Must Trans Narratives Cater To Cis Audiences?

From Into More:

By: Eli Erlick
27 Nov 2018

Much like my testosterone blockers, the truth is a bitter pill to swallow. Andrea Long Chu’s recent polemical op-ed in the New York Times polarized the trans community. Within hours of the release of “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” thousands of responses flooded social media. Some trans writers claimed it will harm trans people and cause cis audiences to doubt our transitions. Others applauded it for generating a discussion on trans dissatisfaction without petitioning to take away our healthcare. The piece’s central purpose, obfuscated by vague language and generalizations, is that trans people do not need to become happier to get access to the care we need. Chu contends we should be able to talk about our complex relationships to transitioning undisturbed by cisgender medical or psychological gatekeepers. Regret, unhappiness, and discomfort can and often do become part of this process. Yet we still deserve care. Nobody knows our own bodies and narratives like we do.

Chu’s op-ed distances itself from the “liberal counternarrative” to anti-trans pundits who claim that being trans is a “clinical delusion.” This liberal story — trans people are inherently suffering and must receive care to become happier –- is limited in scope and usefulness. Chu, like many other trans people, became viscerally less happy while transitioning. She explains that estrogen allowed her to access repressed emotions that make her feel worse. She still stays on hormones. Transition exacerbated her dysphoria, made her suicidal, and caused her to question transness. Yet, as she explains, “desire and happiness are independent agents.” She is arguing –- nebulously –- that we should not set happiness as the “benchmark of success” for trans healthcare. Rather, the desire to transition is enough. If we confine the ability to transition to the ideal of happiness, we may be allowing medical and psychological professionals to withhold treatment. They would judge our qualifications by a potential “successful outcome” (being happier). Wanting to transition is ample rationale for transitioning on its own.

Many critics pointed out that while Chu’s arguments are important and strong, the New York Times may not be the best venue for this op-ed. The newspaper caters to notoriously anti-transgender readers and writers, meaning the article will inevitably be misinterpreted. If your op-ed is in the New York Times, it probably isn’t that radical. But Chu never asserts that being radical was her intention. Her writing will almost certainly lead to people withholding care from trans communities, especially trans youth. Nevertheless, this critique also pivots Chu’s narrative on its palatability to cisgender people in power. It’s not pragmatic, but she never claimed that’s what she aims for. We shouldn’t have to lower our standards to respectability.

The other, more pointed criticism of the piece focuses on Chu’s decision to universalize trans experience by paving over the narratives of other trans people. She writes, “people transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong.” Perhaps this was wrong for her, but the majority of trans people, according to nearly every narrative, community space, and study, says otherwise. If we want to get exact with language, she is correct that transition “may make them feel better.” It’s not a guarantee. Still, the majority of trans people do, in fact, feel better when we transition. When confronted with this fact by trans researcher Samantha Allen on Twitter, Chu responded that trans people are simply lying to researchers and themselves when we claim that we’re happier.

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