Friday, December 3, 2021

How Trans Activism Limits our Models of Possibility | Trans Sandwiched #11

Today, I want to talk about the concept of 'possibility models', popular among some parts of the trans community, and use it to examine how the current dominant discourse of trans activism limits the models of possibility available for trans people, and hence are actually harming the trans community.

First, let's look at the idea of 'possibility models'. This term was popularized by trans actress Laverne Cox (from Orange is the New Black), who used it in an interview back in 2014. "I hate the term 'role model'. I think it's presumptuous to think anyone should model their life after me, but I do like the term 'possibility model' and thinking about what's possible," Cox said. Hence, a 'possibility model' is basically a trans person living out a model of life that can inspire other trans people to realize the possibilities about how their life can be like. In the case of Cox, the 'possibility' is that a trans person can aspire to be a popular actress, for example.

I think the idea of 'possibility models' is important, because it encourages trans people towards self-actualization, which would also be important for our mental wellbeing. In a world where trans representation remains limited, the availability of a wide variety of 'possibility models' is especially important for trans people who are at the stage of life where they need to figure out where to take their lives.

In my view, individual 'possibility models' (embodied by specific people) can be further grouped into what I would call 'models of possibility' (more generalized forms). For example, Cox showed trans people who wanted to get into acting that they can be successful too. Nowadays, there are many more successful trans actresses. Together, they show that being a successful actress can be a 'model of possibility', a general goal to aspire towards, for trans people who are interested in acting. Other common 'models of possibility' for trans people include being successful in fields like academia, journalism, computer science, or even being a successful YouTuber, just to mention a few areas where prominent trans people have found success in.

I also think that 'models of possibility' are not necessarily limited to careers, because careers are not the only thing people define their lives by. For example, there are plenty of trans women who are very feminine, and plenty of trans women who have a more tomboyish or gender-neutral presentation and lifestyle. These 'styles' represent a spectrum of 'models of possibility' for newly out trans women still discovering their style.

This brings me onto the most important point I want to make here. In recent years, the dominant trans narrative, heavily shaped by the actions of certain activists, paints a 'picture' of a typical trans person as being constantly in intense conflict with various parts of wider society. To be fair, this is not entirely the fault of the activists, because trans issues have indeed (unfortunately) become a culture war football. However, activists have often sought to highlight and heighten those conflicts, contributing to the 'picture'. One thing we need to understand is that it doesn't have to be this way, and it hasn't always been this way. For example, when I first came out as trans, back when I was in college, the common 'picture' of a trans person was someone who was singularly focused on their transition, to the point where they often didn't care about much else happening in the wider world. I'm not saying that this was better, it's just that the 'picture' changes depending on the times.

The problem with the current 'picture' is that it is effectively suppressing certain 'models of possibility' for trans people. For example, there are many people who are inherently conflict-averse, who prefer to use more peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve our differences. Given the random distribution of gender dysphoria in the population, logically speaking there must be plenty of trans people who are like that. Yet, given that almost all of our community representatives and icons tend to be on the loud and argumentative side, the 'model of possibility' of being a diplomatically inclined trans person is effectively suppressed and not readily available to those who would find it relatable. This is why many diplomatically inclined trans people have said that they don't feel like part of the community. Something really needs to change here.

I also want to briefly talk about what we discussed in the last episode, the strong influence of the ideas of the mid-20th century critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, and the resulting conflation of liberation from oppression with liberation from repression. The problem is that, while everyone of us would like to be treated fairly in society, not everyone of us would like to be 'liberated' from all forms of Freudian repression. By upholding the Marcusean anti-repression ideal as an integral part of their version of trans liberation, the activist establishment is effectively suppressing other 'models of possibility' that many trans people would find more relatable. These include, but are not limited to, the possibility of being a traditionally modest trans woman, the possibility of living a community-oriented life in the suburbs, and the possibility of being a religious trans person. These 'models of possibility' might not be for everyone, but true trans justice and liberation would require that they be readily available for those who want them.

I guess, just by using my voice to provide my perspective, an alternative trans perspective to the dominant 'picture' out there these days, I am also providing a 'model of possibility' in the process. I am trying to demonstrate that it is possible to be committed to trans rights and still embrace a more diplomatically inclined method of resolving differences. I am also trying to demonstrate that, if you reach out to people who might not be entirely in agreement with you, you might still find plenty of common ground and even some friendship. Above all, I am trying to demonstrate that the world doesn't have to feel like a hostile place for trans people, if that's not how you want to see the world. I hope my work can inspire more trans people to embrace the complete picture of who they really are, rather than just accepting what the activist establishment and some parts of society think we ought to be like.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Are Trans Activists Confusing Oppression and Repression? | Trans Sandwiched #10

Today, I want to talk about an idea I have been thinking about quite a lot lately: the confusion resulting from the conflation of oppression, i.e. unfair treatment, and repression in a Freudian sense, which includes things like emotional restraint. Previously, I argued that this idea, originating in the works of critical theorist Herbert Marcuse in the 1950s and 60s, has since become the unconscious wisdom among a wide range of left-wing activists, often leading them to misguided actions. Today, I will specifically look at the effects of the conflation of oppression and repression on trans and LGBT activism.

While the oppression-repression conflation seems to have impacted almost all sectors of leftist activism, the LGBT context is particularly prone to its influence, because injustice regarding sexual orientation is inherently related to repression. For example, allowing straight people to marry, but prohibiting gay relationships, is not only unfair in a social sense, it also causes an unequal burden of repression, because gay people would be expected to restrain their natural desires to a much greater extent than straight people. Thus, in the example of the criminalization of gay relationships, we see that unequal repression is indeed a form of oppression, by definition. However, the key word here is unequal. The problem is that, LGBT activism, which ultimately has its roots in the 20th century campaign to legalize gay relationships, has often forgotten to make a clear distinction between repression itself, and the unequal repression the community was suffering from, the distinction being 'unequal'. Hence, certain factions of LGBT activism have long swallowed the idea that repression equals oppression, and have long idealized a world without repression and restraint of any kind.

I have actually come to believe that this is what is ultimately behind the long-standing divide between so-called 'assimilationists' and radical 'liberationists' (i.e. non-assimilationists) in LGBT activist circles. After all, the labels on their own are a bit meaningless. For example, as someone who championed gay marriage for 15 years, and put this issue at the heart of my politics for quite a while, I was seen by many in the community as an 'assimilationist'. More recently, for prioritizing trans rights that would allow trans people to live better in society, above what I see as pointless philosophy wars, I am again branded as an 'assimilationist' by the same people. However, I don't actually see why my politics is inherently more 'assimilationist' than theirs. If you think about it, being willing to forego gay marriage, and being willing to stay outside mainstream society as a trans person, would definitely reduce the potential of upsetting the ultra-conservative elements of society. So, in a way, we are actually the unapologetically pro-LGBT ones, and they are the conformist ones. It wouldn't make sense to call us the 'assimilationists'!

However, if 'assimilationist' is interepreted as being okay with Freudian repression (as long as it's equal and fair), and 'liberationist' is interepreted as liberation from all repression and restrain, then it suddenly makes sense. After all, marriage is repressive in a Freudian sense, and so is being part of mainstream society, and it makes sense that these anti-repression 'liberationists' wouldn't want those things. Therefore, the self-proclaimed 'liberationists' are basically people who base their whole politics around anti-repression, like Marcuse did, and the people they decry as 'assimilationists' are basically people who reject the Marcusean approach.

The problem with an 'anti-repressive' LGBT politics is that it doesn't actually make life better for LGBT people. The anti-repressive radicals of the 20th century weren't successful with decriminalizing homosexuality in most places. Their very public displays of 'righteous anger' and their deliberate offence against polite society arguably slowed down the progress. Instead, it was the people they decried as 'assimilationists', who tirelessly made their case in a calm and rational manner, who got the job done in the following decades. The same kind of people went on to win marriage equality, by getting the public on their side.

Just as things were getting better, the 'anti-repressive' side of the movement gained an upper hand again, and started using their 'righteous anger' to de-platform people who disagree with them, while accusing those of us who don't support these actions as playing 'respectability politics'. The same 'anti-repressive' activists also support including displays many are uncomfortable with in Pride parades, because that's supposedly liberation from repression. Meanwhile, these activists continue to ignore the rising backlash resulting from their actions among the general public, especially towards the trans community. You know, there really is nothing liberating about antics that alienate the public and make LGBT lives harder in the real world. In fact, I think this approach to 'LGBT liberation' is basically self-defeating.

It's time that we take the question of oppression vs repression in LGBT activism more seriously. Given the moment of backlash but also potential progress on trans acceptance we find ourselves in, this topic is more important than ever. Rather than just accepting the Marcuseans' framing of the question as about 'assimilation vs liberation', we should cut to the actual reason behind our differences. We need to sincerely talk about this question: is an anti-repressive LGBT politics actually productive? Or it is counterproductive? Could appropriate restraint be a good thing, if we want to build a successful movement to make LGBT lives better in the real world?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Trans Woman Explains Her Gender Identity | Diary of a Trans Popstar

People sometimes ask me, what do you mean by 'identifying as a woman'? After all, most people say they don't think about gender much, so they can't really understand what strongly identifying as a gender is like.

I can't speak for everyone else, but for me, I guess it's simple. It goes back all the way to early childhood, as early as I was taught that there were boys and girls. It was clear that I wanted to dress like the girls, do what they do, and so on. As a kid, most of my friends were girls, and my favorite books were stories about girls. I guess that was the beginning of me 'identifying as female'. After all, it's just natural for people to identify with others they find similar.

Now, some of you may say, you can be a boy and still do all these things. Well, in the environment I grew up in, it wasn't very socially acceptable. You might then say, now that you've grown up, you should know better. But again, it's not that simple. Even if I could be a feminine man, I wouldn't be happy. You see, I also had gender dysphoria, in that I didn't like to be physically male, I felt uncomfortable about the idea of being in a relationship as a man, and so on. And these feelings increased as a I grew up, reaching a crisis when I was in my teens.

So this is what being trans is like. At least for me. I hope my story will help more people understand us.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Pronouns and Free Speech: A Trans Woman's View | Trans Sandwiched #9

Today, I want to talk about the issue of pronouns, which has, in recent years, gained an unusual amount of prominence in the trans discourse. In fact, there is a view that the issue of pronouns has taken attention away from more bread and butter issues, like housing and employment for trans people, and this is a view that I certainly agree with to some extent. After all, even if everyone used the correct pronouns, it would be no good if trans people were still highly disadvantaged in employment, for example. The issue of pronouns is also a controversial one, especially since it has been linked to the wider issue of free speech in the broader (non-trans) political landscape. I will spend some time talking about this controversy later in this episode.

But first, let's get back to the basics. It is clear that almost all trans people have a strong wish, to be referred to by the pronouns of the gender we identify with. Surely, non-trans people generally like to be referred to by the pronouns of their gender too, but the issue is particularly intense for many trans people. There are various reasons for this, including social convenience, assimilation, and simply not wanting to be abruptly outed when one is already passing to other people. However, perhaps the most important reason is rooted in gender dysphoria itself. Being referred to by our preferred pronouns essentially means not being called the other set of pronouns, which means not getting yet another reminder of the mismatch that is at the core of our gender dysphoria. And most of us would certainly appreciate not getting our gender dysphoria reinforced again and again in conversations. Therefore, I have tried to describe using a trans person's preferred pronouns as an exercise in compassion. And most people do accept this, in my experience.

In recent years, there has been a push by some to make a very big deal out of the use of pronouns in relation to trans people. This has turned the whole thing into a culture war battleground, linked to the wider debate around free speech outside the trans community. I personally think this is a regrettable development: I mean, as I have said, if we explain that using our preferred pronouns is a compassionate thing that helps us experience less dysphoria, most people out there do accept it. However, now that it's been turned into part of the free speech wars, some people are now deliberately resisting it. And so, the activists who are supposed to represent us have made a mess of the whole thing, and effectively made life harder for many of us.

For those who think that not using a trans person's preferred pronouns is 'standing for free speech' or something like that, please hear me out: the reason why we support free speech is that it is essential for free thought and free debate. Free speech means that you are free to articulate any idea, in the free market of ideas. If you have read my other writing, you would know that I am a big defender of free speech. The way we take a stand for free speech is to be unafraid to voice our own beliefs, and hence take a meaningful stance, in the debate of ideas, even if unpopular. Deliberately refusing to use a trans person's preferred pronouns is not this, however, because pronouns are not a debate of ideas, and no meaningful stance is actually being taken here. (Nor should pronouns be used as a 'proxy' for debate about ideas around gender, because that would just dumb down the debate so much as to make it a meaningless shouting match.) Conversely, by calling a trans woman 'she', you are not actually endorsing any idea, because as described above, it is simply an act of compassion.

Now, let's turn to the activists. It is clear that the culture wars over pronouns are not doing us trans people any good. Therefore, things need to change. Not only are the pronoun wars distracting from bread and butter issues like housing and employment, they are now likely to be stalling trans acceptance among the general public, due to association with the wider culture wars out there. Furthermore, the pronoun wars are even dividing the trans community itself. The best example of this is perhaps the 2019 online 'cancellation' of ContraPoints, which started when she made a comment about pronouns on twitter. When a disagreement about the use of pronoun rounds has led to intra-trans community cancel culture drama, you know that something has gone wrong, and we must start rethinking things.

Perhaps we should start by thinking about what would actually be good for trans people, in practice, and not just in theory. We need to think about solutions that would practically work, not philosophically driven schemes that most people simply wouldn't adopt in real life, or could even bring us backlash. And finally, let me say this: when thinking about the way we approach pronouns, we should stay away from postmodern critical theories about discourse and power, because that stuff would only serve to detract from being grounded in the reality of real life. Which is what trans people need most, right now.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Exit the Trans Culture War? | Diary of a Trans Popstar

You may have noticed that the conversation around trans issues has been plagued with conflict, accusations and anger in recent years. You may have noticed that there is a lot of shouting and name-calling, but not much actually gets resolved. What you may not have thought about is, does it have to be this way? What happened to make it this way? Is there another, better, way?

I think the degredation of the once polite conversation around trans issues into a culture war bonfire has a lot to do with the entry of things that have nothing to do with the everyday lives of trans people. Like activists with their own agendas from both extremes. And very academic philosophical debates. And, of course, a good dose of blue vs red style partisan politics. That, in particular, always poisons everything.

The truth is, nobody really benefits from this culture war type conversation. Trans people in particular suffer the most because of it. Next time the trans culture wars are on show again, ask these questions: isn't there a better way? Can't we do more mutual understanding, and less us-vs-them? Can't we try to find some common ground, and not heighten the conflict further? Can't we do better?

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Most Trans People Probably Don't Care About Dave Chappelle or JK Rowling | Trans Sandwiched #8

Today, I want to talk about the way the media is covering debates over trans issues, and why there is a major problem there. In the past two episodes, we looked at the reaction to the Dave Chappelle Netflix special this year, and the controversy over comments by JK Rowling last year, respectively. In both cases, the 'trans community' as a whole supposedly reacted very negatively. But was that really the case?

I think a major problem with how the mainstream media covers controversial issues, is that it assumes there are two, and only two, sides to the debate. This is probably a mental reflex many people have, a result of living in a left-vs-right two party style political system, and knowing no other alternative. However, in reality, most debates really can't be simplified into just 'two sides'. The fallacy of simplifying every disagreement into 'two sides' is that you usually end up picking the two most extreme groups to amplify, because they stand in sharp contrast to each other. Everyone else is then force fitted into one group or the other. I believe this is actually one of the most important ways the media contributes to the polarization.

In fact, the trans community has always been quite diverse. There have always been arguments between trans people with different views. This was true even well before trans issues received mainstream attention, and recent developments have served to increase the diversity and the internal disagreements even more. The trouble is, the media likes to pretend that the diversity doesn't exist, as if we were a monolith, essentially represented by the loudest activists. This ultimately means that trans people, as a whole, are misrepresented to a great extent. I mean, I have encountered people who had a hard time understanding that I did not see gender as a social construct. Somehow, they must have thought that all trans people believed that gender is a social construct. In truth, there are also many trans people who are vehemently opposed to that idea!

The truth is, trans people come from all cultural backgrounds. Trans people are found in both big cities and rural communities alike, and are represented in all age brackets and demographic groups. They are also represented across the political spectrum. Hence, it isn't surprising that there are plenty of trans people who didn't care too much about the Chappelle or Rowling controversy. In fact, there are plenty of trans people who disagree in one way or another with the activists who supposedly represent us in the mainstream media. For example, there are plenty of trans people who continue to stand against cancel culture, and believe that free speech is the key to understanding, acceptance and rights. And of course, many trans people also want to see a stronger focus on the experience of gender dysphoria, in media coverage of trans issues, because that could contribute to much improved understanding among the general public. All this continues to be ignored by much of the mainstream media. The result is that many people have a stereotype of what a trans person is, and how a trans person thinks, which does not fit the reality of many trans lives.

Monday, November 1, 2021

From JK Rowling to Detrans: How Trans Activists Are Doing It Wrong | Trans Sandwiched #7

Dear fellow trans people: in this episode, I am going to talk about issues that have provoked strong feelings from some in our community. Please approach what I say with an open mind, and feel free to disagree. And remember that, ultimately, what we all want is to progress trans acceptance and make trans lives better. It is because of this goal, and concerns that we are not getting there, that I feel I have to say what I'm saying today.

Welcome back to Trans Sandwiched by TaraElla, where we talk about how trans people are now sandwiched between political forces with their own agenda on all sides, and what it means for us. Today, I want to talk about how trans activists are doing it wrong, by revisiting two topics: JK Rowling and the Detrans, or detransition, phenomenon.

Let's talk about JK Rowling first. The trans activist community has essentially defined JK Rowling as a transphobic enemy, and has put up a strong wall of resistance towards her. When this was first developing about two years ago, I cautioned against this approach, and I still stand by my views today. Let me explain. Let's start by analyzing this situation rationally. Right now, Rowling stands in opposition to some of the trans rights reforms many of us support. However, this does not automatically mean that she is transphobic. Being involved in gay marriage politics for over a decade has taught me that, sometimes, good people can and do disagree. And while it is natural to be disappointed when people take a stand against something you passionately support, such disagreements and disappointments are an inevitable part of a liberal democracy. As to whether Rowling is transphobic or not, I think we need to remember that disagreeing with, and disappointing, most trans people does not equal transphobic. I believe the question of whether someone is transphobic or not should be answered with reference to the commonly accepted standards in liberal democracy, not feelings-based responses, and certainly not justifications rooted in postmodern criticalism. And based on standards that are commonly applicable in liberal democracy, I do not believe that Rowling is 'transphobic', even though she disagrees with reforms we want. It's like how many people oppose gay marriage but are still not 'homophobic'.

The problem with the trans community's overreaction to people like Rowling is that, it doesn't do us any favors. Firstly, as many have observed, the trans community's overreaction has only pushed Rowling further into the other side, and she might have actually brought many people with her. Therefore, the whole exercise has only served to decrease trans acceptance. Secondly, perhaps even more importantly, in a liberal democracy, the undecided people generally make their minds up by observing the debate, and seeing which side makes more rational sense. Therefore, keeping calm and cool, arguing rationally, and being charitable to those who disagree with you are always good strategies to adopt. Sadly, the trans activist community is taking a maladaptive stance, a stance that would lose us support, and delay acceptance of trans people in the general community. It really is the opposite of how gay marriage was done, and this is why I'm so concerned.

Now, let's talk about the Detrans, or detransition community, people who once identified as trans but have gone back to their original gender. This has always been a sensitive issue in the trans community, but lately, I have been seeing a severe reluctance to even acknowledge the issue. As a result, Detrans people are often pushed into the arms of gender critical feminism, a movement that is eager to bring them on board and provide support and meaning for their suffering. This is why I have seen at least a few cases of Detrans people ending up completely anti-trans. I have argued in the past, and I will argue here again, that the trans community should provide acceptance and empathy towards Detrans people, and take their concerns on board where appropriate. Failing to do this adequately will almost certainly harm the credibility of the trans community in the long run.

Having examined these two examples, I think there is a common trend: the trans activist community is treating everything like a zero-sum game, where those who 'disagree' with the dominant trans narrative in any way are seen as threats or enemies. I think the recent rise of postmodernism and critical theory has a lot to do with this. During the gay marriage movement, there wasn't nearly as much influence from postmodern criticalism, but just in the past few years, the balance of forces among the activist community has drastically changed. The postmodern criticalism worldview is that all knowledge and discourse is shaped by power, which essentially has the effect of encouraging an attitude of zero-sum struggle against people who promote an alternative view of things. As a result, LGBT activism has become much more antagonistic to those who disagree, and this has caused a level of backlash that has not been seen for many years. This just shows how the rise of postmodernism and criticalism has made the LGBT community less effective in its pursuit of acceptance and accommodation from the general community. I really hope we can turn the ship around before it's too late.