud. Someone needs to tell the young trans women out there that they can be happy without transitioning.

Joel accused me of demanding “politeness.” I am not. I am also not trying to impose patriarchy or mansplain or dominate any discussions. To paraphrase the immortal words of stimmyabby, I’m not demanding anyone treat me as an authority, only as a person. I think it’s reasonable to ask people not to use us as insults to mock transitioned trans women. If you’re going to make pronouncements about what we should and shouldn’t do, you could at least ask us if we think that would work.

I am not writing this to criticize people for what they’ve written in the past, only voicing a plea for what they will write in the future. The bottom line is that if we don’t want all the trans women thinking they have to transition, or commit suicide, we have to make it safe for trans women to be men.

How to make love to a trans person (I mean me)

Here’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Actually, a transvestite,
Actually, me,
Because me is all I really know).

The first step is to enter your lover’s fantasy world,
(I mean my fantasy world),
And be their fantasy.

The next step is to let your lover,
(I mean me),
Be their fantasy.
For you that may be the hardest part.

Then there will come a time
During your lovemaking
When the fantasies run out,
When there is no escaping reality,
When your lover,
(I mean I),
Will have to face facts.

The fact that you are two people, two animals,
With real feelings that have been hurt before,
With real fears and sore spots and longings.

Then you must be ready
To stop being fantasy you and start being real you,
To stop making love to your fantasy lover and start loving the real person,
(I mean the real me).

You must be ready to be afraid and let your lover comfort you,
To let them be afraid and comfort them,
(I mean me),
To be two people alone together,
To be two animals grooming each other.

You must be ready to take pleasure in the real person,
(I mean the real me),
To let them take pleasure in the real you,
So that when you’re done making love
You will still have real love.

When you’re advanced you may be able to skip the first couple of steps.
Sometimes.

That’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Well, actually, me.
Well, actually, there’s only one person who can make love to me now.
If that person isn’t you,
This might work for other trans people).

Transgender, and 55+ years in the closet

One thing jumped out at me from Bruce Jenner’s ABC interview about his transgender feelings, beliefs and actions: he has been wearing women’s clothes in private for over fifty-five years. I noticed this when I listened to Lana Wachowski’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, and even when I read interviews with Richard O’Brien. All three described being fascinated with women’s clothes since childhood. Why didn’t they feel comfortable telling anyone about it before they started taking hormones and wearing women’s clothes in public?

Let me be clear: I am not blaming Jenner, Wachowski or O’Brien; they are completely entitled to their choices. I can understand people not wanting to talk about a private aspect of their life, and nobody is required to talk to the media about their transgender feelings or beliefs if they don’t want to, no matter how famous they are. Actor, director, sports star, stepfather to reality television superstars, everyone has a right to privacy.

I can understand people not wanting to discuss their life plans before they’re finalized. If someone is planning to go back to school for their MD, or move to Portland, or live the rest of their life as a woman, they need to figure out how to do what’s right for themself while honoring their obligations to family and friends. It may take a long time to do that, and they don’t need to tell anyone.

And yet, Jenner and Wachowski are just two in a long line of trans women who talk about wearing women’s clothes in secret for years before declaring their gender transitions. (O’Brien is a bit different: he made his feelings and beliefs pretty clear in his plays and movies.) There are hardly any famous trans women who feel comfortable talking about their feelings or actions while deciding whether to transition, let alone wearing women’s clothes in public. And among those famous trans women who have decided not to transition, very few are out about it in any way.

you dont have to transitionFor me, as someone who decided long ago not to transition, the support that these declarations receive from some quarters rings a bit hollow. Often it feels like people are cheering the transition more than expressing support for people who have trans feelings. And it makes me wonder: what would they have said in 1995 if Wachowski had simply mentioned in an interview that she was considering transitioning but hadn’t made up her mind? Or in 1985 if Jenner had told Phil Donohue that he was a cross-dresser? It makes me wonder: would these people show the same support to someone who chose my path?

Would you show the same support to someone who chose my path? Would you want to know about my transgender feelings, regardless of what I do about them? Would you defend me against discrimination? Would you support my right to use bathrooms consistent with my gender expression, even if my gender expression changes from day to day?

If so, please tell the world. Say it louder. Because I don’t think Bruce Jenner heard you.

The lure of fake community leaders

Remember in 2002 when George Bush assured us that the Iraqis would welcome our invading armies “with open arms”? When we actually did invade that welcome was a lot less warm. A lot of people wondered what Bush and his cabinet were thinking. Where did they get that idea? It’s not like they took a poll of Iraqi citizens living under Saddam’s police state.

It turned out that this idea of a grateful, welcoming Iraqi people came from Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile living in Washington who had regular contact with the US media and Beltway thought leaders. He hadn’t taken a poll of Iraqis either: his “intelligence” came from what people in his own echo chamber of exiles were saying, with a heavy dose of his own fantasies. Add in the fantasies of Bush advisers like Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, and we get a disaster of epic proportions that we’re still paying for today.

Unfortunately, Ahmed Chalabi’s con was not unique. There are many Chalabis around the world who tell a compelling story about Their People. How they were victims of the Enemy, unfairly brutalized – and often still are. How they desperately need help.

A big part of that story is You. You can help, when nobody else will. You can put an end the injustice. You can save Their People. And Their People will love you for it. They will probably do something nice in return.

You can see how seductive this idea was to people like George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz. A friend, whose People were being unjustly treated. All they have to do is deploy some expensive troops and planes that are sitting around doing nothing, and they can right that wrong, and earn the gratitude of the Iraqi People. They’ll look good, and earn influence. What could possibly go wrong?

The interesting thing is that some of what Chalabi was saying was the truth. His people were being victimized, they did appreciate being liberated and restored to their homeland, and they did shower the Bush Administration with favors and grant them influence and access.

What went wrong was that Chalabi’s people weren’t the Iraqi people. If they had been, everything would have gone according to plan (maybe). But they were only a small subset of the Iraqi people, a narrow slice of the elite. Most of the rest of the population did appreciate getting rid of Saddam, but they did not like the rest of the invasion and occupation, which was planned without consulting them, and often without acknowledging their existence. They certainly did not want Chalabi running the country. So they resisted him, and the occupation.

Boy those right wingers sure are stupid, huh? Nobody on the left would base their political actions on the words of a few friends! We always take these stories with healthy skepticism. And our humble left-wing friends would never take their experience and present it as that of an entire group. Right?

Sadly, the left is just as susceptible to our own Ahmed Chalabis as the Bush Administration was. They’re friends! They’re victims! Other people listen to them! How could we doubt them?

Even more sadly, there are many in the transgender world who stoop to Chalabi-style tactics, claiming to speak for the entire community and offering the undying gratitude of all trans people to anyone who uses the proper pronouns and recites the prescribed incantations. This may work for the people in the roles of Bush and Chalabi, at least for a time, but in the end nobody is really better off, and those of us who do not have access to these wannabe allies are in the worst situation of all.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

hello fellow1s

Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.

gallusmag-sheilag

The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?

hellbedlam1

No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

sombfa1Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”

We still exist!

I had some doubts that a drag queen could do justice to the story of Casa Susanna, but I should have known better than to doubt Harvey Fierstein. He is, really, one of us and a gifted, sensitive storyteller, as I should have known after watching Torch Song Trilogy. The actors assembled for Casa Valentina may not be transvestites, but they are seasoned professionals, and they captured the reality of our lives (including the gender fog). I recognized a bit of myself in every one of the transvestites, and was reminded of many others I’ve met at various gatherings. It’s up for three Tony Awards: Best Play, Featured Actor (Reed Birney) and Featured Actress (Mare Winningham, who as Rita expertly draws out the ironies and contradictions in the feelings of the transvestites around her).

As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history.  Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history. Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
Anyone who has any interest in transgender issues should see this play. Fierstein tells about a critical point in our history that reverberates today, culminating in a great line from the character of Charlotte (Reed Birney), a stand-in for Virginia Prince: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

The irony, of course, is that it is us transvestites who are still scuttling about, while homosexuals are more everyday than cigarette smoking. We took pains to distance ourselves from gay men, and in particular drag queens, and look what that got us. We distanced ourselves from “sex-changers” and eventually “transgenderists,” as Prince came to call herself, as well. Now we’re still in the closet, while they gain more acceptance every year.

The one thing I really want to add is that we do still exist. From reading the reviews of the play and commentary inspired by it, you might think that a black hole swallowed us all up in 1963, with our bouffant wigs. The one exception is Playbill, which quotes Fierstein: “What grabbed me was: Why did they get cut out of our world? Why aren’t they part of our struggle? We get rights. They don’t.”

I had read some of the reviews before I went. I told the bus driver I was going to see Casa Valentina, and he mentioned he had heard good things about A Raisin in the Sun. Later in the conversation I told him, “Imagine if people were talking about A Raisin in the Sun as though black people only existed back in 1961?”

No, we do still exist, and the vast majority of us are still deep in the closet. And here’s where you come in. You can help us to come out. You can make a safe space for us.

Chances are that someone you know is a closeted transvestite. When I came out of the closet, it was a huge relief to hear people say things like this:

  • It’s okay if you wear women’s clothes.
  • It’s okay whether you like men or you don’t.
  • It’s okay whether you believe you’re really a woman or you don’t.
  • I won’t laugh at you.
  • I won’t fire you.
  • I won’t kick you out.
  • I won’t leave you.
  • I’ll still love you.

It would have been even better if they had said those things before I came out. Maybe you can say them, for your friends and family and employees and tenants and neighbors to hear. Maybe if enough people say them, we won’t feel so afraid any more.

The essential conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners

I’ve written here before that I believe most transgender people share the same basic feelings: gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog. Whether you are transsexual, transvestite, drag queen, drag king, butch lesbian, genderqueer, non-binary or something else, you almost certainly experience one of those feelings, and probably all three. Whatever neurological claims you may have read about essential differences between one group and another, the fact remains that almost none of the trans people you will meet have been found to have a “female brain,” neurologically. People cross those subcategory boundaries all the time, and the only evidence currently accepted for membership is personal declaration.

We are the same, and yet we can be divided into two subgroups that are very different, with an essential conflict of interest between us that is impossible to erase. This difference is not based on biology or neurology, it is based on a simple difference of goals. Trans people who transition – who take a goal of becoming or being seen as a different gender – are often at odds with trans people whose goals do not include transitioning.

There are multiple conflicts between transitioners and non-transitioners, but the most common, the most salient, conflict is over destiny. Transitioners tend to believe that it is their destiny to transition, and to interpret facts as evidence for that destiny. Non-transitioners may believe that it is our destiny not to transition, or we may be agnostic on that issue.

For example, one time I was out with a friend, presenting as a woman. My friend remarked to me, “You’re not very feminine, are you?” At first I was hurt, but then I saw he had a point, and I thought to myself, “Actually, I’m getting tired of being a woman, and I’ll be glad when I can take this bra off and use my regular voice. Good thing I didn’t transition!” In contrast, Lal Zimman interviewed trans men who reported feeling devastated by the idea that they were failing as men. They couldn’t say, “good thing I didn’t transition,” because they did. Instead, they said things like, “I must just be a feminine man.”

And you know what? I completely understand the value of the destiny argument. Transition is hard. I’ve known transitioners for whom it was pretty obvious to everyone that they were on the right path, but still they encountered some very daunting challenges. There are many people who are politically and philosophically opposed to transition, and who will fight you on it, possibly including parents, employers and medical professionals. It’s hard to go through that constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing.

The psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about an experiment where people who felt that they were stuck with a possession (an artistic print) decided that they liked it better than people who thought they could exchange it. When we’re stuck with something – and it’s something we can live with – we make peace with it. When we can change it at any time, the grass is always greener. Marriage works in similar ways. If you’re committed to a person it helps to believe that you’re destined for them, and if you’re committed to transitioning it’s helpful to believe that you’re destined to transition.

The conflict comes in when people start making universal destiny arguments, like the idea that “trans women are women,” not just when presenting as women, but essentially, eternally, from birth through death, whether we transition or not. Transition then is portrayed as not a change of gender, but as revealing the “real you,” or your “authentic self.” That implies that someone like me who chooses not to transition is hiding the real me, or denying my authentic self. And that is true for people who stay in the closet, but it’s not true for the rest of us.

If we are not denying our authentic selves, but we are still not transitioning, many conclude, we must not have that essence of womanhood (or manhood) that makes transition such a necessity. And that leads to bizarre twists of logic, where someone can be a “man who likes to wear dresses” one day, and be seen as essentially and forever male, and the next day declare a transition and be seen as essentially and forever female.

This essentialist view of non-transitioners leads people to declare that we are not truly trans, and therefore not part of LGBT. It leads them to deny the very real feelings of gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog that we continue to feel, and to deny us any need for support or services. It leads them to speak on behalf of all transgender people, setting priorities and making declarations about terminology without any regard to our very real needs.

Transgender essentialism also leads people to marginalize and ignore non-transitioners. Because the choice not to transition results in people tending to become less passable over time, non-transitioners are caricatured as embarrassing, and negative characteristics that are found across the transgender spectrum are pushed into caricatures of cross-dressers and drag queens as big clumsy insensitive objectifying men in short skirts, and of transmasculine genderqueer people as childish “transtrenders” who claim gender variance only to attract attention.

Detransitioners are usually kicked right out of the transgender club. The fact that they weren’t happy with their transition leads many people (including many detransitioners themselves) to declare that they were “never really trans” in the first place. But of course the feelings of dysphoria and desire and fog don’t vanish, and the detransitioners are left to cope with them with very little support.

In short, the essentialist way of thinking about trans issues is a big problem for non-transitioners and detransitioners. I used to think that it was just confined to a particular subgroup, and I had friends, many of them non-transitioning trans people, who were skeptical of it. But then a funny thing happened. Many of these friends transitioned, and as each one began to commit to building new lives in a new gender they and their families started repeating essentialist claims. Each time I heard one of these claims I objected, but the result was that over time they began to think of me as a combative stickler. This pattern is repeated in most of my interactions with transitioners.

I used to take some of this personally, but now I realize that the transitioners are just protecting their interests. They don’t seem to be capable of realizing how much their actions threaten my interests (this kind of egotism is a hallmark of gender fog), and thus they tend to dismiss my complaints as cranky contrarianism.

It is not cranky contrarianism. It is the one essential difference between trans people who transition and those who don’t: transitioners have an interest in justifying transition, and non-transitioners often have an interest in justifying not transitioning. It is not biology, it is simple psychology.

Can we still be friends? Yes, despite this difference, we have many of the same feelings, and many of the same needs. We face many of the same dangers, and we inhabit many of the same spaces. I have friends who have transitioned or are transitioning, and I respect their choices about what path to follow. (That is all I can do; I cannot accept that they have no choice. I think this is clear.)

There is room for us to form alliances of common interest, and alliances of the hearth. But there will always come a Yalta, a time when that essential conflict of interests will manifest itself, when the alliances will break down. Some people – Righteous Ones – will be able to put things in perspective and sacrifice their own interests for someone with a greater need.

It will not always be obvious whose need is greater, and we may take actions that are at odds with each other’s interests. But what is absolutely critical is to acknowledge and respect them. If a transitioner tells me that something I do or say affects her interests, I may keep doing it, but I will try to accept that the conflict exists and respect her interests. I ask the same from transitioners. If we all do that, there’s a chance we may be able to stay friends and keep the door open to future alliances.

The Righteous Ones

I was a bit too glib writing about the “myth of the Righteous Person.” Let me walk that back and say that there is such a thing as a Righteous Person: someone who stands up for trans people not because they want to get invited to the Queer Students’ Party, and not because they worry they might be mistaken for a “tranny” some day, but because they believe we are people who deserve respect and fair treatment. Those are the best kinds of allies, the ones who do it out of a heartfelt commitment.

The Medal of the Righteous: "Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe"
The Medal of the Righteous: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe”
I call them Righteous People based on three concepts from Jewish philosophy: the Righteous Ones, the Righteous Gentiles and the Righteous Among the Nations. The Righteous Among the Nations is an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked “life, liberty or position” to protect Jews during the Nazi holocaust. It specifically excludes anyone who acted for personal gain.

The Righteous Among Nations is said to be based on an earlier notion of the Righteous Gentile, one who is not Jewish but lives among Jews and follows the laws of the community, as shown in the common Hebrew word chasid, which is translated as “righteous,” but also sometimes as “pious.” This is the same word that is used for Hasidic Jews, people who define themselves by a greater adherence to Jewish law than assimilated European and American Jews.

There is another word, tzadik, that is translated as “righteous.” In the words of Maimonides, “One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik.” This word comes down to us in the names of Neil Sedaka and Janette Sadik-Khan, who are both apparently descended from Righteous Ones.

I mention these distinctions because I think the concepts are also reflected in our concept of “ally.” There is the brother in arms, who is like the Allied Powers, fighting a common enemy. There is the ally of the hearth, who comes to meetings and parties, and makes an effort to get all the pronouns and terminology right. They are like the Pious Gentile, the one who is not one of us but lives among us and follows our laws. Then there are the ones like the employees of the Maryland McDonald’s who tried to defend Chrissy Lee Polis from her attackers, with no motivation but human decency. Those are the Righteous Ones.

The key is that a Pious One is not necessarily a Righteous One. Just as importantly, a Righteous One is not necessarily a Pious One. This is why we need to be careful which kind of ally we are talking about when we use the word.