In recent works by cis writers on trans people, a common theme seems to be to emphasize the “unspeakable.” As some commentators see it, as trans individuals, we have been newly embraced by those in the politically correct mainstream, and no ill may be spoken of us under the threat of online backlash. But in truth, because trans people are often forced to remain silent out of fear, any attempt to stand up for ourselves and counter conventional wisdom is seen by some writers as the so-called mob descending.
This idea ties into a larger, more deeply troubling discourse that treats what is already widely spoken as “unsayable” and what is rare, authentic, and difficult as “political correctness,” magically oppressing those able to speak from perches like the New York Times or the Guardian. The ugly things spoken about trans women in full view of the public are not brave strikes against a stifling monoculture by any means. The concern-trolling, questions, and jokes about us are neither new nor unsayable. They are, in fact, what is normative, delegitimizing our voices and pushing us into a genuine silence that is directly tied to our high rate of suicide.
This has been redoubled with the conversation surrounding Rachel Dolezal—a white woman caught pretending to be Black while at the helm of a local NAACP chapter. It has brought hell upon the heads of Black women in particular, as well as all light-skinned people of color. It also managed to strike forcefully at trans people, who have long fielded unflattering comparisons between our lives and the usually hypothetical example of someone like Dolezal, a person who “transitioned” to another race. It’s once again inflamed the rage of those who feel their free speech is threatened by our vocal existence. Why, they ask, can they not ask pointed questions about the similarity between trans people and white people who want to be Black?
As I wrote recently for Feministing, what is seen as unspeakable by cis writers who are “just asking questions” is, in reality, incredibly common. A recent New York Times op-ed by Dr. Elinor Burkett about the media blitz around Caitlyn Jenner not only made the silly “transracial” comparison while assuming a brave posture, but also used that mantle of self-styled courage to say that trans women were not really women. She argued, in essence, that we have residual male privilege and are attempting to redefine what it means to be a woman. To her, these dime-a-dozen stereotypes were unspeakable, because they had been challenged in the past.
Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.
Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.
A far more moderate editorial by Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, meanwhile, condemned the cruelty of Burkett’s more sweeping attacks, but nevertheless suggested that it was perfectly “reasonable” to ask whether trans woman MMA fighter Fallon Fox was benefitting from testosterone in her bouts and argued that “debate” on such matters was being “shouted down.”
But if questions like these are so unspeakable, why do we hear them so often? These ideas about who and what trans women are have bedevilled us all for years. Proclamations about our supposed privilege and appropriation date back to the mid-1970s at least; comparisons of us to deluded white people pretending to be people of color or people who think they’re dolphins are also painfully common; the borderline superstitious belief that trans women athletes have an inherent physical advantage over cisgender women has been around at least since the days of Renee Richards.
In reality, it is often the unfiltered voices of trans women themselves—most especially poorer trans women, trans women of color, and trans sex workers—who say what is genuinely unsayable and risk harm because of it. We can face online aggression like some of these cis writers do, and it is often of an uglier order; we also live in a physical world where hostility toward us takes on a terrifyingly tactile life.
The “debate” some cis writers, like Margaret Wente or Alice Dreger, want to have about trans childhood is about whether or not we’re starting transition too early—they believe so-called transgender ideologues are potentially ruining the happy, healthy cis lives of legions of children. No thought is ever given to how torturous it might be to delay transition for trans people of all genders. And if trans women do delay, we are left being chided by people like Elinor Burkett for not having lived most of our lives as women; we are thus unworthy of being heard.
What emerges from this mélange of contradiction is the fact that individuals who take these positions often do not even want a debate—if any reply to them that contravenes their expectations is seen as bullying or shouting down, after all, it isn’t much of a debate. Instead, they seem to want an excuse to silence what challenges them. They want to tell us to pipe down; to stop essaying on feminist politics, or youth organizing, or health care; and to unquestioningly submit once more to their designated meanings for us.
This is not a theoretical exercise for us. These ideas have had real consequences on our lives, often written in our flesh. We can face police action, for instance, for “stating” the fact of our existence. In just one recent example, activist Monica Jones was arrested in Arizona for “manifesting prostitution” when she was merely walking down the street while Black and trans, a conviction which was finally overturned after years of struggle. Jones, further, was classified as a “possible threat” to the Australian community after visiting the country as a social work student, likely because, as the Guardian put it, she’d been “involved in a high profile legal challenge involving sex work and trans women.” The very speech used defensively by all sex workers, cis or trans, such as inquiring if someone is a police officer, has been criminalized in Arizona. One wonders where the self-styled defenders of the “unsayable” are here.
CeCe McDonald, meanwhile, found herself vilified for defending herself against a man who was trying to kill her. Loud and belligerent, physically violent and spewing slurs, this man with a swastika tattoo seemed like a cartoon character of bigotry come to life. And yet even he was met with more sympathy from much of the public than McDonald, whose audacity of self-defence disrupted the narrative of supine trans women eager to take what we can get. Her attacker tragically died; McDonald spent a year and a half in prison for trying to save her own life.
Or take Connecticut’s Jane Doe, a young trans girl formerly in the care of the Department of Children and Families, whom the state tried to put in a men’s prison without trial after she defended herself in the hostile environment of a youth detention facility. The DCF fought her every step of the way when she challenged this unconstitutional act, one that was cheered on by an array of letters to the editor simply because she was trans. Because she was bad, went the logic, she would not be accorded the so-called privilege of having her gender recognized.
From injustices like these; to mistreatment by parents who believe, like Wente and Dreger, that they should have final say over trans youth’s lives and bodies; to the historical exclusion of trans health care from both state and private plans thanks in part to the work of some radical feminists; we face real-life harm from what may seem like hypothetical ideas to those not directly affected by them.
We cannot talk openly about our sex lives. Even though we’re always luridly asked about them, many cis people don’t like truthful answers when we deign to give them—and we often do not for justified fear of misrepresentation. If a trans woman says she enjoys having sex with her penis, will that undermine her gender in the eyes of cis people? Will it be used by doctors to deny her further medical transition? After all, attending therapists have often denied trans patients further care on that basis—avoiding sexual use of your birth genitals has often been required. Will some cis feminists say it’s proof of her inherent “manhood”? If a trans woman says she enjoys vaginal sex, is this proof of her “autogynephilia” (the pseudoscientific term for a trans woman who supposedly gets off on the idea of being a woman)? If a trans woman of color, like Laverne Cox, poses nude, is she signalling her anti-feminism?
We are unable to talk in clear terms about why so many of us do sex work without having to sail between the Scylla and Charybdis of anti-sex-work feminism and conservative prudery; we are either condemned as dupes of patriarchy twice over, or as symbols of the depth of society’s moral degradation and perversity. In each case, we are treated as little more than rescue projects to be erased through our salvation.
Under this chorus of powerful voices defining us out of existence, is it any wonder we’re so vulnerable to discrimination and various forms of self-harm? The way that many cis people treat our genders as a privilege to be taken away at a whim—should they decide they dislike us or disapprove of our words or actions—crystallizes this. What freedom of speech can we be truly said to have when that existential threat hangs over our heads?
Our chimeric politicized forms—the way we can stand for patriarchy or Gomorrah all at once—are a result of the voicelessness imposed on us. It was why even the most inoffensive, media-friendly, polite request from a trans woman’s lips, “call me Caitlyn,” read to many cis people as an unforgivably aggressive demand. Caitlyn Jenner’s story was, in so many ways, perfect by cis standards: She is unthreatening, attractive, and happy, and a rich white person to boot, and yet even she couldn’t escape sniping directed at her for merely existing as herself. What chance do the rest of us have in that climate?
This is changing, of course. Space has been steadily opened for a somewhat wider plurality of voices and portrayals, and we do hear more regularly from women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, who defy convention by being openly political. But we are still a long way from having our perspectives on our own lives considered equal to those of cisgender people. Meanwhile, we must be subjected to carping about how Rachel Dolezal proves the sham of trans women’s existence, and have this treated as either a shocking insight or a “gotcha” by a political smorgasbord of transphobes from the far right to the far left.
When we do speak on our own accord these days, it is often on social media, a profoundly imperfect platform whose very architecture encourages abuse and nuance-free discourse. But its poisonous open forum allows us to say the normally unsayable, even if it is uncouth, unkind, or aggressive. I am of two minds about what this space of allegedly cathartic expectoration does for us, to be sure. On the one hand, we can speak a bit more freely, and there’s a chance to hear from people we might never have before. On the other, it is a limiting and corrupting space that quantifies popularity and encourages outrageous behaviour in the name of point-scoring. It is not always conducive to healthy community. But it’s oftentimes all we have.
For a number of well-placed cisgender writers, academics, and critics, so used to mainstream narratives of trans existence that were written and packaged with them in mind, the unfiltered realities of trans people on social media can seem like an attack regardless of the content. Some trans people unhelpfully fill individuals’ mentions with endless litanies of “fuck you,” but many others patiently and vulnerably explain the realities of the situation and still find themselves seen as censors. It’s not merely a matter of cis commentators focusing on the abusive minority here; any contradiction of their received beliefs is seen as an attack. This is why Hadley Freeman saw criticism of her bunk testosterone thesis as “shouting down.”
If our speech is not silent, it is seen as too loud to hear and discern. In either case, what is truly unspeakable is anything we have to say.