Asian American Communities, People of Color, the Transgender Rights Movement and the Perils of a Post-Identity Politics Paradigm (Vassar, 4.18.12)
Asian American Communities, People of Color, the Transgender Rights Movement
and the Perils of a Post-Identity Politics Paradigm
18 April 2012
I feel honored to be speaking here at Vassar College again only a year after my last appearance here.
I’d like to begin by thanking the Vassar College Feminist Alliance and TransMission for inviting me to speak today. I’d especially like to thank Faren Tang and Rachel Ritter, the co-presidents of the Feminist Alliance, and Tristan Feldman, president of TransMission, for arranging my appearance here.
Given that it was the Feminist Alliance and TransMission, I would like to engage in a feminist analysis of the politics of identity from my perspective as a transgendered woman of color who was born in Korea and raised here in the United States. I would like to focus on the claim made in a speech in 2000 that the transgender community needs to move beyond identity politics to a ’post-identity’ politics model of organizing.
Introduction: GenderPAC’s Organizational History and Background
Riki Anne Wilchins was the executive director of GenderPAC for the entire 14 years of its organizational life, from 1995 until 2009; in that capacity, she 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 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. Wilchins, a white post-operative male-to-female transsexual woman, took 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.
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. I would argue that community is a necessary component of any 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 had profound implications for the community and the movement that GenderPAC once claimed to represent. In 2000, Wilchins gave a speech to the Gill Foundation OutGiving National Donor Conference entitled “A New Kind of Politics: A Movement for Gender Civil Rights” in which she asserted that she was:
“…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… 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… 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… 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… 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… 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 the original cultural gesture to regulate what your body and mine can mean, or say, or do…” (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).
The Gill speech was perhaps the clearest articulation of the discourse of the ‘post-identity politics’ gender rights movement that Wilchins ever gave, a discourse that I will simply call ‘the post-identity politics paradigm’ (or ‘PPP’ for short). But even the most cursory glance at that speech will reveal a number of significant problems of the ‘new paradigm’ that Wilchins ostensibly articulated in it. 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 above), Wilchins declared,
“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 were premised on a conflation of sexual orientation and gender, and that conflation allowed Wilchins to position herself as the leader of a ‘post-transgender’ organization, one which was guided by an ostensibly sophisticated conception of gender that was ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘post-identity politics.’
Wilchins thus cast herself as the avatar of a new age in which GenderPAC would lead a gender rights movement that would supercede both the old gay and lesbian rights movement and the newer transgender rights movement. What this all-inclusive ‘national gender rights movement’ ended up looking like, in practice, was an organization whose primary constituency would appear to be non-transsexual transgendered youth who were uncomfortable with any fixed gender identity and who reject the classic transsexual transition narrative. GenderPAC’s membership was especially heavy with college students, mostly of female birth sex, who were intrigued by Wilchins’ use of Butlerian terms such as ‘gender performativity’ and notions of gender fluidity that seemed to apply so well to their own personal experiences at that stage of their lives. Since many of these individuals identified as lesbians at some point but seemed dissatisfied with the inability of that term to adequately describe or encompass the gender-transgressive component of their identities, they were especially attracted to the way in which Wilchins seemed 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 LGBT rights bill still pending in Congress many years after its introduction.
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.’ It is unlikely that LGBT organizations 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. One can probably best understand Wilchins’ call for a ‘post-identity politics national gender rights movement’ as part of a marketing strategy under which GenderPAC was marketed as being ‘more’ than just a transgender organization, because it (ostensibly) had a broader conception of gender; broader than any lesbian and gay rights organization because it included a focus on gender issues; and broader than any women’s organization because it included transgendered and gender-variant people who were not part of the traditional mission of organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).
But for all that she claimed to be engaged in a critique of binary thinking, Wilchins ironically constructed her own binary opposition, implicitly pitting a ‘transgender’ movement against a broader and more inclusive ‘gender’ movement. This is a false dichotomy. Wilchins offered 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 recognizes all forms of oppression based on gender identity or gender expression.
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 as Wilchins articulated it in her Gill speech 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: gender-variant people (transgendered people, genderqueers, etc.) have been excluded from the lesbian and gay movement, and that is a bad thing. Transgendered people (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 and/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 many immigrant service providers will not serve openly transgendered people. Even in those 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 or cultural competency for those who are immigrants and/or people of color.
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’ begged 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.
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.
As I have already argued, it was GenderPAC’s failure to connect to community that led to its failure as an organization. Indeed, the discourse of a ‘post-identity politics’ movement as articulated by Wilchins in her Gill speech would seem to have no role for communities of any kind. Wilchins’ 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 a certain profound sense, the call for a post-identity gender rights movement represented a ‘whitewashing’ of gender and transgender politics. Implicit in Wilchins’ critique of identity politics was an assumption that identities are somehow fixed and exclusive. In her Gill speech, 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, they are more like Venn diagrams – overlapping and not always strictly 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 in order to bring legal rights to individuals who face pervasive discrimination, as the example of the successful campaign for the New York City transgender rights law shows (Int. No. 24, introduced in 2000, was enacted by the City Council in 2002). 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?
Wilchins simply fails to understand the variegation of gender oppression by race and ethnicity. And 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.
All that being said, we must also acknowledge that an ‘identity politics’ model can be limiting, and nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of electoral politics. There is considerable pressure within the LGBT community — just as there is in communities of color — when the prospect opens up for electing the first openly gay person or the first person of color to an office at the local, state or national level, the most spectacular case in point being the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008. There were also many women — Gloria Steinem most prominent among them — who championed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2008 because she would have been the first woman elected president, had her candidacy succeeded.
David Paterson became New York’s first African American governor upon the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, in 2008. Hiram Monserrate became the first Latino elected to office in Queens County when he was elected to the New York City Council in 2001, and John Liu became the first Asian American elected to office in the state in same year when he was elected to the City Council. Paterson decided not to run for re-election as governor in 2010 after a series of scandals tainted his administration, and Liu — now City Comptroller — is facing possible criminal indictment in a campaign finance scandal. Monserrate was actually convicted of misdemeanor assault in 2009. All of which to say that the crudest model of identity politics — that we have to support ‘one of our own’ just because that person shares our identity category or categories — is just as absurd as rejecting identity politics altogether. When it comes to elected officials, at the very least, there is an obligation to hold members of one’s community or communities accountable even when there are compelling reasons to support them. Identity politics is rather like nationalism in having a more positive face of community empowerment and a negative valence that can at its most extreme even lead to genocide.
From my personal experience working in the legislative arena, the best example that comes to mind of work that moves beyond the limitations of identity politics is the campaign for the Dignity for All Students Act (NYS DASA), an anti-bullying law enacted by the New York state legislature in 2011. This safe schools law protects students in public schools across the state from bias-based harassment based on a comprehensive list of characteristics — including sexual orientation and gender defined to include gender identity and expression — as well as race, religion, ethnicity, and disability.
Importantly, while the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity bill — in which I represented the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) — included a number of LGBT-specific organizations, it also included many non-LGBT organizations. The coalition that advanced enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act (NYC DASA) by the New York City Council in 2004 was perhaps an even better example of a legislative coalition based in identifiable communities but able to work in a way that moved that work beyond the limitations of identity politics. Asian American organizations played a particularly important role in the NYC DASA Coalition, including the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF), the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition for Asian American Children & Families (CACF).
My experience as an activist leads me to conclude that we need to work within recognizable communities because of the continued oppression that members of those communities experience, while at the same time moving beyond those communities to work together across identity categories to pursue a common goal of social justice and social change; it is not an ‘either/or,’ but rather, a ‘both.’
‘Paradigm-Shattering’ and the Disjuncture of the Liberal and the Post-Modern
Pretensions to the contrary, 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. Post-structuralist thought renders problematic if not impossible the ground of rights discourse that enables the articulation of positive assertions of normative right of the sort that Wilchins would like to make. To many post-structuralist theorists, 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 Jacques 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…” (Jacques Derrida, “Writing and Difference,” trans. Alan Bass, 1978, p. 289).
Liberal rights philosophy is precisely the kind of ‘totalizing’ discourse of which Jacques 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.’ But if one were to take Derrida (by way of Judith Butler) seriously, then there can be no unified subject ‘I’ and therefore no unambiguous collective ‘we’ or ‘us.’ Unfortunately, Wilchins herself has never given any 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 were at the heart of the GenderPAC strategy and philosophy that she labeled 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 the bankruptcy of her notion of a ‘post-identity politics.’
It is no accident that GenderPAC failed to spearhead a new ‘national gender rights movement’ just as it failed to connect to the transgender community out of which it initially emerged. Wilchins reconfigured GenderPAC as a ‘post-transgender’ organization that would create and lead a ‘post-identity politics’ movement. GenderPAC’s rejection of a clear link with the transgender community left the organization unmoored from its tethering, and it is emblematic of GenderPAC’s failure that hardly anyone even noticed when Wilchins shut down the organization in 2009, by which point GenderPAC had become a bloated irrelevance.
Failing to take account of (let alone effectively address) the multiple oppressions of transgendered and gender-variant people of color, Wilchins’ GenderPAC instead offered slogans such as ‘gender, racial and affectional equality.’ Nor did 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. An organization or 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.
In the end, for all of Wilchins’ ability to market herself and her organization to funders and members, GenderPAC shut down operations in 2009, with Wilchins continuing some of its work through a new organization, True Child, ostensibly focusing on “programs and policies that address reproductive health, partner violence and gender-based bullying, and educational achievement integrate a strong, specific focus on gender norms.” Wilchins’ role as executive director of True Child suggests that it is a reformulation of the same marketing strategy that she used to build GenderPAC, but with a focus on youth. Why Wilchins closed GenderPAC’s doors remains a bit of a mystery, as she never explained the decision to shutter GenderPAC, despite having built a very impressive financial base for the organization. Allow me to speculate and suggest that Wilchins shut down GenderPAC because it became clear to her that it was not and would never be the vanguard of a ‘new gender movement.’ GenderPAC was a useful platform for Riki Wilchins herself, but because she rejected the very concept of a community, and because other organizations — most prominently, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) — took up the work that GenderPAC was originally created to do, GenderPAC lacked a foundation in any recognizable community. Hence Wilchins’ quixotic attempt to cast herself as the Martin Luther King of her own movement failed because she failed to understand that a movement must have a connection to a recognizable community or communities in order to succeed in advancing a real agenda of social justice and social change.
This speech is based on an essay entitled “GenderPAC, the Transgender Rights Movement and the Perils of a Post-Identity Politics Paradigm” that was published in “Crossing Boundaries, Redefining Gender: A New Front on Equality?,” a compendium of presentations given at the 5th Annual Georgetown Symposium on Gender & Sexuality (27 February 2002).
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in New York (www.nyagra.com), which she co-founded in June 1998. She also serves as vice-president of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF). Park led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council (Int. No. 24, enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002). She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines – adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004 – for implementation of the new statute.
Park negotiated inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a safe schools bill currently pending in the New York state legislature, and the first fully transgender-inclusive legislation introduced in that body. She also serves on the steering committee of the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act by the New York City Council in September 2004. Park has written widely on LGBT issues and has conducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of social service providers and community-based organizations. She has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.