Earlier this month, the Advocate published a piece from long-time trans activist Riki Wilchins titled “Transgender Dinosaurs and the Rise of the Genderqueers.” While Riki has a long history of trans activism, this piece has not been received very well by more than a few in the trans communities. Jake Pyne quickly put together a strong critique of Riki’s Advocate piece that appears at prettyqueer. I wrote part of my own response as a comment on Jake’s piece, but I decided after the fact to extrapolate my thoughts a bit and post them here.
In her recent piece, Riki Wilchins speaks of a first meeting with a young, beautiful trans girl of 13 years who will have the opportunity to obtain androgen blockers to delay the onset of puberty, which will give her a better opportunity to make decisions about her medical future when she is ready down the road. Riki comments that since her transition so far has been supported so well, she didn’t recognize this girl as the person she had intended to meet (she assumed that the young lady must have been cis).
It’s probably understandable that Riki might have expected to meet someone that she more immediately recognizes as trans, however from this point Riki proceeds to make a bizarre assertion: it’s not simply that she failed to recognize the young woman as transgender, it’s that the woman in question simply isn’t transgender at all. Indeed, she explicitly states this claim.
Further, Riki quickly tangles up this question she has created about the young trans woman’s identity with her own narrative as a lifelong trans activist. She states:
Never having passed as female as I’d grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary, as the new transgender politics is increasingly built around exactly the kind prominent social visibility and defiant non-passing that my doctors at the Cleveland Clinic assured me would signal the failure of my gender transition surgery.
In fact, my political identity for 30 years has been built on the foundation of my being visibly transgender, from the day I donned a Transsexual Menace NYC t-shirt and flew to the Brandon Teena murder trial in Falls City, Nebraska.
and so forth. In fact, Riki goes ahead to wistfully declare that what this young woman represents is nothing less than the end of transgender identity as she has known it:
With adolescents increasingly taking androgen blockers with the support of a generation of more protective, nurturing parents, public transsexuality is fading out. And I don’t mean only that in a generation or two we may become invisible in the public space. I mean rather that in 10 years, the entire experience we understand today as constituting transgender—along with the political advocacy, support groups, literature, theory and books that have come to define it since transgender burst from its closet in the early 1990s to become part of the LGB-and-now-T movement—all that may be vanishing right in front of us. In 50 years it might be as if we never existed. Our memories, our accomplishments, our political movement, will all seem to only be historic.
Not content with declaring that this girl represents the end of transgender politics as she has known it, Riki actually seems to question whether or not the puberty blocker pills are a positive development for the trans community. She questions the reader as to whether or not they would allow their children to take hormone blockers if their children requested them, presenting it as some type of moral dilemma: puberty blockers as your child’s best shot at happiness, or deny them blockers in order to provide them with Riki Wilchins’ experience of what it means to be transgender.
Wow, tough choice.
Riki also fails to discuss how this type of medical care is generally only available for a privileged few (primarily white, middle and upper-class children), rather than simply advocating that these choices should be made available for all trans children.
What infuriates me the most however, is the following passage:
In other words, I [Riki Wilchins] may be a gender dinosaur.
Which is exactly how this young girl makes me feel as she smiles and walks past me in a sky blue summer dress I was born too old to wear. She walks out to the sunlit sidewalk where a young man turns to look at her and smiles.
I have to say that in this last sentences I detect something that crosses the line from oddly phrased nostalgia at the “good ole days of trans oppression,” into something more petty and jealous. I hope I’m wrong about that, by the way, I really do… but that was my immediate reaction to that line and I’m still having difficulty reading it any other way.
In a more general sense, my response to her words is that the views Riki expresses in her piece are representative of a larger, unfortunate trend in mainstream trans activism, which is a seemingly endless obsession with the concept of trans “visibility.” For example, consider this article from trans activist Gunner Scott, which oddly focuses on the need for visibility as some kind of antidote for violence experienced by trans women of color.
The fact is that vulnerable trans women are not experiencing discrimination, harassment and even violence resulting from a lack of visibility. On the contrary, I think it would be more accurate to say that hypervisibility is often at work in these cases. (Note that that happens to be one of the issues where the oppression that trans women experience and trans men experience can be quite a bit different).
Meanwhile Riki Wilchins in her piece actually seems saddened or nostalgic to think that binary-identified trans people might not grow up facing the oppression that she experienced, which is just bizarre. (And in fact, it strikes a chord in my mind with the rather odd decision that some trans men have made to attempt to “re-claim” the word “tr*nny,” which was a slur against trans women in the first place. Do some trans community members really believe that they can only define themselves politically through the narrow lens of victimhood?)
In my view, what this represents is a kind of confusion among many trans activists about visibility and what role it plays or should play in our movement. It’s true that visibility may be a useful tool in advancing our goals in some cases, but the fact is that visibility is at most only that: a tool. Visibility is not a core issue for the trans community and I see no reason why it should be.
On the contrary, it seems to me that meaningful trans activism must start with bodily autonomy and work outwards out from there to issues like eradicating violence against trans women. And for Riki Wilchins to actually seem saddened at trans children who might have to “pay the price of visibility” in order to attain bodily autonomy seems to me to be a deeply and profoundly confused position.
Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of trans women who have lived anonymously off-the-radar for significant portions of their lives and still contributed immensely. For example, there is the powerful story of Janet Mock, who lived a significant portion of her life as presumably cis. When she came out, her story held great resonance both for many within the trans community as well as many outside. Since that time, she has taken on the role of an important leader in the trans women’s community, someone whose voice many trans women (among others) greatly respect.
But what’s most important in Janet’s case, as well as this young girl of whom Riki speaks, or any of the other trans people that are living openly, not openly, or somewhere in between, is that they are the ones who are making the decisions for their own lives.
And in fact, maybe Riki is right. Maybe this beautiful 13 year-old girl will grow up and live a life largely apart from the trans community. But then again, maybe she will grow up to become the greatest trans activist our community has ever known, someone who will exceed our greatest expectations or our wildest imagination.
I have no idea which might be the case. All I know for certain is that it is a decision to be made by this young lady herself.