GenderPAC, the Transgender Rights Movement And the Perils of a Post-Identity Politics Paradigm

Introduction

In her capacity as executive director of GenderPAC, Riki Anne Wilchins has called for the creation of “a post-identity politics national gender rights movement for all Americans.”  By way of a critique of that call, I will argue here that the discourse of a post-identity politics movement – far from providing a unifying philosophy and political strategy – is intellectually incoherent and politically counterproductive.  It is my aim here to articulate what I see as the racial politics implicit in the discourse and to offer an alternative conception of identity formation and transgender movement politics based on notions of community.

GenderPAC: Organizational History and Background

A little background on the organizational history of GenderPAC may be necessary to understand the context in which the new post-identity politics discourse was articulated.  GenderPAC was founded in November 1996 to be the national voice of the transgender community.  A number of different individuals and organizations came together to establish the organization in order to educate society on transgender issues and to advance a legislative agenda in Congress.  One of those individuals, Riki Anne Wilchins, was chosen executive director by the new board of directors.  Wilchins, a white post-operative male-to-female transsexual, had already founded The Transexual Menace.  However, as executive director, Wilchins began to take the organization in a very different direction. By the end of 1999, Wilchins shifted GenderPAC from the original vision of its founders to a very different organization with a very different mission. With Gina Reiss as managing director, Wilchins then went public with her intention to reject the original conception of a transgender advocacy organization in favor of a vague, rather inchoate concept of a ‘gender rights’ organization.

The particulars of the story are important to detail because of GenderPAC position as the only national (trans)gender advocacy organization with a significant budget and paid staff.  Before rejecting the concept of transgender advocacy, Wilchins had been regarded by many in the transgender community as its national spokesperson and GenderPAC had been recognized nationally as the voice of the transgender community. The critique here is not so much about personality issues – though there may very well be such issues – but rather about an entire strategy, which is not only incidentally flawed, but inherently flawed.

Wilchins’ rejection of GenderPAC’s original mission as a national voice for the transgender movement is symptomatic of the inherent problems of attempting to create a movement while denying the existence of a community upon which it is based.  Community is a necessary component of movement politics.  Organizational accountability to the community is not only the analogue, but also the concomitant, to – individual accountability to a board of directors.  Any refusal to acknowledge community as the basis of movement politics ultimately represents an attempt to evade responsibility to a larger collective.  Wilchins’ decision to reject the notion of transgender community organizing has had profound implications for the community and the movement that GenderPAC once claimed to represent.

In a speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference, Wilchins attempted to articulate what she termed “a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.”

The speech, entitled “A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights,” is perhaps the clearest articulation of the discourse of the ‘post-identity politics’ gender rights movement that Wilchins has championed, a discourse that I will simply call ‘the post-identity politics paradigm’ (or ‘PPP’ for short).  Wilchins gave speech at a plenary session of the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference.  Because of the importance of this speech for my critique, I will quote it in full.

The Gill Speech

A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights

by Riki Wilchins

Someone has just been kind enough to remind me that Tim is sitting right here, and I better be good. So I just want you to know I’m not intimidated…much. And since I’m not, I want to tell you about the last time I was intimidated.  Patricia Ireland had invited me to address NOW’s National Board on transgender inclusion.  For reasons which now escape me, I thought it would be in good taste to remind them of NOW’s purges of lesbian and bisexual women in 1969 and their resulting confrontation with the Lavender Menace.  So I wore my black Transexual Menace T-shirt with its blood-dripping red letters. Patricia introduced me and then sat down, looking tolerantly and encouragingly up.

Now there are only two ways to do this.  Way ONE relies largely on guilt, coupled with earnest appeals to good old-fashioned liberal values like tolerance and acceptance.  To wit: You should include us poor trannies because its the right thing to do and there are all kinds of women, and once we’ve had surgery we’re physically pretty much just like you, etc., etc.  Way ONE depends on your audience’s goodwill and well-honed consciences and it often works.  But it’s no fun. Not to do and not to be on the receiving end of. I mean, who enjoys feeling guilty? Between you and me, I’d much rather be bitchy.

So I chose Way TWO.  Now, Way TWO consists of building a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.  Way TWO is a LOT more fun.  So I looked around the room at all these powerful, very serious and intimidating women, and said, “Many of you are no doubt wondering why a man with a vagina is standing here lecturing you on where feminism should go…” — I look down at Patricia here and notice she is now searching vigorously in her wrist for a good vein to open — “.. but consider for a moment that men with vaginas are what gender looks like when it’s de-regulated, and so my presence here today is a sign of your success and not your failure.”  And they got it. I was not going to plead for their acceptance or tolerance or ask them to validate my poor white post-operative body as female.  Instead I was going to recruit them — to take a step with me out of the old paradigm that had created these boundaries between us we were now so busily surmounting.  I was going to invite them to have a different kind of dialog, one whose origins lay in a totally difference place, one where our task was not surmounting our separateness but rather exploring the strengths of our already being together.  And that’s what I’d like to do with you this evening.

If you hoped to hear a lot about how we’re all basically bisexual or what how it feels to be a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” this is going to be a bit disappointing.  And if you want someone to tell you why you should add Bi and Trans to your giving, I’m none too good at that either.  I’ve never been trapped in anyone else’s body and I hope you haven’t either, although I was once trapped in Manhattan for almost 18 years and I suspect it feels pretty much the same.  And as far as my gender is concerned, I admit I do still occasionally awake quivering in the night with the conviction I am trapped in the wrong culture.  But we’re not going to do Way ONE tonight.  Because the gays and lesbians picked out for harassment or assault are almost always targeted because of their gender:  because they aren’t “just like everyone else” — because they are “visibly queer.”

I’m not going to tell you about Kinsey sexuality scales from 1 to 6, or tell you that debating bi and trans people in the gay movement is like debating gays in the military: they’ve always been here, they always will be, and they’ve always given and served with courage and distinction.  I’m not going to tell you that as far for our apparently endless public debate over whether gender belongs in a gay movement, that the boys we beat up after school, the girls we humiliated for looking just like the gym teacher, and all those people your mom and mine “just knew” were homosexuals – all that was about gender.  Because the gays and lesbians picked out for harassment or assault are almost always targeted because of their gender: because they aren’t “just like everyone else” — because they are “visibly queer.”

And so that if you want to know what it’s really like to transcend narrow gender stereotypes and what it costs, please don’t come up afterwards and ask me – just turn to that nice person sitting on your right or your left and ask them. Because chances are, they’ve been there.  And so it’s not so much a question of including transgender, as of recognizing that gender has always been a part of a gay agenda and always will be.  I’m not going to make these and a dozen other telling points we both know I could make because: first, if you’re here today you’re smart enough to probably know most of this. And second, because as donors and activists I don’t think our activism should come from a place of guilt or tolerance or even wanting people to feel included.  Giving is activism, and I believe we do activism because we have no other choice, because in our guts we have that impractical and totally inconvenient thing: a passion to make the world a better place, the spiritual faith that that is possible, and a personal vision of what that should look like.

So I’d like to recruit you for the next 15 minutes on a ride into another paradigm, another discussion of our bodies, identities, and desires. Fasten your genders, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.  I know it’s going to be bumpy, because I’ve been on it myself. Twenty years ago I was telling anyone who would listen that I WAS “trapped in a man’s body. ” My FTM friends were telling everyone they were “men trapped in women’s’ bodies.” Collectively we sounded like a bunch of internals organs plotting a prison break.  That’s how it was for me in 1980.

But then last month I was at Camp Trans outside the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where they’d just kicked us out again. I was throwing football with this boy-identified-dyke named Ellen who prefers being called Jesse.  Jesse was leaving the Lesbian Avengers and I asked him why. He replied that it was because of that tired old lesbian pecking order.  I told him I knew exactly what he meant. The cutest lesbians are always at the top, the least attractive at the bottom, and so on and so on.  Jesse looked at me pittyingly and said, “Well, dude… actually it’s more like the fags and trannie boyz are at the top, FtMs, boychicks, andros and faggot-identified dykes are in the middle, and the butches and femmes are at the bottom.”

I looked at him and said, “Obviously. I knew that. I just wanted to see if YOU knew that.”  The identities you and I spent such time coming to grips with, coming out about, and defending at such great cost are not even an issue for these kids. They are beyond the boxes in which you and I have made our lives.  For many of them it’s not about the right to be gay or lesbian, bi, trans or straight, but something they hold much more dear:  the right to be who and what they are, whole and complete and without omission, even if that doesn’t fit any of the pre-existing categories and means making up whole new names for themselves on the spot.

But there’s a funny thing about walls: they not only keep others out, they also end up keeping us in.  I am reminded here that Audre Lorde taught us the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house. Is it too much to say that the notion of the homosexual — and perhaps even gay identity itself — is not in some way an invention of heterosexuality? Perhaps even a re-affirmation — if only unconsciously — that the most important thing about us should be where we stand in relation to reproduction?

Would it be overreaching to say that just as light requires dark, and male requires an opposing female, so gayness actually requires an antecedent and opposing straightness? So that instead of struggling against a hetero-centric culture, gayness actually demands and solidifies it?  Is it possible that with these kids are onto something — that with these pre-fabricated identities of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender we are so quick to occupy that we are still living in the Master’s house?  And so when it comes to inclusion we are less interested in tearing down the house than in building a small, yet tastefully furnished addition out back? One which will hold Jesse and all these troubling new identities?

So I am very interested when my good friend Rich Tafel says that he doesn’t think gender is part of a gay movement, because it’s not sexual orientation, or when some activists denounce the “diluting” of gay rights with bi and trans issues.  Because I take it as axiomatic that if what we want is a civil rights movement for gays and lesbians, then these voices are right. We should keep the walls around our movement intact and get on with our business.  But there’s a funny thing about walls: they not only keep others out, they also end up keeping us in.

We are on the verge of creating a movement that says to its own young:  “Be all you can be, go wherever your heart and mind and talent can take you… Just don’t become too straight. Don’t find out you’re bisexual. Don’t change your body or gender too much. Because if you do, we’re not sure you’ll still qualify to be represented by a gay and lesbian movement.”  Such a movement, which sets out to free gay people, actually ends up erecting yet another set of barriers and constraints that keep them in.

It is beyond dispute that today gay rights, like feminism before it, is going from strength to strength. Yet just as young women in droves are refusing to identify as feminists, so I routinely speak before groups of young queers who refuse to identify as gay or straight – because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t even select their partners by sex.

They want not only their freedom as gay people, but paradoxically also their freedom not to be gay – to have their primary social identity determined by something greater than whom they sleep with or even whom they love.

They are not seeking submersion into large, impersonal pre-existing categories, but instead searching newer, smaller ways to be and understand who they are.  For twenty-somethings with buzz-cut lime-green hair, bull-rings in their nose, and androgynous hip-hop clothes, the harassment they get at school, at work, and on the street is not just about their orientation or even their sex but about their gender.

And this is where I’d like to talk a little about my own organization, a national tax-exempt group called GenderPAC because we’re the group working to ensure every American’s civil right to express their gender free from stereotypes, discrimination and violence.

Our work focuses on Congressional advocacy, hate crimes, job discrimination, impact litigation, and youth outreach.  And if that sounds like we cover the waterfront, it’s because we own that section of the waterfront: no other national group is focusing on issues of gender.

GenderPAC is a “post-identity” organization, meaning we are committed to building a broad-based, national movement for gender rights that includes all of us.  I am fond of observing that GenderPAC has no “Allies Program,” because gender is too basic to be confined to any one group, and too fundamental to leave anyone behind. Gender rights are for all of us.

And here I mean gender in its widest sense – including sexual orientation, because I take it as self-evident that the mainspring of homophobia is gender: the notion that gay men are insufficiently masculine or lesbian women somehow necessarily inadequately feminine.

And I include sex, because I take it as prima facie that what animates misogyny and sexism is our society’s astonishing fear and loathing around issues of vulnerability or femininity.  And so the question here today isn’t so much a matter of you accepting us or letting us in, but of you coming out to join us.

In a post-identity movement, who we are is not a pre-condition for working together – our identification as gender activists comes out of the work we do.  And so identity becomes not a cause of our politics, but an effect — not a wall to be defended and debated but something mobile, personal, and flexible that changes and grows with us as our understanding of ourselves changes and grows.  And all these confusing, even threatening new identities are not barbarians at the gate but a doorway out. Their messiness is not the problem, it’s the solution — a tactic, even an essential political goal.

And so the question here today isn’t so much a matter of you accepting us or letting us in, but of you coming out to join us.  Because success looks less like B and T inclusion than my friend Jesse, the football throwing ex-Lesbian Avenger who personally identifies as a queer trannie boy but politically as a dyke but who admits he may someday to want to take testosterone. Success looks like messy new identities we don’t like and can’t name that create possibilities and freedoms we never intended.

Because it is your work and your foundation over the last three decades that has made people like Jesse and me possible, that has made possible a broad-based, inclusive national movement for gender civil rights.  And so by now if some of you are wondering why a man with a vagina who lives with her lesbian lover is standing here lecturing you about where gay rights and gay giving should go, consider that lesbian men with vaginas is what gay liberation looks like when desire is de-regulated, and so my being here today is a sign of your success and not your failure.

I hope you will leave thinking less about how to refine the noun-list so no one feels excluded from our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex,leatherqueer, questioning, straight sympathetic, youth movement, but rather to begin thinking of new foundations for our politics.  What will such a foundation look like?

Let me close by observing that in one thirty-day period in the beautiful island of Manhattan, I have been harassed as a dyke, a sex-change, a bitch, and a fag.  I live in one body — why can’t fight in one movement?  Why do I have to section my politics up into so many pizza slices: this wedge to women’s’ rights, this to gay rights, another for gender rights, and so on?

We keep building movements that are simpler than we are.  But discrimination is like my new Gap cable-knit sweater — I pull it here and it also tugs somewhere else. So that it’s never just about gender, but it’s always about gender and sexual orientation, or gender and race, or gender and age, or gender and class.

We need to begin building movements which are as rich and rude and messy and complex as the lives we lead, the challenges we face and the scars we bear.  We need movements that demand that we build bridges to one another instead of burn them, that we stress our commonalities instead of our differences.  So that whenever there’s a wall, we should be with those outside of it.  When there’s a vote on inclusion, you and I should be standing among those voted on.

What I am interested in is my freedom NOT to be transexual — a category which was defined in my absence, which is irrevocably heterosexual, and whose sole purpose is annexing my social identity to the clothes I wear and what genitals I have – something I find demeaning in its inception and debasing in its execution.

No matter who is included we should always be left behind because as Alice Walker says – “never be the only one in the room.” And so I take it to be our responsibility as activists to always stand with those smaller voices forgotten at the margins. Just as I take it to be our responsibility to see which faces are alone or unrepresented in the room.

Because in the final analysis, the moral center of a movement is not defined by how well and how long we fight for our own rights. Important as that is, it’s also enlightened self-interest: we all want our own rights. The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us, for those more easily left behind.

And so when someone asks me, “What about GenderPAC, isn’t that the transgender organization?”

I say that no, it’s not. I reply that half our board and more than half our membership are gay, feminist, or youth-identified. A transgender struggle is an important thing, but it is not my fight. In fact I personally have no interest in being transexual or transgender.

What I am interested in is my freedom NOT to be transexual — a category which was defined in my absence, which is irrevocably heterosexual, and whose sole purpose is annexing my social identity to the clothes I wear and what genitals I have — something I find demeaning in its inception and debasing in its execution.  What I am interested in is the original cultural gesture to regulate what your body and mine can mean, or say, or do.

And so for me, the point of a gender movement is not only those familiar specimens inevitably corralled in the Binary Zoo: the stone butches and diesel dykes, drag kings and queens, leatherdykes and dyke daddies, radical fairies and nelly fags, the transexuals, transgender, crossdressers, and intersex.

But it’s also about the seventeen year-old Midwestern cheerleader who ruins her health with anorexia because “real women” are supposed to be preternaturally thin. It’s about the forty-six year-old Joe Six-Pack who wraps his car around a crowded school bus on the way home from the bar because “real men” are supposed to be heavy drinkers. It’s about the aging lesbian who suffers through a wholly unnecessary hysterectomy because certain kinds of gendered bodies simply don’t matter as much. And it’s about a shy, sensitive, and mostly straight young man who is repeatedly gang-raped his first year in prison because, within that environment, he is perceived as genderqueer, genderdifferent, or simply gendervulnerable.

In short, a broad-based and inclusive national movement for gender civil rights is not only about people like Brandon Teena, Amanda Milan, Christian Paige, Debbi Forte, Tyra Hunter, Marsha P. Johnson, and Mathew Shepard — people who lost their lives, who were picked out and picked on because they were slight or gay or blond or black or visibly queer — but about working until each and every one of us is freed from this most pernicious, divisive and destructive of insanities called gender-based oppression.  Thank you.

________________

Having quoted Wilchins’ speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference, I will now proceed to outline what I see to be the problems of the ‘new paradigm’ that her speech ostensibly articulates.  There are a number of such problems.

First, there is the problem of the conflation of sexual orientation with gender identity and expression.  Second, there is the problem of the practical application of Wilchins’ notions in the legislative arena.  Third, there is the problem raised by Wilchins’ conception of identity formation, as it might be applied to race.  Fourth, there is the parallel problem as applied to gender.  And fifth, there is the problem of the apparent contradiction of ‘post-modernism’ and liberal rights discourse in Wilchins’ thinking.  I will take each of these in turn.

The Conflation of Homosexuality and Transgender

At its heart, the discourse of a post-identity politics movement is based on a misconception about the nature of individual identity and the relationship of sexual orientation to gender identity and expression. Wilchins’ analysis of the sex/gender binary is reductive, attempting to reduce one form of oppression to the other, rather than recognizing them as mutually reinforcing discourses of oppression.  One cannot fully understand homophobia or genderphobia unless one maintains the conceptual distinction between homophobia and genderphobia.  Hence, in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins makes it impossible to successfully explain either.  In her Gill speech (quoted in full above), Wilchins declares,

And here I mean gender in its widest sense – including sexual orientation, because I take it as self-evident that the mainspring of homophobia is gender: the notion that gay men are insufficiently masculine or lesbian women somehow necessarily inadequately feminine.  And I include sex, because I take it as prima facie that what animates misogyny and sexism is our society’s astonishing fear and loathing around issues of vulnerability or femininity.

In fact, it is not at all self-evident that “the mainspring of homophobia is gender.”  Not all gay people are gender-variant, with the ‘butch’ gay man and the ‘lipstick lesbian’ exemplifying the gender-conventional; the oppression they face could not therefore be attributed to their outward gender expression.  There are many cases of conventionally gendered lesbians and gay men facing discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation alone. Relatively ‘butch’ gay men, for example, have been attacked leaving gay bars despite— and one is almost tempted to hypothesize because of – their gender conventionality.  In fact, the very assertion of a self-conscious masculinity on the part of gay men in the 1970s may have provoked even more intense hostility on the part of some homophobic men who may have perceived those masculine gay men to be all the more threatening because of their relative masculinity; in other words, in the logic of a homophobe, if a relatively manly man can be gay, a manly man like me could be gay.

A more conceptually sophisticated analysis would recognize homophobia and (trans)genderphobia as mutually reinforcing discourses of oppression, one in which neither is fully reducible to the other, though interrelated.  One could draw an analogy with explanations of racism based in class prejudice. Clearly, race cannot be reduced to class, because racial discrimination cannot be fully explained as class discrimination.  Similarly, discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation cannot be fully reduced to oppression based on gender expression, especially in cases involving conventionally gendered LGBs.   But in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins implicitly dismisses the distinct forms of oppression faced by conventionally gendered LGBs.

Clearly, gender variance is relative; but it is equally clear that the kind of oppression faced by relatively more gender-variant LGBs is likely to be more intense than that faced by more conventionally gendered LGBs; they are, in any case, different and distinct.  Collapsing homophobia into genderphobia provides Wilchins with a rationale for jettisoning the concept of ‘transgender,’ which she finds hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date.  But in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins is left without a conceptual framework for distinguishing between gender-based and non-gender-based homophobia.  Hence, Wilchins’ conceptual framework does not allow her to recognize the greater potential for discrimination and violence faced by gender-variant LGBs.

Ironically enough, then, Wilchins’ desire to focus on what she sees to be the gender-based roots of homophobia leads her inadvertently to minimize or trivialize the oppression that gender-variant LGBs face specifically because of their gender variance, as opposed to their sexual orientation alone.

While the conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity leads to conceptual confusion, it also provides an opportunity for Wilchins to try to bridge what she perceives to be a gap between traditional ‘gay’ politics and the newer politics of transgender.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that GenderPAC’s philosophy and strategy are premised on a conflation of sexual orientation and gender, and that conflation allows Wilchins to position herself as the leader of a post-transgender organization, one which is guided by an ostensibly sophisticated conception of gender that is ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘post-identity politics.’

Wilchins thus casts herself as the avatar of a new age in which GenderPAC will lead a gender rights movement that will supercede both the old gay and lesbian rights movement and the newer transgender rights movement.  What this all-inclusive ‘national gender rights movement’ ends up looking like, in practice, is an organization whose primary constituency would appear to be non-transsexual transgendered youth who are uncomfortable with any fixed gender identity and who reject the classic transsexual transition narrative.

GenderPAC’s membership seems to be especially heavy with college students, mostly of female birth sex, who are intrigued by Wilchins’ use of Butlerian terms such as ‘gender performativity’ and notions of gender fluidity that seem to apply so well to their own personal experiences at that stage of their lives.  Since many of these individuals have identified as lesbians at some point but seem dissatisfied with the inability of that term to adequately describe or encompass the gender-transgressive component of their identities, they are especially attracted to the way in which Wilchins seems to be able to bring the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity together.

Praxis Makes Perfect: Applying the Paradigm in the ‘Real World’

The faults of Wilchins’ approach can be observed by applying it to a current political battle engaged by the movement.  The focus of national efforts for many years has been passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the federal gay rights bill currently pending in Congress.  The New York state equivalent of ENDA is the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which was enacted by the New York State legislature in December 2003 after a 31-year struggle.  ENDA is being championed by the Human Rights Campaign, the wealthiest and most powerful national lesbian and gay political organizations; while the campaign for SONDA is being led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the leading state lesbian and gay political organization in New York (and the largest state lesbian and gay political organization in the country.

In Wilchins’ view, the gay movement does not understand that gender oppression is at the root of homophobia and therefore seeks to exclude transgendered people in a futile attempt to appropriate heteronormativity; but the transgender movement too narrowly circumscribes the concept of gender because it is rooted in the medical model of transsexuality and therefore excludes non-surgical ‘gender queers.’

The equivalent of Wilchins’ desiradatum – ‘a national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ – would be a ‘national sexual freedom civil rights movement for all Americans’ that would remove ‘identity politics’ labels such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay.’    Sexual orientation is not only an important component of legal discourse – without which anti-gay discrimination cannot be addressed – it is also a legitimate organizing principle.  In fact, everyone has a sexual orientation, and ‘sexual orientation’ is usually defined (as it is, for example, in SONDA) as including heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.  In that sense, passage of ENDA at the federal level or SONDA at the state level would provide discrimination protections for heterosexuals as well as for LGB people.

The biggest controversy surrounding both ENDA and SONDA has been over the lack of gender identity or expression language in those bills, and the question arises as to how one can create a broad movement that includes all LGBT people.  (NYAGRA has spoken publicly in favor of transgender-inclusive SONDA and ENDA bills.)  But that issue aside, the simple reality is that a ‘sexual freedom’ movement that is all-inclusive and that abjures any gay-specific focus would lose its ability to engage lesbian and gay people in any meaningful way.  Only by naming the specific oppression faced by lesbian and gay people – viz., homophobia – can a movement hope to diminish their marginalization in society.

That is not to say that LGB organizations cannot work in coalition with non-LGBT organizations in getting  (ideally transgender-inclusive) gay rights legislation passed.  Because LGB people have distinct issues that most heterosexuals do not face, there will be a need for lesbian and gay organizations whose primary mission is to address homophobia.

Wilchins’ call to abandon the term transgender is roughly analogous to asking HRC or ESPA to change its name to the Campaign for Sexual Freedom.  In fact, there is an organization called the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.  NCSF describes itself as:

…a national organization committed to protecting freedom of expression among consenting adults. Based in Washington, D.C., NCSF works through legal initiatives, lobbying, outreach, and education to promote greater understanding of sexuality and human rights. Founded in 1997, NCSF mobilizes diverse grassroots communities to help change antiquated and unfair sex laws, and to protect free speech and advance privacy rights. NCSF is dedicated to ensuring that all consenting adults can express their sexual identity freely and openly, without fear.

It is unlikely that organizations such as HRC or ESPA would remove ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ from their mission statements and their literature and jettison the use of the term ‘sexual orientation’ in favor of some broader but vaguer notion of ‘sexual freedom for all,’ and if that scenario seems extremely far-fetched, it is because such a move would represent a rejection of the fundamental principles around which lesbian and gay groups have been organized heretofore.

But Wilchins stakes out a much bigger territory than even a movement that covers both the transgender movement and the lesbian and gay movement.  Wilchins’ assertion that “no other national group is focusing on issues of gender” should come as a surprise to Patricia Ireland, a member of the (post-purge) GenderPAC board and former head of the National Organization for Women.  If NOW is not a national group focusing on issues of gender, what is it?  Perhaps Wilchins is attempting to suggest that NOW does not include transgender as an issue and therefore is only a ‘women’s organization.’  But NOW has in fact moved in the last few years to include transgender issues in its organizational mission; and of course, NOW is only one of many gender rights organizations.  And given Ireland’s role in NOW, with her membership of the GenderPAC board, it is all the more difficult to understand what basis Wilchins has for asserting that GenderPAC is the only national group focusing on issues of gender.

In this context, one can probably best understand Wilchins’ assertion as part of a marketing strategy under which GenderPAC is marketed as being ‘more’ than just a transgender organization, because it (ostensibly) has a broader conception of gender; broader than any lesbian and gay rights organization because it includes a focus on gender issues; and broader than any women’s organization because it includes genderqueers who are not part of the traditional mission of organizations such as NOW.

But for all that she claims to be engaged in a critique of binary thinking, Wilchins ironically constructs her own binary opposition, implicitly pitting a ‘transgender’ movement against a broader and more inclusive ‘gender’ movement. This is a false dichotomy.  Wilchins offers no evidence that a self-styled transgender movement cannot include both non-transgendered gender-variant individuals as well as issues faced by such individuals.  Clearly, there is no ‘either/or’ here.  There is no reason to jettison the concept of transgender simply because it is not all-inclusive; nor is there any reason to believe that a transgender movement cannot be based on a conception of gender oppression that encompasses the anorexic cheerleader or the ‘Joe Six-Pack’ alcoholic or the straight victim of prison gang rape.

Race, Gender, Identity Formation and the Politics of Community

The third difficulty with Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm lies in the way in which Wilchins misconstrues the nature of gender identity formation and political movements rooted in communities organized around such identities.  Underlying the discourse of a post-identity politics gender rights movement is the assumption that any exclusion is bad – both illegitimate and politically problematic – coupled with the assumption that any exclusion is equivalent to any other kind of exclusion.

The rationale implicit in this discourse would seem to be something like this: genderqueers (transgendered and gender-variant people, by any other name) have been excluded from the lesbian and gay movement, and that is a bad thing. Genderqueers (including male-to-female transsexuals) have been excluded from the women’s movement, and that is a bad thing.  The underlying assumption would seem to be that any movement that excludes anyone is morally suspect and politically questionable.  But the fundamental error is the failure to take account of the asymmetry of power between privileged and marginalized groups in American society.

A case in point is Wilchins’ reaction to an invitation to attend TransWorld in October 1998.  Co-sponsored by the Gender Identity Project (GIP) of the New York City Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) and the Audre Lorde Project, TransWorld I (which took place at ALP in Brooklyn) was the first conference specifically by and for transgendered people of color (TGPOCs).  The organizing committee for TransWorld I made the decision to invite only people of color to speak as formal presenters, though the conference was open to everyone whether white or of color, transgendered or not.  As one of the members of the planning committee, I voted for that decision because I felt that it was necessary to ensure that the conference provide an opportunity for TGPOCs to speak for themselves.  Previous conferences in the series sponsored by the Center’s GIP (of which TransWorld I was the fourth) had featured largely conventionally gendered white men literally and figuratively talking down to transgendered people from the dais.  This conference would be different: it would feature transgendered and gender-variant people of color speaking from personal experience of oppression and marginalization as well as from expertise in health care, social services, and advocacy.

Wilchins’ reaction to the decision to invite only people of color to speak as formal presenters was to denounce the conference as ‘racist’ because it ‘excluded’ white people.  Her response to the invitation to attend TransWorld was not merely an expression of her personal pique at not having been invited to speak at the conference.  The rejection of TransWorld I and limited-membership formations – based on the assumption of a symmetry of ‘exclusion’ – demonstrates a failure to understand the difference between the power of a white elite vs. the power of marginalized communities, as well as a failure to understand the nature of institutionalized racism in this society.

The ‘exclusion’ of whites from the dais at TransWorld I cannot be equated with the historic exclusion of transgendered people of color from positions of power in society, because those white service providers – whether physicians (such as surgeons and endocrinologists), psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers, or other ‘gender professionals’ – are in positions of power relative to the transgendered people of color who are their clients (or ‘patients’ or ‘consumers,’ however one may wish to describe them).  Such white gender professionals – most of whom are not themselves transgender-identified – exercise power over their clients as ‘gatekeepers’ in terms of affording (or denying) access to hormones, sex reassignment surgery, psychological evaluation, legal change of sex, and other crucial aspects of transsexual transition.  Those professionals have access to resources – financial, legal, and organizational –that their clients largely lack, and the institutional power that they command therefore belies any ‘moral equivalency’ between their ‘exclusion’ from the dais at this one event and the exclusion of transgendered people of color from positions of power in a white-dominant society brought about by pervasive discrimination based on race or gender identity that TGPOCs face.

The decision of the TransWorld I organizing committee to limit panels to people of color only was understood by committee members as an attempt to provide transgendered people of color themselves with a forum in which they could speak unhindered by service providers who had dominated the previous three ‘health empowerment’ conferences sponsored by the GIP.  That decision was informed by a recognition of the multiple oppressions – oppressions based on race, ethnicity, language, national origin, and citizenship status (among others) as well as gender identity and expression – faced by transgendered people of color.

It is important to understand, however, that such oppressions are not merely additive in nature; in other words, it is not simply that a transgendered African American faces transgenderphobia in one context and racism in another; rather, these oppressions are interactive and mutually reinforcing.    For example, a transgendered African American woman may find no support as a person of color at a white-dominated center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities; but she may also find no support as a transgendered person at a community center or social service provider in her community of origin.

Related to oppressions based on race and ethnicity are those based on nationality and citizenship status.  Many TGPOCs are immigrants and face the same challenges as their non-transgendered compatriots, but without access to social services in their communities, because most immigrant service providers will not serve openly transgendered people.  Even in those rare instances where social service agencies may welcome them, transgendered people may be reluctant to come forward for fear of discrimination.  While LGBT community centers are springing up across the country, very few have any means of ensuring linguistic access for those who are not native speakers of English.

Those TGPOCs who are not US citizens do not have even the minimal legal rights that transgendered citizens enjoy; if they are undocumented, they are easily deportable; and while they live here in the United States, undocumented transpeople face exploitation because of their lack of legal status.   Hence GenderPAC’s call for a ‘post-identity politics national gender rights movement for all Americans’ begs the question as to just who constitutes an ‘American.’  To define the category of ‘all Americans’ by way of citizenship would leave out the undocumented, who are the most vulnerable to exploitation.  But to include the undocumented would raise the question of whether or not GenderPAC is serious about working on behalf of this population.

While transgendered people of color certainly need legal protections from discrimination and violence, they do not have the luxury to regard legal rights as the sum total of the movement’s goals.  Juridical rights are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the liberation of transgendered people of color.  A movement that limits its focus to legal rights will not be able to satisfy the need for social justice that transgendered people feel deeply.  That movement, in order to serve transgendered people of color, must also address issues of race, ethnicity, language, national origin, and citizenship status, as well as class, (dis)ability, environment, and every other form of oppression suffered by TGPOCs.  Hence, a broad social justice movement is desperately needed, and an organization that embodies those values is a necessary component of that movement.

Wilchins’ failure to understand the variegation of gender oppression by race and ethnicity is compounded by a failure to understand the variegation of gender oppression by demographic groups within the ‘transgender’ population.  Here, I will make reference to my own schema for describing the different populations involved.  The first of these can be labeled the transsexual: those who seek or have obtained sex reassignment surgery (SRS).  (I use the term ‘transsexual’ advisedly, recognizing that it is a part of a medical model of transgender as pathology; but it is also a term of self-definition for many transgendered people.)  The second, much larger, group could be labeled the transgendered, and would include those who live a significant portion of their lives presenting fully in the gender opposite their birth sex, but most of whom do not seek SRS.  A still much larger category would be the gender-variant, those who transgress gender boundaries to a significant extent, but most of whom who still identify with the sex assigned to them at birth and do not present fully in the gender opposite that birth sex.  As a series of concentric circles, this schema allows us to neatly describe a population with literally hundreds of self-identifying names.

The complexity of the transgender community and the variability of gender oppression across different transgender populations and different transgendered and gender-variant people provides the rationale for the use of ‘transgender’ by an organization or a movement.  Deployed strategically and with intellectual and political sophistication, ‘transgender’ becomes a useful organizing principle for a community under construction that is attempting to create a political movement.

Indeed, it can be argued – and I will argue here that GenderPAC failed to connect to community.  The discourse of a ‘post-identity politics’ movement has no role for communities of any kind.  The post-identity politics paradigm is all about “doing your own thing,” as the phrase popular in the 1960s and 1970s would have it; and that may account for GenderPAC’s appeal to genderqueer youth, especially female-bodied youth who do not relate to terms such as ‘transsexual or even ‘transgender.’  Wilchins apparently believes that gender is primarily or perhaps even solely a matter of self-expression; what she does not understand is that gender identities are constructed by individuals in the context of larger communities, including the broad national community that we call ‘society.’  Public fora and conferences such as TransWorld that have a circumscribed focus are necessary precisely because transgendered and gender-variant people do not exist solely as atomized individuals; they live in communities – even if some are profoundly alienated from communities, including communities of origin and communities of color.

At root, the discourse of a post-identity politics movement is premised on an atomized individualism that does not recognize the social context in which gender identities are formed. Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm reduces the problem of gender oppression to a simple society-wide oppression of genderqueers attempting to express their individual gender identities.  But the lack of conceptual sophistication regarding the variegation of gender oppression across different cultures and communities is not the only conceptual flaw in the discourse of a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans.’  A reading of American history will show that the very notion of a ‘post-identity politics’ is fundamentally ahistorical, as it fails to acknowledge the identity politics of Jeffersonian liberalism, which was premised on an identity politics that excluded some from power because of their identity.  Identity politics did not begin in the 1960s; rather, the women’s movement, the lesbian and gay rights movement, and the African American civil rights movement were simply a different form of identity politics.  Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm is rooted in an individual rights discourse of Enlightenment provenance that ironically enough – and fatally for its intellectual coherence – is at odds with Wilchins’ ostensible ‘post-modernism.’

Wilchins’ rather superficial critique of ‘post-identity politics’ really speaks only to the excesses of an exclusionary version of identity politics and does not acknowledge the origin of identity politics, much less address the issues raised by white skin privilege. GenderPAC’s call for a post-identity gender politics is analogous to Ward Connerly’s call for a color-blind society.  The discourse of a color-blind society – promoted by conservatives who aim to eliminate affirmative action – fails to recognize the specificity of racial and ethnic oppression and therefore renders impossible any effort to address it.  In certain profound sense, the call for a post-identity gender rights movement represents a ‘whitewashing’ of gender and transgender politics.   One can best understand the pernicious role that Wilchins has played in the transgender politics of the last decade by examining her use of the term ‘gender orientation.’

Implicit in Wilchins’ critique of identity politics is an assumption that identities are somehow fixed and exclusive.  Wilchins implies that identifying as ‘gay’ somehow precludes identifying as ‘transgendered’ or that identifying as ‘transgendered’ somehow precludes one from identifying as ‘genderqueer.’  But identities need not be mutually exclusive; rather more like Venn diagrams – overlapping and not entirely definable.

‘Transgender’ is an identity formation that offers the same kind of advantages by bringing together a loose collection of individuals – crossdressers, transsexuals, drag queens, and other gender-variant individuals – who may have many differences but who can achieve greater political agency through coalition-building, which is precisely what the construction of a ‘transgender community’ represents when brought to bear on the creation of a transgender political movement.  Transgender offers the additional advantage of moving beyond the pathologizing medical model of transsexuality.  The fact that ‘transgender’ does not include everyone who might be identified as gender-variant, much less the total human population does not invalidate it as a construct.

The term ‘transgender’ can be deployed strategically – as the example of the campaign for Int. No. 24 in  New York City shows – in order to bring legal rights to individuals who face pervasive discrimination.  Similarly, terms such as ‘gender-variant’ or (if you prefer) ‘genderqueer’ can be deployed as well.  These are all clearly social constructions, and the one to be used in any given context depends on the particulars of that context.

Because of personal experiences of being excluded, transgendered and gender-variant people have become sensitive to the notion of exclusion of any kind.  Perhaps some of this sentiment is behind Wilchins’ insistence that a gender rights movement, to be legitimate, must include everyone.  But if the African American rights movement does not include everyone, does that invalidate it in some way?  Certainly, white people (including many Jewish Americans) have played an important role in the movement, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when liberal whites in the South and from the North participated in Freedom Summer and other civil rights campaigns.  But the focus was clearly on dismantling Jim Crow, which directly affected African Americans in the South, even if it had an indirect impact on whites, especially those who supported the black aspiration for civil rights.  Was the African American civil rights movement ‘exclusionary’ because it did not specifically seek to include Latinos or Native Americans?  Or was it rather more effective because it chose to focus on the specificity of oppression faced by African Americans, which was distinct from that of other people of color?

To suggest that it is illegitimate to organize around identity formations is to suggest that those identities are illegitimate.  Indeed, such a suggestion represents nothing less than an attempt to invalidate efforts to address racial and ethnic oppression itself.

‘Paradigm-Shattering’ and the Disjuncture of the Liberal and the Post-Modern

Wilchins describes her work in GenderPAC as

…building a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.

Wilchins’ argument is not consistently or rigorously ‘post-modern,’ and it is not so much ‘insubordinate’ as simply incoherent.

There is in fact a fundamental disjuncture at the heart of Wilchins’ thought, between the rights discourse of a ‘national gender rights movement’ and the self-consciously ‘post-modern’ thinking of post-structuralist theory that is superficially applied to the problem of gender-based oppression.  Liberal rights discourse is premised on the very unicity of the unified subject as well as the specific identity of that subject (in demographic and (sub)national terms) that Derridean deconstruction would render impossible.  Rights appertain to individuals, and individuals with individual identities, not to gender expression itself – to acts, to gestures, or to performances.  And rights presuppose at the very least the possibility of an objective moral order.  One need only cite a few passages from her Gill speech to demonstrate how little Wilchins understands the conceptual problems posed by this disjuncture.  For example, in the speech to Gill, Wilchins declares,

…in the final analysis, the moral center of a movement is not defined by how well and how long we fight for our own rights. Important as that is, it’s also enlightened self-interest: we all want our own rights. The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us, for those more easily left behind.

But post-structuralist thought renders impossible the articulation of positive assertions of normative right that are a requisite of rights discourse.  Phrases such as ‘moral center’ are meaningless to the Derridean, because the inherent instability of the relationship of signifier to signified undermines the possibility of statements that are consistent in meaning across time or place.  Hence, statements such as “The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us” are as meaningless and nonsensical as statements such as “The present king of France is bald.”  But her Gill speech is replete with such frankly normative statements, such as when Wilchins enjoins her audience to ‘build bridges’ in a spirit of inclusion:

We need to begin building movements which are as rich and rude and messy and complex as the lives we lead, the challenges we face and the scars we bear.  We need movements that demand that we build bridges to one another instead of burn them, that we stress our commonalities instead of our differences.  So that whenever there’s a wall, we should be with those outside of it.  When there’s a vote on inclusion, you and I should be standing among those voted on.

To the post-structuralist theorist, injunctions to ‘bridge-building’ and to ‘inclusion’ are nothing but mere ‘utterances,’ because there is no such thing as objective moral obligation; given the inherently arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, there cannot be.

For at root, ‘post-modernism’ represents a challenge to the fixity of meaning.  For post-structuralists such as Derrida, the relationship between ‘signifier’ (e.g., word) and ‘signified’ (thing or concept) is inherently unstable and arbitrary.  If this is the case, there can be no conceptual ‘fundament’ to liberal rights discourse, because the meaning of the term ‘right’ itself cannot be fixed, any more than ‘individual’ can be:

If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field – that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalization.  This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions….

Liberal rights philosophy is precisely the kind of ‘totalizing’ discourse of which Derrida speaks in this passage.  Traditional philosophy – including the normative political philosophy of Locke and the liberal Enlightenment – is undermined by a deconstruction of the relationship between word (logos) and concept.  For the post-modernist, a normative project such as the construction of a ‘national gender civil rights movement’ is not only hopelessly old-fashioned, it is an impossibility, because the deconstruction of the unified subject and the relationship between word and concept makes it so.  Wilchins does not seem to understand that the central core of post-structuralism is the disjuncture between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified.’ In her Gill speech, Wilchins declares,

It’s also about the seventeen year-old Midwestern cheerleader who ruins her health with anorexia because “real women” are supposed to be preternaturally thin. It’s about the forty-six year-old Joe Six-Pack who wraps his car around a crowded school bus on the way home from the bar because “real men” are supposed to be heavy drinkers. It’s about the aging lesbian who suffers through a wholly unnecessary hysterectomy because certain kinds of gendered bodies simply don’t matter as much. And it’s about a shy, sensitive, and mostly straight young man who is repeatedly gang-raped his first year in prison because, within that environment, he is perceived as genderqueer, genderdifferent, or simply gendervulnerable.

But post-structuralist theory denies the very possibility of empirical ‘testing’ of such statements.  The ageing lesbian’s hysterectomy cannot be judged necessary or unnecessary, because such empirical hypotheses (e.g., “the ageing lesbian’s hysterectomy was wholly unnecessary”) is reduced to nothing more than an utterance, a line in a text.  For post-structuralist theorists such as Derrida, there is no external reality against which the ‘accuracy’ of such statements may be judged.  Rather, a post-structuralist theorist would characterize such statements as part of a text that in turn constitutes an element in a larger discourse.  One could speak of a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative’ or a ‘progressive’ or a ‘feminist’ discourse on (trans)gender rights; but post-structuralist theory provides no mechanism by which to measure the greater or lesser ‘accuracy’ of such discourses; indeed, the very concept is alien to post-structuralism.  Instead, there is (in the words of Derrida) only an infinite field of substitutions.

Furthermore, the deconstruction of the sovereign self means that these statements about anorexic cheerleaders, ageing lesbians, and straight victims of gang rape are not – cannot be – about ‘real’ people, but rather constitute a repertoire of discursive gestures whose relation to any such individuals is in a very profound sense purely rhetorical.  Invoking such figures as examples of individuals who are the objects of GenderPAC’s advocacy work demonstrates quite clearly that Wilchins does not understand the logical implications of her use of ‘post-modernism’ as a conceptual framework for her political philosophy.  For post-structuralist theory does not merely challenge the identities that Wilchins refers to in her Gill speech as “those familiar specimens inevitably corralled in the Binary Zoo”; post-structuralism challenges the very notion of individual or collective identity altogether.  It is not merely gender or gender identity that are performative, it is individual identity itself.  There is no individual to liberate or upon whose behalf to advocate.  Rather, there are a series of signifiers that are used to construct a text whose meaning is inherently ambiguous.  In the conclusion to her Gill speech, Wilchins laments,

Let me close by observing that in one thirty-day period in the beautiful island of Manhattan, I have been harassed as a dyke, a sex-change, a bitch, and a fag.  I live in one body — why can’t fight in one movement?  Why do I have to section my politics up into so many pizza slices: this wedge to women’s’ rights, this to gay rights, another for gender rights, and so on?

But Derrida has opened the possibility of the deconstruction of the sovereign self; hence there is (in this conception) no single unified subject that we can unambiguously label ‘Riki Anne Wilchins.’  Instead, ‘Riki Anne Wilchins’ becomes nothing morethan a nominal device for constructing a text about identity.  And the notion of ‘one movement’ becomes nothing more than a mere utterance whose connection with any actual collective entity in the ‘real world’ is ambiguous at best.   In her Gill speech, Wilchins declares,

GenderPAC is a ‘post-identity’ organization, meaning we are committed to building a broad-based, national movement for gender rights that includes all of us.

But if one were to take Derrida (by way of Butler) seriously, then there can be no unified subject ‘I’ and therefore no unambiguous collective ‘we’ or ‘us.’  Speaking to Gill, Wilchins describes

…a broad-based and inclusive national movement for gender civil rights [that] is not only about people like Brandon Teena, Amanda Milan, Christian Paige, Debbi Forte, Tyra Hunter, Marsha P. Johnson, and Mathew Shepard — people who lost their lives, who were picked out and picked on because they were slight or gay or blond or black or visibly queer — but about working until each and every one of us is freed from this most pernicious, divisive and destructive of insanities called gender-based oppression.

But the deconstructive turn in post-modernism renders such statements mere textual devices.  One cannot meaningfully speak of a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ because there is no collectivity that one can unambiguously point to as constituting ‘all Americans.’  To the post-structuralist theorist, the phrase constitutes nothing more than a discursive gesture, a rhetorical device, if you will.   While GenderPAC’s gender politics may be more appealing to some than that of a 1970s lesbian-feminist, a Log Cabin Republican, an evangelical Christian, or an Islamic fundamentalist, a rigorous and consistent post-structuralist theorist could not assign any greater moral value to one normative discourse over another or any greater weight to the empirical claims of one over another; at best, the post-structuralist could only discuss the philosophic and conceptual implications of each of these world views.  Unfortunately, Wilchins herself gives no indication of how, from the post-modern ethos she would embrace, she would find a middle ground between the Enlightenment concept of the self and the deconstructive reduction of identity to textual device, or how she would create a conceptual foundation for positive moral statements such as the ones that she makes in her Gill speech.

In short, the notion of a post-modern ‘post-identity politics national gender rights movement’ is inherently contradictory and intellectually incoherent.  Poststructuralist theory of the Derridean sort that informs the work of Judith Butler – which Wilchins in turn takes as the conceptual fundament for her own thought – challenges not only identity formations of the sort that Wilchins labels ‘identity politics,’ but also undermines the very possibility of affirmative statements about individual and collective human needs and human rights that are at the heart of the GenderPAC strategy and philosophy that she labels her ‘post-identity politics paradigm.’

That Wilchins does not recognize this problem, let acknowledge it, demonstrates the superficiality of her use of terms such as ‘post-modern’ and ‘post-identity politics.’  Just as a Derridean ‘field of infinite substitutions’ is no ground on which to build either a discourse of rights or a gender rights movement, so a thoroughly ‘post-modern’ analysis moves us well beyond liberal rights discourse to entirely another realm.

Conclusion

It is no accident that the GenderPAC board split over precisely the issue of the scope and definition of the organization’s mission, with Wilchins engineering a purge of those board members who supported a continued commitment to the transgender community in both word and deed.  GenderPAC’s rejection of a clear link with the transgender community left the organization unmoored from its tethering, making it vulnerable to incidents such as the contretemps over the use of ‘gender orientation’ as the rallying cry for national gender lobby day 2000.  As the term ‘gender orientation’ has no basis in social theory , it is the perfect example of a term that has no currency because it does not circulate in any community.  Wilchins‘ reconfigured GenderPAC is a  ‘post-transgender’ organization that would create and lead a ‘post-identity politics’ movement. It is a movement that Wilchins imagines to encompass the lesbian and gay movement, the transgender movement, and the women’s movement, and yet (she imagines) is somehow larger than the sum of all of these parts.  In her 2000 speech to the Gill Foundation, Wilchins declared:

Our work focuses on Congressional advocacy, hate crimes, job discrimination, impact litigation, and youth outreach.  And if that sounds like we cover the waterfront, it’s because we own that section of the waterfront.

But claiming ownership of ‘the waterfront’ is quite different from doing serious legislative work that brings people legal rights.  Wilchins  creates the impression that she offers a strategy informed by a deep study of theory.  But close and careful scrutiny of Wilchins’ call for a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ shows it to be at best a clever marketing slogan.

Wilchins admonishes lesbian and gay organizations to see gender transgression as the root of the oppression of LGB people, failing to understand homophobia and (trans)genderphobia as mutually reinforcing but distinct forms of oppression.  Conflating the two forms of oppression deprives Wilchins of the ability to engage in a probing analysis of their complex interrelationship. Wilchins’ insistence that the transgender movement reconfigure itself as a broadly conceived gender rights movement is roughly equivalent to asking lesbian and gay organizations to redefine themselves as part of a broad movement for sexual liberation – but one in which homophobia is not specifically addressed and in which ostensibly ‘old-fashioned’ identities such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ are abjured.   But the movement that Wilchins envisions is one that does not speak to the truths of our lives as transgendered and gender-variant people, whether LGB or not.

Failing to take account of (let alone effectively address) the multiple oppressions of transgendered and gender-variant people of color, Wilchins’ GenderPAC instead offers slogans such as ‘gender, racial and affectional equality.’  Nor does her call for “a national gender rights movement for all Americans” address issues of race, ethnicity, national origin, or citizenship status in any meaningful way.  A movement that purports to include everyone includes no one, because it does not speak to the specificity of particular forms of oppression, which must be named in order to be addressed.

Wilchins’ discourse is not truly liberational, because it fails to take into account the totality of individual human experience.  A crucial part of our humanity is the experience of community – admittedly ambivalent and complex for many transgendered and gender-variant people – but a sine qua non for human existence as well as a necessary element of any successful political movement.

What the ‘post-identity politics paradigm’ does not recognize is how identity formations – such as ‘transgender’ as well as ‘Asian Pacific American’ or ‘people of color’ – can be strategically deployed to form community, which is the basis of any successful social or political movement.

Finally, Wilchins fails to recognize – let alone address – the inherent contradiction of a rights movement that is ostensibly ‘post-modern.’  Any attempt to try to construct a ‘post-identity politics paradigm’ that is rigorously poststructuralist is bound to failure, because of the fundamental disjuncture between a liberal rights discourse that depends on the unified subject as its fundament and a theoretical framework that denies the very possibility of a unified subject who is the ostensible bearer of those rights.  If the hallmark of the ‘post-modern’ is a rejection of ‘logos’ and the very notion of a stable and unambiguous relationship between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified,’ then no truly ‘post-modern’ political movement is possible, because post-modernism rejects the possibility of affirmative normative statements that are the requisite for an objective moral philosophy upon which ‘rights’ movements must of necessity be based.

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Pauline Park is co-founder and co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (< HYPERLINK “http://www.nyagra.com” www.nyagra.com>).  Founded in June 1998, NYAGRA, is the first statewide transgender advocacy  organization in New York.  As coordinator of the legislative work group on gender-based discrimination, Park led the successful campaign for enactment of Int. No. 24 (Local Law 3), the transgender rights bill passed by the New York City Council and signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in April 2002.  Park was instrumental in getting the New York State Dignity for All Students Act amended to include gender identity and expression, and she continues to serve as the NYAGRA representative to the DASA Coalition.

Park received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has written widely on gender, race, and LGBT politics.  She co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC) in 1994, Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997, Queens Pride House (a center for the LGBT communities of Queens) in 1997, and the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens in 2002.  Park is also a member of the Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC) and the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY).

This article is based on a presentation to the 5th Annual Georgetown Symposium on Gender & Sexuality:Crossing Boundaries, Redefining Gender: A New Front on Equality (February 27, 2002).

Introduction

In her capacity as executive director of GenderPAC, Riki Anne Wilchins has called for the creation of “a post-identity politics national gender rights movement for all Americans.”  By way of a critique of that call, I will argue here that the discourse of a post-identity politics movement – far from providing a unifying philosophy and political strategy – is intellectually incoherent and politically counterproductive.  It is my aim here to articulate what I see as the racial politics implicit in the discourse and to offer an alternative conception of identity formation and transgender movement politics based on notions of community.

GenderPAC: Organizational History and Background

A little background on the organizational history of GenderPAC may be necessary to understand the context in which the new post-identity politics discourse was articulated.  GenderPAC was founded in November 1996 to be the national voice of the transgender community.  A number of different individuals and organizations came together to establish the organization in order to educate society on transgender issues and to advance a legislative agenda in Congress.  One of those individuals, Riki Anne Wilchins, was chosen executive director by the new board of directors.  Wilchins, a white post-operative male-to-female transsexual, had already founded The Transexual Menace.  However, as executive director, Wilchins began to take the organization in a very different direction. By the end of 1999, Wilchins shifted GenderPAC from the original vision of its founders to a very different organization with a very different mission. With Gina Reiss as managing director, Wilchins then went public with her intention to reject the original conception of a transgender advocacy organization in favor of a vague, rather inchoate concept of a ‘gender rights’ organization.

The particulars of the story are important to detail because of GenderPAC position as the only national (trans)gender advocacy organization with a significant budget and paid staff.  Before rejecting the concept of transgender advocacy, Wilchins had been regarded by many in the transgender community as its national spokesperson and GenderPAC had been recognized nationally as the voice of the transgender community. The critique here is not so much about personality issues – though there may very well be such issues – but rather about an entire strategy, which is not only incidentally flawed, but inherently flawed.

Wilchins’ rejection of GenderPAC’s original mission as a national voice for the transgender movement is symptomatic of the inherent problems of attempting to create a movement while denying the existence of a community upon which it is based.  Community is a necessary component of movement politics.  Organizational accountability to the community is not only the analogue, but also the concomitant, to – individual accountability to a board of directors.  Any refusal to acknowledge community as the basis of movement politics ultimately represents an attempt to evade responsibility to a larger collective.  Wilchins’ decision to reject the notion of transgender community organizing has had profound implications for the community and the movement that GenderPAC once claimed to represent.

In a speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference, Wilchins attempted to articulate what she termed “a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.”

The speech, entitled “A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights,” is perhaps the clearest articulation of the discourse of the ‘post-identity politics’ gender rights movement that Wilchins has championed, a discourse that I will simply call ‘the post-identity politics paradigm’ (or ‘PPP’ for short).  Wilchins gave speech at a plenary session of the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference.  Because of the importance of this speech for my critique, I will quote it in full.

The Gill Speech

A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights

by Riki Wilchins

Someone has just been kind enough to remind me that Tim is sitting right here, and I better be good. So I just want you to know I’m not intimidated…much. And since I’m not, I want to tell you about the last time I was intimidated.  Patricia Ireland had invited me to address NOW’s National Board on transgender inclusion.  For reasons which now escape me, I thought it would be in good taste to remind them of NOW’s purges of lesbian and bisexual women in 1969 and their resulting confrontation with the Lavender Menace.  So I wore my black Transexual Menace T-shirt with its blood-dripping red letters. Patricia introduced me and then sat down, looking tolerantly and encouragingly up.

Now there are only two ways to do this.  Way ONE relies largely on guilt, coupled with earnest appeals to good old-fashioned liberal values like tolerance and acceptance.  To wit: You should include us poor trannies because its the right thing to do and there are all kinds of women, and once we’ve had surgery we’re physically pretty much just like you, etc., etc.  Way ONE depends on your audience’s goodwill and well-honed consciences and it often works.  But it’s no fun. Not to do and not to be on the receiving end of. I mean, who enjoys feeling guilty? Between you and me, I’d much rather be bitchy.

So I chose Way TWO.  Now, Way TWO consists of building a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.  Way TWO is a LOT more fun.  So I looked around the room at all these powerful, very serious and intimidating women, and said, “Many of you are no doubt wondering why a man with a vagina is standing here lecturing you on where feminism should go…” — I look down at Patricia here and notice she is now searching vigorously in her wrist for a good vein to open — “.. but consider for a moment that men with vaginas are what gender looks like when it’s de-regulated, and so my presence here today is a sign of your success and not your failure.”  And they got it. I was not going to plead for their acceptance or tolerance or ask them to validate my poor white post-operative body as female.  Instead I was going to recruit them — to take a step with me out of the old paradigm that had created these boundaries between us we were now so busily surmounting.  I was going to invite them to have a different kind of dialog, one whose origins lay in a totally difference place, one where our task was not surmounting our separateness but rather exploring the strengths of our already being together.  And that’s what I’d like to do with you this evening.

If you hoped to hear a lot about how we’re all basically bisexual or what how it feels to be a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” this is going to be a bit disappointing.  And if you want someone to tell you why you should add Bi and Trans to your giving, I’m none too good at that either.  I’ve never been trapped in anyone else’s body and I hope you haven’t either, although I was once trapped in Manhattan for almost 18 years and I suspect it feels pretty much the same.  And as far as my gender is concerned, I admit I do still occasionally awake quivering in the night with the conviction I am trapped in the wrong culture.  But we’re not going to do Way ONE tonight.  Because the gays and lesbians picked out for harassment or assault are almost always targeted because of their gender:  because they aren’t “just like everyone else” — because they are “visibly queer.”

I’m not going to tell you about Kinsey sexuality scales from 1 to 6, or tell you that debating bi and trans people in the gay movement is like debating gays in the military: they’ve always been here, they always will be, and they’ve always given and served with courage and distinction.  I’m not going to tell you that as far for our apparently endless public debate over whether gender belongs in a gay movement, that the boys we beat up after school, the girls we humiliated for looking just like the gym teacher, and all those people your mom and mine “just knew” were homosexuals – all that was about gender.  Because the gays and lesbians picked out for harassment or assault are almost always targeted because of their gender: because they aren’t “just like everyone else” — because they are “visibly queer.”

And so that if you want to know what it’s really like to transcend narrow gender stereotypes and what it costs, please don’t come up afterwards and ask me – just turn to that nice person sitting on your right or your left and ask them. Because chances are, they’ve been there.  And so it’s not so much a question of including transgender, as of recognizing that gender has always been a part of a gay agenda and always will be.  I’m not going to make these and a dozen other telling points we both know I could make because: first, if you’re here today you’re smart enough to probably know most of this. And second, because as donors and activists I don’t think our activism should come from a place of guilt or tolerance or even wanting people to feel included.  Giving is activism, and I believe we do activism because we have no other choice, because in our guts we have that impractical and totally inconvenient thing: a passion to make the world a better place, the spiritual faith that that is possible, and a personal vision of what that should look like.

So I’d like to recruit you for the next 15 minutes on a ride into another paradigm, another discussion of our bodies, identities, and desires. Fasten your genders, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.  I know it’s going to be bumpy, because I’ve been on it myself. Twenty years ago I was telling anyone who would listen that I WAS “trapped in a man’s body. ” My FTM friends were telling everyone they were “men trapped in women’s’ bodies.” Collectively we sounded like a bunch of internals organs plotting a prison break.  That’s how it was for me in 1980.

But then last month I was at Camp Trans outside the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where they’d just kicked us out again. I was throwing football with this boy-identified-dyke named Ellen who prefers being called Jesse.  Jesse was leaving the Lesbian Avengers and I asked him why. He replied that it was because of that tired old lesbian pecking order.  I told him I knew exactly what he meant. The cutest lesbians are always at the top, the least attractive at the bottom, and so on and so on.  Jesse looked at me pittyingly and said, “Well, dude… actually it’s more like the fags and trannie boyz are at the top, FtMs, boychicks, andros and faggot-identified dykes are in the middle, and the butches and femmes are at the bottom.”

I looked at him and said, “Obviously. I knew that. I just wanted to see if YOU knew that.”  The identities you and I spent such time coming to grips with, coming out about, and defending at such great cost are not even an issue for these kids. They are beyond the boxes in which you and I have made our lives.  For many of them it’s not about the right to be gay or lesbian, bi, trans or straight, but something they hold much more dear:  the right to be who and what they are, whole and complete and without omission, even if that doesn’t fit any of the pre-existing categories and means making up whole new names for themselves on the spot.

But there’s a funny thing about walls: they not only keep others out, they also end up keeping us in.  I am reminded here that Audre Lorde taught us the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house. Is it too much to say that the notion of the homosexual — and perhaps even gay identity itself — is not in some way an invention of heterosexuality? Perhaps even a re-affirmation — if only unconsciously — that the most important thing about us should be where we stand in relation to reproduction?

Would it be overreaching to say that just as light requires dark, and male requires an opposing female, so gayness actually requires an antecedent and opposing straightness? So that instead of struggling against a hetero-centric culture, gayness actually demands and solidifies it?  Is it possible that with these kids are onto something — that with these pre-fabricated identities of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender we are so quick to occupy that we are still living in the Master’s house?  And so when it comes to inclusion we are less interested in tearing down the house than in building a small, yet tastefully furnished addition out back? One which will hold Jesse and all these troubling new identities?

So I am very interested when my good friend Rich Tafel says that he doesn’t think gender is part of a gay movement, because it’s not sexual orientation, or when some activists denounce the “diluting” of gay rights with bi and trans issues.  Because I take it as axiomatic that if what we want is a civil rights movement for gays and lesbians, then these voices are right. We should keep the walls around our movement intact and get on with our business.  But there’s a funny thing about walls: they not only keep others out, they also end up keeping us in.

We are on the verge of creating a movement that says to its own young:  “Be all you can be, go wherever your heart and mind and talent can take you… Just don’t become too straight. Don’t find out you’re bisexual. Don’t change your body or gender too much. Because if you do, we’re not sure you’ll still qualify to be represented by a gay and lesbian movement.”  Such a movement, which sets out to free gay people, actually ends up erecting yet another set of barriers and constraints that keep them in.

It is beyond dispute that today gay rights, like feminism before it, is going from strength to strength. Yet just as young women in droves are refusing to identify as feminists, so I routinely speak before groups of young queers who refuse to identify as gay or straight – because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t even select their partners by se

They want not only their freedom as gay people, but paradoxically also their freedom not to be gay – to have their primary social identity determined by something greater than whom they sleep with or even whom they love.

They are not seeking submersion into large, impersonal pre-existing categories, but instead searching newer, smaller ways to be and understand who they are.  For twenty-somethings with buzz-cut lime-green hair, bull-rings in their nose, and androgynous hip-hop clothes, the harassment they get at school, at work, and on the street is not just about their orientation or even their sex but about their gender.

And this is where I’d like to talk a little about my own organization, a national tax-exempt group called GenderPAC because we’re the group working to ensure every American’s civil right to express their gender free from stereotypes, discrimination and violence.

Our work focuses on Congressional advocacy, hate crimes, job discrimination, impact litigation, and youth outreach.  And if that sounds like we cover the waterfront, it’s because we own that section of the waterfront: no other national group is focusing on issues of gender.

GenderPAC is a “post-identity” organization, meaning we are committed to building a broad-based, national movement for gender rights that includes all of us.  I am fond of observing that GenderPAC has no “Allies Program,” because gender is too basic to be confined to any one group, and too fundamental to leave anyone behind. Gender rights are for all of us.

And here I mean gender in its widest sense – including sexual orientation, because I take it as self-evident that the mainspring of homophobia is gender: the notion that gay men are insufficiently masculine or lesbian women somehow necessarily inadequately feminine.

And I include sex, because I take it as prima facie that what animates misogyny and sexism is our society’s astonishing fear and loathing around issues of vulnerability or femininity.  And so the question here today isn’t so much a matter of you accepting us or letting us in, but of you coming out to join us.

In a post-identity movement, who we are is not a pre-condition for working together – our identification as gender activists comes out of the work we do.  And so identity becomes not a cause of our politics, but an effect — not a wall to be defended and debated but something mobile, personal, and flexible that changes and grows with us as our understanding of ourselves changes and grows.  And all these confusing, even threatening new identities are not barbarians at the gate but a doorway out. Their messiness is not the problem, it’s the solution — a tactic, even an essential political goal.

And so the question here today isn’t so much a matter of you accepting us or letting us in, but of you coming out to join us.  Because success looks less like B and T inclusion than my friend Jesse, the football throwing ex-Lesbian Avenger who personally identifies as a queer trannie boy but politically as a dyke but who admits he may someday to want to take testosterone. Success looks like messy new identities we don’t like and can’t name that create possibilities and freedoms we never intended.

Because it is your work and your foundation over the last three decades that has made people like Jesse and me possible, that has made possible a broad-based, inclusive national movement for gender civil rights.  And so by now if some of you are wondering why a man with a vagina who lives with her lesbian lover is standing here lecturing you about where gay rights and gay giving should go, consider that lesbian men with vaginas is what gay liberation looks like when desire is de-regulated, and so my being here today is a sign of your success and not your failure.

I hope you will leave thinking less about how to refine the noun-list so no one feels excluded from our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex,leatherqueer, questioning, straight sympathetic, youth movement, but rather to begin thinking of new foundations for our politics.  What will such a foundation look like?

Let me close by observing that in one thirty-day period in the beautiful island of Manhattan, I have been harassed as a dyke, a sex-change, a bitch, and a fag.  I live in one body — why can’t fight in one movement?  Why do I have to section my politics up into so many pizza slices: this wedge to women’s’ rights, this to gay rights, another for gender rights, and so on?

We keep building movements that are simpler than we are.  But discrimination is like my new Gap cable-knit sweater — I pull it here and it also tugs somewhere else. So that it’s never just about gender, but it’s always about gender and sexual orientation, or gender and race, or gender and age, or gender and class.

We need to begin building movements which are as rich and rude and messy and complex as the lives we lead, the challenges we face and the scars we bear.  We need movements that demand that we build bridges to one another instead of burn them, that we stress our commonalities instead of our differences.  So that whenever there’s a wall, we should be with those outside of it.  When there’s a vote on inclusion, you and I should be standing among those voted on.

What I am interested in is my freedom NOT to be transexual — a category which was defined in my absence, which is irrevocably heterosexual, and whose sole purpose is annexing my social identity to the clothes I wear and what genitals I have – something I find demeaning in its inception and debasing in its execution.

No matter who is included we should always be left behind because as Alice Walker says – “never be the only one in the room.” And so I take it to be our responsibility as activists to always stand with those smaller voices forgotten at the margins. Just as I take it to be our responsibility to see which faces are alone or unrepresented in the room.

Because in the final analysis, the moral center of a movement is not defined by how well and how long we fight for our own rights. Important as that is, it’s also enlightened self-interest: we all want our own rights. The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us, for those more easily left behind.

And so when someone asks me, “What about GenderPAC, isn’t that the transgender organization?”

I say that no, it’s not. I reply that half our board and more than half our membership are gay, feminist, or youth-identified. A transgender struggle is an important thing, but it is not my fight. In fact I personally have no interest in being transexual or transgender.

What I am interested in is my freedom NOT to be transexual — a category which was defined in my absence, which is irrevocably heterosexual, and whose sole purpose is annexing my social identity to the clothes I wear and what genitals I have — something I find demeaning in its inception and debasing in its execution.  What I am interested in is the original cultural gesture to regulate what your body and mine can mean, or say, or do.

And so for me, the point of a gender movement is not only those familiar specimens inevitably corralled in the Binary Zoo: the stone butches and diesel dykes, drag kings and queens, leatherdykes and dyke daddies, radical fairies and nelly fags, the transexuals, transgender, crossdressers, and intersex.

But it’s also about the seventeen year-old Midwestern cheerleader who ruins her health with anorexia because “real women” are supposed to be preternaturally thin. It’s about the forty-six year-old Joe Six-Pack who wraps his car around a crowded school bus on the way home from the bar because “real men” are supposed to be heavy drinkers. It’s about the aging lesbian who suffers through a wholly unnecessary hysterectomy because certain kinds of gendered bodies simply don’t matter as much. And it’s about a shy, sensitive, and mostly straight young man who is repeatedly gang-raped his first year in prison because, within that environment, he is perceived as genderqueer, genderdifferent, or simply gendervulnerable.

In short, a broad-based and inclusive national movement for gender civil rights is not only about people like Brandon Teena, Amanda Milan, Christian Paige, Debbi Forte, Tyra Hunter, Marsha P. Johnson, and Mathew Shepard — people who lost their lives, who were picked out and picked on because they were slight or gay or blond or black or visibly queer — but about working until each and every one of us is freed from this most pernicious, divisive and destructive of insanities called gender-based oppression.  Thank you.

________________

Having quoted Wilchins’ speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference, I will now proceed to outline what I see to be the problems of the ‘new paradigm’ that her speech ostensibly articulates.  There are a number of such problems.

First, there is the problem of the conflation of sexual orientation with gender identity and expression.  Second, there is the problem of the practical application of Wilchins’ notions in the legislative arena.  Third, there is the problem raised by Wilchins’ conception of identity formation, as it might be applied to race.  Fourth, there is the parallel problem as applied to gender.  And fifth, there is the problem of the apparent contradiction of ‘post-modernism’ and liberal rights discourse in Wilchins’ thinking.  I will take each of these in turn.

The Conflation of Homosexuality and Transgender

At its heart, the discourse of a post-identity politics movement is based on a misconception about the nature of individual identity and the relationship of sexual orientation to gender identity and expression. Wilchins’ analysis of the sex/gender binary is reductive, attempting to reduce one form of oppression to the other, rather than recognizing them as mutually reinforcing discourses of oppression.  One cannot fully understand homophobia or genderphobia unless one maintains the conceptual distinction between homophobia and genderphobia.  Hence, in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins makes it impossible to successfully explain either.  In her Gill speech (quoted in full above), Wilchins declares,

And here I mean gender in its widest sense – including sexual orientation, because I take it as self-evident that the mainspring of homophobia is gender: the notion that gay men are insufficiently masculine or lesbian women somehow necessarily inadequately feminine.  And I include sex, because I take it as prima facie that what animates misogyny and sexism is our society’s astonishing fear and loathing around issues of vulnerability or femininity.

In fact, it is not at all self-evident that “the mainspring of homophobia is gender.”  Not all gay people are gender-variant, with the ‘butch’ gay man and the ‘lipstick lesbian’ exemplifying the gender-conventional; the oppression they face could not therefore be attributed to their outward gender expression.  There are many cases of conventionally gendered lesbians and gay men facing discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation alone. Relatively ‘butch’ gay men, for example, have been attacked leaving gay bars despite— and one is almost tempted to hypothesize because of – their gender conventionality.  In fact, the very assertion of a self-conscious masculinity on the part of gay men in the 1970s may have provoked even more intense hostility on the part of some homophobic men who may have perceived those masculine gay men to be all the more threatening because of their relative masculinity; in other words, in the logic of a homophobe, if a relatively manly man can be gay, a manly man like me could be gay.

A more conceptually sophisticated analysis would recognize homophobia and (trans)genderphobia as mutually reinforcing discourses of oppression, one in which neither is fully reducible to the other, though interrelated.  One could draw an analogy with explanations of racism based in class prejudice. Clearly, race cannot be reduced to class, because racial discrimination cannot be fully explained as class discrimination.  Similarly, discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation cannot be fully reduced to oppression based on gender expression, especially in cases involving conventionally gendered LGBs.   But in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins implicitly dismisses the distinct forms of oppression faced by conventionally gendered LGBs.

Clearly, gender variance is relative; but it is equally clear that the kind of oppression faced by relatively more gender-variant LGBs is likely to be more intense than that faced by more conventionally gendered LGBs; they are, in any case, different and distinct.  Collapsing homophobia into genderphobia provides Wilchins with a rationale for jettisoning the concept of ‘transgender,’ which she finds hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date.  But in reducing homophobia to genderphobia, Wilchins is left without a conceptual framework for distinguishing between gender-based and non-gender-based homophobia.  Hence, Wilchins’ conceptual framework does not allow her to recognize the greater potential for discrimination and violence faced by gender-variant LGBs.

Ironically enough, then, Wilchins’ desire to focus on what she sees to be the gender-based roots of homophobia leads her inadvertently to minimize or trivialize the oppression that gender-variant LGBs face specifically because of their gender variance, as opposed to their sexual orientation alone.

While the conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity leads to conceptual confusion, it also provides an opportunity for Wilchins to try to bridge what she perceives to be a gap between traditional ‘gay’ politics and the newer politics of transgender.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that GenderPAC’s philosophy and strategy are premised on a conflation of sexual orientation and gender, and that conflation allows Wilchins to position herself as the leader of a post-transgender organization, one which is guided by an ostensibly sophisticated conception of gender that is ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘post-identity politics.’

Wilchins thus casts herself as the avatar of a new age in which GenderPAC will lead a gender rights movement that will supercede both the old gay and lesbian rights movement and the newer transgender rights movement.  What this all-inclusive ‘national gender rights movement’ ends up looking like, in practice, is an organization whose primary constituency would appear to be non-transsexual transgendered youth who are uncomfortable with any fixed gender identity and who reject the classic transsexual transition narrative.

GenderPAC’s membership seems to be especially heavy with college students, mostly of female birth sex, who are intrigued by Wilchins’ use of Butlerian terms such as ‘gender performativity’ and notions of gender fluidity that seem to apply so well to their own personal experiences at that stage of their lives.  Since many of these individuals have identified as lesbians at some point but seem dissatisfied with the inability of that term to adequately describe or encompass the gender-transgressive component of their identities, they are especially attracted to the way in which Wilchins seems to be able to bring the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity together.

Praxis Makes Perfect: Applying the Paradigm in the ‘Real World’

The faults of Wilchins’ approach can be observed by applying it to a current political battle engaged by the movement.  The focus of national efforts for many years has been passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the federal gay rights bill currently pending in Congress.  The New York state equivalent of ENDA is the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which was enacted by the New York State legislature in December 2003 after a 31-year struggle.  ENDA is being championed by the Human Rights Campaign, the wealthiest and most powerful national lesbian and gay political organizations; while the campaign for SONDA is being led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the leading state lesbian and gay political organization in New York (and the largest state lesbian and gay political organization in the country.

In Wilchins’ view, the gay movement does not understand that gender oppression is at the root of homophobia and therefore seeks to exclude transgendered people in a futile attempt to appropriate heteronormativity; but the transgender movement too narrowly circumscribes the concept of gender because it is rooted in the medical model of transsexuality and therefore excludes non-surgical ‘gender queers.’

The equivalent of Wilchins’ desiradatum – ‘a national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ – would be a ‘national sexual freedom civil rights movement for all Americans’ that would remove ‘identity politics’ labels such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay.’    Sexual orientation is not only an important component of legal discourse – without which anti-gay discrimination cannot be addressed – it is also a legitimate organizing principle.  In fact, everyone has a sexual orientation, and ‘sexual orientation’ is usually defined (as it is, for example, in SONDA) as including heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.  In that sense, passage of ENDA at the federal level or SONDA at the state level would provide discrimination protections for heterosexuals as well as for LGB people.

The biggest controversy surrounding both ENDA and SONDA has been over the lack of gender identity or expression language in those bills, and the question arises as to how one can create a broad movement that includes all LGBT people.  (NYAGRA has spoken publicly in favor of transgender-inclusive SONDA and ENDA bills.)  But that issue aside, the simple reality is that a ‘sexual freedom’ movement that is all-inclusive and that abjures any gay-specific focus would lose its ability to engage lesbian and gay people in any meaningful way.  Only by naming the specific oppression faced by lesbian and gay people – viz., homophobia – can a movement hope to diminish their marginalization in society.

That is not to say that LGB organizations cannot work in coalition with non-LGBT organizations in getting  (ideally transgender-inclusive) gay rights legislation passed.  Because LGB people have distinct issues that most heterosexuals do not face, there will be a need for lesbian and gay organizations whose primary mission is to address homophobia.

Wilchins’ call to abandon the term transgender is roughly analogous to asking HRC or ESPA to change its name to the Campaign for Sexual Freedom.  In fact, there is an organization called the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.  NCSF describes itself as:

…a national organization committed to protecting freedom of expression among consenting adults. Based in Washington, D.C., NCSF works through legal initiatives, lobbying, outreach, and education to promote greater understanding of sexuality and human rights. Founded in 1997, NCSF mobilizes diverse grassroots communities to help change antiquated and unfair sex laws, and to protect free speech and advance privacy rights. NCSF is dedicated to ensuring that all consenting adults can express their sexual identity freely and openly, without fear.

It is unlikely that organizations such as HRC or ESPA would remove ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ from their mission statements and their literature and jettison the use of the term ‘sexual orientation’ in favor of some broader but vaguer notion of ‘sexual freedom for all,’ and if that scenario seems extremely far-fetched, it is because such a move would represent a rejection of the fundamental principles around which lesbian and gay groups have been organized heretofore.

But Wilchins stakes out a much bigger territory than even a movement that covers both the transgender movement and the lesbian and gay movement.  Wilchins’ assertion that “no other national group is focusing on issues of gender” should come as a surprise to Patricia Ireland, a member of the (post-purge) GenderPAC board and former head of the National Organization for Women.  If NOW is not a national group focusing on issues of gender, what is it?  Perhaps Wilchins is attempting to suggest that NOW does not include transgender as an issue and therefore is only a ‘women’s organization.’  But NOW has in fact moved in the last few years to include transgender issues in its organizational mission; and of course, NOW is only one of many gender rights organizations.  And given Ireland’s role in NOW, with her membership of the GenderPAC board, it is all the more difficult to understand what basis Wilchins has for asserting that GenderPAC is the only national group focusing on issues of gender.

In this context, one can probably best understand Wilchins’ assertion as part of a marketing strategy under which GenderPAC is marketed as being ‘more’ than just a transgender organization, because it (ostensibly) has a broader conception of gender; broader than any lesbian and gay rights organization because it includes a focus on gender issues; and broader than any women’s organization because it includes genderqueers who are not part of the traditional mission of organizations such as NOW.

But for all that she claims to be engaged in a critique of binary thinking, Wilchins ironically constructs her own binary opposition, implicitly pitting a ‘transgender’ movement against a broader and more inclusive ‘gender’ movement. This is a false dichotomy.  Wilchins offers no evidence that a self-styled transgender movement cannot include both non-transgendered gender-variant individuals as well as issues faced by such individuals.  Clearly, there is no ‘either/or’ here.  There is no reason to jettison the concept of transgender simply because it is not all-inclusive; nor is there any reason to believe that a transgender movement cannot be based on a conception of gender oppression that encompasses the anorexic cheerleader or the ‘Joe Six-Pack’ alcoholic or the straight victim of prison gang rape.

Race, Gender, Identity Formation and the Politics of Community

The third difficulty with Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm lies in the way in which Wilchins misconstrues the nature of gender identity formation and political movements rooted in communities organized around such identities.  Underlying the discourse of a post-identity politics gender rights movement is the assumption that any exclusion is bad – both illegitimate and politically problematic – coupled with the assumption that any exclusion is equivalent to any other kind of exclusion.

The rationale implicit in this discourse would seem to be something like this: genderqueers (transgendered and gender-variant people, by any other name) have been excluded from the lesbian and gay movement, and that is a bad thing. Genderqueers (including male-to-female transsexuals) have been excluded from the women’s movement, and that is a bad thing.  The underlying assumption would seem to be that any movement that excludes anyone is morally suspect and politically questionable.  But the fundamental error is the failure to take account of the asymmetry of power between privileged and marginalized groups in American society.

A case in point is Wilchins’ reaction to an invitation to attend TransWorld in October 1998.  Co-sponsored by the Gender Identity Project (GIP) of the New York City Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) and the Audre Lorde Project, TransWorld I (which took place at ALP in Brooklyn) was the first conference specifically by and for transgendered people of color (TGPOCs).  The organizing committee for TransWorld I made the decision to invite only people of color to speak as formal presenters, though the conference was open to everyone whether white or of color, transgendered or not.  As one of the members of the planning committee, I voted for that decision because I felt that it was necessary to ensure that the conference provide an opportunity for TGPOCs to speak for themselves.  Previous conferences in the series sponsored by the Center’s GIP (of which TransWorld I was the fourth) had featured largely conventionally gendered white men literally and figuratively talking down to transgendered people from the dais.  This conference would be different: it would feature transgendered and gender-variant people of color speaking from personal experience of oppression and marginalization as well as from expertise in health care, social services, and advocacy.

Wilchins’ reaction to the decision to invite only people of color to speak as formal presenters was to denounce the conference as ‘racist’ because it ‘excluded’ white people.  Her response to the invitation to attend TransWorld was not merely an expression of her personal pique at not having been invited to speak at the conference.  The rejection of TransWorld I and limited-membership formations – based on the assumption of a symmetry of ‘exclusion’ – demonstrates a failure to understand the difference between the power of a white elite vs. the power of marginalized communities, as well as a failure to understand the nature of institutionalized racism in this society.

The ‘exclusion’ of whites from the dais at TransWorld I cannot be equated with the historic exclusion of transgendered people of color from positions of power in society, because those white service providers – whether physicians (such as surgeons and endocrinologists), psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers, or other ‘gender professionals’ – are in positions of power relative to the transgendered people of color who are their clients (or ‘patients’ or ‘consumers,’ however one may wish to describe them).  Such white gender professionals – most of whom are not themselves transgender-identified – exercise power over their clients as ‘gatekeepers’ in terms of affording (or denying) access to hormones, sex reassignment surgery, psychological evaluation, legal change of sex, and other crucial aspects of transsexual transition.  Those professionals have access to resources – financial, legal, and organizational –that their clients largely lack, and the institutional power that they command therefore belies any ‘moral equivalency’ between their ‘exclusion’ from the dais at this one event and the exclusion of transgendered people of color from positions of power in a white-dominant society brought about by pervasive discrimination based on race or gender identity that TGPOCs face.

The decision of the TransWorld I organizing committee to limit panels to people of color only was understood by committee members as an attempt to provide transgendered people of color themselves with a forum in which they could speak unhindered by service providers who had dominated the previous three ‘health empowerment’ conferences sponsored by the GIP.  That decision was informed by a recognition of the multiple oppressions – oppressions based on race, ethnicity, language, national origin, and citizenship status (among others) as well as gender identity and expression – faced by transgendered people of color.

It is important to understand, however, that such oppressions are not merely additive in nature; in other words, it is not simply that a transgendered African American faces transgenderphobia in one context and racism in another; rather, these oppressions are interactive and mutually reinforcing.    For example, a transgendered African American woman may find no support as a person of color at a white-dominated center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities; but she may also find no support as a transgendered person at a community center or social service provider in her community of origin.

Related to oppressions based on race and ethnicity are those based on nationality and citizenship status.  Many TGPOCs are immigrants and face the same challenges as their non-transgendered compatriots, but without access to social services in their communities, because most immigrant service providers will not serve openly transgendered people.  Even in those rare instances where social service agencies may welcome them, transgendered people may be reluctant to come forward for fear of discrimination.  While LGBT community centers are springing up across the country, very few have any means of ensuring linguistic access for those who are not native speakers of English.

Those TGPOCs who are not US citizens do not have even the minimal legal rights that transgendered citizens enjoy; if they are undocumented, they are easily deportable; and while they live here in the United States, undocumented transpeople face exploitation because of their lack of legal status.   Hence GenderPAC’s call for a ‘post-identity politics national gender rights movement for all Americans’ begs the question as to just who constitutes an ‘American.’  To define the category of ‘all Americans’ by way of citizenship would leave out the undocumented, who are the most vulnerable to exploitation.  But to include the undocumented would raise the question of whether or not GenderPAC is serious about working on behalf of this population.

While transgendered people of color certainly need legal protections from discrimination and violence, they do not have the luxury to regard legal rights as the sum total of the movement’s goals.  Juridical rights are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the liberation of transgendered people of color.  A movement that limits its focus to legal rights will not be able to satisfy the need for social justice that transgendered people feel deeply.  That movement, in order to serve transgendered people of color, must also address issues of race, ethnicity, language, national origin, and citizenship status, as well as class, (dis)ability, environment, and every other form of oppression suffered by TGPOCs.  Hence, a broad social justice movement is desperately needed, and an organization that embodies those values is a necessary component of that movement.

Wilchins’ failure to understand the variegation of gender oppression by race and ethnicity is compounded by a failure to understand the variegation of gender oppression by demographic groups within the ‘transgender’ population.  Here, I will make reference to my own schema for describing the different populations involved.  The first of these can be labeled the transsexual: those who seek or have obtained sex reassignment surgery (SRS).  (I use the term ‘transsexual’ advisedly, recognizing that it is a part of a medical model of transgender as pathology; but it is also a term of self-definition for many transgendered people.)  The second, much larger, group could be labeled the transgendered, and would include those who live a significant portion of their lives presenting fully in the gender opposite their birth sex, but most of whom do not seek SRS.  A still much larger category would be the gender-variant, those who transgress gender boundaries to a significant extent, but most of whom who still identify with the sex assigned to them at birth and do not present fully in the gender opposite that birth sex.  As a series of concentric circles, this schema allows us to neatly describe a population with literally hundreds of self-identifying names.

The complexity of the transgender community and the variability of gender oppression across different transgender populations and different transgendered and gender-variant people provides the rationale for the use of ‘transgender’ by an organization or a movement.  Deployed strategically and with intellectual and political sophistication, ‘transgender’ becomes a useful organizing principle for a community under construction that is attempting to create a political movement.

Indeed, it can be argued – and I will argue here that GenderPAC failed to connect to community.  The discourse of a ‘post-identity politics’ movement has no role for communities of any kind.  The post-identity politics paradigm is all about “doing your own thing,” as the phrase popular in the 1960s and 1970s would have it; and that may account for GenderPAC’s appeal to genderqueer youth, especially female-bodied youth who do not relate to terms such as ‘transsexual or even ‘transgender.’  Wilchins apparently believes that gender is primarily or perhaps even solely a matter of self-expression; what she does not understand is that gender identities are constructed by individuals in the context of larger communities, including the broad national community that we call ‘society.’  Public fora and conferences such as TransWorld that have a circumscribed focus are necessary precisely because transgendered and gender-variant people do not exist solely as atomized individuals; they live in communities – even if some are profoundly alienated from communities, including communities of origin and communities of color.

At root, the discourse of a post-identity politics movement is premised on an atomized individualism that does not recognize the social context in which gender identities are formed. Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm reduces the problem of gender oppression to a simple society-wide oppression of genderqueers attempting to express their individual gender identities.  But the lack of conceptual sophistication regarding the variegation of gender oppression across different cultures and communities is not the only conceptual flaw in the discourse of a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans.’  A reading of American history will show that the very notion of a ‘post-identity politics’ is fundamentally ahistorical, as it fails to acknowledge the identity politics of Jeffersonian liberalism, which was premised on an identity politics that excluded some from power because of their identity.  Identity politics did not begin in the 1960s; rather, the women’s movement, the lesbian and gay rights movement, and the African American civil rights movement were simply a different form of identity politics.  Wilchins’ post-identity politics paradigm is rooted in an individual rights discourse of Enlightenment provenance that ironically enough – and fatally for its intellectual coherence – is at odds with Wilchins’ ostensible ‘post-modernism.’

Wilchins’ rather superficial critique of ‘post-identity politics’ really speaks only to the excesses of an exclusionary version of identity politics and does not acknowledge the origin of identity politics, much less address the issues raised by white skin privilege. GenderPAC’s call for a post-identity gender politics is analogous to Ward Connerly’s call for a color-blind society.  The discourse of a color-blind society – promoted by conservatives who aim to eliminate affirmative action – fails to recognize the specificity of racial and ethnic oppression and therefore renders impossible any effort to address it.  In certain profound sense, the call for a post-identity gender rights movement represents a ‘whitewashing’ of gender and transgender politics.   One can best understand the pernicious role that Wilchins has played in the transgender politics of the last decade by examining her use of the term ‘gender orientation.’

Implicit in Wilchins’ critique of identity politics is an assumption that identities are somehow fixed and exclusive.  Wilchins implies that identifying as ‘gay’ somehow precludes identifying as ‘transgendered’ or that identifying as ‘transgendered’ somehow precludes one from identifying as ‘genderqueer.’  But identities need not be mutually exclusive; rather more like Venn diagrams – overlapping and not entirely definable.

‘Transgender’ is an identity formation that offers the same kind of advantages by bringing together a loose collection of individuals – crossdressers, transsexuals, drag queens, and other gender-variant individuals – who may have many differences but who can achieve greater political agency through coalition-building, which is precisely what the construction of a ‘transgender community’ represents when brought to bear on the creation of a transgender political movement.  Transgender offers the additional advantage of moving beyond the pathologizing medical model of transsexuality.  The fact that ‘transgender’ does not include everyone who might be identified as gender-variant, much less the total human population does not invalidate it as a construct.

The term ‘transgender’ can be deployed strategically – as the example of the campaign for Int. No. 24 in  New York City shows – in order to bring legal rights to individuals who face pervasive discrimination.  Similarly, terms such as ‘gender-variant’ or (if you prefer) ‘genderqueer’ can be deployed as well.  These are all clearly social constructions, and the one to be used in any given context depends on the particulars of that context.

Because of personal experiences of being excluded, transgendered and gender-variant people have become sensitive to the notion of exclusion of any kind.  Perhaps some of this sentiment is behind Wilchins’ insistence that a gender rights movement, to be legitimate, must include everyone.  But if the African American rights movement does not include everyone, does that invalidate it in some way?  Certainly, white people (including many Jewish Americans) have played an important role in the movement, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when liberal whites in the South and from the North participated in Freedom Summer and other civil rights campaigns.  But the focus was clearly on dismantling Jim Crow, which directly affected African Americans in the South, even if it had an indirect impact on whites, especially those who supported the black aspiration for civil rights.  Was the African American civil rights movement ‘exclusionary’ because it did not specifically seek to include Latinos or Native Americans?  Or was it rather more effective because it chose to focus on the specificity of oppression faced by African Americans, which was distinct from that of other people of color?

To suggest that it is illegitimate to organize around identity formations is to suggest that those identities are illegitimate.  Indeed, such a suggestion represents nothing less than an attempt to invalidate efforts to address racial and ethnic oppression itself.

‘Paradigm-Shattering’ and the Disjuncture of the Liberal and the Post-Modern

Wilchins describes her work in GenderPAC as

…building a post-modern argument that is so downright insubordinate and hopelessly perverse that it undermines the paradigm that created the issue of transinclusion and made my presence there to address it necessary in the first place.

Wilchins’ argument is not consistently or rigorously ‘post-modern,’ and it is not so much ‘insubordinate’ as simply incoherent.

There is in fact a fundamental disjuncture at the heart of Wilchins’ thought, between the rights discourse of a ‘national gender rights movement’ and the self-consciously ‘post-modern’ thinking of post-structuralist theory that is superficially applied to the problem of gender-based oppression.  Liberal rights discourse is premised on the very unicity of the unified subject as well as the specific identity of that subject (in demographic and (sub)national terms) that Derridean deconstruction would render impossible.  Rights appertain to individuals, and individuals with individual identities, not to gender expression itself – to acts, to gestures, or to performances.  And rights presuppose at the very least the possibility of an objective moral order.  One need only cite a few passages from her Gill speech to demonstrate how little Wilchins understands the conceptual problems posed by this disjuncture.  For example, in the speech to Gill, Wilchins declares,

…in the final analysis, the moral center of a movement is not defined by how well and how long we fight for our own rights. Important as that is, it’s also enlightened self-interest: we all want our own rights. The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us, for those more easily left behind.

But post-structuralist thought renders impossible the articulation of positive assertions of normative right that are a requisite of rights discourse.  Phrases such as ‘moral center’ are meaningless to the Derridean, because the inherent instability of the relationship of signifier to signified undermines the possibility of statements that are consistent in meaning across time or place.  Hence, statements such as “The moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us” are as meaningless and nonsensical as statements such as “The present king of France is bald.”  But her Gill speech is replete with such frankly normative statements, such as when Wilchins enjoins her audience to ‘build bridges’ in a spirit of inclusion:

We need to begin building movements which are as rich and rude and messy and complex as the lives we lead, the challenges we face and the scars we bear.  We need movements that demand that we build bridges to one another instead of burn them, that we stress our commonalities instead of our differences.  So that whenever there’s a wall, we should be with those outside of it.  When there’s a vote on inclusion, you and I should be standing among those voted on.

To the post-structuralist theorist, injunctions to ‘bridge-building’ and to ‘inclusion’ are nothing but mere ‘utterances,’ because there is no such thing as objective moral obligation; given the inherently arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, there cannot be.

For at root, ‘post-modernism’ represents a challenge to the fixity of meaning.  For post-structuralists such as Derrida, the relationship between ‘signifier’ (e.g., word) and ‘signified’ (thing or concept) is inherently unstable and arbitrary.  If this is the case, there can be no conceptual ‘fundament’ to liberal rights discourse, because the meaning of the term ‘right’ itself cannot be fixed, any more than ‘individual’ can be:

If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field – that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalization.  This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions….

Liberal rights philosophy is precisely the kind of ‘totalizing’ discourse of which Derrida speaks in this passage.  Traditional philosophy – including the normative political philosophy of Locke and the liberal Enlightenment – is undermined by a deconstruction of the relationship between word (logos) and concept.  For the post-modernist, a normative project such as the construction of a ‘national gender civil rights movement’ is not only hopelessly old-fashioned, it is an impossibility, because the deconstruction of the unified subject and the relationship between word and concept makes it so.  Wilchins does not seem to understand that the central core of post-structuralism is the disjuncture between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified.’ In her Gill speech, Wilchins declares,

It’s also about the seventeen year-old Midwestern cheerleader who ruins her health with anorexia because “real women” are supposed to be preternaturally thin. It’s about the forty-six year-old Joe Six-Pack who wraps his car around a crowded school bus on the way home from the bar because “real men” are supposed to be heavy drinkers. It’s about the aging lesbian who suffers through a wholly unnecessary hysterectomy because certain kinds of gendered bodies simply don’t matter as much. And it’s about a shy, sensitive, and mostly straight young man who is repeatedly gang-raped his first year in prison because, within that environment, he is perceived as genderqueer, genderdifferent, or simply gendervulnerable.

But post-structuralist theory denies the very possibility of empirical ‘testing’ of such statements.  The ageing lesbian’s hysterectomy cannot be judged necessary or unnecessary, because such empirical hypotheses (e.g., “the ageing lesbian’s hysterectomy was wholly unnecessary”) is reduced to nothing more than an utterance, a line in a text.  For post-structuralist theorists such as Derrida, there is no external reality against which the ‘accuracy’ of such statements may be judged.  Rather, a post-structuralist theorist would characterize such statements as part of a text that in turn constitutes an element in a larger discourse.  One could speak of a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative’ or a ‘progressive’ or a ‘feminist’ discourse on (trans)gender rights; but post-structuralist theory provides no mechanism by which to measure the greater or lesser ‘accuracy’ of such discourses; indeed, the very concept is alien to post-structuralism.  Instead, there is (in the words of Derrida) only an infinite field of substitutions.

Furthermore, the deconstruction of the sovereign self means that these statements about anorexic cheerleaders, ageing lesbians, and straight victims of gang rape are not – cannot be – about ‘real’ people, but rather constitute a repertoire of discursive gestures whose relation to any such individuals is in a very profound sense purely rhetorical.  Invoking such figures as examples of individuals who are the objects of GenderPAC’s advocacy work demonstrates quite clearly that Wilchins does not understand the logical implications of her use of ‘post-modernism’ as a conceptual framework for her political philosophy.  For post-structuralist theory does not merely challenge the identities that Wilchins refers to in her Gill speech as “those familiar specimens inevitably corralled in the Binary Zoo”; post-structuralism challenges the very notion of individual or collective identity altogether.  It is not merely gender or gender identity that are performative, it is individual identity itself.  There is no individual to liberate or upon whose behalf to advocate.  Rather, there are a series of signifiers that are used to construct a text whose meaning is inherently ambiguous.  In the conclusion to her Gill speech, Wilchins laments,

Let me close by observing that in one thirty-day period in the beautiful island of Manhattan, I have been harassed as a dyke, a sex-change, a bitch, and a fag.  I live in one body — why can’t fight in one movement?  Why do I have to section my politics up into so many pizza slices: this wedge to women’s’ rights, this to gay rights, another for gender rights, and so on?

But Derrida has opened the possibility of the deconstruction of the sovereign self; hence there is (in this conception) no single unified subject that we can unambiguously label ‘Riki Anne Wilchins.’  Instead, ‘Riki Anne Wilchins’ becomes nothing morethan a nominal device for constructing a text about identity.  And the notion of ‘one movement’ becomes nothing more than a mere utterance whose connection with any actual collective entity in the ‘real world’ is ambiguous at best.   In her Gill speech, Wilchins declares,

GenderPAC is a ‘post-identity’ organization, meaning we are committed to building a broad-based, national movement for gender rights that includes all of us.

But if one were to take Derrida (by way of Butler) seriously, then there can be no unified subject ‘I’ and therefore no unambiguous collective ‘we’ or ‘us.’  Speaking to Gill, Wilchins describes

…a broad-based and inclusive national movement for gender civil rights [that] is not only about people like Brandon Teena, Amanda Milan, Christian Paige, Debbi Forte, Tyra Hunter, Marsha P. Johnson, and Mathew Shepard — people who lost their lives, who were picked out and picked on because they were slight or gay or blond or black or visibly queer — but about working until each and every one of us is freed from this most pernicious, divisive and destructive of insanities called gender-based oppression.

But the deconstructive turn in post-modernism renders such statements mere textual devices.  One cannot meaningfully speak of a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ because there is no collectivity that one can unambiguously point to as constituting ‘all Americans.’  To the post-structuralist theorist, the phrase constitutes nothing more than a discursive gesture, a rhetorical device, if you will.   While GenderPAC’s gender politics may be more appealing to some than that of a 1970s lesbian-feminist, a Log Cabin Republican, an evangelical Christian, or an Islamic fundamentalist, a rigorous and consistent post-structuralist theorist could not assign any greater moral value to one normative discourse over another or any greater weight to the empirical claims of one over another; at best, the post-structuralist could only discuss the philosophic and conceptual implications of each of these world views.  Unfortunately, Wilchins herself gives no indication of how, from the post-modern ethos she would embrace, she would find a middle ground between the Enlightenment concept of the self and the deconstructive reduction of identity to textual device, or how she would create a conceptual foundation for positive moral statements such as the ones that she makes in her Gill speech.

In short, the notion of a post-modern ‘post-identity politics national gender rights movement’ is inherently contradictory and intellectually incoherent.  Poststructuralist theory of the Derridean sort that informs the work of Judith Butler – which Wilchins in turn takes as the conceptual fundament for her own thought – challenges not only identity formations of the sort that Wilchins labels ‘identity politics,’ but also undermines the very possibility of affirmative statements about individual and collective human needs and human rights that are at the heart of the GenderPAC strategy and philosophy that she labels her ‘post-identity politics paradigm.’

That Wilchins does not recognize this problem, let acknowledge it, demonstrates the superficiality of her use of terms such as ‘post-modern’ and ‘post-identity politics.’  Just as a Derridean ‘field of infinite substitutions’ is no ground on which to build either a discourse of rights or a gender rights movement, so a thoroughly ‘post-modern’ analysis moves us well beyond liberal rights discourse to entirely another realm.

Conclusion

It is no accident that the GenderPAC board split over precisely the issue of the scope and definition of the organization’s mission, with Wilchins engineering a purge of those board members who supported a continued commitment to the transgender community in both word and deed.  GenderPAC’s rejection of a clear link with the transgender community left the organization unmoored from its tethering, making it vulnerable to incidents such as the contretemps over the use of ‘gender orientation’ as the rallying cry for national gender lobby day 2000.  As the term ‘gender orientation’ has no basis in social theory , it is the perfect example of a term that has no currency because it does not circulate in any community.  Wilchins‘ reconfigured GenderPAC is a  ‘post-transgender’ organization that would create and lead a ‘post-identity politics’ movement. It is a movement that Wilchins imagines to encompass the lesbian and gay movement, the transgender movement, and the women’s movement, and yet (she imagines) is somehow larger than the sum of all of these parts.  In her 2000 speech to the Gill Foundation, Wilchins declared:

Our work focuses on Congressional advocacy, hate crimes, job discrimination, impact litigation, and youth outreach.  And if that sounds like we cover the waterfront, it’s because we own that section of the waterfront.

But claiming ownership of ‘the waterfront’ is quite different from doing serious legislative work that brings people legal rights.  Wilchins  creates the impression that she offers a strategy informed by a deep study of theory.  But close and careful scrutiny of Wilchins’ call for a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans’ shows it to be at best a clever marketing slogan.

Wilchins admonishes lesbian and gay organizations to see gender transgression as the root of the oppression of LGB people, failing to understand homophobia and (trans)genderphobia as mutually reinforcing but distinct forms of oppression.  Conflating the two forms of oppression deprives Wilchins of the ability to engage in a probing analysis of their complex interrelationship. Wilchins’ insistence that the transgender movement reconfigure itself as a broadly conceived gender rights movement is roughly equivalent to asking lesbian and gay organizations to redefine themselves as part of a broad movement for sexual liberation – but one in which homophobia is not specifically addressed and in which ostensibly ‘old-fashioned’ identities such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ are abjured.   But the movement that Wilchins envisions is one that does not speak to the truths of our lives as transgendered and gender-variant people, whether LGB or not.

Failing to take account of (let alone effectively address) the multiple oppressions of transgendered and gender-variant people of color, Wilchins’ GenderPAC instead offers slogans such as ‘gender, racial and affectional equality.’  Nor does her call for “a national gender rights movement for all Americans” address issues of race, ethnicity, national origin, or citizenship status in any meaningful way.  A movement that purports to include everyone includes no one, because it does not speak to the specificity of particular forms of oppression, which must be named in order to be addressed.

Wilchins’ discourse is not truly liberational, because it fails to take into account the totality of individual human experience.  A crucial part of our humanity is the experience of community – admittedly ambivalent and complex for many transgendered and gender-variant people – but a sine qua non for human existence as well as a necessary element of any successful political movement.

What the ‘post-identity politics paradigm’ does not recognize is how identity formations – such as ‘transgender’ as well as ‘Asian Pacific American’ or ‘people of color’ – can be strategically deployed to form community, which is the basis of any successful social or political movement.

Finally, Wilchins fails to recognize – let alone address – the inherent contradiction of a rights movement that is ostensibly ‘post-modern.’  Any attempt to try to construct a ‘post-identity politics paradigm’ that is rigorously poststructuralist is bound to failure, because of the fundamental disjuncture between a liberal rights discourse that depends on the unified subject as its fundament and a theoretical framework that denies the very possibility of a unified subject who is the ostensible bearer of those rights.  If the hallmark of the ‘post-modern’ is a rejection of ‘logos’ and the very notion of a stable and unambiguous relationship between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified,’ then no truly ‘post-modern’ political movement is possible, because post-modernism rejects the possibility of affirmative normative statements that are the requisite for an objective moral philosophy upon which ‘rights’ movements must of necessity be based.

______________________________________________________________________

Pauline Park is co-founder and co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (< HYPERLINK “http://www.nyagra.com” www.nyagra.com>).  Founded in June 1998, NYAGRA, is the first statewide transgender advocacy  organization in New York.  As coordinator of the legislative work group on gender-based discrimination, Park led the successful campaign for enactment of Int. No. 24 (Local Law 3), the transgender rights bill passed by the New York City Council and signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in April 2002.  Park was instrumental in getting the New York State Dignity for All Students Act amended to include gender identity and expression, and she continues to serve as the NYAGRA representative to the DASA Coalition.

Park received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has written widely on gender, race, and LGBT politics.  She co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC) in 1994, Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997, Queens Pride House (a center for the LGBT communities of Queens) in 1997, and the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens in 2002.  Park is also a member of the Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC) and the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY).

This article is based on a presentation to the 5th Annual Georgetown Symposium on Gender & Sexuality:Crossing Boundaries, Redefining Gender: A New Front on Equality (February 27, 2002).

Riki Anne Wilchins, “A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights,” a speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference.

Katie Szymanski, “Identity Crisis: Politics Shapes Debate Between Gender Groups,” BAY AREA REPORTER (Jan. 2001).

Donna Cartwright, Pauline Park, et al., “An Open Letter to Gender Rights Activists” (Jan. 3, 2001) at HYPERLINK “http://www.nyagra.tripod.com” www.nyagra.tripod.com.

H.R. 2355, 107th Cong. (2002); S. 1276, 107th Cong. (2002).

i The New York State Senate passed SONDA (A.1971) on December 17, 2002, and it was signed into law later that day by Governor George Pataki.  See “SONDA Passes State Legislature” in Agenda: The Voice of the Empire State Pride Agenda (winter/spring 2003), pp. 4-7.

Riki Anne Wilchins, “A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights,” a speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving 2000 National Donor Conference.

Agenda, id.

See National Coalition for Sexual Freedom at HYPERLINK http://www.ncsfreedom.org www.ncsfreedom.org.

See, e.g., Patricia Ireland, “GenderPAC Speaks Out on 30 Years of Title IX” (Aug. 1, 2002) at www.gpac.org.

Pauline Park, “Transgendered People of Color Take Center Stage,” LESBIAN AND GAY NEW YORK (Nov. 19, 1998).

Park, Ouderkirk Lecture, supra note 23

WARD CONNERLY, CREATING EQUAL: MY FIGHT AGAINST RACE PREFERENCES (2000),  pp. 2-4.

Paul Schindler, “Bloomberg Set to Sign Transgender Rights Law,” Lesbian and Gay New York (9 May 2002), p. 4.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (2nd ed., 1966), p. 186.

Wilchins, Gill speech, supra note 1.

CHRISTOPHER NORRIS, DECONSTRUCTION: THEORY AND PRACTICE (1982).

JACQUES DERRIDA, WRITING AND DIFFERENCE (trans. Alan Bass) (1978).

Id. at 289.

CHRISTOPHER NORRIS, THE DECONSTRUCTIVE TURN: ESSAYS IN THE RHETORIC OF PHILOSOPHY 16-17(1983).

Id.

Id.

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