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In Defence of Trans People

Author Christopher Shelley on the pain bigotry inflicts on transsexual and transgendered persons.

By Sarah Buchanan 23 Sep 2008 |

Sarah Buchanan is a Vancouver writer.

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For many, a symbol of pride.
  • Transpeople: Repudiation, Trauma, Healing
  • Christopher A. Shelley
  • University of Toronto Press (2008)

"It is extraordinarily painful, as social creatures, to be told that you don't belong," Christopher Shelley has written. "When you're pushed out, it's damaging, it's abusive, it can mark a person for life."

I still remember my first week on the soccer field in Grade 7, when Krista Smiley told me that if I was going to fit in, I would have to stop playing football with boys and grow my hair, because "people were starting to wonder."

I had been dressing and acting as a boy for a steady eight years; I was tired. I wanted to be able to walk confidently into a bathroom without confrontation.

I made a decision at that moment to give up. I grew my hair. I wished for breasts. I wore ribbons. I felt like a total imposter for about 10 years, until I eventually grew into a strange yet comfortable mish-mash of femininity and masculinity, which had little to do with ribbons or breasts.

The people profiled in Chris Shelley's Transpeople did not listen to the Krista Smileys of the world, and chose instead to redefine their bodies to feel at home in them.

Whether it be through physical modifications like sexual reassignment surgery, transgressive clothing, or simply by embracing a new pronoun, Shelley has done a fantastic job of presenting a diverse and empowering range of actions taken by transpeople (by this he refers to both transgendered and transsexual people) to create and maintain their own gender identities, as well as the fear and rejection that this often inspires in a heteronormative culture.

Outsider looking in

Since Shelley does not identify as a transperson, he relies primarily on the experiences of Vancouver's trans community to address these issues. "I think transpeople are the primary experts on their own lives," he claims, sipping a coffee at the shop where he wrote much of the book.

"I wouldn't be able to do a book like this as a non-transperson without taking an assumed position of authority. So I took a collaborative approach, and let transpeople educate me." He laughs. "I didn't know a lot of people in the trans community at first... I met a few key trans allies who introduced me around. In every case I felt that transpeople were very open to allies, as long as I worked respectfully. It's when you take their narratives and stories at their expense, as many academics do, that things go wrong."

This is a refreshing approach to research in the queer community, considering that the experiences of folks of many sexual identities is often co-opted by academics and media alike, and turned into sensationalized stories of sexual depravity.

As a psychotherapist, Shelley came into contact with many stories of violence and abuse, most of which he decided to leave out of the book.

"The things that were told to me were hair-raising, shocking and very private. I could tell from people's levels of discomfort when certain things should not have gone in the book. I was also very aware that there could be people that have a kind of paraphelic interest in transpeople as a group, and I'm not here to sexualize transpeople or their lives. I didn't want that pain to be stirring up more curiosity."

'I was fumbling'

Shelley has learned a lot from his research, and admits, "I started this project 10 years ago when I, as an ordinary queer man, didn't feel that I had a good enough grasp of transpeople's lives... I was fumbling." This fumbling is a common feeling, and helps explain why there is often transphobia and rejection even among the gay, lesbian and queer communities (also referred to as LGTBQ).

Shelley's deep analysis of transphobia in surprising places like women's shelters, gender clinics and gay bars is one of the major strengths of the book, making it relevant within the LGBTQ community as well as for those new to the subject.

A brief warning about lexicon

I will warn the reader that in presenting Chris' words, I am assuming a certain level of understanding of terms such as "queer," "gay," "lesbian," "transsexual," and "transgendered." If you are not familiar with how these terms are different, please look them up, or simply refer to item #2 in Chris's list at the end of this article.

In our conversation, here's what else Shelley had to say...

On 'transphobia', and the mistake of calling trans people 'head cases'

"I happen to know people who are not afraid of transpeople, but just don't buy it [that there is such a way of being]. What they do in that process is refuse an identity claim. By refusing that claim, they're repudiating, they're stepping back from the trans-embodied person, who they're more likely to describe as head cases, homosexuals who just don't know what they're doing, or as drag queens who went too far.

"I think transphobia is part of a range of repudiations that trans people encounter. Some have a phobic cast and some don't. Some people reject transpeople because they are deeply committed to religious or political ideologies that are offended by the very idea of crossing or transgressing. In virtually every case, the individual wouldn't even know it as transphobia itself. They are stirred up by what trans bodies entail.

"I don't think these questions have been fully thought through by a lot of people. Among most folks in small town, B.C., unless they've seen Oprah or something, they wouldn't even know what a trans man was. Trans women have been sensationalized for such a long time."

On the origins of sensationalism

"People have a really hard time treating trans people equally. They are either awed by them, with that gaze of fascination with an exotic oddity, like 'I'm going to figure your body out, and maybe you're some kind of weird alien.' That's not equanimity, but a strange elevation of an object which is almost never sustainable. When you put people into those binaries, they flip. They can go from being really good and attractive to really bad and disgusting very quickly. Some trans people have mentioned that they find this just as uncomfortable as the fear reactions.

"We're never going to be able to stop this elevation, because sensationalism sells. It captures audiences, it increases market shares. Cheap talk shows like Jerry Springer... they create a freak show atmosphere. Anyone who is exotic is sensationalized because it makes money to do so.

"I think this is a problem of ethical journalism. I feel that we have a long way to go as a society before trans folks are accepted in the same way as gay, lesbian and queer folks often are now. Trans people are still very much at risk in many sitatuations."

On transphobia among gays and lesbians

"Gay and lesbian people can misunderstand transpeople to the same extent that straight people can. I think sometimes in the gay male community, there is an investment in hyper-masculinity, a worship of the stereotypically male body. And often in strictly lesbian communities, one of the things you're not allowed to do is have sex with men. .

"But queer communities are about defining your own sexuality, your own body, your own identity, and not living under rules. A place where, if I have a history of being with men, I'm not going to feel ashamed about it. A lot of people don't fit into the binary of heterosexual/homosexual.

"I think that in the gay and lesbian community, there's a lot of discrimination against gender variance, where queerness tries to accommodate people who don't feel a sense of belonging, and might shift from day to day.

"That being said, there are transpeople who are lesbian-identified and don't want to be in a queer community, there are transpeople who see things very much in terms of the binary. They were born in one box, and that's the wrong one, and they want into the other one."

On the case of Kimberley Nixon, a trans-identified male-to-female woman, who tried to volunteer with Vancouver Rape Relief and was told that, because she was considered male, she was not welcome, causing her to legally fight that decision, losing in the Supreme Court of Canada

"If we go back to the things that happened with Vancouver Rape Relief and Kimberly Nixon... there was a lot of overt and admitted hatred. The radical cultural feminist school has taken a really hard line against transpeople. There are exceptions -- some radical cultural feminists are pro-trans.

"I also happen to know that Rape Relief does some very good work -- I may be critical of them, but I'm not out to get them.

"But for the most part, their beliefs are largely rooted in quasi-religious beliefs about the body. It's the mirror opposite of a patriarchal gaze -- you're evaluated on your body to the extent that you conform to what a woman should be. It basically says that women ought to look like women. That a feminist organization does this is very disturbing."

On why Shelley dedicated his book to Kimberly Nixon

"I think she has done more for transpeople in this country than anybody else. What Kim Nixon did was to make it possible for trans women across the country to access many women's assault centres and rape relief houses. Her battle, although she lost in court, raised awareness and got policies changed voluntarily across the country. I think Kimberly Nixon is a hero."

After the interview, some reflections

When I left the coffee shop after speaking to Shelley, I noticed a crew of fundraisers on the corner of Commercial and 1st for Vancouver Rape Relief. A strange coincidence, no doubt, since our parting words had been about this very organization. I stopped, addressed a man in a ball cap holding a tin cup and sign.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'd like to donate, but I hear that trans women aren't welcome in your organization. Is that true?"

"Well, our policies have not changed," he replied, "but men can still join the fundraising committee. We need to create a safe atmosphere for women to exist in, so that's why we don't allow men."

I couldn't help but notice how many times he said the word "men," despite my question being about trans women.

"You'll have to ask the women in the organization about this, though," he added. "They know the politics behind it."

I thanked him for his time, and for all the important work that Rape Relief has done for women in Vancouver. On my way home, I wondered how I would have reacted to this situation had I not listened to Krista Smiley on the soccer field years ago, and what this man would have assumed about my identity. As a woman in a female body, I have access to this service, and have the ability to volunteer there. If I had put on a baseball cap, cut my hair, and called myself Dave, things would have been very different.

Which is why I asked Chris to compose the list below, and hope that a few folks take it to heart.

Ten Signs of Transphobia in Our Culture, by Christopher A. Shelley

  1. Denial that the problem exists in the first place.
  2. Inability to distinguish between categories such as queer, gay, lesbian, and trans.
  3. Lack of meaningful discussion in educational and workplace settings.
  4. Anxiety over not being able to tell if a person is male or female.
  5. Crude jokes directed towards trans people or with trans-related content.
  6. Refusal to accept trans people as one's own teacher, doctor, politician, dentist, etc.
  7. Thinking that being trans is OK but also dismissing the idea of ever dating a transperson.
  8. Reducing trans to being merely and solely a psychiatric category.
  9. Trivialization and media spectacles centred on trans-ness as an object of 'fascination.'
  10. Refusing the fundamental claims of transpeople as being genuinely mis-sexed.

Book launch for Transpeople: Repudiation, Trauma, Healing. Event begins at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 25, at Little Sister's bookstore, 1238 Davie St., Vancouver. RSVP to [email protected].