Commentary: Genderalizing Shiloh Jolie-Pitt: How We Discount Trans Voices
Submission by James Worsdale, TNG contributor. Crossposted from Cannonball Blog with permission.
Spawn of Cher, Chaz Bono, has been making the media rounds in promotion of his new documentary and book that detail his transition from female to male. Canonballâs James Worsdale examines Chazâs interactions with a clueless, curious and caustic public, particularly around the apparently touchy subject of fellow child to celebrity parents, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.
Chaz Bonoâs documentaryÂ Becoming Chaz, whichÂ recently premiered on OWN, and his new bookÂ Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man both chronicle his transition from female to male and the effect it had on his body, identity, relationships with others, the media and more. Chaz has recently beenÂ making the media rounds, discussing his experience, bringing the existence of trans folk in the United States to the center stage and revealing some unpleasant attitudes our culture harbors towards them. Particularly,Â a post on US Weeklyâs site, in which Chaz was quoted talking about Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and her potential transgender identity, got peopleâs blood boiling,Â sparking a transphobic and violent defense ofÂ cissexist norms and exposing intolerance of trans identities, particularly in application to children.
ChazâsÂ quote originally came from an interview he did with E! News in which they asked, if given the chance, what he would say to Brad and Angelina about their daughter Shiloh Jolie-Pitt â whoseÂ presence in the tabloids, which construct her existence as some sort of freak show with Angelina to blame, has been appalling. He responded, âI would love to talk to them at some pointâŚto at least let them know that we have this resource for them if they ever need it,â referring to the organization he is actively involved with,Â Transforming Family whose mission is, âTo empower children and families to create supportive and inclusive environments in which gender may be freely expressed and respected.â
Chazâs response was diplomatic and responsible, not making any assumptions or diagnoses. Some commenters felt differently, attacking Chaz for indoctrination, accusing him of using Jolie-Pitt as a platform for fame, using his transition as a publicity stunt and making cruel comments about his weight.
The relationship of the feminist community and the transgender community is a largely contentious and occasionally torrid one. To sum up one of the key discrepancies of thought, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz articulates in âQueering Sexuality and Doing Gender: Transgender Menâs Identification With Gender and Sexualityâ:
Some feminists who challenge transsexualism tend to state no difference between body image and material body, signifying to some that transgender individuals do not break the bi-polarity of gender, but instead, reinforce it by complete acceptance of hegemonic ideologies of sex and genderâŚIt is often argued that transgender men transition in order to achieve, âmale privilege.â
There are also discrepancies of thought in the transgender community around if bodily alterations and hormonal therapy further essentialize the link between the physical body and gender identity, as explored in theÂ writings of Judith Halberstam on female masculinity. Generally, feminist criticisms of trans identities, in my opinion, are rooted in gender privilege. The sphere in which people seem to become the most defensive is in the question of children.
Children in the United States enter a world where their existences are immediately understood through a gendered sphere that only becomes moreÂ relentlessly reinforcedthrough the early childhood socialization process. What happens when a child demonstrates a transgression from the gender theyâre assumed to embody through their biological sex, and what does that transgression mean?
There still exists in the currentÂ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a.k.a. the DSM-IV) a condition calledÂ Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood, or GIDC, which has gone through several reinterpretations since its inception in the late â70s, originally backed by conservative, Christian thinkers such as those of theÂ National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality. Critics, including sociologist Karl Bryant, note these biases and discussed how GIDC works to pathologize homosexuality and reinforce sexist norms of masculinity and femininity. However, Bryant still sees hope for positive utility of the diagnosis saying:
[Researchers and clinicians'] reorientation to gender-variant children has redefined the problemnot in terms of the gender variance itself but instead in terms of the stigma to which gender-variant children are subjectedâŚthe goal of mental health service becomes helping children and their families cope with stigma instead of trying to change gender-variant behavior itself.
Chazâs hypothetical reaching out to Angelina and Brad about Transforming Family and the organization itself both seem in line with this non-judgmental, emotionally exploratory thinking, but transphobic, hate-speech-spewing internet commentors seem to think otherwise.
A repeated sentiment throughout the thread is âI was a tomboy and now Iâm FINE.â Thatâs wonderful for you. But itâs important to remember that your own individual experience isnât universal, a sentiment that the folks atÂ Trans/plant/portation point out that ChazÂ may be guilty of as well. Privileging your own outcome as normative is uncool and discriminatory against marginalized groups youâre not a part of.
Another recurring sentiment is, âMaybe sheâll just grow up to be a lesbian.â Maybe she will. The oft-hilarious, occasionally heart-warming, while still problematicÂ Born This Way blog is entirely composed of images and stories that associate childhood gender nonconformity with adult homosexuality, and those stories may resonate for many people. But this is still universalizing experiences and discounting many individuals whose lives donât neatly fit within that narrative.
The dominant cultural reaction â discounting trans folksâ experiences and identities because of ignorance and invested interest in the correlation between sex and gender and the idea that those two forces must work within a binary framework â is hateful and cruel. When applied to young people, it highlights our lack of trust in children to understand their own identities, needs and wants and our attitude that we know them better than they know themselves.
I think thatÂ the way that we gender children is damaging both to children themselves and to the culture as a whole. I donât, however,Â necessarily think that your self-expression at the age of five is indicative of a psychological condition. If that was the case Iâd be running around right now with purple blush and a poodle skirt doing the mock-cheerleader monologue, âLike totally, for sure, I just, got my manicure.â (PLEASE tell me someone else knows what Iâm talking about.) For some people this is certainly the case (the condition part, not the poodle skirt). The identity of Shiloh, who because of her fame is a relevant and interesting foil to Chazâs narrative, is one that she will grow into, as everyone should be able to do, without the publicâs constant genderalizing and judgment.
I think that, as ChazâsÂ interview with David Letterman illustrates, we have a lot of understanding to build about how sex, gender and sexuality exist in our society and in ourselves, and how we project those interpretations and values onto children. As we strive to build understanding about these social, biological and psychological forces, we mustnât discredit trans voices and experiences.
A good resource for the history of transsexuality in the United States is Joanne MeyerowitzâsÂ How Sex Changed and, more specifically on the experiences and identities of female-to-male transsexuals (FtMs), Henry RubinâsÂ Self Made Men.
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