Monday, March 5, 2012

Respecting identities: Are There Limits?

Something that I hear a lot from people in activist communities/internet activism is something that can be broadly generalized to "It's not anyone's place to question another person's identity." This can also filter to gender identification, pronouns, sexual orientations, and other things like that. I'm interested, because as of the past couple of months, there has been a sort of rise in activism from segments of the internet where these same people feel like one obviously cannot accept that person's identity, without accepting some rather unfortunate consequences too.

Of course, there have been people that identified in ways that the mainstream and perhaps even radical circles chose not to acknowledge as correct or worthy of respect in the past. They would probably still not be accepted within social justice movements today. What I am thinking of is the growth and subsequent marginalization of pro-pedophile groups like NAMBLA. Sure, you have the odd queer activist who will defend the right of NAMBLA to lobby for pederasty: you have Allen Ginsberg, or Harry Hay for instance. But the majority of queer activist groups, along with most of the other social justice groups, refuse to see pedophiles as an oppressed group, or as a legitimate identification that requires the level of respect that other sexual and gender minorities do.

But something that has come up more recently is taking the rhetoric and ideology surrounding transgender people (and their narrative) and affixing them to other identities. Perhaps the most "out there" version of this would be the Otherkin phenomenon. That is, people who feel like they secretly have the soul/essence of some sort of other species (or mythological creature). Describing themselves as having "species dysphoria" and use the societal understanding of trans* people as "X in a Y's body," they pattern their ideas on one specific type of transgender self-understanding. Sometimes they want to do surgery in order to realign themselves with what they feel they are on the inside. You get the picture. To most people, this seems ridiculous if harmless. Of course, intuitive "ridiculousness" by society is not really a good metric of whether something should be respected, in my opinion.

Feelings get a bit more heated, however, when it comes to people identifying as a group that they are not "Really" part of. Two examples that I have seen recently are those who identify as transabled and those who identify as transethnic/transracial. The basic rundown of these two groups is that transabled people see themselves as dysphoric due to their lack of a specific disability, whereas transethnic people generally see themselves as identifying as a race that they were not 'born as'; this also sometimes includes surgeries. It's hard for me to find a lot of stuff on transethnicity, but from what I've heard, it basically tracks that way.

I bring those up, because most of the people that say that a person should not question another's identity are very quick to judge whether these identities are 'appropriative' or 'correct' or other things like that. That seems to me, to be a bit hypocritical.

That might anger people, but I guess what I mean by that is that although those identities do seem to me to be intuitively different than transgender ideology, I have seen the concept of intuition used in ways that are transphobic before. What strikes me is that people who on one hand say that we should never criticize certain types of identities are generally the ones to think of these as completely untenable. For me, I think it is rather arbitrary to say "gender identities/sexual orientations are unquestionable" while ethnic or racial identities are. Both are socially constructed, and also have less division than is generally credited by society. In fact, race and ethnicity are much less binary than gender is in Western society.

This would seem to lead me to three solutions:

1) Racial and ability identities should not be questioned, much like gender identities should not be questioned.

2) They are somehow different.

3) Not all gender identities (or ways that gender is conceptualized in trans* ideology) deserve respect.

I am not sure where I fall on this. Accepting choice 1 seems to have a whole lot of unfortunate consequences: people in blackface, racial essentializing, all of that. While most activists would take number 2, I want to point out some flaws that I see with many of the arguments that are made on that point.

While the majority of people I see who reject the idea of transethnic identity claim that transethnicity and transgender identity have nothing in common, there is a level of irony in the statements that they make: since most of the people who identify as transethnic would be called "white people who want to become people of color," the arguments mostly take the form of appropriation: that is, privileged people taking the identity of those who are oppressed. But I feel like I have heard that argument before... where have I...

Oh wait! Here it is!

I mean, honestly. Part of the reason that I feel uncomfortable with the arguments against these people is because most of them track pretty easily onto the arguments that some lesbian feminists make against trans women. Even the argument that transethnic people grew up white/don't have the culture or history of non-white people has a sort of "womyn born womyn" stylizing behind it. Or that transethnic people make non-white peoples into a stereotype: also a Janice Raymond argument against trans women.

So that details my discomfort with most of the arguments being currently used against people who identify as these groups.  My own discomfort comes from essentialization of whiteness and different ethnicities; however, I recognize that that also reflects my discomfort with the transgender essentialist narratives. I also find the wholesale co-option of transgender rhetoric a bit unrealistic. While ethnicity (and perhaps disability) might function in similar ways to gender, I see that the rhetoric is being used without the theoretical grounding. By this, I mean that I would expect transethnic discourse to reflect postcolonial ideas more than queer theory, if it were trying to understand ethnicity and race in the context that they are understood in a theoretical sense today.

Although, like I said, I am still undecided.

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