How not to stop the transrace/transgender comparison

Meredith Talusan in the Guardian explains why Rachel Dolezal’s identification as black should not be compared to Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity: “the fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” Dolezal is getting trashed for her assertion of blackness, while, with the exception of Elinor Burkett in the Times, Jenner is only getting trashed for what some take to be her excessive femininity–most seem accepting of her decision to live openly as a woman. Talusan, like some other activists, are trying very hard to ensure that all the opinion about Dolezal doesn’t contaminate Jenner’s media moment.  But facile explanations like Talusan’s are doing more much harm than good. Case in point–Adolph Reed rightly makes mincemeat of her argument and then concludes: “the transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies.” It’s too bad that Reed, such a brilliant thinker, assumes trans politics and claims to identity are always/only based the most simple minded versions of trans essentialism. But he’s getting that not just from Burkett, but from representatives of the trans community like Talusan. Newsflash–social theory in general and trans theory in particular didn’t end in 1980. We can do better than serve up these sad little cliches from the 1970s like the one that says that natural characteristics are involuntary, cultural ones a matter of choice.  But this tendency has (at least) two progenitors–the medical model of transsexuality and second wave feminism.

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