Friday, July 19, 2013

On Being Personally and Professionally Trans

One should not have to represent an identity just for having one,
But to change minds, we need those willing to have public conversations
and navigate the consequences of mixing the personal & professional


Questions & Concerns

Recently a twitter question has come to my attention in response to a quote from an interview with Natsu Onoda Powers, Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Georgetown University, regarding her upcoming play, referencing a concept I introduced to her on being "Professionally Trans." The quote ran as follows:

"I was out with a friend of mine who identifies as a cross dresser; he identifies as male who likes to wear dresses and looks sexy," Power explains. "And he told me that he invited someone that he didn't know from an ad on Craigslist who was a fully transitioned person, male to female. And it turns out this person was a fully transitioned person, male to female, and an escort.

"But these two people were very interested in each other's lives. Very different mode of dressing; being trans is a profession for one person, and the other is a casual cross-dresser. We had a really interesting night out."

The concerned person on twitter wanted to know why anyone would think that being "Trans" is a profession. Put that way, I can of course see the problematic image that is summoned up of a mild-mannered cis-gender person getting up from bed, taking a shower, putting on their "trans" suit and going to work. 

This image plays upon anxieties already present about Trans people being synonymous with male or female impersonators, with there being a sense of perpetuating a performance, artifice, falsehood or even deceit. With all that already experienced on a daily basis (including by myself), I can feel the place where such a concern arises.

That is not as far as I know the direction that Dr. Power's remark was intended to go. From conversations we have had previously and since, "being trans as a profession" refers to a much wider discourse about what it means to represent an identity or a community.

As a sign of respect and to not simply clarify what Dr. Power was referencing, but to respond to the call to open up the question of representing and defining terms of identity, I would like to offer a few words on the words we use, who uses them, and why.


Issues with Terminology

"Trans" or "Trans*" has become somewhat of an umbrella term, much like how "Queer" now serves to describe a wide range of things; hence the insertion of the asterisk to suggest the need for a clarifying foot-note whenever the term is being invoked. 

Taking Trans away from "Transgender" (itself often an umbrella term) or Transsexual or Transvestite, all add to the inconstant and diverse use of the term as a sign of identity, of neurological or bodily states, of political movements, etc.

As with anything that brings people together, there are concerns about distinct groups being "lumped together," and on who gets to draw the lines. 

Should Drag-Kings, Drag-Queens, Impersonators, Cross-Dressers, Transsexuals, Transvestites, Transgender, Butches, Femmes, Bois, Gurls, Hormone Users, Pre-Op, Post-Op, and Non-Op (to name a few) all be regarded together? What about differences in geography, nationality, income, race, impairment or disability, religion, time period or other important intersecting factors that further distinguish one person or group?


Representations & Representing

This has been a concern for myself in my own life and career as a writer, speaker and academic. It was likewise a concern for Dr. Power, as she wrote and directed "the T Party" which opens tonight in Silver Spring, MD.

That was one of the reasons I was asked to speak to Dr. Power's cast and answer some questions they had. As part of the conversation, I talked about the importance of being conscious of yourself and differences whenever you step forward to represent or speak as part of a diverse community.

There is a value to stepping forward and speaking about your experiences or relating the stories of others. In the process of explaining this, I offered a distinction borrowed from a colleague who identified as not only a gay man, but a "professionally gay" man. The distinction was meant to reflect that not every person, gay, straight, bi, pan, queer, etc., should be expected to speak out publicly about their sexuality, just because they don't fit a norm. 

Furthermore, some of us end up getting paid to serve on committees, on conferences, on TV, in class-rooms or on the stage to speak about our experiences and as a member of an identity community. After relating that story, I commented that I recognized that distinction for myself. I was not simply a Trans woman, but because of my work, I end up being "Professionally Trans."

Speaking on behalf of yourself, in situations where you may be taken to or intend to speak on behalf of a larger community thus places responsibility on us to know what we need to know and to know what we do not know. 

Whether or not you are getting paid, or just getting paid attention, representing or "professionally" being an identity should come with a keen awareness of potential goods and other potential consequences. We all in a sense represent ourselves, but the more ardent, out-spoken and intentional you are in the public eye, the wider the range of outcomes you may affect --- beyond your own life.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, M. You’ve targeted an issue that I have always struggled with as a gay male: performing that identity. I have always felt that given the multitude of identities and roles into which I cast myself, “gay male” is of the least importance. I am openly gay, to be sure, and always willing to discuss matters of queer identity with friends and relatives who have questions, but I have never considered myself to be a political gay, or someone who likes to be considered “gay” first; I am not a “professional” gay, to borrow the term from your post. In part this is because “gay” signifies the idea of a homogenous and increasingly normative community that has been defined within the contours of our culture by pride parades and network television shows. But also because I like to think of myself as a creative person, an academic, an atheist, slightly misanthropic and more than slightly macabre, before I even take into consideration the orientation of my amorous desires. And, more importantly, I hope other people observe those other qualities before they mark me as their token “gay” friend.

    As I said above, I am always open to speaking about my sexuality, and consider myself to be well-informed and eloquent enough to address most questions. Yet I find I am much more comfortable talking about gender/sexuality issues that don’t affect me personally; I have a friend who, just about every time we get together, likes to ask me questions about trans*-folk (mostly because the MMA fighter Fallon fox is transgender), and I often find myself defending lesbian culture(s) to people who are much more comfortable and familiar with gay men than women. Perhaps I am still cowed by the belief that my heterogeneous mixture of heterosexual friends, as open as they are to me and my partner, still don’t want to think on the carnal workings of a homosexual relationship, even though they are quite comfortable sharing with me the lascivious details of their sexual yearnings and encounters. But what I find truly offensive is that, given the multiplicity of identities each person is capable of performing and sharing with the world, when being queer is part of one’s make-up, it always seems to trump every other quality of that person in the eyes and opinions of others.