The pronoun conflict

I know a lot of people who have pronouns.  Sometimes these are pronouns they want to hear used to refer to them, but often the pronouns that matter most to them are the ones they don’t want to hear, pronouns that hurt them, that trigger unpleasant feelings.

I do my best to keep track of these, avoid the triggering pronouns and use the affirming pronouns.  I would do this under any circumstances because it’s basic human decency. I also have feelings about pronouns, and I appreciate when people use the ones I find affirming and avoid the ones that make me uncomfortable.

There’s actually a big difference between the way I want to hear pronouns and the uses I described above, and that puts us into potential conflict over pronouns.  Some people only have one (or maybe two) set of pronouns that are always welcome.  For me, there are times when I want to hear “she” pronouns and anything else will make me uncomfortable, and other times when I want to be referred to with “he” pronouns and other pronouns would feel weird.

If you met me, how would you know which pronouns I want you to use at that time?  I try to make it easy for you by giving you lots of gender cues.  If I’m wearing a dress and makeup and speaking with typical women’s language features, that means I want “she” pronouns, but if you see my beard stubble and I’m wearing clothes you would find in the “men’s” section, I want to hear “he” pronouns.

There are other ways of handling pronoun use. I’ve talked with some people who vary their gender presentation like me, but still want to be referred to with only one set of pronouns regardless.  They may wear a dress and makeup one day and wear pants and speak with a deep voice the next, but still want to be referred to with the same pronouns.

Other people may consistently present gender cues that are typically associated with one gender while wanting to hear a pronoun that’s typically used to refer to people of a different gender.  As always, I’m happy to do what I can to help them feel validated and avoid triggering them.

The conflict comes when people have gone beyond simply asking for the pronouns they want to hear and made generalizations about all trans people.  The first rule I heard was to ask all trans people for “their pronouns.”  The obvious flaw there soon became apparent: asking only trans people for their pronouns highlights a person’s transgender expression and may out them to other people.  And as I mentioned, some people may be presenting gender cues typically associated with one pronoun but want to be referred to with different pronouns.

The rule was then modified to asking everyone for their pronouns, whether or not there is anything noticeably unusual about their gender presentation.  Some trans people I know have said that this arrangement is not satisfactory, because they are not out to everyone about their gender, and would prefer to let others assume the pronouns to use based on their gender presentation.  If someone asks them their pronouns directly, they may feel like they are faced with the choice of lying by stating their closeted pronouns or outing themself by stating the pronouns that feel best to them.

For me it doesn’t work to tell people my pronouns, because people almost never ask that question of the same person more than once.  The last thing I want is to have someone use “he” pronouns for me when I’m wearing a dress.  If someone asks me my pronouns when I’m in “guy mode,” and I tell them “he pronouns,” how do I make it clear to them that I don’t want them to use those pronouns if I’m in “gal mode” next time?

I could try to explain about my genderfluid expression, and sometimes people are genuinely interested and we have a valuable discussion.  Other times they’re simply interested in what they need to do to avoid giving offense, and sometimes they seem to be indicating, “I see that you’re doing something unconventional with gender, and I want to support and affirm you.”

The last two speech acts are perfectly valid, but in those cases it feels like it would derail the conversation for me to try to explain that those pronouns would not necessarily be the right ones next time.  I try to just say “my pronouns match what I’m wearing,” but I get some confused looks. So this exhortation to “ask people their pronouns” has made things more difficult for me.

This pronoun conflict is part of a pattern that I’ve observed many times: there’s a group of influential trans people who mistake their circle of friends for the entire population of trans people.  They come up with something that works for them and take to their platforms to demand that their solution be applied universally.  In this case it was “Normalize asking people their pronouns.”

Every time this happens, I hope that the next time people will approach whatever problem they find with more humility and care, release a proposal where more trans people can review it, and wait for feedback.  I’m encouraged that some people seem to be listening to the semi-closeted transitioners, if not to genderfluid people.  I guess we’ll see what happens!

Feminine expression, not “feminization”

The author singing "La Isla Bonita"

Last year I wrote about my ongoing project to develop and explore my ability to express femininity with my voice. I discussed how important it is for me to create an auditory impression that matches the visual impression I create with clothing, makeup and hairstyle. I was a bit taken aback when I saw the word “feminization” in the name of a file prepared for me.

I want to be clear: I’m completely satisfied with the professional who used the word. I explained why I didn’t feel the word “feminization” worked for me, and they apologized and changed it immediately. I understand why they used it: “voice feminization” seems to be emerging as an industry standard word. I’m writing this to share my explanation of why that’s a bad idea, and why we should use a term like “feminine expression” instead.

First of all, having followed transgender discourse for over thirty years, my first mental association with “feminization” is “forced feminization.” I’m not out to yuck anybody’s yum, but forced feminization is not something I’m interested in, and I don’t think anyone wants to associate a service like voice training so closely with a relatively niche sexual fetish.

Beyond that, “feminization” implies a permanent transformation, that my voice would be changed from masculine to feminine. That may be an accurate depiction of what some trans people want. But as I discussed previously, I’m not transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman.

I’m genderfluid, which means that my gender expression may be feminine one day and masculine the next. I love the masculine parts of myself as much as I love the feminine parts, and I don’t want to give any of it up. I had as much fun singing “Sixteen Tons” today as I did singing “Manic Monday” a few days ago.

So please, don’t talk about helping anyone “feminize” their voice. Just say you’re helping them develop their feminine vocal expression. That’s inclusive: it applies just as well to people like me with fluid gender expression as it does to people who want to permanently abandon masculine vocal expression. What’s not to like?

The importance of being hombres

On Facebook someone posted a while ago asking where in Queens there were bars showing RuPaul’s Drag Race. The answer was a bar called Hombres.

At gay bars and other places explicitly marked as male spaces, you’ll often find not just drag fans but drag queens, transvestites and other non-transitioning trans people. You will also find that when we get home from these spaces we usually take off the makeup and falsies and look a lot like men. Sometimes we change into guy clothes before we leave the bar. Sometimes we wear guy clothes the whole time.

This guyness extends to other environments. We usually present as guys at our day jobs, when we’re doing laundry, and when we go hiking. Interacting with the world as women is a relatively small part of our lives.

This is often used by transitioned trans women to deny that we are trans, and thus to deny us a voice in transgender politics. In 2014 there was a heated debate over who had the right to declare words like “tranny” taboo. RuPaul and other drag queens saw the words as either not particularly offensive or ripe for reclamation, while a group of transitioners saw them as potent slurs.

The transitioners were used to having the upper hand in these verbal hygiene debates by virtue of ideologies of linguistic self-determination, in which only members of a group have standing to determine which words are appropriate names for the group and its members, and which words are offensive. But the drag queens had long been considered part of the “transgender umbrella” with equal standing to transitioned trans people.

The transitioners’ response was to redefine “trans women.” Zinnia Jones wrote a petition stating that “Cisgender male drag queens are assigned male at birth, and they neither consider themselves to be women nor live as women in their everyday lives. Unlike trans women, they are not the ones who regularly face the consequences of widespread transphobia and transmisogyny, and they are not confronted with the fallout of normalizing transmisogynist slurs.”

It’s highly debatable whether people who regularly go to drag bars face less transphobia than people who are out during the day, but victimhood wasn’t originally part of the definition of transgender, and it shouldn’t be.

It’s also not clear that drag queens don’t consider themselves to be women. I’ve never been to Hombres but if it’s anything like the gay bars I’ve been to, chances are that inside you’ll probably hear all the drag queens, and even some of the more masculine-presenting people, referred to with “she” pronouns and in Spanish, feminine adjectives.

This may occasionally be a mockery of femininity, but most of the time it is a response to a simple desire to be classified as women in a particular situation. Some people have observed that it is relatively common for people to spend months or years living as men and performing in drag shows, and then later transition to living as women, for a variety of reasons.

That is only part of the story. Many drag queens and other trans women have decided that we don’t want to transition. When people are allowed to be free with our genders, we choose what works for us, from one column or another. Drag queens go to bars called Hombres and answer to “she.” I buy nylons for women and razors for men. I have friends who buy jackets for men and bras for women. Everyone mixes and matches on some level.

So are we transgender? Are we trans women? The key fact in my mind is that many of us experience one or both of the key feelings of gender dysphoria (in our case, discomfort living as men) or transgender desire (wanting to live as women). The fact that we cope with these feelings without adopting a full-time identity as a woman or modifying our bodies does not mean that we don’t feel the feelings.

If you force us to choose one gender and stick with it, we will probably say we’re men, and there’s a good reason for it. We’ve got these bodies and we’re not changing them, and on some level we’re used to living as men. We probably also know, maybe from firsthand experience, that being a woman is no picnic either.

If you know that you’re not going to transition, and you’re going to spend eighty percent, ninety percent of your life or more interacting with the world as a man, and if someone forces you to choose whether to think of yourself as a man or a woman, it makes sense to choose man. That means your internal self-image and your external self-image match for most of your week.

So yes, we call ourselves men, but that is because our binary society pressures us to choose men or women. It does not mean that we’re always happy being men, and it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t choose both if we could, or whichever one fits at the time.

What microaggressions are and aren’t

A few years ago I was shopping for clothes at a chain store in New York City. I had already tried on several dresses, and had found a nice suit I wanted to buy. As I was handing my discards to the changing room attendant, she said, “You need to use the changing room on the third floor.”

I had a guess as to what that might be about, but it still hurt to get off the escalator and see that the third floor was all menswear. There was no way I was marching in to the men’s changing room in a skirt and makeup. I brought my dresses back down to the first floor changing room. When the attendant saw me she said, “Oh you’re back,” but she still led me to a room.

The winter before last I was in a different store, shopping for a coat, wearing full makeup and jewelry (see the photo above). I went up to the mezzanine, where most of the women’s clothes were. A salesclerk asked if she could help me, so I asked where the coats were. She told me the basement, so I took the elevator down to find only menswear. I went back up and found the women’s coats on the ground floor. I didn’t buy anything.

Instead I went to a different store and found a nice coat. When I got to the counter the clerk looked me up and down, gave me a big smile and said, “You look great, girl! Going out tonight?”

Last week I didn’t even want to go shopping, but my boots were a little too big, so I went looking for some socks. figured it was a good time to buy some of the over-the-calf socks that were in style this winter. I went into a store, but the only women’s socks I saw, a small display by the cash registers, were ankle socks.

I looked around, and found a sign saying that in the basement they had men’s clothes and women’s clothes. I went downstairs, and the only socks I saw were men’s socks. I was heading for the escalator when a salesclerk asked if she could help me find anything.

“Socks,” I said.
“Right over here.” She led me back to the men’s socks.
“Those are men’s socks.”
“Right. You wanted – oh.”

She saw the look on my face and immediately apologized. She asked a co-worker where the women’s socks were, and he told her upstairs, by the register. As she led me back there she explained that she only really knew her department. And she told me I looked very good.

These four experiences have really clarified my understanding of microaggressions. The first experience, being told to change on the third floor, was ambiguous until I saw that the changing rooms on the third floor were for men. Because there was no way to avoid that fact, the attendant’s order was not a microaggression, it was just plain aggression. It was a way for her to tell me I wasn’t welcome in her changing room.

The fourth experience, being led to the men’s socks, wasn’t aggression at all. Women shop for men’s clothes all the time: for themselves, and for their husbands and boyfriends and sons. The salesclerk thought that was what I was doing. It hadn’t occurred to her that I could have been misdirected by the signs. I reacted strongly because I had had two negative experiences before.

The second example, being sent to the basement, is a classic microaggression. As Taylor Jones explained so well, microaggressions require ambiguity and plausible deniability. If I had tried to report the clerk, I’m guessing she would have claimed it was an honest mistake, that she thought I was a man who wanted to buy a men’s coat. To this day I myself still sometimes wonder.

The third example, receiving exaggerated compliments when I was just buying a coat, is a type of interaction that has sometimes been called microaggression. I didn’t really appreciate it because it felt forced, and it felt like the clerk wouldn’t have complimented me that way if she hadn’t thought I was trans. But it wasn’t a microaggression, because there was no possible interpretation that suggested any intent to hurt me. I had the impression that the clerk was not just saying these things to close the sale and make me want to come back, but because she wanted to be nice to a trans person. Again, not ideal, but I’ll take it.

“Microaggression” is a useful term precisely because it is so specific. It covers behavior where the intent may be aggressive, but the speaker can plausibly deny having any such intent. It does not cover situations where aggressive intent can be easily established, or where there is no evidence of any aggressive intent. Including those situations dilutes the concept.

How “transsexual” eclipsed “transgender”

In December I wrote about a phenomenon I call eclipsing, where a subset of a category can come to be thought of as equivalent to the entire category. This usually happens when the subcategory is particularly salient, or discussed much more frequently, than other members of the category. The example I gave was concentration camp, where the extermination camps of the Nazis eclipsed the camps used by the Spanish to isolate civilians in Cuba and by the US to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in California.

This eclipsing can be an effect of greater salience, which is a big factor in stereotypes. Assimilated immigrants routinely complain about being eclipsed by more recent arrivals. Not all Indian-Americans eat curry, not all Mexican-Americans listen to accordion music, and not all Dominican-Americans are good dancers. These notable examples don’t even need to be in the majority; they just need to be so memorable that we forget all the others.

There is an example of eclipsing that particularly upsets me, and it is the eclipsing of the transgender category by people that we used to call transsexuals. When I first encountered the term transgender, most of the people claiming it were cross-dressers. There were several transsexuals who considered themselves outside of, and sometimes superior to, transgender people. (There are a few who still do.)

In 2016 transgender is still used in the “umbrella” sense that includes cross-dressers, but many people explicitly reject that sense, insisting on transition (or a credible commitment to a future transition) as a necessary condition for trans status. How did this new, exclusionary sense arise? Through eclipsing.

Of all the subgroups of the broader definition of transgender, two groups are the least salient: cross-dressers and detransitioned transsexuals. We are the most likely to be closeted, and we spend the least amount of time being noticeable. Transitioned transsexuals who are “stealth,” or who have simply gotten on with their lives and been socialized in their new gender, are the next least noticeable group.

The most salient group under the “trans umbrella” are the transsexuals who are currently transitioning. They are not only among the most visible – trying out all the outfits they’ve wanted to wear in their entire life, and learning how to groom themselves in their new gender – but they are constantly thinking about their gender and their transition, and many of them are constantly talking about it. If you ask people about the trans people they’ve known, you’ll hear lots of transition stories before you hear about post-transition people or cross-dressers.

The second most salient subgroup of trans people is drag queens, which explains why a group of transitioners tried so hard a few years ago to get the drag queens kicked out of the transgender category.

So why does this eclipsing bother me so much? That’ll have to wait for another post.

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.

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.

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.

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.

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.

What is an ally?

What is an ally? No, really. The way people have been using the term in identity politics is a significant extension over previous uses. It’s important to understand this, and its implications.

Allies have been a tricky topic in trans politics lately: how should they be treated? Do allies have rights or responsibilities? How does someone earn ally status? Are lesbian, gay and bisexual people automatically allies? What about bondage, domination and sadomasochism fetishists? Are different kinds of trans people (transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer) automatically allies with each other? Can ally status be revoked? What does it mean to be an ally, anyway?

When I hear the word “ally” outside of identity politics, I think of the Allies of the Second World War. The thing about them is that they were allied for a very specific reason: to win the war against the Axis. Maybe there were noises about Freedom and Civilization, but 75 years later it seems pretty clear that those were just propaganda. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies for the partition of Poland, but once that was over the Nazis didn’t need the Soviets, and the alliance was over. The Soviets joined the Allied Powers, and after the Nazis were defeated we went right into the Cold War. The countries were allied while they shared a goal, and when they didn’t share that goal any more, they were no longer allies.

An example of an alliance like this is gay men and MTF trans people uniting for greater police protection, because bashers don’t respect our categories and will target us as “faggots” or “trannies” regardless of what words we use. There is a shared goal that unites us, regardless of ideology, and that is personally relevant for us.

Allyship in identity politics is usually not like the Allies of World War Two. On the surface, at least, it’s about shared goals, but these goals are not equally relevant to both groups. Bathroom rights are tangible to me but abstract to a gay man who never imagines using the women’s room. Same-sex marriage is important to my gay and lesbian friends, and even to my trans friends who may be in a relationship that would be denied recognition under certain laws, but to me it’s abstract.

On the surface, again, there is often an appeal to principles. Just as the Allies in World War II talked about Freedom and Civilization, allies in today’s identity politics appeal to Equality, Fairness, Acceptance and Mutual Respect. In theory that should be enough. Don’t you want fairness for everyone? Just sign onto our agenda!

In practice, high-minded principles like Fairness and Acceptance go out the window when they conflict with Our Goals, just like Freedom and Civilization went out the window when it looked like the Soviet Union might take over all of Germany. You can expect some individuals to hold to principles, but politicians rarely do. We kind of understood that after World War II, but we have trouble with it when it comes to LGBT alliances.

On a deeper level there’s more to alliances than that. I’ll get to it in a future post.