(With recent additions in orange.)
“One of the first things we notice about people (along with their sex) is their race. We utilize race to provide clues about who a person is. This fact is made painfully obvious when we encounter someone whom we cannot conveniently racially categorize – someone who is, for example, racially ‘mixed’ or of an ethnic/racial group with which we are not familiar. Such an encounter becomes a source of discomfort and momentarily a crisis of racial meaning. Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity.” (Omi & Winant, 1986, italics in original, my underlining)
Race and gender are so fundamental to the structure and function of
On the other hand, for the person who doesn’t fit into racial or gendered categories, the crisis is not momentary but constant. Every momentary crisis that someone else has about hir is a reminder of hir in-between-ness. It is not so easy to write oneself off as an exception. When someone doesn’t have a racial or a gender identity, others have trouble seeing/recognizing hir, and ze may even have trouble seeing/recognizing hirself. In order not to be caught with no identity, ze must belong to a racial and a gender category that makes sense to hirself and others. Many people who are caught in this dilemma try to resolve it by force-fitting themselves into a new or established category that others can recognize, even if the category is not quite true to experience, or is so broad as to be practically meaningless (e.g. Asian, Latina/o, Bi/Multiracial, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender). This is not to say that these categories are meaningless to everyone who uses them, only that some people may claim an identity that is not quite what they mean, but that at least means something.
For example, Ekins & King observe the importance for transsexuals and transvestites of “adopting an identity which makes sense of things” (p. 101). They detail four characteristics that transsexuals and transvestites reference to explain, and perhaps to defend, their identity: reality/centrality, pervasiveness, permanence, and inherence. They also mention, almost in passing, that transsexual and transvestite identities can only be defined in reference to normative binary gender. What Ekins and King fail to point out is that a transsexual or transvestite identity must “make sense of things” not only to the person who claims that identity, but also to others – in this case, to the gender-normative or non-trans gaze. The characteristics that they list as common to these trans identities are also true of normative, binary gender identities. Being a man or a woman, like being transsexual or transvestite, is considered central and pervasive to one’s identity, permanent, and inherent.
This similarity is not a coincidence. For one thing, transsexual and transvestite are both terms that come out of the medical community, not out of a trans community. They were developed by gender-normative male doctors as part of a mechanism of social control to make trans folk more comprehensible and manageable within a binary gender system. Transsexual and transvestite provide new possibilities of location within a binary gender system, but they do not challenge the structure or the terms of that system.
For another thing, the identities of trans people are scrutinized and contested by non-trans observers. If the non-trans observers find a trans person's identity inadequate, they may punish the individual both directly an indirectly, most notably in the form of anti-trans violence which is all too common. Often the perpetrators of such hate crimes get off with light sentences using the "transpanic" defense - by arguing that, when they realized the person wasn't "really a woman" (or man), they became so distressed that they had to respond with violence. What's worse is that these defenses often work. In a real sense, both in law and in practice, people who are seen to transgress gender without adequately convincing others of their normalcy as members of one of the two socially sanctioned genders are no longer afforded the basic rights of citizenship (see e.g. Cabral & Viturro, 2006) or indeed what are usually considered to be "human rights" (Thomas, 2006). To be without a recognizable gender identity is to be without a human identity.
When people who find themselves positioned outside of social categories have the opportunity to construct our own new categories without such direct manipulation from institutions of social control, do the categories still reproduce the rules of the system in question? In other words, is it possible to create new categories of gender or racial identity that do not reflect the fundamental characteristics of the extant categories? To go back to Omi and Winant, a person in danger of having no identity needs an identity that is comprehensible not only to hirself, but also to others. A gender identity that does not follow the basic rules of normative gender identities – such as the four characteristics outlined by Ekins and King – is not a gender identity at all, it’s something different. To take another example, a racial identity category in the
The larger question this is coming to is how can we change oppressive structures of social categorization? Social categories, including but not limited to racial and gender identities, are defined, contested and redefined according to the cultural and political requirements of the moment. Often they are defined hierarchically. Sometimes the categories themselves are oppressive, even regardless of hierarchy. Yet we need racial categories in order to function socially, or else we are in danger of having no identity, of disappearing.
For clarity’s sake, let me make an admittedly simplistic example. Imagine a world in which there is no racial hierarchy. In this world, people of every racial group have equal resources, access, and opportunity, and everybody really is “color blind”. But there are still racial categories, and they still mean something (although something without value judgment). Because there are categories, there are still some people whose categorization is uncertain. In this imaginary world, race as a system of categorization is still oppressive, even though the hierarchy has been removed.
The only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate both the hierarchical organization of racial categories and ultimately the categories themselves. The only way to eliminate sexism is to eliminate not only the hierarchy of men over women, but also the entire system of gender categorization – that is, the concept of gender itself. The only way to eliminate heterosexism is to eliminate the normalization of heterosexuality and the othering of other sexualities, but also to break with the concept of sexual orientation entirely. But as I learned the hard way, identifying as “I don’t believe sexual orientation is a valid concept” is not a productive way to start a conversation. We need to break with these categories, but in the meanwhile, we need to hold onto them, lest we disappear.
Perhaps the struggle of genderqueer identity, for example, is to gauge when it is safe to give up gender identity without disappearing. In the meanwhile, we hold onto just enough of it to get by on, while slowly discarding some characteristics, like permanence and inherence. Indeed, the genderqueer community seems to be moving in this direction. However, I have seen many genderqueer individuals “relapse” into more binary gender logic as they leave sheltered communities such as some colleges and have to deal with more and more “momentary crises”. We are still far from the point where we can or should abandon gender.
"Transgender" and "genderqueer" as identity labels do little to challenge the structure of the traditional gender system. It's not that they aren't radically outside of & in opposition to it - in many ways I believe they are. But they are not generally recognized as gender categories, and in fact their failure to conform to the basic structure of gender (permanence, inherence, biology, etc.) makes it unlikely that they ever will be. However the transgender rights movement has in many cases recognized the futility of inscribing one more gender category as a strategy for social change. Legislation to protect the rights of transgender individuals rarely names transgender people as a protected class, but rather refers to "gender identity" and "gender expression" as protected categories (Currah, 2006; Thomas, 2006). This much broader approach is promising legally in that it inscribes protection for all people to explain and display their gender in a variety of ways. However legislative advances do not automatically lead to cultural change. It seems to me that passing trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statutes has only a limited effect on the interpersonal level, where many trans individuals are still unrecognizable and seen as inhuman. We know that anti-trans violence is no less deadly for being illegal in a few jurisdictions, and so most of us enact identities on a daily basis that are less radical even than the nondiscrimination statutes - and for some of us, less radical than how we actually understand ourselves to be.
The example of sexual orientation may be more promising at this point. Since it is not a necessarily visible identity, I think many people have succeeded in giving up sexual orientation in favor a political identity of queer. Queer does not follow any of the same rules as sexual orientation identities: it’s not inherent or permanent, is sometimes central, and has nothing to do with the gender of the person or hir partner(s).
I have no illusions that I have answered any questions in this paper. Instead, I hope that I have raised some in a way that others can understand: Why do people sometimes claim identities that are not true to experience? Why do new categories seem to reproduce many characteristics of established categories? When are systems of categorization oppressive, even without the element of hierarchy? (For that matter, is there such a thing as a system of social categorization without hierarchy?) What would it entail to move beyond the need for race, gender, or sexual orientation as a classification? Finally, how do these questions apply to some contemporary situations?
Ideas for this paper were drawn from:
Cabral, M. & Viturro, P. (2006). (Trans)sexual citizenship in contemporary Argentina. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 262-273). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Currah, P. (2006). Gender pluralisms under the transgender umbrella. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 3-31). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ekins & King (1998), “Blending genders: Contributions to the emerging field of transgender studies”
Link, A. (2002). “Vision.” In Nestle, Howell, & Wilchins (Eds.), Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the gender binary (pp. 86-89). LA: Alyson Books.
Omi (1999), “Racial identity and the state: Contesting the federal standards for classification”
Omi & Winant (1986), “Racial formation”
Thomas, K. (2006). Afterword: Are transgender rights Inhuman rights? In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 310-326). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 In this paper I use gender neutral or “third gender” pronouns to refer to hypothetical third persons. This avoids gendering my example, or distorting grammar with the plural “they”. Gender neutral pronouns are ze for the subject pronoun and hir for the object and possessive pronouns, as in “I heard from hir yesterday, and ze’s really happy in hir new home.”
 As I re-read this paragraph, I realize that I am falling into the same trap many of our readings do. When I spoke of the theorist or the observer, I used “we”. When I speak of an individual in between identities, I use the third person. This is not quite honest to my experiences, since I am often in the position of causing crises of meaning for others. Yet I imagine a reader who is not used to thinking of hirself as in between or as a cause of dissonance, and so I try to relate to this imagined reader by relegating myself to the position of academic observer, rather than that of an “other”.