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the trouble with identity politics

August 21, 2006

Yesterday’s NYTimes had an article about the political intricacies of the lives (well, transitions) of transgendered men, particularly in their thorny relationship with a lesbian community of which they may have once been a part. The article (the title’s a little kitschy for my taste: “The Trouble When Jack Becomes Jane”) made me sort of wistful and remember those good ole’ days of being in a queer community at a women’s college, when heated discussions on this topic could be overheard pretty frequently and when talking identity politics was a very important part of my academic and social life.

Annoyingly but predictably, the L Word’s Max gets major play in this article. I haven’t watched the show since the first season, but from what I understand, one of the characters is an FTM, and according to the article, many fans are not happy. Whatever. Judith Halberstam, ever the identity policewoman, continues to battle those pesky FTM’s*:

“It’s as if the category of lesbian is just emptying out,” said Judith Halberstam, a gender theorist and professor of literature at the University of Southern California, San Diego, whose books include “Female Masculinity.”

Thanks, Judith, for erasing that category for the rest of us. I think it’s really complicated and I don’t always use the term lesbian, but there are certainly parts of it that I really embrace and I don’t need Judith Halberstam telling me that because some people who once identified as lesbians are transitioning, the category ‘lesbian’ is emptying out. Maybe she was misquoted – because if the category ‘lesbian’ is disappearing, it’s not because of FTM’s, it’s because lesbians are identifying more as queer. At least it’s so in the circles in which I run.

The article quotes Koen Baum, a family therapist in San Francisco, on one possible source of this fear:

Mr. Baum said the anxiety also stems from fear over the loss of an ally in the struggle against sexism. “The question in the minds of many lesbian women is, ‘Is it still going to be you and me against sexism, you and me against the world?’ ” he said.

To this I respond, there are many non-trans men I know who are fighting sexism, and there are many transmen I know who could care less! I don’t know that we can hold people to such expectations based on their gender presentation/identity.

Everyone seems really concerned that this term called lesbian is becoming obsolete – well how about this brilliant idea, maybe we need some new terms? For so many people, FTM or not, lesbian just doesn’t cover it. I completely get the idea that lesbians might feel abandoned or betrayed by FTM’s for political reasons. I, for one, relate to some FTM’s not because of our shared gender/sexual identity but because of shared political views or ideologies. If we stopped categorizing people according to gender gender gender, we might be able to concentrate less on identity politics and more on some more important issues happening in the world.

(p.s. The article has some great photos. Do check those out.)

*I should say that have some beef with Halberstam that came way before I read this article, mostly connected with the way that dealt with butch/FTM identity in Female Masculinity. To be brief, she seems to think that those on the trans/masculine spectrum must identify either as butch or FTM or both and that other types of female masculinity are simply some variation of butch, which they definitely are not. I found her habit of equating “masculine” with “butch” pretty irritating, and I am not even the least bit masculine (meaning, my irritation was based on the fact that I thought it was bad scholarship, not on personal offense). Her quote in this article reeks of the same kind of overgeneralizing, specifically on the topic of gender identity, towards which she gravitated in parts of Female Masculinity. I did find most of the book to be interesting and well-written and I certainly learned a lot from it. Maybe this will turn into a longer post at some point.

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