Checking Our Privilege, Working Together: Notes on Virtual Trans* Communities, Truscum Blogs, and the Politics of Transgender Health Care

July 29, 2013
By

By Susan Schmitt

[Trigger warning: article generally references transphobia, cissexism, and homophobia; specific transphobic and homophobic insults mentioned; strong or potentially offensive language is present.]

As I began my gender journey several months ago, I decided to chronicle my transition in a blog. I was first introduced to the Tumblr trans*[i] community four years ago when my friend, Sebastian, began blogging about his transition in 2009. Sebastian’s blog[ii] showed me that I was not alone and that there were many people who were questioning their gender identity. YouTube, Tumblr, and LiveJournal are filled with trans* folk posting how-to’s, running advice threads, and peer-help forums. I credit these virtual spaces with giving me the courage to realize my genderqueer and trans identities.

In my search for information about T[iii], I noticed that data about the patch[iv] was scarce. I wanted to document my transition so that other people could learn from my experiences. I soon learned that virtual communities were not the safe havens that I had imagined. I began posting my initial experiences with T patches and soon, I was rapidly reblogged by members of the FTM truscum community. These trans bloggers and their supporters advocate for increased restrictions on trans-specific health care, language, and identity. Some truscum resist what they refer to as the “transtrender” phenomenon. “Transtrending” is described by truscum bloggers as a form of appropriation of real transgender identities. One truscum blogger expressed his sentiments on the “trans-trender” phenomenon: If there’s one thing I’m angry about, it’s people appropriating my condition.[v]  Thus, the trans-appropriator enjoys the benefits of a trans-identity but lacks the consequences of dysphoria, social/cultural rejection, or depression.

Truscum propose that only some trans* folks should use the world “trans” or have access to gender-confirming care. Their criticism is often triggered by a blogger’s reported lack of dysphoria or a desire not to transition medically. Truscum propose that the category “transgender” should be restricted to a subset of people who fall under the trans* umbrella. This truscum blogger explains his sentiments on use of the word “trans”: No one can seem to bloody agree on what being trans means because [sic] theres people arguing about it all the time. Instead of spending your time shitting on real trans people, please, go make up another word to describe whatever you are. Go make your own movement. You’re harming actual trans people and you’re being so selfish if you don’t care.[vi]

According to truscum, only people who experience dysphoria and/or are diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID)[vii] should be allowed access to health care and the identity “trans.” Transgender statuses are purely a linear, one-directional (F to M, M to F), disorder that necessitates medical intervention. This truscum blogger writes about the role dysphoria plays in his definition of “transgender”: To sum up, if you identify as trans, or genderqueer, or neutrois,[viii] but do not suffer dysphoria in any way, you are not the same as me, and your misinforming society is damaging people like me.[ix]Anyone deviating from their definition is depriving “real transgender people” of necessary resources and spreading misinformation. In my blog, I directly addressed what I saw as exclusionary politics on Tumblr: Can we stop with the, “If you don’t (fill in the blank)…then you are probably not trans”? […] Every time we try to draw rigid, definitive boundaries around an identity […] we exclude people from accessing resources […] If we don’t like having our identities/experienced erased or rendered deviant by the larger society, why in the hell do we do it to other […] trans folk like ourselves?[x]

The Truscum bloggers railed into my use of T, critiquing my identities and politics. Some truscum writers heavily criticized my other posts that challenged the use of the DSM,[xi] GID,[xii] and my arguments for self-determined health care, arguing that I was creating barriers for “real trans people’s” access to health care. In reference to the heavy criticism, one blogger posted a reaction .gif[xiii]  that read: Dear OP,[xiv] U mad? Another blogger simply responded with: I hate these sparkly gay boi faggots.[xv]

I wasn’t mad. I felt hurt and betrayed. The blow of the scathing truscum comments left me reeling. This was violence and exclusion I would not have expected from other trans-folk. I suppose that my identities and explicitly queer politics may have incited truscum criticism. I noticed that truscum critiques reflected a deep commitment to a “natural” gender binary. I also noticed that the epithets were reminiscent of the ways that cisgender men and boys are socialized to police the boundaries around gender and sexuality. By leveling misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric, FTM truscum bloggers vilify non-normative masculinity while affirming their own. Since trans-identities are believed to be one-directional and binaristic, there is no room to question the social construction of gender. Gender is, therefore, natural and inherent. Gender essentialism becomes apparent this member’s critique of my identities and experiences on T: Your choice to identify as however you like is your choice […] Maybe that’s why they [genderqueer, multigendered folk] want GID depathologized so much. The thing is, that is hurting those who need that medication to live, because they suffer from sex dysphoria. Experiencing sex dysphoria is a mental disorder whereby one has the bits of the brain that screams that they are the other sex, a fundamental and real brain entity rather than anything chosen or psychologically caused.[xvi]

Transgender bodies and identities may be socially transgressive in their own right; however, truscum logic is grounded in the belief in a scientifically-rooted gender transgression. If gender transgressions are medically necessary, then there must be only a physiological or biological foundation for the transgression. All other gender transgressions are merely political or social choices, and thus, not real. According to truscum bloggers, a “real” transgender person must meet medically-recognized criteria. Anything that is not medically recognized is chosen and subsequently “not real.” I am not going to get into a discussion of what is a choice or is “real” since this would probably thrust us into a fruitless argument. Such debates do little to address the transphobic undercurrents that affect all trans* people, regardless of their political sentiments. Instead, I wish to propose a more radical solution to the truscum bloggers and the virtual trans* community. I suggest that we refocus our efforts to address the structures that maintain trans* marginalization.

We need to stop fighting over limited resources. Even if we do not agree on the theoretical nature of gender, we can both agree that it is fruitless to blame other oppressed groups for their own marginalization. Asserting that only “real trans people” can get gender-affirming care is akin to starving in view of a table piled with delicious food. The gate-keepers at the table toss a few meager scraps of food in our direction. As we scramble to grab whatever we can, we scream at other starving people for “stealing” whatever the powerful people at the table decide to give us. Genderqueer folk who wish to make physical changes to feel congruent, for example, do not reduce other trans-folks’ access. It is not easy for us who do not have trans-normative gender identities to the access care needed to feel congruent. In fact, many of us are actively weeded out by the medical community because we do not fit the “classic transsexual” paradigm. I am regularly forced to lean into the trans-normative narrative in order to access care, knowing it contributes to my own invisibility. The solution is not to blame my struggle on those who may have a trans-normative gender journey. The solution is to hold the oppressive system and gate-keepers accountable for accepting only one trans narrative. Let’s focus our work on the systems that maintain trans oppression, not other trans-folk. There are plenty of resources to go around but it is being hoarded by the white supremacist, capitalist, cis-heteropatriarchy. Shifting away from a scarcity mindset and refocusing our efforts on systemic oppression is going to allow for greater care and access for all people, since trans-oppression is inherently interconnected to other forms of oppression. Advocating for increased accessibility for all trans*-identified people challenges a system that limited access in the first place.

We need to stop fighting over a limited language system. What would happen if we practiced radical acceptance? What would it look like to affirm all genders while still maintaining peoples’ accountability to histories and systems of power? What would happen if we adopted a language of plurality rather than a language of exclusion? What would it look like to cultivate a community around the idea that gender is a galaxy of options and that language is a limited medium through which that galaxy is conveyed and understood? I would much rather include everyone at the proverbial trans*-table rather than risk excluding someone who really needed our support. Identity politics may create deep gulfs that deny us the ability to work together and support one another even though they can be deeply healing. Once these identity politics begin denying the experiences, identities, and the choices people make regarding their own bodies, we are headed in the wrong direction.

Some of us in the trans* community may need to acknowledge that we are both oppressor and oppressed. While trans* people experience a lot of discrimination in the larger culture, there may be some benefits to presenting a palatable trans-identity to the medical system. Identities that can be readily translated into a gender binary may be regarded as more valid since Western medicine seems to thrive on either/or logic. Unfortunately, many identities do not fit the binary, making it difficult to access competent health care. Some trans* community members may possess other privileges such as being white, able-bodied, middle/upper-class that increases access. The non-discussion of race, class, and ability status in truscum blogs is telling. This silence denies the oppressive forces that limit health care accessibility as a whole. For example, the Dallas GEAR clinic (a low-cost, sliding-scale gender clinic) has a waiting list of nine-months to one year for the first intake appointment. What are these medical restrictions and regulations are really doing? Truscum bloggers’ use of multigendered or genderqueer folk as scapegoats denies the very real effects of racism and classism (and many other isms) on health care accessibility and deflects discussions of privilege.

Most importantly, we must employ compassion and practice deep listening.[xvii] In the initial stages of writing this article, I was still aching from dismissal and hate. I wanted to tell truscum bloggers that they were wrong, but as I revisited truscum blogs, I saw the pain that lay beneath their posts. My hurt began to soften as I set aside our differences and started to really listen to the truscum bloggers. Consider this truscum blogger’s comments about “transtrenders”: I feel sort of petty and awful but I wonder if I am sort of jealous of some transtrenders. They always seem to have super accepting families and get started on horomones/therapy right away […] It took me years not only to find out what I was but to actually accept it and it was a long and hard journey full of pain and confusion.[xviii] The pain of transphobia and classism is glaring. His pain emanates from the very real impact of transphobia and classism. These are valuable stories as well.

Marking privilege within the trans* community is important because it cultivates an intersectional consciousness. It allows us to see multiple realities and recognize the insidious reach of oppression. When we blame other trans* community members for their own oppression, we deny how we may oppress and be oppressed. Checking our privilege and really listening to each other are just a few ways to begin transformational work. It is a better solution than fighting other trans* people for the scraps.

___________________________________

Susan is a FTM trans*, genderqueer, and queer-identified doctoral student at Texas Woman’s University where they teach courses in Women and Gender Studies. Susan holds a Master’s in criminal justice from Washington State University and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Smith College. Susan’s academic and research interests include: LGBTQIA politics and activisms; sex work and sex worker activisms; legal movements and the prison-industrial complex; feminist, womanist, queer, and social justice pedagogies; arts-based research methodologies; and epistemologies of whiteness.  


[i] The asterisk denotes the galaxy of sex and gender identities that can fall under the trans umbrella that may include genderqueer, agender, genderf*ck, transgender, non-binary, bigender, two-spirit, genderfluid, intersexed and so forth. Refer to this interview with Josephine Tittsworth to learn more about the trans* umbrella: http://buildingalliances.blogspot.com/2008/06/voice-in-transgender-community.html

[iii] T is an abbreviation for testosterone.

[iv] The T-patch is a transdermal testosterone delivery system. For more information, refer to Hudson’s FTM guide: http://www.ftmguide.org/ttypes.html

[vii] GID is an abbreviation for Gender Identity Disorder. For more information, refer to: http://www.aclu.org/images/asset_upload_file155_30369.pdf

[viii] A term used to refer to non-gendered, null-gendered, agendered identities.

[xi] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a standardized tool published by the American Psychological Association. The DSM is used in the field of psychology to diagnose and treat psychological disorders.

[xiii] A reaction .gif is a moving image that conveys a blogger or respondent’s feeling, sentiment, or facial expression regarding the original post/original poster. These images are commonly derived from popular television series, movies, websites, comics, memes, or fandoms.

[xiv] OP is short for “original poster.”

[xv] This blogger’s response was deleted.

[xvii] Many thanks to Dr. AnaLouise Keating for teaching me about the practice of deep listening. Refer to Keating’s, “Teaching Transformations: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues” to read more about the transformational potential of deep listening practices.  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1016424.Teaching_Transformation

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4 Responses to Checking Our Privilege, Working Together: Notes on Virtual Trans* Communities, Truscum Blogs, and the Politics of Transgender Health Care

  1. Tom on July 29, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I’m a ‘truscum’ – not that I identify that way, rather that I’m called that, because I believe that my own transsexualism is a medical condition. I have no stance on other people’s perception of their own identities – unless it strays over into the sexist (for example, ‘you can’t be a trans man if you’re feminine, that makes you automatically non-binary’ that I’ve seen from non-binary people) or the homophobic (‘I’m a trans man and a lesbian’).

    I feel that this article comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the demographics of people who are called ‘truscum’. The ‘truscum’ I follow are disproportionately disprivileged along the axes you mention. Personally, I’m white, but I’m also working-class, physically disabled, mentally ill, autistic, bisexual and feminine. I actually know very few white non-immigrant truscum – my family are immigrants, every single other truscum I’ve spoken to is either non-white or an immigrant (and often both). You may be interested to read people like toplioncub on the subjects of race and being a truscum.

    But what’s more, I find it highly disingenuous that you cast truscum as people who insist on medical diagnosis. Every single truscum I’ve seen understands the difficulties of medical transition, and I know a lot who don’t have medically diagnosed GID/transsexualism (because of how having it on record can affect insurance paying for things). I feel that rather you’re misinterpreting our stance that transsexualism is a medical condition for us (which it is – it requires hormones and surgery for us, it requires medical treatment, it is therefore de facto a medical condition) and that we don’t want it declassifying, because in order to get taxpayers or insurance companies to pay for treatment, they need to have a valid reason to do so.

    I’m also sick of being told that this is ‘hypermasculinity’. I am not a masculine man. I’m a cross-dresser for sexual purposes, I enjoy wearing androgynous-style fashions as much as my body will allow, I’m bisexual and I have a boyfriend. The ‘truscum’ community is the only place I’ve found space to express this. Regular queer-identified spaces are the first to misgender me along these fronts; to insist that I must be non-binary because I’m feminine, to insist that I must be genderqueer because I’m feminine, to insist that my feminine presentation has anything to do with my gender. It really doesn’t, and truscum are the only ones I’ve found who understand that.

    I also don’t know if you fully appreciate that what people say on tumblr is not what they say elsewhere. In real life, I would class myself as a trans activist. I’m heavily involved in LGBT student politics in my own country, I organise events at universities, and I do what I can to personally support trans students at my own university, regardless of how they identify or what they need. I spend a lot of time in real life getting transphobic abuse, threats of violence, and actual violence from non-trans people who think I’m too outspoken on trans issues. This is why tumblr-style identity politics bothers me – because it seems to come from a certain strain of academic thought that is popular in college towns in the US, and doesn’t reflect the struggles I go through on a daily basis because I’m trans, or the struggles those around me go through.

    I’m sorry if this is angry in tone or if this comment is long. I’m just sick of being told that I must be masculine, I must be heterosexual, I must be able-bodied, I must be sane, I must be neurotypical and I must be middle-class – all things I’m not – just because I perceive my own transsexualism to be a medical condition.

    • Susan Schmitt on July 31, 2013 at 1:57 pm

      Thank you for replying to my article and thank you for taking the time to read it!

      I think I needed to make it clearer in my article that I’m speaking to a particular subset of self-identified truscum blgogers who seem to be speaking the loudest on Tumblr. Of course, I cannot speak in generalizing terms about all people who may align with this particular sentiment or refer to themselves as “truscum.” I acknowledge that there are a lot of different ways to do and enact these particular beliefs across different spaces and contexts. Thank you for pointing that out.

      In my piece, I’m offering a critique of how some truscum bloggers may have a commitment to essentialism and scientism and how this might warrant deeper investigation in terms of social and cultural construction. Moreover, I think some of these particular bloggers’ responses reflect a particular commitment that their gender is “natural” and immutable because it is framed as a biological and physiological reality only. I offer a critique of these ideas and highlight some of the ways that they might be exclusionary, but I think that they are a valid experience. I wanted to highlight multiple realities while still offering what I thought was a valuable critique of some truscum sentiment and how it has been used on Tumblr.

      I am also troubled by the way that my body and identities may have been read/assumed in this article. I’ve been reading a lot of “us/them” language in some of the responses to my article—here and elsewhere. I am reading this language and sensing that some readers may not conceptualize me as someone who is both FTM transgender and genderqueer, rather reading my queer politics as primary. (Moreover, I am concerned that genderqueer people are being framed as individuals who do not experience dysphoria, which is a common misconception.) In regards to my own identity, I still have investment in the idea of medical necessity and I do need gender affirming care because I experience dysphoria. Thus, it would be an error to read my work as a flippant academic exercise in gender theory. Rather, I wanted to call attention to patterns of exclusion if we only accept that trans means a “natural” gender that looks very specific.

      In referring to my own experiences, it is because of the way that my gender and political identities are understood and coded that I am having difficulty in accessing competent care. I suggest that it is the systems and institutions that only recognize certain people as worthy of trans health care services that are accountable. I have been told in many circles, trans* and otherwise, that I’m not trans if I do not experience bottom dysphoria. I’ve also heard many transmen being told that they must have dysphoria to even call themselves transmen or that they can’t use this term because are not medically transitioning (for a wide variety of reasons). I want to explore why these exclusions happen? Are they helpful/fruitful or not? What happens when we don’t fit what people expect in terms of what a trans person normally is supposed to look like, do, say or feel? I’m concerned that if our work excludes certain people that we can’t effectively work together to address the problems with trans* health care. In pursuit of this goal, I wanted explore what would be needed to get everyone the care they needed. How can we take concrete steps toward this very large, systemic problem? Perhaps we need to help dismantle some of these larger cultural investments so that all people, regardless of their gender, can access care that promotes gender-affirmation? Maybe we need to shift our language? Again, I do not have answers. I am trying to open the door to discuss multiple ways of being and how we can bridge across our various differences.

      I want to close by thanking you for sharing your experiences of transphobia in your job and among community members. These are experiences that we definitely share. Transphobia is everywhere and more work within the trans community is still needed. I am happy to continue the conversation!

  2. D-Pain on July 30, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Being trans (mtf or ftm) is not an identity. Unlike other identities people have, being trans can hurt every day of your life. That is why it is not an identity, and instead, it’s a medical condition. An identity is something people grow proud of and speak of and attach to their name. Well, “male” should have been attached to mine at birth, and now “trans” is and it makes me sick.

  3. J on August 3, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Honestly the only reasons I can think of for a person to call themselves trans(*) without dysphoria would by internalized misogyny/misandry or not liking the way society treats them, which is a shame since those are external issues that themselves should be addressed and worked on and healthy, non dysphoric people should not feel they have to change their bodies and risk their lives to try and hide from.

    I can’t fathom how a superficial identity could be worth all the horrible things transgender people have to go through; its not cute or fun, and seeing perfectly healthy kids treat it as a game after people like myself have been homeless and suicidal is terribly, terribly insulting. I would give anything to be cis.

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