Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Identity is Strategic

“… the use of any word for myself—lesbian, transperson, transgender, butch, boy, mister, FTM fag, butch - has always been/will always be strategic…”
-Dean Spade, in “Resisting Medicine, Re/modeling Gender,” Berkeley Women's Law Journal, Volume 18, p.15 (2003)

On May 17, I went to Sacramento with Transgender Law Center for the first ever California Transgender Lobby Day. I memorized a list of talking points and prepared to have three nearly-identical 15-minute conversations with three different representatives.

After a day of very thorough preparation for my first every lobbying adventure, I realized there was one question not yet answered. How was I supposed to introduce myself? We wanted our representatives to know that we were a group of both trans people and cisgender allies there to express our concern about issues of importance to our communities (including healthcare access, employment, mental health access for youth, and inclusive data collection). So of course we wanted to introduce ourselves by saying something about who we were and our relationship to the community.

At first I thought I’d say, “My name is Davey and I’m a transgender constituent ….” The problem with this straightforward approach is that people often get confused when I keep it that simple. If I say I’m transgender to someone who doesn’t really know any transgender people, they tend to assume I’m a trans woman. Oops.

The obvious alternative was to say, “My name is Davey and I’m a transgender man ….” The only problem with this is that it’s not true. I don’t identify as a man. The word transman itches me almost as bad as the word woman. Hmm.

Of course most legislators are unlikely to understand MtF / FtM, if only because acronyms are confusing.

What I’d like to say, if it has to start with, “I am a [one word identity],” is that I’m genderqueer. But that word does not go very far with legislators, or most people outside of trans communities. And, I reminded myself, we don’t need legislators to “understand” us, we just need them to do the right thing.

I decided to tell the legislators a label they could recognize, even if it wasn’t a perfect (or even good) reflection of how I understand myself. I bit the bullet and told them I was a transgender man. They seemed sympathetic to our requests. And after each meeting I quoted Dean Spade to myself: … the use of any word for myself … has always been/will always be strategic….


miltonesque said...

I think you make a really good point here. Some of us work so hard to explore our identities and find words that feel right to describe those identities, it can seem like all that work is for nothing when we have to use ill-fitting language in order to be understood.

I'm glad you had a productive day lobbying. I hope that one of these days you will be able to walk into a legislator's office and say, "I am a genderqueer constituent" with confidence that your voice will be heard and respected.

biartmama said...

i am proud of you and respect all that you have become and hope that gender queer become an easily understood and excepted identifier as well