I recently watched this TED talk by Norman Spack, an endocrinologist who treats transgender teens. It stirred up a lot of feelings for me. First, I’d like to say I appreciate Spack’s sincere concern about the well-being of transgender people. I appreciate that he mentions the appalling suicide rates and shameful lack of equality under the law for our community. I’d also like to say I think it’s great that some people get access to gender-affirming treatment as adolescents. This prevents incalculable hardship and I see it as a wonderful thing.
But there is also something profoundly transphobic about this talk. I am deeply uncomfortable with using the sexist, racist, ablist, heterosexist and cissexist standards of mainstream society to judge the “success” of trans bodies. As usual, it is women who are the main targets of these value judgments. Spack says it all when he says, of young trans people who never go through the wrong puberty,
They look beautiful. They look normal. They had normal heights. You would never be able to pick them out in a crowd.
There are two main reasons it is so difficult to be transgender. There is an intrapersonal element, our discomfort with our bodies, our need to express who we really are. And there is an interpersonal element: others’ many assumptions and judgments, which at best ruin our days and at worst end our lives. The two are completely intertwined in the lives of real people. You can never really address one without addressing the other.
I completely agree with Spack that it’s a disgrace to deny these established treatments to young trans people. But it’s also a disgrace to deny us full acceptance–acceptance that doesn’t depend on how well we blend in with cis people. In his zeal for helping trans teenagers “look normal,” Spack has neglected the other half of the struggle: creating a society where we don’t have to be invisible to be acceptable.
There is no treatment that can make anybody not trans. We can use the names and pronouns that fit us. We can inhabit a congruent social role. We can take hormones, have surgery, and bring our bodies into line with our genders. But we will never be cisgender.
The young women in Spack’s photographs do look “normal,” and that means they look cis. But they’re not cis–they’re trans. Being easily recognized in their true genders will make life much easier for them, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not enough.
Real justice is not superficial. It’s not enough to recognize that they look beautiful and look normal. We will not be equal until it is acknowledged that they are beautiful and normal–and so much more than that.
If trans people succeed only insofar as we look cisgender, we have won the battle and lost the war. It’s not enough for trans people to look cis. It has to actually be okay to be trans.