Assimilation Versus Liberation: Envisioning a Trans Politics Based in Desire

by: Hunter Leigh

Assimilation versus liberation: this is the central issue of transgender (and most) civil, political, and social rights movements. This piece pivots on that tension and aims to determine some contours of a critical and liberatory trans politics. While the knee-jerk reaction of many of us located in this camp might be to opt out and/or create dissent around the established institutions, structures,and relations that created and maintain transphobic ideology, discourse and actions, often, as trans people, we are left with no other option but to navigate those very institutions (ie. hospitals, social services agencies, the criminal punishment system) in order to get what we want.

As someone who values desire over prescription and happiness over conformity, I am interested in figuring out how to actualize those values. I want to think about when to work within such dominant spheres and ask: must we only work in solidarity and coalition with groups and people whose politics are aligned with ours? What sacrifices are worth making, and who and which institutions and structures do we make them for? What does it mean to have a critical and liberatory trans politics, and how can we put our politics into praxis?

I will begin with a personal antidote that took place at Howard Brown Health Center, one of the US’ largest LGBT healthcare organizations. This story’s main character is the American contemporary “face of the trans community,” celebrity Chaz Bono. While I don’t want to discount his experience, I do want to centralize that his political location as a white celebrity is heavily racialized and classed and does not reflect the wide range of trans experiences.

About a year ago, I attended a panel discussion on holistic trans healthcare. Chaz Bono was on the panel. When the moderator asked him to describe some of the healthcare obstacles facing the trans community, he took a swig from the water bottle placed before him, visibly nervous, and said, “You’re really throwing me through a loop here” and said nothing else on the topic. Later that evening, he gave a speech, which he was paid roughly $5,000 for. That money partially comes from the pockets of that very “community” he is supposedly a representative of.

I’m going to offer a rather grotesque metaphor for what I see happening here. Imagine that us trans people are dogs in a dog show, and the judges are doctors, surgeons, therapists and other medical and psychological professionals. What are the categories to judge our beauty, skills and obedience by, and what discursive narratives inform the limits of those categories? If we understand Chaz as one of the winners in this contest, we can identify categories such as race, class and normative gender performativity as framing his success. Additionally, the title of his memoir, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, caters to this palatable narrative.

Those who are the losers in this hypothetical dog show are exactly the groups of trans people whose lived experiences and desires need to be centralized within a critical and liberatory trans politics. In order to do this, we have to produce new knowledges that counter what the current legal and medical discourse is saying about our bodies and our selves. According to the mainstream logic, us trans people must simplistically feel like “the other gender” and want to assimilate into those respective bodies and roles as quickly as possible. It is not my intention to criticize those who indeed do desire that normative trajectory. In fact, I want to get away from all individualistic models of understanding anything. Instead, I want to think about the ways dominant institutions, structures and relations rely on conformity, surveillance, policing and binaries to produce queer and trans subjects and how a critical and liberatory trans politics can help us understand why and how to resist those restrictive actions.

The medical-industrial complex works to surveill our categorically deviant bodies and desires so that we are forced into lying to get what we want from medical and legal gatekeepers. If your desires and experiences don’t fit a prescribed definition that demands you see yourself as a stranger to your body, as an “either/or,” as pre- or post- who you are right now in this moment, often you can face criminalization, further pathologizing and overt animus and abjection in medical, legal, and other contexts. The candle burns at both ends.

How can we continue to strengthen a critical trans politics so that all of us have the legal and medical rights to self-determine our lives? How do we do this without catering to the degrading legal and medical processes that are in place? For example, should we consider the question, “Is gender immutable?” in order to attempt to prove that indeed gender (and sex) are socially constructed? While the courts focus on this question almost exclusively, I’m not concerned with proving whether or not I am “really male.”

To me, this is the same question grounding the debate around “the gay gene.” It’s irrelevant whether or not we’re “born this way” or not; what’s most relevant to me is fighting for the safety, well-being and self-determination of my fellow trans and gender transgressive family. Other scholars have demanded a centralization of race in trans theory and praxis. In order to address how all of us can acquire the medical and legal rights to self-determine our genders and lives, we must first be concerned with those trans people whose race, class, indigeneity, etc. locate them within highly policed, criminalized and pathologized spaces. This requires a re-evaluation of the values of a critical trans politics. Why is one of the largest trans issues in the US around whether or not children should undergo hormone replacement therapy and not around why police brutality against gender non-conforming people of color goes unrecorded, unnoticed and accepted? The answers to these questions trace back to what it is we value the most: assimilation or liberation.

Professor of Law Dorothy Roberts’ book, Killing the Black Body, interrogates these very intersections of race and sexuality and focuses on recent legislation, social policy and welfare “reform” on Black women’s—especially poor Black women’s—control over their bodies’ autonomy and their freedom to bear and raise children. Just as recent legislation, social policy, and rules and regulations around Medicaid negatively impact trans and gender transgressive communities, the same axes of power work deliberately to surveil, police, and regulate poor Black women’s bodies.

Just as trans people are systematically coerced into taking hormones, seeking surgeries, and other medical interventions in order to “prove” our “true gender identities,” poor Black women—cis and trans alike—are systematically coerced into things like getting sterilized, and taking unsafe and unregulated birth control implants in order to “prove” their true gender identities.

We can see a clear example of this “killing of the Black body” in the recent controversial choice of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding to Planned Parenthood, a campaign spearheaded by anti-choice leaders. This defunding results in the loss of crucial, life-saving services (ie. cancer screenings) to many poor women, who are more often than not, women of color. The medical institutions in this country are overtly racist, classist and transphobic. When we analyze any policy choices related to women, we must always ask, which women? Women of color, intersex people, and trans people are virtually invisible in this debate, as none of these groups constitute what it means to be a woman in this country. While many medical policies can be understood to be obviously transphobic, I want to shift the perspective so that we can understand this transphobia to be a symptom of an even larger system of white, hetero- and cis-normative domination.

Lastly, I notice the phrase “that’s transphobic!” being loosely spat around in some queer circles here in Chicago, New York and on the west coast. What exactly do we mean when we make this claim? I want us (read: queers and transpeople) to be specific about what exactly we’re calling out when we do. It’s an easy call out, and I’ve heard many allies say they’re too afraid to challenge those call outs at the risk of being called transphobic themselves. Why are we trans people placed on a pedestal in some queer circles, donning crowns of “bravery” and some vague notion of “all-knowingness?” Just because I feel my gender differently than a cis person does not make me any more political, any more correct or any braver than anyone else.

As trans people, we need to be especially mindful of fetishization, especially when we do it to ourselves. Instead of focusing on the specific lives of trans people, Dean Spade and others have called instead for a nuanced analysis of how systems like the prison-industrial complex function from the same logic regardless of material differences among those most directly affected by it. When we talk about transphobia, I want us to be very specific about how that manifests in particular contexts and how race, class, etc. intersect to complicate, expand or solidify how that hatred and fear manifests in materially different ways for different groups and individuals.

Ultimately, I think our gender binary system needs to be destabilized and built into a new system where all gender expressions and identities are seen as legitimate in and of themselves, around which the politics would be grounded in desire and happiness. If we embraced such a system, how different would our world look? If these were valued over profit, competition and identity categories, what kind of knowledge would a politics of desire and happiness value and produce, and how can we make real this model of liberation?


Hunter Leigh  is a M.A. candidate in the Women’s and Gender Studies program at DePaul University. He’s a native Californian and loves the Pacific Northwest, where he lived for six years before moving to Chicago in the fall of 2010.


5 responses to “Assimilation Versus Liberation: Envisioning a Trans Politics Based in Desire

  1. I think this an excellent framework and exactly the type of thinking I want to promote. I’ve honestly never understood how biology or conformity to established modes have translated to being more worthy of dignity, respect and equality than people who identify as making a choice in their identity/expression or simply do not identify as part of a binary or normative process. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, Kevin. I think our society doesn’t really value any form of dissent, which might touch on your question about conformity. I also didn’t write much about how conformity can be an act of survival, which in retrospect, I should’ve elaborated on because that’s a very real thing for some people. Not sure if you’ve read any of Dean Spade’s work, but if you like this framework, you should check him out. He’s a huge influence on my thinking, and also a friend.

  3. Hell yes, Hunter! Thanks for this article, it’s wonderful to see things like this being posted!

  4. Hey there,
    I know it’s been awhile since you wrote this, but I’ve been trying to hone my own critique of trans assimilation over the last year and just found this. I wonder if you have written anything else like this with more exploration into that issue of survival and the critique of identity politics as it pertains to gender? I haven’t read much of Dean Spade’s work, but thought he mostly wrote about the prison-industrial complex…does he have anything that touches on assimilation specifically?

    Any help would be very much appreciated.

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