Sunday, July 27, 2014

One One Zero: Identities

I read last week that the Serbian model Andrej Pejic, who made his reputation doing androgynous looks and modeling women's fashion, has announced that he is in fact transgender and has re-emerged as Andreja Pejic after reassignment surgery. It's a complicated thing to write about, to put down in print. How exactly do you describe Pejic's announcement? Can you say "re-emergence" or "transformation" any more? Doesn't the trans* narrative these days insist that anyone trans* was always whatever gender they "really" are? What happens to the images of metamorphosis and becoming someone new? Is it now correct to use different pronouns even retrospectively, for someone's life before they made the announcement?

I'm using Pejic as an example here, but only because the Andrej/Andreja announcement is something I saw in the news. I wish Pejic the individual well, whatever the pronouns, and I'll say that Pejic's work has always been excellent--- striking looks, good poses. So this isn't about Pejic as an individual at all. Let's not think that.

The trans* issue is the Next Big Thing in the gender wars, and probably the Next Big Thing about legal and social rights as well. As much as I make fun of the "trans*" usage--- the trans folk have stolen the asterisk just as gay men took closets and lesbians annexed softball  ---I'm certainly a supporter of full social and legal rights for transpeople.  Take that as a given.

I will say, though, that I love reading about all the internecine feuding inside the world of the gender warriors over the trans issue. It's as much fun as reading about the Sex Wars and the Porn Wars inside feminism in the 1980s and 1990s--- as much fun as reading about feuds inside the Left in the 1930s, about factions and heresies, about demands for purity of thought. And the level of in-fighting here in the days of the "call-out culture" is even more wonderfully bitchy than amongst Trotskyites and Stalinists.

I'm only a flaneur here, of course--- wandering through websites as a tourist and reading articles and comments and laughing at the levels of bitchy (and tetchy) self-righteousness. I'm a mere vanilla straight boy in so many ways--- over thirty, white, middle class, over-educated, straight, "cis and cis-presenting". Am I even supposed to have opinions on things here?

I was an undergraduate when the first great flush of gay activism and gay dance clubs swept through university towns and big cities.  The issues of gay rights and gay culture were all around me, and I remember the university radio station having a half-hour LGB (no T yet) program on Sunday evenings with a mix of dance music, political discussions, and memoirs of coming out.  I remember those things, and I remember learning to negotiate social spaces with tribes that weren't my own.

The trans issue is harder to negotiate. That's worth bearing in mind. It raises the question of what real identity is and how it's marked. It raises the issues of whether the obvious markers for identity in others can be relied on at all. It's a legitimate political question whether being able to immediately and reliably identify someone as male or female should be so very important, and it's a legitimate political question as to whether someone trans is a "real woman" (or man) or whether trans is a separate category all on its own.  Trans disorients the usual identifiers. And its insistence that male or female isn't defined by possession of a penis or a vagina goes against what seems obviously, self-evidently true. It's easier for me to think about groups like the hijra in India and say that there's a distinct, third, trans group than it is to think of someone who still has a penis as "really" a woman.

It's interesting, too, to read articles and comments defining new lines of exclusion in the Trans Wars. I'm old enough to remember dance clubs with drag shows and club queens, a world where "tranny" was a role and not an insult. The lines of exclusion seem to be drawn these days to put people who cross-dress for purely sexual reasons into the camp of the enemy. Those people (and I'll be talking MTF here) who dress up at clubs as female to acquire (male, often straight) partners are treated as...traitors? Infiltrators? The enemy, in any case. They're not "really" trans, and they're on the bad side of the gender wars.  I'm assuming that straight men who cross-dress for reasons other than having sex get the same treatment. "Transvestite" is now taken as a bad thing, as referring to someone who hasn't read enough Judith Butler or who's a heretic and schismatic in the trans world, someone who isn't authentic or "real", someone in thrall to bad ideas...or who sees being trans as being about sex.

There's real anger reserved for those (almost inevitably portrayed as men) who want to have sex with MTF transfolk. They seem to be regarded as utterly evil--- "fetishizers". The description raises an eyebrow for me, since the people I know who really want to have sex with transwomen are female themselves. Their argument is simple enough--- they want the duality. They want to have sex with someone who has a gracile, feminine, female body and presentation but also has a  large, working penis.  They haven't gone to Bangkok looking for ladyboys yet, but I do know that two of them (one in Wellington NZ, one in Melbourne) have at least drawn up Craigslist ads looking for what I'm told are called "trans-lesbians", looking for "girlcock". The girl in NZ and the girl in Melbourne are both bi, and they both like the idea of experimentation for its own sake. They love the idea of  having a pretty girl with a cock.  I wonder if they'd be regarded as more or less evil than, say, men who went to ladyboy bars or went on sex tours to Thailand.

My friends in Wellington and Melbourne identify as...transgressive. Another kind of trans, though a kind that the trans* folk (the Asterisk Thieves, I've taken to saying) hate. Their own identity is tied to crossing boundaries and doing things that are exotic or forbidden.'s yet another issue in the gender wars: the idea that fetishes are incorrect and unacceptable, that the category of the exotic is unacceptable.

My friend in Wellington had a major crush on Andre Pejic, but is still undecided about Andreja.  She found--- finds ---the disjoint between presentation and biology to be alluring. She wants the things that aren't "real". I'll have to ask her whether she feels evil about that.

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