Being a better ally to trans people

This is an Ask a Geek Feminism question from one of our readers (it’s still not too late to ask more questions):

One of the things I’ve been trying to work on recently is being more accepting and supportive of trans people (although this specific question can relate to several other contexts). I have heard a trans person say they’ve been hurt by being called “unnatural,” and I’ve heard coworkers make similar remarks. Would it be a good defensive for me to say to those coworkers, if the opportunity arises, “So are computers.”* ?

I wonder if that would resonate with the tech people I spend most of my time around – oh, yeah, we live and love things that are “unnatural” all the time, so maybe we shouldn’t look down on others for something else “unnatural” – but I’m worried about potentially causing more hurt to anyone listening by implying they are unnatural.

I personally just despise framing things as “natural” and “unnatural”, myself, but I don’t know if that response helps or not.

* or cars. or antibiotics. or sewage systems. really, most things.

There are always multiple ways to respond to any given microaggression, and some will work better or worse in different situations and with different people. It’s also great when allies stand up for us and point out when certain words or phrases or jokes are unacceptable, since we get tired of doing it all the time, and also because sometimes a cis ally — or a trans person who isn’t known to be trans in the particular situation they’re in — will be listened to whereas a person who is known to be trans won’t.

Personally (and I’m just speaking for myself here), I don’t think your hypothetical response is bad, or unwittingly transphobic, but it’s not my favorite possible response. There are trans people who champion transhumanism (putting the trans in transhumanism?) — for an example of what such a worldview might look like, see Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto” (Haraway’s student Sandy Stone — worthy of a geek woman profile herself — wrote “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”, a deeply flawed but historically influential essay in which she encouraged trans people to aspire to more than just fitting in as someone who’s typically read as a cis woman or cis man). Some of them see hormone replacement therapy and surgery as sought by some trans people as radical body modifications, and see themselves as being part of a cyborg movement.

Moreover, both your co-workers and your hypothetical response assume that trans people, by definition, seek medical intervention to bring their external body into congruence with their neurological or subconscious sex. I assume that what is being thought of as “unnatural” is the use of medication or surgery. However, many trans people do not undergo any medical interventions, whether by choice or due to the many economic and social injustices that make this type of health care especially difficult to access for many people. So really, the people being tarred with the “unnatural” brush are actually a subset of trans people.

In the rest of this answer, though, I’ll show how the accusation of ‘unnatural’ is only used to protect the power structure as-is: people accept all sorts of things that were once considered unnatural if those things prove to help white heterosexual cis men.[1] Specifically, they accept medical technology, beautifications and body modifications usually used by women (so long as they jibe with the male gaze), and (since it’s become economically beneficial for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, at least to some extent) women working outside the home and in professional jobs.

Medical technology. Since not all trans people (myself included) want to see themselves as better than human, or beyond human, I think there are better answers. Like you said in your question, antibiotics are unnatural. So are hip replacements, cochlear implants, anti-depressants, insulin, thyroid replacement hormone, breast reductions and augmentations, artificial legs, organ transplants, crutches, wheelchairs, and pacemakers. These are all medications, procedures, devices that are used by both cis people and trans people. I think very few people would want to go back in time to a world without medical technology. For trans people who avail themselves of them (or want to), medication (that is, exogeneous hormones) and surgeries are treatments for a medical condition. It’s not that being trans is a disease or a disorder — or that being the sex we’re born as (for example, the sex I was born as is male although I was coercively assigned female at birth) is a delusion or a problem — it’s that some of us have brains and bodies that function best when testosterone is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce estrogen, and some have brains and bodies that function best when estrogen is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce testosterone. And some of us have, deeply wired into our brain, a mental map of an external body that has different genitals (or other features) than the body we were born with. In the latter case, surgery to make our bodies the shape that our brain expects is treating a medical condition, which is a body that didn’t form in the way that our brain expects. And in the former case, hormone replacement is just a matter of supplementing a hormone our bodies don’t make enough of, much like taking synthetic thyroid hormone for someone with hypothyroidism.

None of this is “natural”, but again, if “natural” means going back to a world where nearsighted people get eaten by wolves because there are no eyeglasses, don’t sign me up. There’s something very ableist about wanting to live in a world where medical interventions aren’t available: it basically means you want to live in a world where disabled people are all left to die. Since most of my friends and I would be dead in that world, no thanks.

Alternatively, you could certainly argue that anything that exists is natural, in the sense of occurring in nature. Human beings have developed technology because we evolved brains that made us capable of developing it. That’s 100% natural. So is anything that we’ve created using natural materials. Like the health food store that tries to sell you “100% chemical-free” food, people who talk about what’s “natural” and “unnatural” are using clichés to fool you into accepting a category that’s actually semantically empty. Trans people are natural because we are trans, and we exist; full stop. We’re not confused cis people or flawed versions of cis people, but rather, individuals in our own right.

Sometimes claims that trans people are “unnatural” are really claims that trans people are some sort of modern creation of medical technology, as if we didn’t exist before medical interventions that sometimes make our lives easier existed. This argument gets it backwards and erases our agency — it’s not like cis male doctors were dying to treat trans people; rather, we had to fight tooth and nail to get some small modicum of access to treatment (and that access has always been easier to get for white trans people who can at least act like they conform to the stereotypes for their self-identified gender). And anyway, gender-variant people exist in every culture and have been noted throughout history.

Some people disbelieve this reality because they believe in an oversimplified, fifth-grade-biology view of evolution in which reproduction is all-important and features that seem to discourage reproduction can’t possibly survive. As Joan Roughgarden showed in Evolution’s Rainbow and Bruce Bagemihl showed in Biological Exuberance, it ain’t necessarily so. Understanding evolutionary theory does not entail believing in some sort of “invisible hand” that directs all organisms’ behavior so as to maximize reproduction; it also doesn’t require attaching moral value to reproducing. Those last two are about ideology, not science. If anything is unnatural, it’s the belief system that nothing in nature has any purpose besides reproduction (or indeed, that there are purposes aside from what people and perhaps other conscious beings ascribe to it). Bagemihl, in particular, outlines an alternative framework (at the end of Biological Exuberance) in which we view pleasure and abundance, rather than reproduction, as what living beings optimize for. In this framework, there’s nothing strange about animals (human and otherwise) who engage in homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual behavior, or who are gender-fluid or intersex or occupy genders besides the two that most Western humans recognize. Since we have a choice about the ideas we use to give meaning to raw data, we might as well pick ones that don’t come pre-bundled with a whole lot of social hierarchy implying that cis men and women are better than others, or that people who procreate are better than people who don’t — eh? There’s nothing natural about attaching moral connotations to the ability to reproduce.

Closely related to the “natural” microaggression is the microaggression of referring to both cis men and trans women as “biologically male” and trans men and cis women as “biologically female”. The sexes most of us get assigned at birth are better characterized as “sociological sex” than “biological sex”. When a baby is born in an industrialized, medicalized setting in the Western world, typically what happens is that a doctor (or midwife, or other medical worker or in some cases, a parent or family member) inspects the baby’s genitals and determines whether, as an adult, the baby will be able to play the penetrative role in heterosexual intercourse between two cis people. If the doctor decides that the baby’s phalloclitoris is large enough that, scaled up, it’ll be big enough to accomplish this task, the doctor assigns a male sex to the baby. Otherwise — defining maleness by the presence of a penis and femaleness by the absence of a penis — the doctor assigns the baby as female. Nowadays, of course, especially for people who can afford it, this ascertainment gets made before birth using modern imaging technology (that is, using imaging technology to enhance the same old heteronormative criterion). In either case, this is absolutely subjective — less than a few decades ago, it was completely routine for 46,XY newborns (most of who would presumably grow up to assert themselves as male) to have genital reconstruction performed on them soon after birth to turn their “abnormally small” penises and scrota into a vulva. This is no longer routine, but still happens. The reasons have to do with a bag of social assumptions most of us are inculcated with involving the ideas that everyone is heterosexual — or if not, at least that not being heterosexual is undesirable — that everyone is sexual, and that the correct way for two people to interact sexually is missionary-position, penis-in-vagina intercourse. That’s why I call it sociological sex and not biological sex. If we went by biology and not sociology, we wouldn’t assign infants a sex until they were old enough to affirm one for themselves, since the only reliable indicator of one’s sex is the brain, and the only way to determine someone’s innate, subconscious sex is to ask them what it is.

Gender expression (not just for trans people). I want to take a couple of steps back and point out that what I’ve outlined is a version of the medical model of transsexuality. It’s still not the version that gatekeepers such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health like to purvey, but regardless, some trans and genderqueer people reject the idea of medicalizing transness at all. I don’t, however, see the existence of such people as evidence for “unnatural”ness either. Regardless of what you’re doing or not doing with your body, there’s nothing unnatural about modifying your body, appearance, and behavior to communicate who you are and how you’d like to be treated. It’s possible to view gender as a language, and language is one of the most basic things about being human. Using symbols to convey meanings is natural.

I recommend Talia Bettcher’s article “Evil Deceivers and Make Believers”[2] in which she outlines “the natural attitude about gender” — which probably most or all of us have been taught, and many people have rarely questioned — and how it’s used to frame trans people as either deceptive or deluded. I think her argument relates directly to the real meaning of “unnatural” when used as a slur against trans people. If you can suggest that trans people are somehow “fake”, you can suggest that cis people are better than trans people, and thus justified in devaluing and dehumanizing trans people. People often rely on scientific terms they don’t understand, like “chromosome”, to lend false legitimacy to the idea that trans women are somehow less female than cis women or trans men are somehow less male than cis men, but one shouldn’t be fooled by the bogus biological science — it’s social science all the way down. As Bettcher shows, ultimately, the socially inculcated assumption is that outward appearance is an advertisement for what genitals one has. This is a convention I was never asked to consent to participating in, and if I’d been asked, I would have said no — but in any case, there’s no particular scientific or biological reason to assume that everyone is obeying this convention.

I’ve used the phrase “trans people” a couple of times in this answer, but I’ve argued myself that it’s a misleading phrase. It’s really trans women who face the bulk of the scrutiny from the dominant culture about being natural enough. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s essentially the same scrutiny that cis women in sexist society are subject to. Cis women are expected to go to a great deal of effort to make themselves physically attractive (makeup, clothes, shoes, shaving, exercising, hairstyles, cosmetic surgery…) while simultaneously constructing a simulacrum of “natural”ness (that actually resembles nature very little — especially for women who aren’t white, thin and able-bodied, since the normative ideal of femininity in Western culture requires being all three). Trans women face all the same scrutiny, plus a double bind: if they do too much to conform to compulsory femininity, they’re accused of being “artificial” or “unnatural”; if they don’t put in this effort, they’re accused of really being men. They can’t win. Naturalness is a lie, an artifice, a construct made by somebody trying to sell you something.

Gender roles. Moreover, men (and other women) have also hurled the “unnatural” brickbat at cis women who wanted to work outside the home, decline to have children, love other women, go to school, or do science or engineering. That in itself should be a hint that there’s a problem with judging any women, cis or trans, by how “natural” or “unnatural” they are.

I also recommend Natalie Reed’s article “Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens, And Why I’m Not ‘Scientifically’ Male” in case you need further convincing on why there’s nothing “biologically” or “scientifically” female about cis women that isn’t also true about some people who aren’t cis women, and likewise with cis men. “Sex Is Also a Social Construct” is useful as well. In this post, I haven’t even mentioned the dichotomy between sex and gender, which I believe is spurious and unhelpful. If you’ve been taught “sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears”, throw that in the garbage if you want to be a good trans ally. I won’t recommend any general resources specifically about how to be a trans ally, since many of them start with good intentions but end up doing just the opposite; however, familiarity with the articles in the “Trans*” section of the Freenode Feminists’ list of educational resources would be a good start.

Conclusion. I hope this gives you at least two tools with which to confront some language in the future: first, directly attacking the social hierarchies implicit in calling a particular group of people “unnatural” (whether it’s trans people, queer people, disabled people, mixed-race people, or so on); and second, calling attention to the bogus and oversimplified assumptions about science that underlie calling trans people “unnatural” or biologically a sex that they aren’t.

[1] Thanks to Valerie Aurora for this phrasing.

[2] Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol. 22, no.3 (Summer 2007), 43-65.

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About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

5 thoughts on “Being a better ally to trans people

  1. Doctor Jay

    Personally, I would counter a characterization of “unnatural” with a brief lesson on how Native Americans had transgenderism, followed with the opinion that people who are differently gendered have always been around, they just have a lot more and better options these days. I would ask them, well, don’t you want the world to know you are a [whatever gender they present]?

    [Mod note: Removed derailing comments. Please read the comment policy.]

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Well, a couple things.

      1. The word “transgenderism” is gross. Please don’t use it. (Also, I’m not transgender, and you’ll notice that I didn’t use the word in my answer.)

      2. “Transgender” is a word coined by a white American in the 20th century; it’s not really appropriate to use it to describe cultures we don’t really understand.

      3. “Native American” refers to many different cultures. Grouping them together is racist. If you want to talk about non-binary gender in indigenous North American cultures, at least learn enough about the cultures you’re talking about in order to refer to the specific cultures in question.

      4. And this is a little more subtle, but we don’t actually need to refer to ‘other’ cultures that we don’t know anything about in order to show that trans people’s subjective lived experiences are real and valid. While it’s interesting to know about how other cultures do gender, the main thing is for *all* trans people to be respected and heard. The only way one starts to need using another culture to *prove* some point about being trans, after all, is if we’re treating trans people in our culture as subhuman (which is to say, as unreliable reporters of their own experience).

      Understandably, if I were, say, a Lakota person, I might be a bit wary of white people appropriating my role or identity to win some argument, given the history of white cis gay men misappropriating gender-variance in (say) Lakota culture and misinterpreting gender-variant people as fellow cis gay men.

      1. Doctor Jay

        You are the first person to ever say to me that the word “transgenderism” is gross. I meant no offense. I apologize.

        The rest of your remarks make me wonder. Do you really think that giving a broader context to expressions of gender historically and culturally is a bad thing? I think that the quest to represent one’s internal state to the outside world is universal to humankind.

        1. Tim Chevalier

          Broader context is fine, but using the experiences of people in another culture only to legitimize oneself is not, especially when that involves misunderstanding and misrepresenting that culture.

          To take a different example, white queer Americans often say that they expect heterosexual African-Americans to be better allies to them than white heterosexuals, because African-Americans have experienced racism. What’s more, they also use analogies with the African-American civil rights movement to argue in favor of gay marriage (or universal marriage): for example, “at one time, interracial marriages were illegal, and outlawing marriage between two people legally coded with the same sex marker is just as unfair”. This is not okay when it’s coming from a white person who has not otherwise been active in anti-racism, who only shows an interest in the struggles of people of color when those struggles can be used as a tool to get more privileges for already-privileged white people.

          After replying, I just saw this article, decolonizing trans/gender 101, which doesn’t directly address what we’re talking about, but might be of interest nonetheless.

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