Internal and external to the digital trans community, there exist two general tendencies for defining trans, both of which reify different performances of legibility: a medicalization orientation and an identitarian orientation. Both paradigms agree that the psychological pathologization of trans is harmful to our community. Briefly: the removal of homosexuality from the DSM co-occured with the introduction of gender dysphoria to its pages. By presenting dysphoria as purely psychological, the DSM entry allows for the argument that trans people don’t need any more medical access than therapy. Thus, in spite of the split among the trans community, both paradigms agree on two things: that trans people, however defined, require medical access, and that trans is not a psychological disorder.
What is it, then? For the medicalization group, trans is a neurological condition. This group privileges medical evidence about brain structure above all else. Because there is no medical evidence of nonbinary brains, medicalizationists may often consider nonbinary, genderfluid, and genderqueer trans people, as well as trans people who don’t experience dysphoria, “not really trans.” The identitarians, on the other hand, see trans as an inherently political position with respect to categories of difference within capitalism, and privileges personal accounts about oppression above all else. The argument is that trans as political identity challenges capitalism’s regime of binary gender assignment, its relegation of reproductive labor to the unwaged “feminine” sphere. Instead, as we’ve known since John Money’s controversial work and his creation of the term “gender identity,” there are more than two sexes, potentially infinite actual genders, and a multitude of invasive cross-cultural procedures for making people fit capitalism’s two “genders.”
As a Dominican nonbinary trans person of color not currently interested in transitioning, I don’t see any particular advantage to either position. Medicalizationists have no room for me, since, as Toby Beauchamp puts it, medical “surveillance focuses first on individuals’ legibility as transgender, and then, following medical interventions, on their ability to conceal any trans status or gender deviance.” (Beauchamp 2009: 357). On the other hand, identitarians overdetermine my life circumstances, particularly my gender, as inherently political. Further, the politicization of dysphoria, “coming-out” narratives and queer-nationalist oppression olympics draw their pathological power from the subsumption of trans of color narratives: just as white “Men’s Rights activists” leech off statistics about men of color to give import to their cause, the mainstream, whitewashed image of the suffering trans person gains much of its traction from sociological statistics about trans of color circumstances. However, from the vantage point of my dysphoria, I do find myself more drawn to the identitarian position. Medicalizationists are sometimes called “truscum” for advocating that you need dysphoria to be trans. Conversely, the term “transtrender” often denotes someone who identifies as trans and does not (ever or often) experience dysphoria.
An identitarian understanding of trans is more agnostic and fluid about dysphoria, and I’m drawn to this because I don’t think hatred, disgust, fear, and other negative feelings about one’s genitalia and gender role are trans-specific. Neither do I think that all trans people “should” feel these feelings and others characteristic of dysphoria. It would be bad science to argue that whatever neurological conditions result in trans also deterministically result in dysphoric feelings. However, I also find the identitarian focus on anticapitalist, “binary-smashing” performativity to be a metaphysical limit on what trans can be, as though our value as living people is entirely reducible to the metaphorical value of our circumstances in the struggle against capitalism. As such, both sides of the ideological divide are regimes of legibility originating in race, whether it’s the reification of medical evidence and trans-exclusivity of dysphoria of one faction, or the emphasis on performativity, “identity-exploration,” and “coming-out” stories of the other faction.
Read more | “Transtrender: a meditation on gender as a racial construct” | Manuel Arturo Abreu | NewHive Blog