What is Truly Unspeakable: Trans Women and Double Standards

Last week I wrote with deeply cautious optimism and trepidation about where we as trans women stood in the media gaze. The following week provided much to temper even my thin rays of enthusiasm. Elinor Burkett’s tedious and dreadful op-ed in The New York Times Sunday Review, “What Makes a Woman?”, was yet another painful exercise in watching a relatively well-off person feigning martyrdom atop one of the most prominent media perches in the world while pretending it was Golgotha (an unrivalled dissection of it can be found here).

What was distinct about it, however, was that its immoderate argument was made in a rather moderate tone, attracting reasonable people to some of the arguments she made. One of the most intriguing was Hadley Freeman’s Guardian op-ed on the matter, which attempted to split the difference of Burkett’s retrograde transphobia and contemporary transfeminism. It’s a classic “both sides are wrong” editorial whose affected distance would have produced a much stronger piece had its chastisement of trans activists not slid into certain dreadful cliches: the point of Freeman’s essay was to say that it’s “okay” to have a “debate” and ask questions about, say, Fallon Fox’s testosterone giving her an unfair advantage over cis women (who she unhelpfully calls just plain “women”). 

And it is this idea which I’d like to dissect: the notion of an “open debate” in the light of what Freeman rather generously dubs the “dropkick[ing of] transgenderism into the mainstream.”


MMA fighter Fallon Fox. No matter what trans women do, we are always constructed as a threat by certain cis feminists. If we’re not “too feminine” then we’re ruining women’s sports. (Photo Credit: CFA / Rolando de la Fuente)

To a certain cadre of well-positioned cis critics like Burkett or the UK’s Julie Burchill and Suzanne Moore, “this debate” means public speculations that border on superstition and politely worded challenges to the terms of our existence. This yearning to speak the unconscionable in dulcet terms stems from the beloved idea that trans people are somehow sacrosanct and above criticism in our “politically correct” climate; Freeman does speak, after all, of being “shouted down” when asking “reasonable questions” (like the ones about Fallon Fox).

This obsession with supposed “trans exceptionalism” is part of what draws reasonable cis people to arguments that run the risk of furthering the othering and marginalization of trans women. Take this post from Reel Girl’s Margot Magowan, a well meaning plea to allow her to criticize the media appearances of trans women like Laverne Cox and Jenner for their supposed objectification of women in their public appearances– Cox posing nude, and Jenner posing in a glamour shot. “Why,” she asks, “when I post about Caitlyn Jenner am I told to shut up?” 

To them, an intolerable double standard prevails. But what it is that they want to say? What, indeed, is truly unspeakable here?

Freeman deserves some credit for understanding the issues at stake. She correctly observes that trans people—trans women of colour in particular—are at an alarming risk of violence, and that all trans people have a terrifying rate of suicide and attempted suicide. She also takes a cue from a number of trans commentators, Laverne Cox and myself included, who remind readers that Caitlyn Jenner’s tremendous fortune (literal and figurative) is not shared by most trans women, and that her experience is far from representative. But she seems not to understand why, say, scientifically spurious challenges to the successes of extraordinary trans women of colour like Fallon Fox might get some people’s hackles up. Or if she does, she thinks it’s “brave” to do so anyway, which is even worse.

Caitlyn Jenner coverIt’s worth noting here, too, that the real double standard lies in certain cis feminists’ obsession with outward displays of femininity on the part of trans women. Elinor Burkett sees the death of feminism in the abyss of Jenner’s corset, but ignores Fallon Fox, a triumphant female athlete whose whole career is a spurning of feminine stereotypes. Were she white and cis she would be a cause celebre of people like Burkett. Instead, she’s ignored. Meanwhile, for Freeman, who purports to be less radical and transphobic than Burkett, Fox enters the frame but only as someone she laments her inability to criticize.

What “debate” does she actually want to have?

For Freeman, the Caitlyn Jenner media splash signals a kind of final, very mainstream victory for transgender politics. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. From the staggering case of Jane Doe (whose solitary confinement was finally ruled unconstitutional this week) to an alarming murder rate for trans women of color, to the inevitable stalling of gender identity protections in the New York State legislature yet again this year, we’re a long way from the mountaintop. The recent Jenner press blitz was, instead, an occasion packaged by and for cis consumption, and Freeman wants to continue a “debate” based on those terms.

To whatever extent trans people are now in the spotlight, what is needed—for the sake of all of us, including the horde of cis people Freeman mentions who “want to understand”—is an understand of trans humanity that regards our complexity and diversity. Freeman is surely right to suggest that no one should make broad claims about what it means to be a woman, but it the term is comprised of any unity, it is surely the diversity of possible womanhoods. It is that rich efflorescence of humanity that patriarchy has often tried to snuff out through feminine strictures and monocultures, after all. The next step in our “debate,” if we must have one, is to begin from terms that recognize this diversity applies to trans women too, and that our bodies and presentations do not carry inherent political meaning.

In a word, how Jenner presented herself should not be seen as suggestive of trans politics or what trans bodies “mean.” 

This tired trope of radical politics—that one’s convictions must always be embodied by personal performance—should be binned along with superstitions about phantom testosterone in trans athletes. Ignorance must be corrected, but it should not be treated as a worthy “side” in any debate, as opinions equal in weight to bare facts.


I do not wish to be too hard on Freeman; I know what it’s like to walk political tightropes in one’s writing, and she is at least analyzing an important feature of the Burkett op-ed that touched off this furore, which is why so many seemingly reasonable people latched onto it (just this past week, no less a figure than Anne Fausto-Sterling chimed in support of its most transmisogynist premises). But her call to action is a dangerous one that places too much value on the continued lurid ignorance of some cis people, without summoning us all to a higher plane of debate, discourse, and ultimately a civil acceptance.

So, what “questions should be asked”?

For a start, we would do better to have a discussion that helped people understand why so many trans women are also sex worker rights activists and why so many transphobic feminists are also inveterately anti-sex work, or why it is that trans women find more acceptance in women’s spaces but not in queer spaces, or why violence against us is so intense and so visceral, or why the T is so often silent in the LGBT movement and why so many American states, and much of Canada, still lack transgender protections.  

Such questions actually hit on the very existential issues that some feminists claim to care about, and establish some experiential links between cis- and transgender women.

That discussion could center and uplift the voices of trans women who are feminists, who make a mockery of the annoying distinction writers like Burkett and Freeman make between feminism and a “transgender movement.” They do not acknowledge that the two overlap quite heavily and have often fed from one another, after all.

It seems like now is a good time to remember what Freeman’s valedictory words–“we are all just humans”– actually means.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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