The ‘Fence’ Between Self-Expression and Appropriation

Social cissexism has created a hierarchy of “authenticity” in relation to people of transgender experience. A major discussion in the trans community revolves around individuals who transition legally (via name change and other documentation) or physically (via hormones and/or surgery) versus those who do not. In short, the more steps a trans person takes to appear cisgender and cissexed, the more “authentic” they are presumed to be. Individuals who choose to transition legally are viewed as “more trans” than those who choose not to, and individuals who choose to transition medically are seen as the “most trans.”

While contemplating the issue of cissexism within the trans community, I began to wonder—is this cissexism somewhat valid?

Naturally, many people are more supportive of a ‘doer’ than a ‘talker.’ For example, assuming that equal situations and access to resources exists, if Quentel talks about how down for a cause he is but Lashonda acts on it, would more people not gravitate toward Lashonda? In relation to the transgender community (and still assuming that equal situations and access exists), are those who act somehow more ‘valid’ than those who speak?

I reflected upon the experience that initially lead me to question my understanding of cissexism within the trans community.  Christa/Christian was a female-assigned-at-birth self-identified female-to-male trans man. With the admission of this gender identity came the expectation that certain “lifestyle changes” would be made. These “lifestyle changes” included, but were not limited to, different pronoun usage, an altered physical expression of gender, and an adjusted sexual orientation. Christa/Christian, however, did none of the aforementioned. In fact, the only change that was made was the request for an alternative name to be used in addition to their birth name (hence the use of both names here, albeit changed for the sake of privacy). Christa/Christian continued (willingly and happily) using ‘female’ pronouns, identifying as a lesbian, and presenting their gender the exact same as they had done prior to coming out. This “change with a lack of change,” so to speak, caused great disturbance and confusion among the circles associated with Christa/Christian.

Was our concern valid or the result of internalized cissexism?

How can one identify as something without adhering to any of the “rules” that constitute the identity? Can one claim to be a poet if they have never written a poem? As basic as this analogy is, it holds a similar concept. While being a poet has the simple requirement of writing poems, being a man has no prerequisites…technically speaking. However, one cannot claim to be a man while also attempting to hold on to their “privileges” as a woman. It was this, I soon realized, that made me uneasy about Christa/Christian. My problem was not with the way Christa/Christian presented their gender. I firmly believe that gender expression does not directly correlate to gender identity. I was instead bothered by the way Christa/Christian seemed to be attempting to maintain their “female privilege” while simultaneously acquiring male privilege. Therein lies the issue with not only the Christa/Christian situation, but transgender men in women’s spaces (or the far less problematic and frequent occasion of transgender women in men’s spaces). 

I think it’s somewhat “selfish” to hold on to the privileges of one gender while still wanting the privileges of the other, but rejecting either or when the bad comes. It doesn’t work that way. –@_JustJasper

When identifying as any gender there are social expectations that an individual is obligated to respect. If one “chooses” to identify as something, it is unfair to attempt to benefit from both their current and prior identities. If one identifies solely as a man then it is expected that they do not invade spaces reserved for women. Men—cisgender, intersex, or transgender, femme, butch, or a mix—do not have a place at all-women’s colleges, lesbian organizations, and so on. In addition to a plethora of other things, this is an overt display of an abusive male privilege.

With the “choice” to transition comes an understanding and acceptance of the fact that one will be forced to let go of past identities and communities—not in an attempt of erasure, but out of respect. While some things are negotiable, most are not. I can still speak on my experience as a lesbian teen as that experience was very much real and valid; however, as I transitioned at the end of my teen years I have no place in a conversation about lesbian adulthood. Remarkably enough, given my identity as a (very queer, somewhat femme) man—I’m okay with that. Although I once identified as a lesbian, that is no longer my truth. Thus, I no longer wish to be included in those spaces. Granted, there should be more spaces for people of trans experience to discuss those past experiences. Women-only spaces, however, are not it (unless, of course, the trans person in question identifies as a woman*).

No matter how one identifies, they have the right to express themselves freely. However, there is a limit. When one teeters dangerously on a fence between self-expression and appropriation, conversations need to take place. There is a fine line between gender policing (e.g., “men should not wear dresses”) and being culturally sensitive (e.g., “men should not use the multi-stall women’s restroom”). While the former is deeply rooted in patriarchy and gender stereotypes, the latter acknowledges the purpose of labels, cultures, and safe spaces.

Being transgender is undoubtedly difficult. Yet, with the “decision” to transition comes the understanding that life will change. Loss can and will occur–not just that of family, friends, social status, and jobs, but also privileges, rights, and entire connections to communities. In my opinion, if an individual is not prepared to face that fact and live that reality, then they are not prepared to transition as this is an essential part of the experience as a whole.

Respectfully, I speak from a place of privilege as a person who has transitioned to the fullest extent they felt necessary. This, perhaps, plays a vital role in the opinions above.

What say ye?

* Debatable  terminology.

Anarchafemme of ‘Questioning Transphobia’ wrote an insightful blog on the “appropriation of genderqueer identities,” which led to equally insightful commentary.


Disclaimer: In an effort to avoid misinterpretation, I would like to clarify that I am not speaking of individuals who identify as a gender they were not assigned but cannot present comfortably various reasons. This is an issue of discrimination and lack of resources. I am also not addressing bigender individuals here, as that experience is one with unique characteristics that require additional consideration before applying this concept. I am specifically addressing individuals who identify solely as a gender they were not assigned but still try to maintain “privileges” of their assigned gender.


4 thoughts on “The ‘Fence’ Between Self-Expression and Appropriation

  1. I found your statements offensive. I guess saying that a doctor gets to decide someone’s federal sex is really disgusting. Some doctors change childrens’ sex without their consent. It is atrocious and despicable to say that I am less of a woman because I am not taking birth control pills and getting cut by surgeons. I express my feminity by excercising, so I my body looks like the body of a woman from Shape magazine. Not someone I am not. I am indifferent to transgendered post-op women who believe they are more female than me and tend to ignore them. If they misgender me in order to insult me deliberately, I report their behavior to their employer. I did this 2 weeks ago and I was not ignored.

    • Maybe I misread the whole thing, but it seemed cissexist. I run into superiority complexes all over the place and am so used to seeing it, that I see it where it doesn’t exist.

      • Erin Lynn,

        Thank you for reading and commenting. Would it be possible for you to pinpoint where exactly you felt as though I was being cissexist or where you saw issues of superiority complex? On the contrary, I felt that the majority of this piece was just the opposite. The opening lines introduce a popular conversation in the trans community, and the text that follows delves into the issue of individuals who attempt to benefit from multiple privileges through self-identification. Also, I at no point stated that a doctor is who dictates someone’s sex, nor did I state or imply that medically or physically transition makes one person more ‘valid’ than another.

        If you could provide specific examples of problem areas it would be greatly appreciated. I in no way meant to make any implications that contribute to the “more trans than thou” hierarchy.

        Thank you.

  2. Hi, Shaan–

    Thanks for this article! I am some kind of M2F-ish person, trying to figure out my own gender identity, and I see this as being post as being relevant to the debate (which I’ve been following but not really involved in) between trans activists and radical feminists about M2F inclusion, or not, in womyn’s spaces (e.g. the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival). I would be interested to hear your thoughts about that … though I certainly understand if you’d rather not wade into that swamp.

    The MWMF thing doesn’t affect me personally, since I don’t have a strong interest in that particular event and I have not determined that I am a woman, but I do see it as reflecting on *what it means to identify as female*. And it seems to me that:

    * I like trans-inclusive events … of course.
    * The evidence I am aware of overwhelmingly shows that trans people
    (especially transwomen) are very much at risk of physical violence
    from transphobic people (okay, mainly transphobic *men*), while
    ciswomen face very little such risk from transwomen or others who
    present as female.
    * Safe spaces for women are important–and “safety” means not just
    physical safety, but freedom from the feeling of being encroached
    upon by men.
    * Transwomen are women.
    * The MWMF people and some other radical feminists seem a touch
    paranoid and hateful.

    BUT, on the other hand … if you are an event organizer–or someone responsible for maintaining the “safe space” boundaries–can you trust that everyone who claims to be a woman actually is one? Are there any objective criteria other than biology for determining who is a woman? The thing is–and I say this not to judge any individual, but just to illustrate why I find this a very troubling matter–I have met a number of people (not counting, but I’d say a significant minority) in the trans community whose claimed gender identity seems questionable (based on behavior and/or attitudes).

    So I’m confused. I don’t like the RadFem position at all, yet I can’t completely dismiss their concerns.

    What to do?


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