decolonizing trans/gender 101
December 29, 2012
So. A fellow Filipin@ recently asked me if I had or knew of a gender 101 that centred IaoPoC genders and wasn’t focused on whiteness. My mind came up blank. Not to say that this doesn’t already exist, somewhere, but I’ve yet to encounter it.
Here is my first draft/attempt.
(note: from here on out, when i say ‘gender’ I mean IaoPoC gender and no white shit. My assumed audience is IaoPoC. this is a 101 that centres us. if you are white, this is not about you, nor should you think that co-opting any part of this for your 101s is appropriate without asking me first.)
Diversity is key here. There is a large plurality of gender systems in the world. It is essentially impossible for me to cover the ‘basics’ for all the ones that exist. Nor would I want to, since every culture is best represented by those who live it.
Nonetheless, one of the biggest problems with how most white gender 101s discuss gender is by assuming that their gender system is the way to conceptualize gender. They centre whiteness and, essentially, force people to understand their selves and bodies in that framework.
The first thing any of us needs to know: if your experience runs counter to what you hear from white people, it doesn’t mean that your relationship to your gender or body is somehow invalid. You’re simply one of many of us who are erased by the hegemonic, colonial white trans/gender theory.
Now. It may be the case, as is true for lots of people (particularly Black americans) that you have little or no access to your culture or heritage. It may be the result of language barriers, a long history of separation, white people may have forcibly severed this connection, etc. Or it could be that white trans/gender discourse has made large inroads into your culture and that is how you’ve been conceptualizing yourself. Regardless, this does not mean that the white trans/gender discourse is an appropriate or suitable framework to understand yourself within (especially if you cannot seem to locate yourself within it).
(note: this isn’t to say that any of us who find white trans/gender discourse useful for understanding ourselves are doing something wrong. nope. if it works for you, that is totally awesome.)
The point being: there are a plurality of gender systems.
Why? Because gender is a social construct. And, as such, it is relative to the society that builds it. Of course, not so simple what with white colonialism imposing its gender constructs on all of us. So. For us it is extra complicated, since many of us will have to negotiate both the gender systems of our own cultures and the gender system that whiteness has imposed on us (and this includes white trans/gender theory).
What is cis?
“Cisgender” is the term for people who have no issue with the gender that they were assigned at birth. source
What is trans?
Transgender people cannot accept our assigned genders. We know ourselves to be something different than what we were told to be. source
Seems okay. Except when you think about genders like mine, bakla. My gender existed before white colonialism. It is traditional. While people may not have been ‘assigned’ bakla at birth… but I’ve been who I am since birth. More importantly, my gender was recognized and accepted by my family since birth. My dad never told me that I had to be a man. He never even implicitly expected it. When I started presenting as femme, he didn’t say anything.
But how does this narrative fit in, exactly? I’ve never seen myself as trans and it was a pretty big surprise to me when I realized that the white trans community thought it had been including me in its umbrella. But does this also mean I’m cis?
The point of me sharing the above is to show just how quickly the cis/trans distinction falls apart when you abstract it from its usual context.
This isn’t to say, however, that they lack meaning. Just that the meaning is different for us. Because when we engage and use these terms, we must be aware of the ways that it both ends up propping up the hegemony of white trans/gender theory and, more importantly, is useful for pointing out the ways that we are oppressed within such a system.
It is why I’m willing to call myself a transpinay. Because I do live in the diaspora and it is important to understand and locate myself within a white colonial system that marginalizes me because of my gender. My gender may not be meaningful in the white gender system, but my oppression is. (but I am not defined by my oppression and neither is my gender – an important distinction to keep in mind).
It is also important to note the ways that our oppression is not the same as white trans people. Especially for us trans feminine people. We experience most of the violence. It is also an understanding that white trans/gender theory, by abstracting us from our own cultures, has created a situation where we are suddenly ‘new.’
This is a fairly common part of white trans/gender 101s. Usually discussing how there are two socially recognized genders: man or woman. And this is a binary. And many people ID as one of these binary genders. And that there are people who do not.
Some will go further and discuss ‘binary privilege.’ Or the ways that binary cis/trans people can erase or otherwise contribute to the oppression of non-binary people (re: binarism).
The problem with this aspect of the white trans/gender 101 is that it entirely erases the history of the binary and how it was employed globally as a tool of white colonialism. You can see it fairly clearly in terms of historical movements and such. The binary wasn’t much of a social institution in white societies before colonialism and, importantly, the industrial revolution (which, again, owes itself to colonialism). If we talk just about england, the rise of the middle class and the victorian era clearly show a marked beginning for institutionalizing binary gender roles, via a very strict set of etiquette. Or you can point to the many ways that white/western feminism owes its existence to the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.
What is fairly clear, though, is the ways that the institutional binary, and its attendant transphobia (and also transmisogyny) really only became necessary the moment that white people encountered people like me. Or cultures like mine, where our women had a great deal more freedom and equality than theirs did. And it became necessary to justify and tighten control over gender roles in order for the white patriarchy to function as it needed to.
Another problem with the ‘binary’ is the way that it centres white trans/gender theory in the first place. My gender, as mentioned earlier, has always existed. My culture is not a binary culture (even if it has become more so as a result of colonialism and missionaries).
To understand or conceive of myself as either ‘binary’ or ‘non-binary’ requires that I centre whiteness in how I understand myself. And this is not ground I’m willing to concede.
(note: nothing in this section is intended to shame anyone who has taken any medical or physical steps to more fully embody their gender. rather it is about the ways that white trans/gender discourse indirectly – sometimes directly – supports a situation where white people get to preside over our genders and our access to medical/physical technology)
White trans/gender theory spends a lot of time focused on bodies. Like, essentially their entire experience of gender is rooted entirely in their relationship with their body. And it usually does so in ways that invoke a cartesian duality between the mind/body.
And, of course, that duality is something very specific to white western philosophy. It is not necessarily a central lens in many of our cultures for understanding our bodies/selves. (it is certainly not foundational to my worldview).
Even more importantly, this focus on bodies ends up propping up and supporting the medicalization of gender. Which, in turn, supports the white medical industrial complex and all of its gatekeepers.
It also, in many ways, ends up supporting and privileging white standards of beauty and ways of embodying your gender. Because, often, the only real way to successfully ‘transition’ for most people is it obtain a certain kind of body that is usually based on white standards. So much so, that even if you do elect to do all the physical changes you can, there will be many white trans (or cis) people who will refuse to respect your humanity because of the ways that you will never be able to be white enough to be human for them.
Another way that this focus on the body manifests is in the continual discussions involving terms like “CAMAB/CAFAB” “DMAB/DFAM” “FAAB/MAAB”. These conversations usually involve some really necessary content with regards to the very different experiences that different genders have, as well as how these experiences make a very big difference in terms of privilege and oppression.
Except… I’ve never been clear as to why these discussions need to be based on our bodies, and not as is more relevant on our genders. The best my brain can provide is that it is way to be more inclusive of non-binary people (or to disambiguate since something like ‘genderqueer’ is neutral but a GQ with one body and a GQ with another body will not have the same experiences).
However, this still reduces people to their bodies in ways that is unnecessary. For the most part, I’ve been entirely successful in my attempts to never use things like DFAB/DMAB (except for a very few occasions) while still being able to discuss the differences in experiences and oppression between different genders and bodies.
Last. The focus on bodies tends to really erase an important part of many of our gender experiences: namely, the communal and/or social aspect of it. In part, I’m somewhat talking about gender roles, but I’m also talking about the fact that since my gender is traditional, my identity is not really about being ‘transgressive’ or being super radical or an attempt to distinguish or otherwise separate myself from my community. Rather, my gender (and many other people’s) is also about affirming ties to my community and my participation in my culture.
And a focus on bodies doesn’t really address my emotional needs to understand the ways that white colonialism has eroded this relationship or supplanted it with white trans/gender theory and create this radical break that never existed before. There is no real space for me to discuss this when the options seem to be being either radical or assimilationist, when my position is neither.
(Lastly, for real now, forgive me if I’m very suspicious of white people focusing on my body after all the ways that they’ve endeavoured to exploit it, control it, abuse it, etc. Especially when I can read about missionary accounts of meeting bakla and writing about our genitals only to see how, 400 years, later white people are still focused on my genitals.)
Basically, remember to be very critical of anything any white person says about gender. Nothing they say about gender should ever be considered neutral or free of a larger hegemonic and colonial discourse.
You’ll notice that this ‘101’ makes very few prescriptive declarations on gender. Or that I often have relied on discussing my own experiences.
This was done purposefully. As a partial exercise to also resist the way white trans people often talk about gender as if their experiences and system is fact and how we should accept and understand it as such.
It is inevitable based on the somewhat personal nature of this decolonizing trans/gender 101 post, that I’ll have failed to adequately include or express the experiences that some people have of their gender. I’m sorry for that. However, decolonization is also a personal journey and one that we all need to take for ourselves, since we don’t all have the same things to work on. I welcome changes, criticism, transformations, etc. of stuff in this post by others. Especially since I know that any criticism is likely to help me walk further down my own path.
I tried to not make many prescriptive declarations about gender because there is simply too much diversity. And there is no wrong way to embody your gender. Nor is there a wrong way to express it. There is also no one way to conceptualize your gender. Especially since, whiteness being what it is, we’ve reached a point where many of us lack the words or concepts to express our genders as they are beyond whiteness.
Often, many of us just have feelings. But if I can leave you with nothing else: trust your feelings. More than anything, they are what speak the truth of who you are and how your gender fits into the totality of your being. All of what I’ve learned and done for myself has been a result of trusting my feelings and exploring them.
May you have many joys and success on your journey.