Identity, uncertainty, and the social economics of the possible
In this post I discuss identity and uncertainty, coming out, and the strategic problems with working inside identity politics trough a personal experience and the recent debate about Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria. Content Warning: mention of transphobia, discrimination against LGBT people, and gender dysphoria.
I was once asked by a woman at a meeting with an LGBT book club if I “was even out”. I did not know what to say then, but I should have answered “I don't know”, and the present day-answer is a resounding “no”. This is an attempt at untangling why I could not answer then, what that answer would have meant, and what changed.
The woman asking the question certainly meant no harm. Earlier in the evening she had told us about her personal experiences of grievous discrimination as a lesbian. This was one of the reasons I could not give her a straight (ha ha) answer. It would have been rude beyond imagination to tell the truth about how I felt; that the only thing I had was a deep-seated and persistent dislike for my gender identity and the social relations it entails, and that I felt that the categories of gender did not serve me. How could I tell someone who had fought their whole life for their right to exist in a certain framework of identity that I do not know how to live in it? So I mumbled until the topic of conversation moved on.
I want to stress that for all I know she would have understood me, had I tried to explain. This story is also one about the tyranny of low expectations, in a sense. But most of all, it is a story about my own information poverty (PDF link). The problem was not so much that the space was not safe enough. The problem was that I was rubbish at understanding my own gender identity. That type of understanding is not something you learn out of a book (as I had tried, desperately); it is a doing and not a reasoning. I had at least ten years' experience of reasoning, and very little of doing.
Of course, I could also paint a picture about the Old Guard against The New, of rigid Identity Politics against free-flowing Queer resistance. I think identity politics, meant as the politics of generating an identity and then fighting for its recognition, is form rather than content. It is just one of the main forms that politics of any kind can take in the West. To me, identity politics is a tactic, not a strategy. We rally under whatever identity banner is needed, never forgetting that the banner is only there as long as it serves whatever long-term strategy we have. Any identity is at the same time both oppressive and liberatory; the trick is to make that work to your advantage.
However, whenever an identity is deployed tactically, the conservative counter-move will immediately construct a no-man's land in between positions. This makes any subscription to such an identity politically charged, and often has severe personal consequences. It is not something one does on a whim. This is why we even have a process of “coming out”. If coming out was not an act of magic, materially changing reality by ritual action, it would not be a Big Thing.
All of this, of course, wreaks havoc on experimentation. It is not anybody's fault; it is simply the rules of politics.
One of the current battle lines of (identity) politics is gender identity, and specifically trans identities. Therefore, as an example of a strategic undermining of experimentation and self-knowledge, I will use the recently deployed term Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). The term was popularised by an article in PLOS ONE and describes a situation where young adolescents “rapidly” become trans, hinting at social contagion as a driving factor. In regular-person speak; kids are becoming trans because it's hip. This angle was recently pursued in a television program i Swedish state media (link in Swedish).
ROGD is obvious junk science. The PLOS ONE article had a correction published, and was heavily critiqued by professionals (for an overview, I would recommend Julia Serrano's excellent piece on Medium). Among the most serious problems of the paper was the recruitment of parents (without any verification) from anti-trans forums, some of whom seem to have been directly abusive towards their children. The situation was similar with the Swedish TV program; no trans children were interviewed, and parents showed clear signs of being less than supportive, at best. Later, one of the “children” (a trans man in his 20's) appeared on Twitter (thread in Swedish), refuting the claims about him made by his mother, whose first name, voice, and face was shown on prime-time national television. The superhumanly measured and very adult response is even more gut-wrenching viewed in the light of his mother's performance on the show.
ROGD is grown organically on transphobic parents. It uses common tropes we all know; parents' alienation from their teenage children and vice versa, worries about The Youth Of Today, and the general disdain for young persons presumed to be “female”. It mobilises them for FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt of the type that always grows readily where entrenched assumptions are challenged. The main point is not to change the scientific consensus on trans issues; that is probably too hard. Like climate change denial junk science, ROGD uses the veneer of science, rather than actual science, to instill doubt and create the appearance of uncertainty. This will salt the earth for in particular trans youth interacting with clueless people (and institutions), even if they are well-meaning, which is why ROGD is an amplification attack. It exports the bigotry of transphobic parents and makes it look like a legitimate and “cautious” medical position.
The situation becomes even worse considering that in the current power dynamic parents have reason to worry about their trans children. If, generally speaking, being trans were no harder in than being cis, there would be no need for trans rights activism.
The key counter to these tactics is, I think, to lower the barrier of entry to experimentation. Tumblr and fandom in general did wonders here, but there will of course be others, and we should all start thinking about what they should look like. Good old public education (activism, I mean activism) is also an effective counter. And science is on our side here; there is a reason they had to recruit from transphobic parent forums to get their material and publish in fast-and-loose journals.
Just listen to me, I already sound like I am in the trenches.
Oh, and remember: conservatives always lose in the end.
Picture originally from British Library's collection Sensuous life in the trenches, used under CC-BY-NC 4.0. I know it is very on the nose, and I am sorry.