by: ellie june navidson
About eight months ago, i was at a meeting with people who had only ever known me as a “she.” i was trying on a new set of pronouns, ze/hir, to see if they fit. i was trying to stretch myself to understand my newfound conception of myself as occupying a non-binary gender.
i introduced myself with these new pronouns and received explicit non-verbal affirmations from a very queer room. Some of these folks were likely honestly been happy for me, for my openness in exploring my gender. But it seemed like most of the room perceived me as “more queer” than the last time they saw me, and unfortunately this affirmation made the striking impression that in this specific circle, “more queer was more valuable.” But, in reality, my gender was no more or less valid at this point than at any other in my life.
A few weeks prior i had identified as a woman. i was a woman. It’s not that these folks didn’t affirm that, or thought of me as less for expressing a sense of self that mapped easily onto a social binary. But they certainly celebrated that i came to know myself differently later. This made me feel odd and silent, why did my identity suddenly merit applause?
This is not intended to imply that new conceptions of self shouldn’t be affirmed or celebrated, but it’s important to celebrate those that aren’t new and those that do map onto a binary. In more radical queer communities it seems that things that are read as “more resistant” are placed on a pedestal. This mindset politicizes others’ identities. Further, it merely inverts a hierarchy of normalcy that is all-too present in macroculture.
Trans* folk often respond to this mainstream gender hierarchy with anger and resistance, and rightly so. We’re told our identities are less valuable, less significant, less valid, etc. None of this is acceptable and to reject normative conceptions of what gender is and should be is incredibly important. But the point here is not to simply invert that hierarchy and put others on top.
What i take issue with is the existence of a hierarchy in the first place. The process of inverting this tiered structure of value legitimates the process of differential valuation based on gender identity and presentation. When queer communities prize and cherish non-normative identities/presentations above binary identities/presentations, we imply that it’s ok to place some identities/presentations over others at all. This seems so directly incongruent with the social values that i work to cultivate.
A few months later, i was at another event. A self-identified trans* woman who was organizing was talking about her experience of her gender. She talked about pitching up her voice and walking with a “feminine gait” as being “phony” expressions. Now, while i support her sense of her gender, the way that she cast these affectations played into the cultural conversation that paints trans* feminine folk as fake women. i sat there afraid to speak. What voice would i use, the one that i was the most comfortable with or the one she would perceive as “real?”
Here i was placed on the other side of the same coin. My gender, although non-binary, is in some ways normatively feminine. i often pitch my voice up. i swish when i walk. Hearing these things described as phony left me feeling uneasy about speaking up. This wasn’t a possibility for me because i was slated to speak at the event, but i was more nervous after this comment than when i entered the room.
i worried that the judgment of phony genders would be reflected onto me before i even got to open my mouth. This privileging of non-normativity has very real potential to create hostile queer spaces. i expect my gender to be scrutinized and questioned in straight spaces; it’s unfortunate but i’m not shocked when it happens. But for these types of things to happen within queer and trans* spaces is incredibly disheartening. Isn’t the goal to build a society that is affirming and inclusive of all people, regardless of how they feel or do their gender?
Note: This piece was originally featured on the author’s blog and was republished with permission. You can find the original here.
ellie june navidson is a queer, gender non-conforming creature. She has a degree in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her activist experience is as varied as her identity, but currently, she is involved in queer/trans safe-space organizing and does written explorations of gender and normativity. Her personal blog can be found at invisiblyqueer.blogspot.com.