Friday, April 2, 2010

Troll Patrol: Trans people and othering

I recently received a troll comment in my inbox to be moderated relating to this post about the International Transgender Day of Visibility. The comment was not as easy for me to write off as most troll comments are.

The troll spewed off the normal sort of "why are you paying attention to these people and not to ME" attitude prevalent in most troll-speak, but it was the last line of the comment that caught my eye.

And for the record, what you're doing is counterproductive to getting a group accepted as "same as everyone else", because you're making them separate and
"different" and "othering" them through your actions.
Full disclosure: Someone very dear to me is trans*. The same is true of several of my friends at college. So that is part of the reason this particular troll comment hit somewhat close to home.

That last line of the comment gave me pause because I was concerned that perhaps, after all the time I have spent trying to educate myself as best I can about issues particular to trans people, that maybe my cisgender privilege had led me to do something that may have hurt people I never intended to harm.

What is othering?

The basic concept of othering entails the creation of a dynamic of opposing groups of “us” versus “them.” There is nothing essentially bad about othering. It is a categorizing process that is given qualitative value based on it use. Negative othering could be taking on aspect of a person that makes them distinctive (that they are transgender, for example) and using that as a reason to harm them. Positive othering includes using one’s point of view (that sexism is bad) and using it against the opposite side (that sexism is good) in order to gain rights for more people. So, while the concept of othering is not necessarily either good or bad,

“…we do have to be careful about it, even positive othering can turn into something negative, for example when talking about countries that need aid we tend to treat them as inferior to us, and in doing so we are distancing ourselves from them and viewing them as ‘the other’.” – h/t

The Comment

In the quoted section of the comment there are several problematic assumptions. First is that the goal of bring to light the lives of trans people is to have them viewed as “same as everyone else” and that by promoting the Transgender Day of Visibility was “counterproductive” to that goal. While it could make sense that this would be a goal for those who work for the rights of trans people (after all, trans people are often persecuted and killed for being the “other”), it is not necessarily the case. True, some members of this community may want to pass and live without being openly trans, but other members of the same community (Monica, Queen Emily and Lisa for examples that I read often) are vocal about their trans identities and even use them to shape their activism. Basically, we have to be sensitive to the fact that the trans community is diverse in many ways, including their feelings on passing.

The second assumption in the comment is that by blogging about this Day of Visibility I was othering trans people in a way that the comment author implied was negative. This ties back to the simple understanding of what is best for a group of which he is not a member. In response to this assumption, I would like to address a few points.

Acknowledging how a group is different, especially when that group is already being denied jobs, harassed, and killed for being different every day is not an inherently threatening move. Difference is an important trait in being human. You know the phrase: “No two people are alike.” While acknowledging the difference between themselves and cis people may not be comfortable for all trans folks, it does not necessarily follow that creating a safe space for people to express their differences, if they so choose, is dangerous.

Without awareness and education, there is no hope of working towards ending transphobia. If we completely stopped discussing trans people, their lives and issues particular to them in order to avoid othering them in a negative way, think of all the ignorant, transphobic hate that would manifest itself in the lives of these people. While making the issue of transphobia visible may not stop all transphobic attacks, without it I believe the world would be much worse off.

That comment forced me to consider this issue, but I believe that as long as we work to make safe spaces for people who choose to be vocal about their lives as trans people (and maybe educate a few people along the way) that we’ll be just fine.

Thanks for your interest, though, Troll.

*EDIT 4/3/10: Thanks to a comment left by Queen Emily, I realized that I unintentionally othered my trans friends by mentioning their positions on surgeries/hormones. That information has been removed because it is irrelevant to this post. I had included it originally because I had written a slightly different post that mentioned feelings on surgery/hormones (and I question if it was even necessary there), but I take full responsibility for my mistake. I appreciate all readers and commenters who help me recognize instances of my cis privilege and help me grow in my understanding of these issues.


Deb said...

Glad you keep the faith and posted this, well done Amelia.

queen emily said...

Good post.

Just to clarify (since you mentioned me), I'm not anti-passing per se--I'm anti its necessity for recognising the legitimacy of a trans person's sex/gender.

I mean, I don't advertise the fact when I'm down the shops, or working, or even necessarily in social situations (though neither do I deny it). Because of transphobia, passing-as-cis is necessary for trans people's safety, ability to work, etc etc. And it's basically the opposite of most forms of passing, since it's the *truth*.

On the other hand, to remain silent in every situation ("stealth") is to never change anyone's perceptions and prejudices about trans people, ever. Like you said, that othering is going on all the time, and not mentioning transness does nothing to reduce the othering that precedes any given trans person's existence.

Having said that, if you are looking for cis privilege, I'd suggest that mentioning your trans friend's plans for surgery is kind of irrelevant and othering. It's enough to say you have trans friends in that particular context, I think.

Amelia said...

Thanks for the comment and the clarification. And you're right. My mentioning of my friends' plans was irrelevant in this post the way I have it written here.

I apologize for that mistake. It was a leftover snippet from a different post I wrote that this one came out of, still regarding the comment, but in which I focused at some point about different opinions on surgery/hormones.

Poor editing on my part. Thanks for pointing that out.

queen emily said...

No dramas. I mean, it's occasionally relevant, but most of the time, not really.