June 3, 2014

Janet Mock and Laverne Cox Embrace a Broad Interpretation of Transgender

Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are supporting the
transgender umbrella. Photo: Jamie McCarthy
Trans activists Janet Mock and Laverne Cox supports a wide definition of the word transgender. Mock's new book explains why.

Janet Mock's new autobiography should be obligatory reading for everyone interested in trans issues, and for various reasons. 

One is the fact that she throws light upon why some transsexual people feel such a need to invalidate other members of the transgender family.

Getting validation as a "real woman"

Mock tells the story about how she as a young transsexual woman ended up distancing herself from other trans people, insulting them in the process.

She writes:

"Growing up, I learned that being trans was not something you did take pride in; therefore, I yearned to separate myself from the dehumanizing depictions of trans women I saw in popular culture..."

Mock starts out by pointing out that umbrella terms like transgender can cause difficulties, as society often blurs the lines between drag queens and trans women.

This is highly problematic, Mock says, because this causes many people to believe that trans women, like drag queens, go home, take off their wigs and chest plates, and walk around as men:

"Trans Womanhood is not a performance or costume. As [Mock's friend] Wendi likes to joke, 'A drag queen is part-time for show-time, and a trans woman is all the time!"

Gender dysphoric drag queens and crossdressers

Still, when Mock does not dismiss the broader transgender alliance (or end up as truscum), this is because she learned to know drag queens and divas personally, and found that many of them are, in fact, transsexual women.


This is the same argument I make about crossdressers, crossdreamers and girlfags: Some are actually gender dysphoric. In the chapter on her surgery in Thailand, Mock tells us about her fellow patient and new friend, a previous MTF crossdresser. Mock never questions the gender identity of this woman.

And there is -- as Mock points out -- "no formula when it comes to gender and sexuality. No one, but yourself, can ultimately decide whether you are trans or not, or what this "transness" should imply.

Trans separation

But when Mock was young she did try to distance herself from trans people who did not pass as well as she did. She is very open about this:

"My body and appearance had been policed my whole life, so I began policing other girls. As a teen, I wanted badly to pass. Due to this investment i keeping appearances, I grew self-conscious when I hung out in large packs of trans girls because the risk of being read as trans heightened. So I began stealthily separating myself from the group."

"The bitch thinks she's too fish for us," one of the girls said loudly enough for Mock to hear. "Just because you look does not make you better than anybody. Trust!"

"Isolation made me feel safer," Mock adds, "though the irony of separating from the pack, of separating myself from my trans sisters in an effort to be welcomed into larger society (into the gaze of guys), is glaring to me now."

Mock writing about this is important because she gives us an important clue about what drives truscum and other transsexual separatists: a desperate (and understandable) need to be embraced by a hetero- and cisnormative society.

And in order to achieve this recognition they try to dump the trans people who are not able to pass as a non-transgender persons, the persons who are not "fish", to use the offensive expression of her Hawaiian friends.

I believe the recent wave of truscum transsexual separatism over at tumblr is driven by very young female to male transsexual who fear the stigma following from association with both transsexual porn, drag queens and male to female crossdressers. They therefore develops a narrative where they and the "freaks" have nothing in common.

They cannot admit that drag queens and crossdressers can be gender dysphoric, because that would cause their mental map to go up in flames. Nor can they accept a more ambiguous view of sex and gender, because that is not what their  parents, friends and teachers would like to hear. And since they are so young, they actually believe what they say.

Mock's support of the umbrella term

Mock is no longer leaving other transgender people behind. Indeed, elsewhere she makes it very clear that she supports a broad based transgender alliance. 

In a conversation with B. Scott she says that:

"I think that many people assume that transgender only means those of us who are transsexual, folks who medically transition. It’s necessary for us to state and embrace the fact that trans people have various relationships with gender. Some people are men, some are women and others refuse to be either and self-determination should be embraced."

The fact that a trans icon like Mock says this is important, because I see a trend where many do interpret transgender to mean the same as transsexual. 

Laverne Cox on transgender
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time

This is also one of many reasons for why the recent Laverne Cox's Time interview makes such a difference.

Cox, of Orange is the New Black fame,  also embraces the broad transgender umbrella. She says:

"There are so many terms. Facebook just gave us 56 custom genders. The biggest thing is that it’s about listening to individuals, not making assumptions … The reality is that lots of lived experience defies that trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative. People are like, ‘I’m confused!’ And it’s like, ‘Calm down. Relax. It’s okay. Who is this individual right in front of you?’ … When it comes to terms, trans or gender-nonconforming are two great terms that can encompass a variety of different experiences."

This quote led one truscum separatist over at tumblr to call Cox "transphobic"

But the point made by Cox and Mock is not that transsexual women are not women or that trans men are not men. They are just saying that in a world full of sex and gender diversity there is room for other alignments as well. Those variations are also transgender. In other words: They distinguish between transsexual (those who identify with their target sex) and a  much wider category of gender variance called transgender.

And it is this wide understanding of transgender that leaves room for drag queens, crossdressers, crossdreamers and girlfags in the trans family -- whether they are gender dysphoric or not.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!