Penises, Privilege, and Feminist & LGBTQ+ Purity Politics
Content Warning: while I will not be describing any actual instances of sexual violence, this issue (and false accusations thereof) will be mentioned throughout this piece.
Back in February, I wrote a patron-requested essay entitled “Why are AMAB trans people denied the closet?” In it, I shared some of my thoughts on why trans female/feminine people are often viewed as perpetually “male-socialized” and “male-privileged” within feminist and LGBTQ+ settings, and how this often leads to our exclusion. I made the case that this notion is steeped in gender-essentialist and non-intersectional thinking that both misgenders us and erases our very real experiences being subjected to misogyny and marginalization.
Since then, my latest book, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back, has been released. The main focus of the book is examining why and how marginalized groups tend to be sexualized — i.e., reduced to the status of “sexual beings,” which typically has a degrading or delegitimizing effect on people. Some of the insights that I uncover in Sexed Up are pertinent to the aforementioned “perpetually male privileged” claims levied against trans women. In addition, they also shed light onto why bisexual women are analogously dismissed as “perpetually heterosexual privileged” in some of these same settings.
In this essay, I will share these insights and show that, while these exclusionary practices are often rationalized in terms of “privilege,” they are primarily driven by a form of purity politics rooted in patriarchal and heteronormative notions about sex and sexuality. I will also consider how said purity politics underlie recent debates between trans female/feminine and trans male/masculine communities. Finally, I will make the case that, rather than viewing marginalization solely through a simplistic “privileged group” versus “oppressed group” binary, we should examine these matters in terms of stigma and its imagined ability to “contaminate” and “corrupt” other people.
Sex as a “Contamination” Event
In Sexed Up, I describe what I call the Predator/Prey mindset and make the case that it’s the framework through which we are taught to view sex and sexuality in our culture. According to this mindset, men are imagined to be sexual initiators or aggressors (i.e., Predators) and women are imagined to be “sexual objects” that men pursue (i.e., Prey). Or to put it differently, men are viewed as “wanting” sex, while women are viewed as “having” or “being” the sex that men desire.
While I am not the first person to make this observation — other feminists before me have described this dynamic — I make several further points. First, I stress that this is how we are taught to see and interpret sex, rather than being how the sexes actually are. While men are certainly encouraged to be “sexual aggressors” and women “sexual objects,” some individuals ultimately eschew or transcend these roles. Of course, even if we reject these roles (as gender and sexual minorities often do), others may nevertheless view us (and we may still unconsciously view others) through this mindset.
Second, “sex” itself is stigmatized in our culture, and as a result, people who are “marked by sex” in the eyes of society are often derided, delegitimized, and/or demonized — this is why sexualization is such a powerful recurring tool for invalidating people. This stigmatization of sex most certainly impacts women (who are viewed as “having” or “being” sex according to Predator/Prey thinking) but typically not men (who “take” sex from others rather than possessing it themselves). But other marginalized groups are also “marked by sex” in our culture. Some marginalized groups are viewed as “excessively sexual,” which often leads male members to be stereotyped as literal “sexual predators” and female members as “promiscuous” or “sexually available.” Marginalized groups are also sometimes “desexualized” or deemed “undesirable” — this often results in them being misconstrued as “desperate” or as mere “fetish objects.” In Sexed Up, I discuss all these various forms of sexualization in depth and detail how they play out with regards to specific marginalized groups (e.g., people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ people, amongst others).
Third, I explain why this stigma model of sexualization is more comprehensive and useful than attraction/objectification-centered models favored by many past feminists. Part of the reason for this is that it accommodates all forms of sexualization that exist. As an example, falsely smearing a marginalized individual as a “slut,” or “pervert,” or “faggot,” or “predator,” or “groomer” typically has little to do with finding them attractive and/or wanting to use them sexually, but has everything to do with invoking sexual stigma in order to defame, humiliate, or ostracize them.
Furthermore, research I describe in Sexed Up has shown that stigma is imagined to be a “contagion” that can spread to one’s close connections (historically, this phenomenon has been called “courtesy stigma” or “stigma by association”). So if an individual belongs to a stigmatized group, and you interact with or are intimate with them, then others may view you as having been “tainted” or “corrupted” by those associations, and you may be disgraced and ostracized yourself as a result.
Or to put it another way, stigma essentially divvies the world up into two classes of people: those who are deemed “contaminated” and “dirty,” and those who are supposedly “untainted” and “pure.” But the latter category is not necessarily a permanent designation, as those individuals may seemingly become “tainted” or “spoiled” themselves via interactions or intimacy with the former group.
This helps to explain why groups who are deemed “marked by sex” are frequently imagined to be capable of sexually “contaminating” or “corrupting” the supposedly “untainted” dominant group. One can see this in certain cultural or religious traditions where men who strive to remain “pure” and “free of sin” may fear that they will become “tempted” and “corrupted” by the mere sight or presence of a woman. This imagined “sexual corruption” is especially acute for minority women: If a billboard ad featured a white, cisgender, thin, able-bodied woman wearing a sexy outfit, many passersby wouldn’t even notice it, but if the model were Black, or transgender, or fat, or disabled, or some combination thereof, it might strike them as “sexually inappropriate.”
As I detail in Sexed Up, right-wing fears of “degeneracy” and “miscegenation” seem to be driven by an unconscious fear that the minority groups they despise are sexually “contagious” and “corrupting.” This is why they frequently smear those groups en masse as “sexual predators” who must be “preying” on the “pure” and “innocent” women and children of the dominant/majority group (examples of this charge levied against Black, Jewish, gay, and trans people can be found in this online essay, with even more examples provided in Sexed Up).
The unconscious belief that sexual stigma is “contaminating” and “corrupting” is perhaps most obvious in popular perceptions of sex itself. Our hetero-male-centric culture valorizes women who are “virgins” under the assumption that their abstaining from sex somehow makes them “pure.” But as soon as a woman has been “taken” by a man, people will imagine that she has been “dirtied” or “soiled” by that act (read: she has been “contaminated” by sexual stigma). And if she goes on to have sex with numerous men, people may describe her as having been “used up” or “ruined” by those encounters.
But of course, there is a blatant double standard here. In our culture, men typically aren’t imagined to be “contaminated” or “ruined” by heterosexual sex. In fact, they may even be glorified for their “conquests.” Why is that? Well, it has to do with our truly fucked-up beliefs about penises.
Penises, Stigma, and (Real or Imagined) Sexual Violence
As I’ve remarked elsewhere: “penises are made of flesh and blood, nothing more.” That is the truth of it. But in our hetero-male-centric culture, we are taught to attribute “magical properties” to penises:
Numerous surveys asking college students what “counts” as sex have found virtually unanimous agreement that penile-vaginal intercourse constitutes sex, with about 80 percent saying the same about penile-anal intercourse, and roughly 40 percent about oral sex; all other intimate acts lag far behind. So while people may differ in their definitions of sex, most seem to believe that it involves a penis penetrating another person and that a vagina need not be involved. To put this in the context of our previous discussions about the Predator/Prey mindset, if women (or whoever is cast in the “sexual object” role) *have* or *are* “sex,” then it seems as though the penis is the thing that *takes* that “sex” from them. Consistent with this, it’s always the person who accepts or accommodates the penis (rather than the person who possesses it) who is viewed as having been degraded by the act, as is evident in the sentiment that women (but not men) are “used” or “dirtied” by heterosexual sex, and the widespread use of the slur “cocksucker” (whereas no analogous universally demeaning term exists for those who receive fellatio or engage in cunnilingus). And if a person intentionally hurts or humiliates another person, we often call them a “dick.” While penises, and those who are attached to them, are not stigmatized themselves, they do seem to possess the ability to impart sexual stigma upon others. [Sexed Up, p. 164]
Understanding this imagined asymmetrical transfer of sexual stigma helps to make sense of the popular presumption that sex constitutes a “win” or “conquest” for the man, and a “loss” or “violation” for the woman, even when said acts are consensual. It also helps to explain our culture’s unidirectional conceptualization of sexual violence. While a significant number of women commit acts of sexual violence, people tend to view these incidents as less serious and less harmful than similar acts committed by men — this is likely due to the imagined “lack of penis” required to initiate sex and to bestow sexual stigma upon the victim.
In other words, the Predator/Prey mindset I have described constructs women as “safe” (read: incapable of inflicting sexual harm). But this is only true insofar as the woman in question remains relatively “pure” in the eyes of others. However, if she is perceived to be “contaminated” in some way — e.g., due to being permanently “tainted” by her past sexual experiences and/or because she is a member of another stigmatized group — then she may instead be construed as “dangerous” (on account of her supposed ability to “infect” and “corrupt” otherwise “untainted” people).
Queer Sexual Stigma and Bisexual Stereotypes
Many LGBTQ+ stereotypes are informed by the Predator/Prey mindset and sexual stigma. For starters, gender and sexual minorities are often viewed as “sexually deviant” or “sexually deceptive” for our failure to comply with Predator/Prey’s roles and rules. As a result, people may view us as “marked by sex” — imbued with sexual stigma that others may fear they might “catch” from us, potentially being “turned queer” themselves in the process. In Sexed Up (and in this online article), I discuss the long history of queerness being viewed as “contagious” and how it informs recent specious claims that LGBTQ+ identities can be spread via “social contagion.” Furthermore, the presumption that our queerness may have a “contaminating” and “corrupting” effect on others seems to drive both past and present claims that our presence, or even mere acknowledgment of our existence, is tantamount to “recruiting,” “grooming,” and “sexualizing children.”
While all gender and sexual minorities may be subjected to the aforementioned charges, different LGBTQ+ subgroups often face very different sexualized stereotypes. For instance, studies have shown that straight people tend to be more disturbed by gay men than lesbians. One possible explanation for this is that gay male relationships are more closely associated with sexual stigma and “contamination” in straight people’s minds due to the imagined “surplus” of penises, whereas lesbian relationships seem to “lack” that stigma-bestowing organ.
In fact, this imagined “lack of penis” seems to explain why straight people often assume that lesbian relationships merely involve expressions of affection or commitment sans sex, perhaps best illustrated by the popularity of the “lesbian bed death” meme. It also explains why so-called “lesbian porn” made by and for straight men is not considered threatening. This genre typically portrays two women kissing and fondling one another, but the “real sex” doesn’t start until the male protagonist shows up (with his penis) to pronounce “can I join you ladies?”
Then there’s the pervasive (and nefarious) belief that lesbians can be “turned straight” if they simply experience “one good fuck” (read: from a man and his penis). This assertion is not nearly as prevalent in the other direction (e.g., a woman “turning” a gay man straight simply through a single sexual encounter), which seems to indicate that the man’s penis is uniquely imbued with the “magical” ability to “transform” those who come into contact with (and are “contaminated” by) it.
An analogous gender disparity can be found in bisexual stereotypes. As many bi+ activists have noted (and which research confirms), people tend to presume that bisexual men must be “really gay” and that bisexual women must be “really heterosexual.” The best explanation that I’ve found for this discrepancy comes from an essay entitled Phallocentrism and Bisexual Invisibility by Miki R. — here’s my synopsis of it from Sexed Up:
As the title suggests, the author makes the case that male- and penis-centric views of sex lead men to be labeled as “gay” as soon as they have a single sexual experience with another man, and forever afterward, regardless of any future sexual experiences with women. In contrast, a bisexual woman’s experiences with other women don’t “count” in many people’s eyes due to the lack of male initiators and penises, as discussed above for lesbians. But for these same reasons, her sexual experiences with men do “count”; thus, she’s misconstrued as a heterosexual who merely “fools around” with other women. In making this case, Miki R. uses the refrain “dick contaminates” to emphasize how our perceived (rather than actual) sexual orientations are largely determined by whether or not we’ve been “contaminated” by penises (and I would add, the sexual stigma they allegedly bestow). The essay also highlights the parallels that exist between sexual categories that are deemed “pure” (virgins, “real” men, “gold-star” lesbians) as a result of eschewing penises, and those that are considered “tainted” (“slut,” “faggot”) as a result of coming into contact with them. [Sexed Up, pp. 168–9]
Miki R.’s mention of “gold-star” lesbians reminds me of one of the quotes that opens up Elizabeth Armstrong’s 1995 essay “Traitors to the Cause? Understanding the Lesbian/Gay ‘Bisexuality Debates’.” The quote is from a bisexual woman discussing her experiences in lesbian communities:
I was in love with a woman. I was a lesbian. But reality broke through soon enough. There was the fact that I wasn’t a “real” dyke, defined by Kate Clinton as “penis-pure and proud.” Again, after the honeymoon of acceptance, everyone was waiting for me to renounce my feelings for men.
Both Armstrong and Miki R. point out that, while biphobia certainly exists within gay male communities, it is far more fiercely asserted, and bisexual identities more heavily policed, in lesbian communities. And this phenomenon appears to be animated by the idea that bisexual women are permanently “contaminated” by men and their penises, and thus pose a “corrupting” threat to otherwise “pure” and “safe” lesbian spaces. This fear is implicit in some of the more common biphobic talking points expressed in these settings, such as deriding bisexual women as “infiltrators” who will eventually “betray” their lesbian lovers by returning to the world of men. Notably, both these stereotypes connote “sexual violation” in different ways.
Another common strategy for invalidating bisexual women within lesbian settings is to assert that they have “heterosexual privilege.” These claims are typically made without regards to the bisexual woman’s actual sexual history (i.e., they often target women who’ve been in years-long relationships with other women, and who’ve experienced all the homophobia that comes with that) and without any acknowledgement of the fact that studies show that bisexual women are more marginalized than lesbians in a number of ways (due to biphobia/monosexism). In other words, these “heterosexual privilege” claims typically ignore people’s lived realities and intersectionally.
Much like accusations that trans women are “perpetually male privileged” (which I debunk in Why are AMAB trans people denied the closet?), constructing bisexual women as “perpetually heterosexual privileged” serves one purpose, and one purpose only: to assert that the person in question belongs to the “oppressor class.” Which is patently ridiculous, because bisexual women and trans women are marginalized groups ourselves. Lesbians are not systemically “oppressed” by bisexual and trans women; they are oppressed by patriarchy and heteronormativity — the very same systems that oppress us.
It is notable that the “male” and “heterosexual” privilege that we supposedly have is imagined to be perpetual. In real life, people can lose their privilege — indeed, this is precisely what happens to trans women once the world starts perceiving and treating us as women, and to bisexual women once people are aware that we are in relationships with other women.
Privilege is not always permanent. But “contamination” is.
The case that I’m making here is that, in intra-LGBTQ+-community debates, when people start wielding terms like “privilege” (or “socialization”) in non-nuanced ways — and especially when they frame these as perpetual statuses that are impervious to change — the concern they are raising has little (if anything) to do with actual oppression or marginalization. Rather, they are most likely expressing concern about stigma and its imagined “contagion.” In the case of bisexual women, it’s an imagined sexual stigma that signifies their “corruption” at the hands of men. In the case of trans people, it’s that we supposedly “are” men, or are “becoming” men — more on that in a moment.
I want to end this section by stressing #NotAllLesbians! I know countless cis lesbians who are absolutely fine with bi+ and trans women in their communities. They don’t see us as some sort of “corrupting” threat. And in my experience, lesbians who are suspicious of trans women are usually suspicious of bi+ women as well, and vice versa. So the dynamic that I’m describing here has nothing to do with lesbians per se. Rather, I’m describing a particular worldview that a subset of lesbians happen to hold.
So let’s unpack that worldview then, shall we?
Cultural Feminism and Transgender Purity Politics
There are many strands of feminism — more than I could possibly mention here. Some are more intersectional in their approach while others are more unilateral (i.e., “men are the oppressors, women the oppressed, end of story”). Some strands of feminism are self-described as “sex-positive” while others take a more “negative” view of such matters. Some strands of feminism are more “post-structuralist” (i.e., striving to transcend patriarchal and heteronormative frameworks, norms, and meanings) while others take some aspects of those structures for granted as “the way things are.”
Unfortunately, the strand of feminism that has had the most to say about trans people falls on the latter side of all three of those axes. This strand is perhaps best described as cultural feminism — that link will take you to a PDF of Alice Echols’ 1983 article describing this approach, its history, and how it differs from radical feminism. Here is one pertinent passage from Echols’ article regarding this distinction:
Most radical feminists were careful to identify the male role rather than maleness as the problem. Men were the enemy only insofar as they identified with their role. Anne Koedt contended: “Thus the biological male is the oppressor not by virtue of his male biology, but by virtue of his rationalizing his supremacy on the basis of that biological difference.” This distinction, so significant in its implications, has become buried with the rise of cultural feminism. By interpreting masculinity as immutable, the cultural feminist analysis assumes that men are the enemy by virtue of their maleness rather than the power a patriarchal system lends them. [Echols, p.38]
In other words, cultural feminism is rooted in sex-essentialism. But it’s more than just that. Cultural feminism literalizes the Predator/Prey mindset and its imagined categories of “dangerous” and “contaminating” men, and “safe,” “pure,” and “vulnerable” women.
While this worldview is well-documented, few people actually call themselves “cultural feminists.” As Echols explains, many continued to call themselves “radical feminists” (which is why we now have the term “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” or “TERFs”). More recently, “gender critical” has become a popular self-descriptor for people who hold this perspective. Some of these individuals strive to create communities completely free of “male/masculine contamination” in a lesbian-separatist sort of way. Others are straight women who appreciate cultural feminism’s valorization of womanhood and want it to remain “uncontaminated” by those who seemingly undermine that category (e.g., trans people, and possibly other sexual minorities). Echols’ article explains why the former group tolerates the latter despite their relationships with men, and why the latter tolerates the former despite their lesbianism.
Cultural feminists sometimes collaborate with social conservatives and the far-right on certain issues — most notably, their anti-trans, anti-pornography, and anti-sex-work positions. This strikes many outsiders as hypocritical. After all, how could any feminist side with groups that explicitly oppose women’s rights? I would argue that this paradox is readily resolved once you realize that what these groups share in common is their literalization of Predator/Prey — that’s simply how the world is in their minds. Their only disagreement is over whether women should defer to men’s “innate” aggression and supremacy, or whether women should create male-free spaces in order to fend off that “innate” aggression and supremacism.
So where does that leave trans people then?
In the case of trans female/feminine people, pretty much fucked. Cultural feminists’ sex-essentialism doesn’t merely lead them to misgender us. Rather, because they view us as “men,” they imagine that male sexual “contamination” and “corruption” practically oozes out of us. This is why “gender critical” activists are so obsessed about our (real or imagined) “penises” and their unsubstantiated fears that we will go around “flaunting” them (it’s always the word “flaunt” for some reason). It’s why they constantly portray us as “sexual predators” who “prey” on women and children in sex-segregated spaces, or who “pressure” lesbians into having sex. It’s why they go on and on about “autogynephilia (AGP),” and extrapolate from that thirty-year-old disproven theory that trans women who simply exist in public spaces must be nonconsensually involving other people in their “sexual fetishes.” Cultural feminism’s literalization of the Predator/Prey mindset is what led Janice Raymond to write: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”
We are the embodiment of sexual stigma in their minds. We are a contamination event that must be stopped at all costs.
Cultural feminist views of trans male/masculine people are more complex and varied. Sometimes trans male/masculine people are viewed harshly, as “traitors” who have abandoned sisterhood to join “the enemy.” Other times they are viewed more sympathetically, as presumed “lesbians” who are simply (and understandably) attempting to flee sexism and homophobia. Still other times they are viewed maternalistically, as young “girls” who have been “brainwashed by gender ideology” or “groomed” by “TRAs” (a gender-critical acronym for “trans rights activists” intended to equate us with “MRAs/men’s rights activists”).
“Gender critical” author Abigail Shrier recently wrote a trans-kids-moral-panic book entitled Irreversible Damage; the cover image is a cartoon of a young girl with a hole cut out where her reproductive parts would be (read: her body has been violated). Notably, the subtitle of the book is “The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” [emphasis mine]. And who is supposedly doing this “seducing”? Trans female/feminine people, of course. Another “gender critical” author, Kathleen Stock, has remarked that, “The autogynephilia tail is wagging the puberty-blocking dog,” adding that, “many of the loudest (partly because male) voices policing critical discussion of the treatment of ‘trans’ kids barely disguise their autogynephilia.”
In their imaginations, “transgender” is a “sexually deviant and predatory man,” and “children” are conceptualized as safe, pure, and vulnerable “girls” who are in danger of being “corrupted” by a “male-borne” sexual “contagion.” It’s Predator/Prey thinking writ large.
Here’s another way of framing this “gender critical”/cultural feminist perspective: Trans female/feminine people are viewed as inherently “contaminating” (we “corrupt” those we come into contact with), whereas trans male/masculine people are viewed as merely “contaminated” (i.e., they’ve been “corrupted” by someone else). As a result, the latter may be “redeemable,” at least to some extent or in certain cases. (This is not all that dissimilar from the aforementioned scenario of a bisexual woman “redeeming” herself by renouncing her feelings for men and claiming that she was “really lesbian” all along.) Cultural feminists also tend to view trans male/masculine people as relatively “safe” given that they are supposedly “innately female” and “lacking” the organ that imparts sexual stigma (and perpetrates sexual violence) upon other people.
Given that cultural feminism has greatly shaped discourses regarding trans people, it’s not surprising that some trans people may be influenced by its messages. For instance, some trans women embrace autogynephilia’s disproven taxonomy in order to make the case that they themselves do not fall into the nasty “fetishistic/paraphilic” category (and therefore are presumably “safe”). I’ve also seen trans women play up their “post-op” status when petitioning for their own inclusion within women’s spaces (under the assumption that “penis-free” equals “safe”). Cultural feminism’s deep-rooted sex-essentialism and Predator/Prey thinking ensures that these tactics will have limited effect. But more importantly, these tactics throw trans women who cannot make these claims, or who refuse to resort to this sort of “safe versus dangerous” respectability-politics ploy, under the bus.
On the trans male/masculine spectrum, there can be a similar temptation to appease cultural feminists’ notions of “purity” and “safeness.” I allude to this in “Why are AMAB trans people denied the closet?,” particularly in Postscript #2, where I provide several examples of trans male/masculine people who have similarly played up their own AFAB-ness (and the presumed “safeness” associated with that) in order to garner inclusion within cultural feminist-minded settings. Whether intentional or not, these sorts of appeals tend to reinforce the idea that AMAB people (such as trans women and trans femmes) are indeed “dangerous” and should be excluded.
At the start of this essay, I brought up “recent debates between trans female/feminine and trans male/masculine communities.” There are many many facets to this, some of which are explored in this conversation, and some which will not be addressed here. And the last thing that I want to do is to delve into specific incidents or to call out specific people. So suffice it to say that some of the disagreements I’ve seen seem to stem from this imagined AFAB “vulnerability” and “safeness,” and imagined AMAB “contamination” and “dangerousness.” And as usual, it’s the supposedly “contaminated” group (in this case, trans female/feminine people) who gets accused of being “oppressive” in some way or other. Sometimes “perpetual male privilege/socialization” is invoked in these exchanges. And in a few cases, language associated with “sexual violence” has been weaponized against trans female/feminine individuals who have not actually sexually harassed or assaulted anyone. (I more generally explain why this latter tactic is especially concerning in this Twitter thread and in this excerpt from Sexed Up.
On more than one occasion, I have seen trans male/masculine people of color point out that this notion of “inherent AFAB safeness” is not generally extended to them. This underscores why cultural feminism is such a flawed framework for conceptualizing marginalization: It only recognizes one axis of oppression (which is precisely why third-wave feminists of color so thoroughly and forcefully critiqued it). Not only that, but by equating “male-borne” sexual stigma with men’s “inherent oppressiveness,” cultural feminists have essentially created a formula wherein any marginalized group can be accused of being “oppressive” and a potential “sexual threat” on the basis that they are stigmatized (and thus imagined to be “contaminated” and “corrupting”). Actually, come to think of it, cultural feminists didn’t even invent this formula: It’s basically the exact same playbook that dominant/majority groups have historically used to smear minorities en masse as “dangerous sexual predators.”
It should be clear by this point that we must purge these cultural feminist frameworks from our minds. There are plenty of strands of feminism and social justice activism that are more intersectional and better equipped to dismantle the systems (e.g., patriarchy, heteronormativity) that truly oppress us.
As for trans people, I think we’d all be better off if we ditched the cultural feminist premise that there is something fundamentally “oppressive” about being a man. This framework fucks all of us over. It leaves trans female/feminine people susceptible to accusations that we are “innately male” and therefore a “threat.” And it forces a false narrative upon trans male/masculine individuals in which the further they stray from their assigned sex (whether via their identifications or physical transitions), the more “suspicious” and “dangerous” they will be regarded. It’s inevitable that trans people of differing trajectories will have different experiences and perspectives, but I’d like to think that we can agree that no gender is “oppressive” in and of itself.
Embracing “Contamination” (a Personal Story and Conclusion)
I came out as transgender over twenty years ago. Back then, most people in our culture viewed trans people as “freaks.” The biggest personal hurdle for me was accepting that — owning the fact that, once I came out, people would likely see me as a “freak” from that point forward. In trans communities during that time period, many of us referred to ourselves as “trannies.” Like many reclaimed words, the label was intended to convey: “Yes, I know what I am, and I couldn’t give a fuck what you think of me.”
When you embrace the fact that the world sees you as “dirty” and “contaminated,” you make different art, and you gravitate toward different forms of activism. I was a slam poet back then. When I listen to recordings of those performances nowadays, I am struck by how “in your face” some of them were. One of those poems was called “Cocky” [video link; content warning for suicidal ideation]. It’s pertinent to this essay because it’s the first piece in which I explored people’s truly fucked-up beliefs about penises. I spend the first half of the piece leaning into the idea that, as a “woman with a penis,” I actually was “dangerous.” But about halfway through the piece, I flip that idea around to show how this same attribute (and the meanings that other people projected onto it) actually made me vulnerable (e.g., to potential hate crimes). From my vantage point, it was cis society and its attitudes toward trans women that was the true danger. Here’s an excerpt:
I never wanted to be dangerous. And I spent most of my life wishing that I didn’t have a penis. I used to hate my body for not making any sense to me, and these days, I often hate it for being so in between. Some mornings I can barely get up out of bed because my body is so weighed down with ugly meanings that my culture has dumped all over me. See, I’ve been made to feel shame and self-loathing so that everyone else can take comfort in what their bodies mean. [“Cocky,” from Outspoken, pp. 36–7]
No minority group should be made to feel like a “freak.” But in retrospect, I’m glad that I did have that experience. It helped me to relate to other people who, through no fault of their own, are deemed “dirty” and “contaminated” by society. It made me suspicious of appeals to “purity” and “safety” (after all, what feels “safe” to some people may in fact be “dangerous” to others). And it made me uneasy about respectability politics, with its pleas for inclusion based upon convincing the dominant/majority group that we are one of the “good ones” (read: “uncontaminated” and “safe,” unlike those other “disreputable” minorities).
As feminists and social justice activists, we should embrace “contamination” — but not in an “accepting the fact that we are contaminated” way. Rather, we should be more cognizant of stigma in our analyses and activism. We should learn to recognize claims of “contagion,” “contamination, and “corruption” (and their synonyms) as potential signs that the group being accused of such things is the one that’s actually marginalized. And rather than reflexively accusing individuals who appear “dirty” or “contaminated” in our eyes of being “dangerous” or “oppressive,” perhaps we should consider the possibility that we share things in common with one another as stigmatized people.
For more about the Predator/Prey mindset and sexual stigma, please check out Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back. This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there.