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Transgender Sincerity and the Limits of Seriousness

Levi C. R. Hord

[1]

In 2015, Free Pride Glasgow released a statement banning drag performances, citing the fact that some members of their Trans/Non-Binary Caucus felt that drag “hinges on the social view of gender and [makes] it into a joke” while, self-evidently, “transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke”. Though Free Pride later overturned their decision, it was part of a broader pattern. The decision was preceded by years of debate over what precisely divides serious forms of gender variance from more “playful” ones. The “social view of gender” referenced in Free Pride’s statement is the assertion that gender is a construction that emerges from social structures, with no essential biological basis. Through the 1990s, these debates devolved into acutely specific borders wars. For example, theorists Jack Halberstam and Jay Prosser spent years debating whether butch lesbian masculinity is felt as seriously, as deeply, as female-to-male transsexual (in their terms) masculinity. The debate was over whether trans identity was something essentially distinct from just any movement away from one’s assigned gender. An observer of contemporary identity politics may recognise similar arguments distinguishing between transgender and non-binary, and whether it is medical diagnosis, surgical transition, gender expression, or simply choice that qualifies someone to claim the label “trans”.

The concept of seriousness is inextricably connected to transgender histories and narratives. Mainstream representations of trans people treat seriousness as a lens through which we can safely be seen; indeed, seriousness emerged in part through the pity-soliciting trope of tragedy at key moments of trans visibility. It is little wonder that there has emerged a cultural assumption that transgender people take our genders invariably seriously. This assumption is pervasive enough not to arouse debate. It has also led to sincerity becoming a qualification for authenticity. It is borderline unthinkable to suggest that we would feel anything otherwise, especially at the points where the body becomes the vehicle of intervention. Change, recognition, transition: these are not to be taken lightly.

This essay is an exploration of what it would entail to think about transgender experience outside of the politics of seriousness. It unpacks of some of the histories which have established transgender experience as serious in specific ways and explains how these histories have come to form the limits of contemporary transgender politics. There is tension around the potential of extracting gender from the gravity that it has seemingly only recently come to command. However, my motivation in this piece is to propose a way of thinking about intense experiences of negotiating gender outside of the social reactions meant to control them. It is a rethinking of “seriousness” and “trans” aimed at moving anti-institutional politics forward without misrecognising the richness of experience.

It would be, I think, pleasurable to be able to be irreverent about what has become a prescription for solemnity. After all, anybody who takes themselves seriously is an easy target for a joke. But, indeed, it is a joke that is already made by many in bad faith and violence, and for me to indict trans communities for the bad politics of reproducing self-seriousness would be to overlook the complexities that command it, the uses to which it might be put, and how we may be able to escape its restrictions while not losing the deeply personal need to be taken seriously.

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By calling the seriousness of transgender the product of a “command”, I do not mean to say that gender is not deeply felt by trans people. Nor am I suggesting that it is only a focus that in many cases defines our experience of the world because it has been imposed on us. What I do mean to say is that the histories of how “transgender” solidified as a medical and cultural concept have made seriousness an essential articulation for those who wish to be recognised as trans.

Though it is tempting to claim otherwise, trans identities as we know them now are not ahistorical phenomena, nor are there abiding similarities in trans people’s self-perception over time. Transgender advocates in the 1990s tended to search history for figures who had crossed gender lines in some way and to read these figures as transgender, applying a contemporary frame of reference (including the desire for specifically medical transition) to historical actors who had no such conception.

The possibilities that are currently available have become the modes through which we think transition. Not only is medicalised transition a relatively recent possibility, but the conceptualisation of transition in this sense has only recently become dominant. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz notes that the explosion in trans people articulating a need for surgery, and somatic sex change in particular, came after the media circus surrounding some of the first successful medical transitions. Medical transition became a widely known possibility and brought with it a new language for naming the feelings that we now colloquially signify with “trans”.

Though these histories extend further back than medical interventions, it was the ways in which trans became attached to the concerns of institutions that brought about its cemented seriousness, as medicine was never casual about its role in altering sex. Beginning in the 1940s, many doctors voiced ethical concerns about surgically interfering with a body that was otherwise healthy. In some cases, these operations were ruled as constituting “mayhem,” which was a term from British common law used to refer to the maiming or removal of healthy limbs of soldiers during wartime. In all cases, such actions were criminal.

Other doctors believed that reassignment surgeries would alleviate the psychological distress they were diagnosing in their patients. In order to be able to serve trans populations, they had to articulate surgery as a suitable solution in the terms of the medical institution. The diagnostic criteria for what was then called transsexualism (and remains in the DSM-V as gender dysphoria) were formulated to tick three important boxes: they were (supposedly) objective, repeatable, and spoke of something serious enough to constitute a disorder in need of treatment. As the number of transgender people requesting medical transition grew, concerns arose about distinguishing those who were “genuine” from those who were experiencing some “less severe” form of cross-gender identification. This distinction became crucial in gatekeeping access to what many conceptualised flatly as a “life-altering” decision. It also produced a system which requires the quantification and hierarchisation of distress.

As we know from trans commentators (especially Sandy Stone, who wrote the paradigm-shifting “Post-Transsexual Manifesto”), these diagnostic criteria were and continue to be known to trans people, and continue to be used in clinical encounters in order to access treatment, even if they continue not to be the terms in which we might conceive of ourselves. Again, this is not to say that in many cases distress and dysphoria are not felt, or to deny that transition in any sense is perhaps one of the most important decisions one might make in a lifetime. But these statements and their form have been mandated for us, by “experts” who beginning in the 1970s were admitting that what they knew about trans people was negligible. Beek, Cohen-Kettenis, and Kreukels note that, as late as the mid-1990s, diagnostic criteria for medical transition were being written with “no systematic literature reviews or focused analyses”. Transgender people did not introduce the requirement of a deep and often melancholic gravity appears as a precondition for claiming the label “transgender”. This requirement impoverishes our concepts of how we might narrate both trans selfhood and collectivity.

Within the past ten years, other forms of mandated seriousness have emerged around and within transgender communities. Challenges to the idea that transness is a quantifiably serious state of being are often critiqued in turn for drawing attention away from the undeniably serious violence that trans people face. The argument that the seriousness of transgender identity as a state of being is constructed to meet certain ends is often perceived as a challenge to the grave, solemn effects of living as transgender in a system biased towards traditional ideas of gender. These effects include, among many others, extremely high rates of hate crime and sexual violence, precarious access to housing and employment, social and familial rejection, lack of access to safe healthcare, and legal processes around name and gender markers that make mobility difficult. These are differentially experienced in varying international and communal contexts, where the impact of such effects increases or decreases based on, for example, access to necessities, social beliefs, and histories of colonisation and segregation. They rightfully form the basis for much of the crucial work of trans activism and academia—work that confronts these systems as present realities.

Most of these interventions, however, presume as an unconditional factor the height of the stakes that must govern trans lives, producing a slippage between the forms of seriousness constructed to meet systemic criteria, and the seriousness of the precarity that trans people experience as an effect of these systems. Liberal humanist discourse reifies the sense of “life-or-death” bound up in the types of trans narratives that have become our cultural truisms. Political theorist Wendy Brown might dub this a “wounded attachment”—the tendency for trans (or at least the version that appears in these activisms) to take the most troubling aspects of its politicised genealogy and use them as the foundation for a collective bid for tolerance.

This is, of course, why it seems to become less and less possible to make statements that question the ascription of a certain gravity to transgender life. This embedded assumption can work against itself politically, as C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn lay out in one foundational trans-of-colour critique. In their analysis of the politics of transgender death in the public eye, they note that anti-violence movements are often spearheaded by more privileged, often white, transgender people who make universal claims about the always-already-victimised status of transgender people. Whole movements are thereby “produced and sustained by the violent and frequently murderous impulses specifically directed toward trans feminine people of color”. These movements use a specific kind racialised and transmisogynist violence as a resource to articulate and make visible the privileged transgender subject.

Seriousness has transcended trans narratives and has become central to an individualist trans politics; it has become more of a hunger than an unwanted offering. Marissa Brostoff names this accumulation the “politics of trans sincerity, in which the gender-nonconforming subject is celebrated as transgressive to the extent that her nonconformity can be read as serious” (italics in original). This includes the Laverne Coxes of the world, the trans men in the rank of CEO being featured on the front of business magazines: the respectable ones. The ones who may, possibly, be offended by drag acts espousing a “social view of gender”, insofar as those acts undermine a carefully constructed and historical embedded distance from the noncommittally ambiguous.

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In attempting to unpick the politics of trans sincerity, then, my first question targets the exclusivity of the relationship that transgender has with intensity felt towards gender. The idea underlying both the border wars between types of gender variance and the establishment of criteria to delineate transgender status is that the level of intensity with which transgender people experience gender is distinct from any experience of gender that might be deemed “normal”.

When I think of intense and serious attachments to gender, trans people are never my first thought. I think instead of Southern belle beauty pageant contestants, of debutantes, or of shockingly muscled body builders: individuals who organise major parts of their lives around bodily transformation, as well as investing money and time in it. The kind of bodily transformations that might seem attractive to a pageant queen or a body builder may or may not be surgical, but they are deeply desired, gendered, and speak to a deep intensity of attachment.

Can a division realistically be made between this way of taking gender seriously and trans attachment to gender? Or is there something askew in the ways we have been quantifying sincerity? Perhaps the stakes of a gendered life are determined by factors other than what we currently call gender identity; perhaps the relationship between trans phenomena and intensity of feeling is not a causal one.

The entity which has perhaps the most serious, sincere, and intense experience of gender is not a person at all. As trans legal scholar Ido Katri recently pointed out, the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria (that persistent anxiety, distress, and discomfort over a mismatch between gender and sex) seem to uncannily describe the distress and anxiety experienced by those deeply invested in legal systems, and deeply disturbed by the conflict between systemically sanctioned definitions of sex and trans narratives of gender. The disproportionate reactions to the breakdown of these systems usually denotes that they were being held too tightly in the first place. These reactions, too, are emotionally intense.

I am personally unconvinced that there is any correlation between the capacity to experience gendered existence intensely and the label “transgender”. And while this is largely a topic for a different essay, it is worth clarifying that the seriousness of gender is closer to a flattening simulacrum than it is to a distinct quality that demonstrates authenticity.

There are practical reasons to invest in inherited expectations of seriousness. But to reinvest in and reify the authority of this established seriousness—which is, of course, the seriousness of establishment, be it medical, legal, or hegemonic—is a mistake.

This insight can be glimpsed in moments when this very authority has been exposed and questioned by “postmodern” theory and its contesters. In several public intellectual debates (such as the Sokal affair, or that between Jacques Derrida and John Searle), the question of seriousness has been raised. More specifically, commands to “be serious” or to respect the literal are issued to theorists who are perceived to be stepping too far outside of the bounds of acceptable thought. In the ensuing dialogues, those who issue the commands tend to continue to assume the implicit value of seriousness or literalness. This has resulted, as those familiar with the debates might perceive regardless of intellectual allegiance, in split conversations in which both parties seem to miss the other’s point: one side continues to question seriousness as a value, while the other maintains the framework and thus does not move beyond the posing of the question.

These examples can serve as instructive analogies for what happens when we attempt to contest the delegitimisation of transgender identities by insisting upon their seriousness. Once seriousness has been recognised as something that is falsely essential, or even simply as something that is in question as a value, insisting that the accumulated position of seriousness itself is the answer makes one appear as if they have been duped. It makes one into the joke in the same embarrassing and uncomfortable way that self-seriousness can, to others who in some sense do not share the myopia of sincerity.

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It is risky to attempt to contest the delegitimisation of transgender identities by insisting upon their seriousness. I am not a stranger to the pain of having challenges to the “seriousness” of my own gender identity feel like challenges to my individual experiences of gender. But a challenge to seriousness is actually a challenge to the hierarchies of trans sincerity and its inadequate politics. If seriousness is a political issue for transgender communities, it is time to begin thinking through the ways in which we might respond to it without strengthening its hold. To conclude, I want to sketch the beginnings of a possible response—one of many useful ones, I am sure.

This response rejects the givenness of seriousness, but risks retaining something of its earnestness. For it is this givenness and the role of seriousness as a metric of the worth of our lives that keeps us beholden, rather than the choice to name something as subjectively significant. After all, losing serious attachments to gender (pageant queens and all) would diminish what makes gendered specificity desirable, and often so deeply pleasurable.

It is hardly worth the energy that would be spent convincing people that gender is not something to be taken seriously—it is difficult enough to think of a group of people that lacks an investment in it (whether literal or oppositional). Instead, using the vantage point of trans, and having identified the prescription to be serious as the source of a problem, it may be the most moving intervention to ask that seriousness be more intentionally approached. Seriousness could be deliberately defined in the terms of idiosyncratic experience, in terms of the relational, emotional, affective experiences of gender that systems do not concern themselves with and which they cannot perceive. To take gender seriously in the sense of its being central to the orientation of a life does not entail the repetition of a rhetoric of control. Seriousness could even be rethought through the positive significances of the lives that are taking place under the sign of “trans”, if we dare to step briefly away from the legitimacy that negativity affords in the eyes of the majority.

Trans theorist Andrea Long Chu suggests that a good trans methodology, complicating queer theory’s prescriptive political militance, would “start from the premise that everyone’s gender is a political disaster and refuse to fix it,” recognising that the realities we live will never be able to measure up to our political imaginaries. Chu’s comments respond to the fact that, thus far, attempts to trouble the narrowing of trans narratives by medical and legal institutions have consisted of the production of a perfect opposite, which celebrates queer subversion and artifice, but which perhaps goes too far in prescribing against investment in the personally held seriousness of gender. As formative as queer politics have been, they produce disproportionate conflicts between the liveable and the ideal. The various pleasures that can arise from taking gender seriously (those rather queer ones included) have little place, because seriousness has not been thought outside of its relation to system. There is a sense of totality in this response that also, ironically, ignores gendered feeling.

One of these queer strategies for resisting seriousness, which is now nearly synonymous with the height of artifice and a rejection of seriousness, is camp. In Susan Sontag’s initial explorations, camp was already connected to gender and queerness. It was not, however, always connected to a total rejection of seriousness. Camp sought to dethrone seriousness from its seat as the decider of cultural worth, but more importantly, camp sensibility cultivated a more complex relationship with seriousness, especially in the sense of being, in Sontag’s words, “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious”. As soon as seriousness was systematised or linked to the concreteness of proof and judgement, it lost its potential—such is the present “trans politics of sincerity”. But this did not mean, departing from most queer permutations of the sensibility, that camp was always opposed to seriousness or that it only took opposition seriously, as if an idealisation of artifice were the opposite of an engagement with depth. Transgender communities have often performed the same misreading of some gendered investments as surface-level, as the Free Pride Glasgow decision to ban drag performers recalls.

If “seriousness” as a term has become infected by system, then let us pivot for a moment to earnestness. There is nothing in the definitions of either “earnestness” or “seriousness” to justify such a division between their meanings, but an imposed separation is a useful device for thinking through differences in approach. Earnestness itself seems a more felt term: it is more difficult to think of an earnest system, especially because the affect of earnestness speaks to intent and orientation rather than to imposed criteria. To be earnest about something is not usually a limiting motion in the way that seriousness, in this schema, might be. To be earnest about something may still allow one to commit the sin of displaying personal investment, but camp sensibility demonstrates that enjoyment, appreciation, openness, and lack of judgement are not unequivocally opposed to irreverence or to positions of informed critique. There is a generosity here that goes hand in hand with claiming the power of speaking importance into existence outside of dominant terms. It is a vulnerable generosity, but it is perhaps all the more necessary to cultivate in a moment of rapidly rising trans-exclusionary feminism in the UK and threats issued by the Trump administration to legally redefine gender to genital condition in the US.

If you have been through the Oxford city centre lately, you may have noticed a proliferation of stickers proclaiming that “trans happiness is real”. Clearly, this innocuous remark is still a loaded statement. Most of the people whom I hold dear who use “trans” as a descriptor, qualifier, or worldview do not experience gender as something that is always divorced from joy. As writer S. Bear Bergman says in his speech “Sing If You’re Trans”, there are moments of great embodied, narrative, and sexual pleasure accessible more readily to those who have spent quite a lot of time being thoughtful and intentional about gender. Thoughtfulness pairs well with earnestness. Not coincidentally, it also pairs well with criticism of circumstances which produce the lived precarities we do experience. Sensibilities like camp—that critical rereading of investment—are not antithetical to having felt something deeply, to having had a concept like gender preoccupy a period of personal development. They simple refuse to presuppose the answer.

It is important to recognise that neither the debates that we are having nor the political conflicts we experience in making claims to the importance of our lives is new. They have taken place in many arenas, and in most of these cases the terms of the debate about what aspects of our experience should qualify us as “real” are second-hand and ill-fitting. Requiring seriousness has negatively impacted transgender solidarity across categorisation more than it has positively created systemic change. The border wars mentioned in the introduction are usually products of the fact that we—since we gained this particular language to speak about our experiences of gender—have not all been participating in the same conversation. It is such an easy thing to miss when the intensity of gendered feeling is arguably available to all, but only prescribed and bounded for some.

Being asked to be “taken seriously” on one’s own terms does not have to assume from the outset what “seriousness” entails, or what values it might sanction. It must, however, be aware of what terms are assumed as given, and willing to commit to an earnestness that can hold the lived at the same time as it gestures towards a hopeful, imperfect politics. This essay has been my attempt at an exposition, and at a query. I anticipate that something of a response will follow quite organically in the coming years, this moment being an especially poignant one in which to decide what of ourselves we might choose to take seriously.

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Levi C. R. Hord [2] is reading for an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and holds an MSt in Women’s Studies from Wadham College.