elite: the group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc. (Webster’s Dictionary).
One would think that a group as marginialized and oppressed as transgendered people would shy away from making value judgements of other people within the group, of ranking them, of excluding them, of engaging in us-and-them thinking within our own little gender ghetto. Sadly this is not the case. I have seen it time and again over the many years I have been a member of that community, and have engaged in it myself in the past.
What we must realize is that the conservative, patriarchal, gender-rigid society that would sweep us all under the carpet (or into special camps if they could get away with it), it delights in seeing us bicker and feud and tear each other down. Because, in doing so, we are sacrificing the power of community, creating our own little islands, diminishing our own collective power. This work is an examination into some of the ways we disempower ourselves, what is wrong with that, and how we can work together to avoid that.
I penned this article for TransSisters in late-1994, and as with most of the stuff I wrote, I went out of my way to be provocative. I still firmly believe that by engaging the passions of the reader, negative and positive, I stand a better chance of holding their attention. As with my other republished work I have resisted the temptation to rewrite, and have elected only minor editorial changes. I want to emphasize that do not I want this article to be taken as a generalization of even the majority of our community. By no means do I believe that any one segment of our community is overwhelmingly elitist, or is more so than any other segment. This is piece is satire done to make a point about attitudes that some of us had or still have.
Toxic Thinking, Part One: Elitism
by Christine Beatty
I used to hate transvestites. I never said anything to them, choosing instead to pity them from afar. Oh, but I did say disparaging things about them to my friends. Never mind that I once identified as a transvestite, before I even considered issues of gender identity. Never mind that I didn't really know any TVs. I just didn't like them. It didn't matter if they were heterosexual, homosexual or whatever. I was a transsexual, not a weekend warrior like those crossdressers. As far as I was concerned, those guys gave us transsexuals a bad name because transvestites just don't look as good as us. Right? Why couldn't they be happy prancing around at home in their wives’ panties? Why did they have to go out IN PUBLIC and undermine the image that we serious transsexuals were so carefully trying to cultivate?
As will probably be obvious to most open minded, tolerant, patient, non-egocentric people, my prior attitude hinged upon so many fallacies and destructive thinking patterns that they each deserve a separate article. Of course, I was younger back then (5 years ago) and only recently cross-living after a two year hiatus, so I was pretty insecure at the time and I was entrenched in the binary gender system and... oh for chrissake, Christine, quit making excuses for yourself. You were an asshole, at least in that respect, and you're on the verge of being a double asshole by trying to minimize your intolerance.
All right, I guess I'm a sinner, and I suppose this article may be considered atonement. What were my sins? Aside from my obvious plunge into looksism, stereotyping, and judgmental labeling of people into whose thoughts and feelings I hadn't the slightest clue, I was being very elitist. You know, elitism: engaging in us-and-them thinking with “us” being superior and “them” being inferior, and all of it based on presumptuous stereotype-rooted value judgements. And now that I recognize that thinking for what it is, I must ask myself if I really want to wallow in the same mindset found in the ranks of separatists and the terminally-rednecked. Do I? Do we?
Sadly, many people in the transgender community buy into elitism at one point or another; we embrace the us-versus-them mentality. I am a little ashamed to have participated in that farce, but I sometimes wonder if it was a stage of growing I needed to go through. Perhaps, like separatism functions for some people, my us-and-them mind gave me an opportunity to fully establish my identity in a society that is mostly hostile to transgendered people. Until now, I have never really considered why I was an elitist, and maybe that is because it would have seemed defensive on my part (i.e., making excuses for myself). Maybe now is a good time to consider it, with all of our readership observing my well-meaning liberal squirmings at the prospect of confronting a not-so-nice aspect of myself. For clarity of writing I will be confining my remarks to male-to-female examples, but I'm mentioning my FTM buddies right here so they'll know I'm not forgetting them. Negative personality traits know no gender boundaries.
Though it’s not any kind of justification, I know I'm not alone in this. Many transgendered people have a problem with elitism. Kate Bornstein and I were again having dinner at Chevy's last week (Uh-oh! What's she going to say now?), and she and I both observed how elitist some members of our community can be. After discussing the issue, we both agreed that we have noticed a certain “pecking order” among genderfolk. The hierarchy, in terms of their perceived value, seems to be based on surgery and/or intentions of surgery.
The post-operative transsexual a.k.a. “new woman” a.k.a. “woman” is on the top of the heap. She is the heavy in our community. Being in a group of less than 10% of all transsexuals and being the recipient of an operation that costs thousands of dollars, she is truly in an elite category. This is, however, no justification for acting snooty.
The pre-op transsexual who is near surgery is second banana (no pun intended whatsoever). She is the one who has accumulated enough money and HBIGDA merit badges to make the provider community take her seriously. Of course she may back out at the last minute, which means she then slips several rungs down to a lower level, but as long as she intends surgery and has assembled the means to get it then, by Goddess, she is practically a sister.
A pre-op transsexual who lacks the money and/or the HBIGDA seal-of-approval is to be pitied, mostly, by her fortunate sisters over her. Whether she's economically disadvantaged, medically or psychologically constrained from getting SRS, or just not able to convince the shrink to write “the letter,” this poor individual can only hope that one day she may turn her life around. Still, her heart is in the right place, which is more than can be said about the next three groups.
A non-operative transsexual is not even thought to be a transsexual by some people. She is known by many labels including transgenderist, GIDAANT person, “drag queen” and so on, labels which she may or may not embrace. I once wrote an article for Chrysalis Quarterly which asked the question “What is a drag queen?” It detailed the disdain which some in the aforementioned groups have for these girls. I was too polite to say it so blatantly in that essay, but the truth of the matter is that the ones they are judging are so pretty that it seems a clear-cut case of envy. [GIDAANT was a DSM-IIIR diagnosis: Gender Identity Disorder of Adulthood and Adolesence, Non-transsexual Type. Those shrinks are funny guys, aren't they?]
Transvestites and Cross-Dressers of whatever frequency, be they gay or straight — and it should be kept in mind that sometimes the line blurs between this group and the “transgenderists" with only frequency of dressing and/or the pronoun one uses for oneself giving a clue as to what label might be applied — are definitely on a lower rung. These weekend warriors are held in contempt for not having the guts to come out and just do it: take a stand, live as a woman, screw the world. Of course it is the height of presumption to say that these people want to or should do any such thing. But then, we don't care about that, do we?
Genderfuckers occupy the lowest rung. These include the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or any other gay man in drag with facial hair and makeup. It also includes punk rockers and other anarchists who choose to wear the clothing of the “other” sex for purposes of making a political statement. Let's face it, these people are clowns. And all they do is make us all look bad. They should be morally mandated out or existence. (Hey, where have I heard that before?)
Now that we have all of these people nice and neatly labeled and ready for a big USDA stamp on their rump, we still need to consider further ways to make judgements on people. It seems that aesthetics/passability (looksism) and prestige (read press coverage) serves to further value (or, in my mind, to de-value) transsexuals. Thus, Tula is a “better” transsexual than me because she “passed” for a long time until she was exposed by the tabloid press and she's been on Donahue and all the better talk shows, whereas I get clocked several times a week (or more frequently) and, nationally speaking, I've only been on a very unflattering Jane Whitney show and on a Montel Williams episode where I was brought in for freak-appeal during sweeps week. (However I did look good for Montel.)
Sadly, elitist thinking does exist in our community, and it is a problem for many of us. I believe this mentality is partly a byproduct of the entire psychological/medical model of “gender issues” and the bipolar nature of gender in our culture. The provider community and society at large have defined sex, gender, and the transitional path for us. And most of us have swallowed these definitions whole. We had to — if we wanted our hormones and surgery. Thus, if the transsexual journey is already mapped out for us, then we are defined by our “progress” in this transition.
Unfortunately, this path is based on the assumptions of: the number of genders in the world, what defines those genders, what is acceptable gender behavior, and what people should be doing with/about their genders. For instance, by the [DSM-IIIR] definition of the American Psychiatric Ass. (intentional creative abbreviation), you aren't a transsexual if you don't want SRS. This theory is, of course, rooted in the genitalia-defines-gender schema. Some providers don't even consider you a “true” transsexual unless you are heterosexually oriented and/or look like a caricature of your identified gender. At this point, I'm not ready to digress further into a discussion about labels, I just wanted to point out how these rules for transsexuals are predicated on the ideas of a patriarchal society.
It is precisely these ideas and expectations that provide the class structure for an elitist transsexual caste system. All of these hoops we “must” jump through, from therapy to hormones to surgery, make for levels of transition. And, of course, genital surgery is considered the apex of success for a transsexual. (Although I would observe that “success” is a very loaded and relative term. I've met post-ops who were miserable and I've known many “drag queens” who were the happiest people in the world.) It all comes down to social/peer expectations. Just like a real woman is supposed to want a husband and 2.3 children, a real transsexual is supposed to want SRS. Her stature in the community is partly based on having surgery. I've seen this pecking order demonstrated too many times in social discourse. And it's a goddamn shame.
A perfect example of this kind of elitism reared its ugly head recently in the letters section of the San Francisco Bay Times. A progressive gay newspaper, they recently  added the word “Trans” to their masthead. A letter from a post-op TS thanked the paper for inclusion of the word, then she expressed gratitude for using “Trans” instead of “Transgender.” She went on to state how different transsexuals were from transgenders and that she didn't appreciate being lumped in with all of the transvestites and other trans-people who didn't have or intend surgery. The tone of her letter suggested that transsexuals suffer more or are somehow superior to other trans-people. I wanted to puke.
How dare anybody make such value judgements! Surgery might make transsexuals different (and that's assuming that intending SRS makes one a transsexual), but we are no more heroic than the non-surgical transgendered person who goes out and faces the world every day. Riki Anne Wilchins stated it beautifully in “21 Things You Don't Say to a Transsexual” when she said the hard part was watching family, former lovers and “friends” turn their backs on her. I was disowned by most of my family and acquaintances long before I ever announced any intentions of surgery. People yell cruel things at me — they throw things at me — without knowing what surgeries I have had. And you know what, Sports Fans? They wouldn't have cared.
I suppose that's what galls me the most about elitism in our community. We are all freaks and faggots in the mind or the bat-wielding redneck and the theocratic fundamentalist demagogue. Whether they are trying to take our rights away with laws or our lives away with blunt instruments, they don't give a tin snip about what our label-of-the-month is. Believe it!
We need some solidarity and we need it now. Those who insist on beating their breast about nomenclature and differences, who regress into us-and-them thinking, they are sabotaging our campaign for rights. They are the kinds of people who would have snippily rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic instead of keeping a lookout for icebergs. Full of self-important zeal about their precious labels, ready to throw stones at anyone who publicly disagrees with them, the elitists sap vital energy from our community.
We cannot afford this. Our community is small and many of our members are so closeted that they cannot come forward to stand with those who can be vocal and public. Infighting and elitism only serves to repel those who might stand with us but who can't abide the acrimony. Unless we as a community can learn to focus on important issues like building bridges between our different groups and the outside world, we will eventually throw away any hope of making progress toward our rightful place in the world.
What can you do, my astute and thoughtful reader? You can start by challenging these attitudes in yourself. Realize that we don't all have to agree on labels. More importantly, realize that our community is full of people who are on different paths and who all deserve respect as peers. Once you have your own house in order, challenge these attitudes in others. You don't have to be confrontational — just ask a question or two that may get someone to think.
Slowly, one person at a time, we can help our community evolve to a movement based on love, tolerance and inclusion. As a group faced daily with hate, bigotry and exclusion, we must rise above and not succumb to the temptation to fight fire with fire. Don't give in to the dark side of the Force, as Alec Guinness would have counseled. I believe that the gender community has the power to help transform society as a whole, but we won't accomplish this by bickering and being intolerant It will take a lot of us developing and growing emotionally and spiritually, but I believe we are strong enough to do it.
Look at how far we’ve come already.