Queer Identity, Patriarchal Fears, and Communal Self Destruction
Currently, there is great concern among some feminists regarding trans people’s identities and the potential for those identities to reinforce patriarchal notions of gender. Simultaneously, our identities are also seen as a threat to the dominant social order by cultural conservatives. It would seem that trans people wind up serving as a kind of living Rorschach test for people’s insecurities. People tend to project their fears surrounding gender and sexuality upon us. In our daily lives, our transitions, and our mere struggle to exist, we stick out, and we violate cis people’s sensibilities. We are highly visible outliers. We are media curiosities. We are made of the stuff that parents hide children’s eyes from. We have unwittingly come to don the collectively forged masks of cultural monsters, a threat to all who dare set eyes upon us.
More specifically, our disruptive visibility has led us to symbolize the gendered cage which restricts everyone’s lives. We are the mirror which cis people stare into and see their greatest fears staring back. To conservatives, we are a threat to cherished cultural restrictions surrounding gender and sexuality. We are a bohemian atrocity, born of loose morals and a culture drenched in sexual debauchery and satanic chaos. To progressives, we are a living signifier of patriarchal gender norms which are far too common and far too intractable. Our identities are perceived as exaggerated, farcical representations of gender conformity, warping the natural fabric of humanity into a binaristic patriarchal prison.
Ironically, we are neither the cause of patriarchal gender norms’ tethers, nor are we the living exacerbation thereof, but we have come to serve as a proxy for people’s anger and discomfort in these matters. We have become the focus of people’s frustrations with the tethers that bind them. In reality, our gender expression is just as varied as cis people’s—probably more so—and that holds true post-transition. However, it is far easier to attack a fellow prisoner rather than challenge one’s jailer. These patterns are old. They repeat generation upon generation. There is nothing new in these conflicts but the people who play the roles. We have done this all before.
Let us review a brief bit of history from our not so distant past.
Decades ago, second wave feminists expressed concern that butch/femme lesbian relationships served to reinforce the notion that masculine/feminine pairings are required for any intimate relationship to function well. It was feared that these variations of lesbian intimacy only served to reinforce stereotypical notions of gender and binaristic gender roles. Butch/femme lesbian relationships were feared as yet another avenue for patriarchal gender norms to manifest and thus reinforce larger cultural patterns which confine the lives of all women. Butch/femme relationships were pathologized as sexist, artificial, inauthentic expressions of intimacy, born of a desire to mimic hetero-patriarchal notions of intimacy. Their lives, relationships, and identities were disparaged as counter-revolutionary. Alternatively, androgyny was valorized as the preferred, politically aware way of expressing lesbian relationships and identity. Those engaging in this marginalization were quite often queer, middle class feminists. Today, these concerns have largely faded and no longer hold the obsessive focus they once engendered.
In contrast, mainstream and conservative culture viewed all lesbians as a threat, regardless of gender expression, or combinations thereof. Pathologizing one particular mode of intimacy between women didn’t do a thing to challenge the ways in which larger patriarchal, heterocentric culture strove to eliminate queer people from the world. All that was accomplished was the demonization of a portion of the queer women’s community in the name of feminist revolution, effectively cannibalizing its own rather than challenging forces higher up the social pyramid. It is far easier to turn our collective insecurities against those in our own marginalized communities and against those of lesser social power than to bring our forces to bear against those who wield power. We unwittingly become soldiers in service to those who pull the cultural puppet strings. We eat our own. We destroy those beneath us.
I see cis feminists’ fear of trans women’s identities in a similar fashion. It’s analogous to feminists bemoaning the supposed patriarchal implications of butch/femme relationships upon all women’s lives. We now recognize that lesbian pairings come in many variations, expressing gender/sexuality in many different ways, just as trans women currently express gender in many different ways across a broad spectrum of being. There’s room for the many variations of gender which take place in a community of people. Sadly however, cis eyes are accustomed to seeing trans people via stereotyped lenses and cis media portrayals of us tend to reinforce the legitimacy of this distortion. Our identities are judged as disruptive, narrow, and wanting, and we are viewed as a threat. We are seen as illiberal throwbacks by progressives and harbingers of cultural chaos by conservatives.
We are neither. We are uniquely ourselves, as varied as any other body of people, and equally deserving of respect and dignity. See us as people, fully human, simultaneously flawed and wondrous, rather than a mirror of your worst fears.