Trans assimilation versus radical rejection
Being part of the in-group, assimilated into society, is an aspirational goal of many folk who choose to transition from their assigned gender at birth. It is seen as a path to security, well-being, and freedom from the wider societal pressures that assail anyone who steps into the gender hinterland. Yet, within the trans community, at least as long as I have been publicly trans, there has been an innate tension between those who seek to go stealth, i.e. assimilate, and those who either cannot or, increasingly, reject the idea that assimilation is a good idea. This dichotomy lies at the heart of why it is difficult to pin down trans lives, and more particularly why the wider societal meta conversation about trans issues singularly misses the point about the plethora of trans folk’ experiences.
Being trans is a singular experience, in as much as while you may share gender transgressions with other trans folk, the reality is that your version of gender/identity/expression are unique to yourself. Many trans folk seek solace in the wider community, seeking affirmation, understanding, and acceptance from within, yet at the same time also seek some form of assimilation and ‘normality’ from the wider world. Being trans is to be both a raindrop ever onwards down and also part of the wider body of water at the bottom. Some of us end up in shallow pools, others merged into vast oceans. To assimilate into wider society is a totem because there is supposed safety in the greater whole, yet in doing so one potentially risks alienation and physical harm if the wide whole rejects you.
This is why radical rejection has grown in vocal strength, that trans as an identity freed from the needs of gate kept assimilation is actually a net positive thing. To be seen as trans, as opposed to a person who has crossed the gender divide to become innately assimilated as the opposite gender, is a radical concept because the variable safety net of assimilation is not there. If you proclaim yourself trans, as opposed to a trans person who explicitly goes stealth and lives essentially a cis-normative identity, you state clearly that you have fully transgressed societal norms rather than taking an arduous journey from one set of gender norms to another. You, essentially, seek to carve out your own identity in a radical way that eschews what you left behind.
Some do this through no choice of their own, as society deems that they are unable to fold back into a degree of perceived cis-normativity. For these folks the battle to be cis-perceived is a cross to bear, a road to personal Golgotha that is full of scourges and torment. Assimilation is their goal, yet they are forced to wear a metaphorical pink badge because society deems them shameful. It is society that rejects and abuses, not those who transgress gender boundaries. Yet, it is the very act of shaming that turns those would be assimilators into radical actors, for in their enforced shame they fight for the basic rights. Radical rejection of gender norms does not come from trans folk, but by the wider society who perceive gender through a narrow straight jacket, strictly enforcing in-the-moment gender normativity even on those who simply wish to conform to some previous gender norms of their internally perceived gender.
The radical need to shape the political discourse is driven by those society has scorned, beaten, and bloodied. Radical action is never shaped by comfort or ease, and the more that society beats down on trans folk the more radical trans voices becomes. Political motivation comes from hardship, from a desire to change, and the more trans folk are pressured, bullied, and beaten, the louder they shout. Rights are a two way process, and as trans rights are degraded and ignored, the more those who previously felt comfortable in their cis-normative assimilation feel threatened. Those who cannot/will not assimilate are the vanguard, but ultimately it is all trans folks who will suffer.
Protecting the most vulnerable within a community is a sign of civilisation, asserting their rights and enforcing those rights is key to the wellbeing of all. First, they came for the radicals, then they came for the obvious targets, then they came for those who were left. Being assimilated brings many benefits, but only if the wider society allows those benefits to continue. Any minority can suffer the whims of the greater whole, to the point that actual badges are pinned on actual chests or social security files. Radical voices recognised this long before those who were assimilated ever did, and their clamour for action is as vital to those who live cis-normative lives as it is for those who have deeply eroded rights. They will come for all of us, cis or trans, unless we actively fight the erosion of rights.
To couch this as a dichotomy between assimilation and radicalism is therefore a false flag exercise. It is more a spectrum of existence, one which most trans folks have probably travelled along over the course of their lives. Transgressing gender boundaries is by its very definition radical, and while each trans person has their own particular version of transness, there is a solidarity enmeshes all of us. Fighting for rights should not be left to those who have no choice but to fight, rather, it needs to have a wider groundswell lest we indeed wake up one morning as see laws enacted that strip back everything to a raw nub.
Hannah Arendt’s observations serve us well, for she outlined how as an outside group gets more assimilated it loses its political potency but none of the knowledge that they are still an outside group within the wider whole. Rights can be taken away far more quickly than the battle to gain them in the first place. Those who radically reject societal norms live with the suboptimal rights granted to them in the first place, but that suboptimal right to exist is still there for those who have assimilated, it is just easier to ignore in comfort.
Advocating for assimilation, stealth, over radical action is another false dichotomy, as for many trans folk there exists a twilight between the two. It is a penumbra that many of use exist in where we do fight for rights on a certain level, but always with the understanding that being perceived as cis is preferable to the opposite. This greyness is messy, and there is no simple answer. We are teachers, pilots, students, sports players, doctors and much more besides. It is not straight forward to be radical when faced with the everyday reality of lives lived, of the connections forges sans gender. Indeed, it is the glossing over of such things that often makes it easy for society to accept trans folk as part of the assimilated tapestry. In the glossing over cracks do appear, but only on an individual level that can be patched up or walked away from.
Yet, on the messy everyday level assimilation only works if the rest of society allows it to. Radical voices are only too aware of this, and as such they strenuously seek to make us aware of the fallacy of turning a blind eye to injustices perpetrated against trans folk. For every trans person murdered, beaten, abused, there was a person simply wishing to live their lives in truth and open honesty with themselves and society. The ugly truth is that simply living honestly is enough to get you killed, rejection comes not from the trans person’s side but by the community they live in. This is why assimilation is totemic, for the opposite is a world of pain and potential suffering. Yet, in the assimilation the risk is always there that the pain can return in a heartbeat should they decide to come for us on any level.
Ideally there would be no need for gender assimilation or trans radicalism, as society would simply allow each person to express their gender as they wish without strings or boundaries. Transgressing gender boundaries should not need conceptualising as such, for a better way would be fluid and normative, i.e. sliding from one to the other is like breathing, normal. Until we reach that point we must stay ever vigilant against the erosion of rights, backing up radical words in the hope that the need to tightly cis-normatively assimilate is a stepping stone to something broader and more transformative.