As visibly transgender people, it seemed that all last week we couldn’t go to work, check Facebook, call a friend, buy a cup of coffee, or even get a haircut without hearing about the J. Crew ad featuring a company executive’s young son wearing pink toenail polish.
As a masculine-presenting genderqueer person who happened to be wearing pink nail polish at the time, Scott was approached by dozens of cisgender people who sought to engage hir in shared recreational outrage about how ridiculous the Fox News coverage was – imagine! Setting aside money for the kid’s future therapy fund! - and thus to reify their status as good liberal allies. In class, on the day when discussion was supposed to turn toward an interrogation of the violence of the gender binary from a transgender point of view, Hyacinth’s students spoke glowingly of Jon Stewart’s “Toemagedon” segment on the Daily Show, evidently expecting to have their androgyne teaching assistant validate their credentials as enlightened and free-thinking trans allies.
Upon closer examination, however, Stewart’s “sympathetic” perspective turns out to be that cisgender society can relax, secure in the knowledge that traditional virility is far too powerful to be effectively threatened or undermined by a little girl stuff. The supposedly progressive stance, accepted without question by the rest of the mainstream media and by many trans allies, is framed as “This is nothing to worry about. Pink toenails on a boy? Your kid can still grow up to be straight and cisgender! Ha ha, look at those wacky conservatives overreacting again!” Thus, the entire “debate” has been defined as whether gender diversity and flexibility should be tolerated, or must be stamped out completely. There seems to be no inkling that gender diversity could be a genuine social good—the notion that gender-nonconformity ought to be affirmed and celebrated apparently remains unthinkable.
At the time of this writing, not one transgender-identified person has been included in the mainstream media conversation. Neither have any parents of gender-variant children, who could speak volumes about the challenges of raising such a child in a homophobic and transphobic society. Thus, the conversation remains entirely focused on cis people’s thoughts, concerns, and feelings about the people who are subject to their institutional domination.
By our genderqueer lights, this whole media episode shows the dire ethical and conceptual poverty of the establishment conversation around gender. It hardly needs saying that the conservative defenders of compulsory traditional gender roles are fighting on behalf of a cruel and violent system that is dying and deserves to die. But the representatives of the self-styled progressive side in the debate, with their bemused and mealy-mouthed calls for “sanity” and tolerance, fall far short of articulating a genuinely liberatory vision of gender’s future.
On the contrary, these gender liberals seem to take it for granted that masculinity should and will survive more or less unchanged, whether mothers permit their (presumed) sons to wear pink or not; that gender-nonconformity is at best a harmless exception, a tolerable deviation from a cisgender standard that remains above reproach and critique; and that it is fully right and proper for public discussions about gender variance to exclude all those who lead gender-variant lives.
Framing gender progressivism in terms of toleration also gives cisgender allies a pass not to examine their own transphobic or cisnormative behaviors or beliefs, and provides them with a neatly media-constructed enemy upon which to project “We’re not like those ignorant bullies over there!” Hence, a cis ally who laughs at the silliness of the Fox News hysteria, and refrains from passing judgment on their kids’ toys, hobbies, or accessories, is actively deciding not to ask themselves whether they could be a participant in the oppression of trans and gender-variant people. Instead, they choose to pretend that our oppression is not a problem in their progressive, enlightened, tolerant household, nuclear family, or neighborhood.
We’ve seen the inevitable aftereffects in our shared efforts to ask local businesses to sign a pledge – just a pledge! – stating that they won’t harass patrons based on their gender identities or presentations for using the bathrooms (a practice that is actually illegal in our state, yet rampant). “That really happens?” some cry. “Here? On Chicago’s North Side? In a neighborhood with rainbow flags draped over every fifth porch?” Meanwhile, in 38 of 50 states an employer can fire a person for being trans with impunity, trans people are 17 times more likely to be murdered than the cisgender general population, and the coercive assignment of gender to children at birth is still a cherished way of life.
It’s time to demand better. We need to hear transgender voices and authentically transphilic—not merely tolerant—cisgender voices. We need allies who appreciate that standing for gender diversity is going to take hard work, self-scrutiny, and sacrifice. And we need to summon the courage and the moral will to think critically about the values and vices of traditional masculinity and femininity themselves.
Hyacinth J. Piel is a teaching assistant and graduate student in philosophy. Katherine Scott Nelson is a writer. They live in Chicago.