T-girls and the trans umbrella: does “one size fit all”?

Its nice when things link up and, through linkage, i start to puzzle out stuff for myself.

The t-girl revolution

At Erotica, a week or so back, i was more than mildly disturbed by the proliferation of things T-girl. First off, there was a t-girl bar (located, either thru malign co-incidence or organiser quirk, right opposite the great British sausage stall). Then there was a load of events at the show lionising all things “tranny”: cross-dresssing and stage show. You name it: it was there.

This set me thinking about how healthy this was. I’d already noticed, following “My Transsexual Summer” a slight tendency not so much to pathologise as to “cutesify” the trans. People posting supportively on twitter their admiration for “us trans” – and whilst i’ll not reject that, it did feel as though we were being seen as rare and cuddly exotic species rather than people.

And this? I know already that t-girl stuff is divisive too: that a lot of women quite approve of it; and yet its a mode of being that can seriously get in the way of transition for some trans women.

So there’s one strand. Then, on saturday, being entertained in Manchester by a very good and supportive trans woman, i ended up, for a while, in a pub mostly frequented by t-girls and realised, not for the first time, how scary i find such places.

They’re like the distant cousin i know i have and can never quite make my mind up about: family, but altogether different jenes. (or rather, i wore jeans…they wore the tight leopard print).

And yet…and yet: we are all supposedly one under the great transgender umbrella, which now includes ts, tv, intersex, genderqueer and a whole host of others.

Pause that thought a moment.

Dreger does stats 101…

Next up is a piece which i cam across today by Alice Dreger, a professor in Bioethics. It has aroused controversy, though in terms of argument, i can’t see why.

Because all she is pointing out is something that i – and anyone else who ever studied statistics at a level beyond Micky Mouse – will know by heart: when you are faced with a difficult decision, there are two mistakes typically made.

One is to take action when in the end, no action was needed. The other is to not take action when it should have been.

Think “possibly diseased kidney”: remove it when it isn’t, and you do damage. Fail to remove it when it is and you do damage. This is kindergarten stuff and i don’t really see why she needs to go on at such length about it – and if that is what it takes to be a fully paid-up bioethicist, count me in. Its easy-peasy.

The problem, though, is twofold. Dreger applies this thought process to early transition. Similar problem: “diagnose” a kid as trans when they aren’t, and you do damage; fail to when they are, and you do damage.

Where’s the big idea in that?

Ah. Well, there are two probs, really, and this does go back to that big umbrella thing.

Dreger doesn’t do empathy

First off is the language. Dreger begins by using the analogy of a kid who “thinks they are a train”. Sorry, Prof D: this won’t do. The issue raised is real: but the language is decidedly inflammatory. I note that the comments on the Prof’s piece drew out the usual “what if i think i’m Napoleon” commentary – to which the obvious answer is: you have every right to dress the part and spend the rest of your life in exile on St Helena.

But this is about more than intellectual argument. Its about tone and position and erasure…even though i’m sure the author would reject all that.

The point is that this is a space where even Julie Bindel has a point and a contribution to make.

Force the wrong diagnosis and wrong treatment on someone and you genuinely risk fucking up the rest of their life. And that doesn’t stop with disgnosing trans when they aren’t: it includes far right and christian efforts to train kids out of being gay…or to “rectify” the intersex by surgical intervention in their bodies…and a whole host of other interventions besides.

I won’t say that fervent advocates of one of the more newly recognised sexual minorities (anyone, basically on the LGBTQQQI spectrum) don’t occasionally get over-enthusiastic about this stuff. For the most part, though, i see the Dreger position – Bindel’s too – as straw man stuff.

Basically: if you force a child to be ANYTHING, on the basis not of careful consideration of that child’s needs, but of some external ideology, that is abuse.. However, to date i haven’t seen masses of evidence of that evangelical tendency on behalf of anyone other than trad and mostly reactionary groups.

Otherwise, and for the most part, what i do see are people well aware of the enormity of the decisions they are being forced to take – and once a situation does present, you have to take a decision, one way or t’other, for good or ill – and a very great deal of nervous trepidation on their part.

You need a lot of sympathy and support, which this piece definitely fails to give.

The language of privilege

Beyond that, two observations.

What doesn’t help is frankly stupid language: and yes, i think Dreger’s language here IS stupid. Its shock jock stuff, deliberately designed to sex up what is otherwise a fairly dry debate about statistical risk-taking.

Sometimes it is born out of deliberate provocativeness: heck! I’m a journalist. I know how to provoke: and i know that provocative pieces sell better, make my reputation louder than considered ones.

And its born out of privilege. Because being “just” academic and “just” detached is a privilege that not all of us have. When you’re lying awake at night agonising what is the right thing to do for your child, i don’t think some academic likening your child’s state of being to a kid wishing to be Thomas the Tank engine is either kind or helpful.

DO we need one big umbrella?

Last up, is the umbrella thing. Dreger does make some valid points – which tend to be overwhelmed by the controversial way she wraps them up: not least, she asks whether there is not some “transsexual orthodoxy” that is being used to erase gender queer positions. I’d ask the opposite…because, going right back to the start: i do find my t-girl cousings uneasy company.

I recognise the kinship – but i’m not them, and they’re not me. Nor am i genderqueer. Probably not intersex either. I’m me, which just happens to be a woman of trans history. End of.

And it all begins to feel to me like the same debate we’ve started to have about the LGBT umbrella. Does trans belong in there and…well, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

We suffer similar bigotries, have some issues in common – and we also have a lot of things that are different. We’re family…maybe more distant than the trans family…but family all the same. We should respect that – but not regard it as some sort of overwhelming restriction on who we are.

Ditto the trans umbrella. Maybe the time has come to start to re-assert differences. To make it very clear that we, too, are family, but we have differences – and it does no-one any good for one or other group to attempt to assimilate each other’s way of being.



11 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    bobette said,

    I think you claim more kinship or umbrellas that there really is…

    • 2

      janefae said,

      maybe i am bowing to a certain pressure toward conformity. The real point i am trying to make here is that umbrellas are useful campaigning tools…but where they get used to erase difference or to impose one group view on another group,. i find them profoundly unhelpful. That’s all.


  2. 3

    misswonderly said,


    Why do you suggest the LGBT thing or the trans umbrella are about identity and not simply about the way other people insist on identifying us?

    Dreger – a familiarity with the families of trans kids make clear how her arguments are all about her own subjective cisgender imaginings and not about real trans kids and real families, who love them and who have slightly more of an existence over years than 45 minutes in a psychiatrist’s consulting room every 3-6 months.

    Toilets- lots of places I go these days have unisex toilets which are clean and not in the least intimidating. I agree there is nothing more unpleasant than a badly maintained toilet and because of their anatomy men perhaps tend to feel less exposed and take less care. Personally I think the answer is always to have clean and well maintained toilets and men not being excused by the culture [as they are in so many other respects] to make a mess.

    • 4

      janefae said,

      First par: don’t understand. Its possible i’m putting up a straw man, but if it is, its only in terms of its importance…not in terms of whether it exists or not. I do see, across every niche in the LGBTQQQI “community” constant attempts to define one or other group out of existence and i just don’t like that, however it is done.

      Dreger: agree on what you say, but i think its complicateder than that. I think one major issue is that she is failing to spot how sometimes over-intellectualising can have some very real hurtful effects on others. The second part of her article actually raises points that, phrased differently and from someone else might be considered helpful might be a useful springboard to debate.

      In other words, you can’t separate out the personality from the politics.

      Par 3: so what? The point i’m making is NOT to argue that one solution is inherently better. Merely to point out that we inhabit a world in which different groups have different preferences. And trying to “argue me out” of my view here runs perilously close to the exact same sin as Dreger is guilty of: substituting intellect for empathy.


      • 5

        misswonderly said,

        Jane … i wouldn’t dream of trying to argue you out of anything 😉 I was merely stating my own experience and how it leads me to believe the toilet thing need not be a problem if people of all genders maintain reasonable standards of hygiene in well maintained toilets. My criticism of Dreger is that she does not speak from her own experience. She has none and has only very limited familiarity [if any for all I know] with the the day to day lives of families with trans kids.

  3. 6

    Alex said,

    Jane, I’ve been following your blog for some time and this is the first time that you’ve made a comment I feel I must take issue with – “i wore jeans…they wore the tight leopard print”.

    If I’ve judged the context correctly, you were in a pub in Manchester (Paddy’s Goose or Churchills?) probably in the gay village. Those t-girls wearing the tight leopard print items were probably going onto nightclubs afterwards. Of course, leopard print dresses/skirts can all too easily be catagorised, quite accurately, as tarty and, in my opinion, quite ridiculous-looking on a t-girl, particularly of a certain age.

    Having said that, as someone who is not TS I have to object to a classification of TS = jeans and T-Girl = leopard print (tarty). I wear ladies jeans, tops and flat shoes quite a lot, or below the knee dresses. I have worn shorter dresses (above the knee) when in clubs, which I go to to socialise with other trans people of all descriptions.

    Perhaps, your feelings of unease come from the social context regarding what someone is wearing, as opposed to a blanket statement that all TS wear jeans and all T-Girls wearing leopard print, or similiar in both cases?

    For my part, if I were going to a pub or restaurant and another t-girl came along wearing a short leopard print dress it would make me feel uncomfortable; this is not down to the items of clothing per se, but the social context again.

    Finally, on another point you make, I couldn’t agree more. Support as opposed to steering/manipulating children has to be the way forward. I was born in the fifties and my good citizen parents felt I was in danger of turning into a sissy (I was 3 or 4 at the time) and took every opportunity to ‘correct’ my behaviour. Had they ignored my behavioural traits and acted in a tacitly supportive role I would have grown up with far fewer issues in respect of who I was. So I have to say that taking a lead from the child has to be the only starting point. Also, 2 size gender does not fit all – so please can we stop trying to squeeze individuals into one or the other.

    Other than that, you’re one of the few blogs I follow on a regular basis and it’s a pleasure to do so.

  4. 7

    janefae said,

    No: its fair comment, Alex…though it wan’t the venue you think.

    I do get it wrong at times on this blog (i did similar in respect of the Sex Workers Open University) when i insert slighty poor witticism, and maybe there are two separate things going on here, one serious, one less so.

    Let’s try and dissect. I’m being cod humorous because i do feel as though this is a within-family debate, and that i am therefore entitled to be a little more risqué than i would be in a predominantly cis forum, or i would expect someone like Russell Howard to be.

    Encapsulated in that sentence, which i accept you can read as a somewhat unkind dig (though its not exactly meant to be) is my nervousness, unease, whatever about the way in which some t-girls (and i’d better ask you here and now whether you consider that word to be offensive) tend to opt for an exaggerated and sexualised feminity which is totally at odds with anything a cis woman is likely to accept.

    The quintessential quote in that respect came from one individual who once told me that if i wished to “be a real woman”, i needed to wear six-inch heels.Huh?

    I was out of place because, by and large, the gear being worn was club gear of a certain style – and not the sort of thing i’d wear pretty much anywhere.

    But then, maybe my discomfort goes some way to highlighting the issue i have with the trans umbrella in general.

    I’ve already posted at length about my issues with male company: i don’t have an issue with men as men…its just that in any given set of circumstances, given the choice between a female and a male social event, i’d opt for the former.

    Oddly, as i’ve transitioned, i’ve found men easier to get on with, easier, in many ways, to understand…but they’ll never be my choice of company.

    And there’s something of the same in these t-girl spaces. In part its the presence of t-chasers, which squick me greatly. In part, its something around the very idea that i’m told that its an umbrella and we’re under the same umbrella, but it really doesn’t feel that way.

    So apologies for the ill-placed bit of humour…and if you’d like to further my insight on this issue (which i can see possibly turning into something of a difficulty for me) please feel rfree to post further.

    I’m all ears.


  5. 8

    Shirley Anne said,

    There are lots of different umbrellas, plain ones, bright ones, coloured ones and black and white ones, spotty ones and striped ones, see-through ones and opaque ones, need I say more? The LGBTQYZ labels should be totally binned. It should be simply HUMAN. There are just too many variations on the theme to put letters to them all! I don’t think it is truly possible for psychiatrists/psychologists/counsellors to fully understand the way people are and even less so how to formulate treatment, if there is one to be had or if it is necessary anyway. Throw the labels away and let people be who they are. I know it will never happen though.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  6. 9

    Carolyn Ann said,

    Ah… That wonderful, and contentious, umbrella… Who would think such a bereft rhetorical device could be so controversial?!

    I can’t help but think that you’re raising a straw man argument; in particular, your obvious distaste for the crowd you found yourself in seems to inform much of your reasoning in this post. The people at that exhibition were, perhaps, celebrating their own identity with no regard to yours?

    An umbrella is *not* an identity and never will be. The concept has a general usefulness, but beyond that, it’s about as useful as the “umbrella” of women, or men or Labour voters or what-have-you. Sometimes those generalizations are useful, but they *are* generalizations – they are not the imposition of specific identities. And so it is with the “trans” umbrella; it is a generalized rhetorical concept that has its uses, and that’s all.

    Sure, those umbrellas *imply* some agreement of identity; that’s the general problem with umbrellas. And it’s not a “solvable” issue. Just look at politics – it’s full of umbrellas! “Americans want this”, “Americans want that”, “Britons demand we do this!” and so on. Like those umbrellas, the “trans” umbrella works as long as you don’t assume imposition of identity – which, of course, many do. It’s merely a rhetorical device, with very little if any substance, but it is occasionally a useful one. 🙂

    Your other point… You say there are two courses of action and name only one? You also neglect to consider the option of incomplete, or even erroneous, information. Sometimes circumstances are not what you’d want. I’ve also found that sometimes, often, you don’t know what you should have done until well past the decision. I often say “you make decisions based on what you know at the time”; only time can inform you of your wisdom. I think you reduced a complex issue to a simplistic, and misleading, (quasi-)binary.

    (Sorry, I don’t have the time to read the report you link to.)

    Carolyn Ann

    • 10

      janefae said,


      While i have no probs owning up to my thoughts on this issue being partially formed and incomplete – and i do appreciate the way you finish, pointing out that often, you don’t really understand what you yourself felt about an issue until some time after the event, there’s still a couple of points i’d like to take up.

      “distaste” is too strong…at least in relation to the individuals concerned. Though it might be a valid word to use in respect of the milieu, environment, whatever.

      Though this is not a post about individual minorities, so much as how the shadow of one gropup can end up being cast over another.

      Just check out recent fuss over the t-word: “tranny”. As far as i am aware (but i’m sure someone will correct me if wrong), its a mostly offensive word in the ts world, but far less so in the tv environment. If that’s the case, that’s a good example of where we have conflicting (group) interests.

      Agreed that people at erorica may have been celebrating THEIR identity in isolation from me…though i’m not entirely sure that is quite how it works. I’ve covered Erotica many years running and, to me, the salient feature of Erotica is how far it commercialises sex, much to the dismay of many groups who have a much less commercial view on the whole shebang.

      If we were talking about t-girls “doing it for themselves”, that’d be one thing: what i am more concerned about is a bunch of people known for their tendency to exploit other sexualities making money out of caricaturing transvestism. True: that call is better made by those who belong to that group. However, the Erotica literature quite carelessly bracketed tv, ts and others under the umbrella, so i think its not a bad example.

      Fraid i’m a bit lost to where you suggest i state there are two courses of action: where? Not contradicting you…just not sure which bit you are taking issue with.

      all the best,


      • 11

        Carolyn Ann said,

        I’ll be happy to correct you! 🙂 “Tranny” is considered, in the States, to be deeply offensive. It’s (been) used by some within the transsexual community to denigrate others, mainly not-transsexual-women, simply because it is an offensive term.

        I’d say that the porn and sex businesses are well-known for their exploitation and commercialization. That a show dealing with sex is commercial is not worthy; I’d say a show dealing with sex that was considerate and careful would be astounding!

        To your question, you said:
        “[…] will know by heart: when you are faced with a difficult decision, there are two mistakes typically made.

        One is to take action when in the end, no action was needed. The other is to not take action when it should have been.”

        You’re being too simplistic, here. And you’re repeating yourself.

        Both scenario’s describe exactly the same thing: a decision and then an action. (We have to assume a difference between “not making a decision” and “not being aware a decision needs/needed to be made”; we can ignore any differences between actively pursuing a course of action and actively not pursuing a course of action.)

        Which is the mistake? To do nothing when some action was required? Or to do something when nothing was required? Is it contextual? If it depends on context, your statement needs additional clarification and meaning.

        All in all, you neglect: “When I make a decision, there are a number of possible outcomes. Sometimes, doing nothing might have been the better choice, other times I chose the wrong course of action; doing something was better than doing nothing, but the something I chose to do was also wrong, but in a different way to do nothing.” Or, my favorite: “Oops. That didn’t work. Let’s try something else.”

        Your simplification removes the possibility of failure being a good thing. It’s often a learning experience, but sometimes failure really is a good thing! (And that’s ignoring the endless possibilities of “your failure means my success”.) And while it’s frequently possible to define “failure”, I’d say that the very concept is impossible to define. What you define as a failure, I might deem a success. What you define as a good decision, I might define as the worst possible decision you could have made. It’s all contextual, and it’s all very uncertain. 🙂

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: