Y are drag queens, pantomime dames and cross-dressing for fun harmful to transgender folk?

As an adult it is very hard to see any harm in drag, pantomime or cross-dressing for fun or perhaps even for charity. It’s just innocent and harmless, isn’t it?  

From a young child’s perspective on the other hand it is very easy to see how it could lead to internalised shame and self-loathing because it compromises the transgender child’s sense of identity to see something they identify with parodied. For my own part, Danny la Rue was damaging to me. The evident transphobia of Barry Humphries gives plenty of reason to believe that “Dame Edna” is a transphobic parody. Is it accidental or intentional? Does it matter which?

Citing psychology Professor Melissa Hines, from her book Brain Gender, as a comparator, the average height difference between human males and females is two standard deviations. The difference in strength of heterosexual attraction (males attracted to females versus females attracted to males) is six standard deviations. The difference in strength of core gender identity between men and women is ten standard deviations. There is no stronger human attribute than core gender identity. It is the bedrock of our identity.

That’s why, for transgender people, gender matters most, sexual preference much less so. For cisgender people, gender is a given, often conflated with and used interchangeably with biological sex, so sexual preference matters most. I’d argue that these statistical effect sizes, 10 for gender identity, 6 for sexual preference and 2 for biological sex also serve as the best estimates we have for assessing the relative sizes of transphobia / cisgender privilege, homophobia / heteronormative privilege and misogyny / male privilege which would be difficult to measure experimentally. The double loss of privileges / acquisition of stigma for transgender women (-10 -2) compared to the lesser loss for transgender men (-10 +2) may provide an explanation for why the average age at which transgender men come out is younger than the average age at which transgender women come out. This is reflected in society as the greater tolerance afforded to boyish behaviour in girls than to girlish behaviour in boys and gendered admonishments such as “sissy” and “big girl’s blouse”.

Moreover, the developing infant in making sense of the world identifies clothing styles as the visible differential manifestation of gender long before there is any awareness of (normally concealed) anatomical differences between sexes. This is what sets us up for gender dysphoria when we realise that the clothing we are dressed in and the way we are expected to behave does not match our core gender identity and worse, when we later realise our anatomy is also incongruent. Later still comes the trauma of the wrong puberty, where the trauma itself is used to distinguish transgender youth from gay or lesbian youth. There has to be a more humane way than allowing this trauma to happen.

I struggled to explain my concern about drag etc. effectively but happily Miranda Fricker has come to the rescue: it is “Hermeneutical Injustice“. I expect you haven’t heard this term before, so please take your time to get your head around the concept (bold text is my emphasis, italicised text is Fricker’s).

Hermeneutical Injustice is a kind of epistemic injustice, “wherein someone has a significant area of their social experience obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation. Systematic and incidental cases are distinguished. The wrong is analysed in terms of a situated hermeneutical inequality: the prejudicial flaws in shared interpretive resources prevent the subject from making sense of an experience which it is strongly in her interests to render intelligible.”

I’m going to coin a term for it: it is “cis-washing” as transgender erasure just as “whitewashing” is ethnic erasure. (I’ve Googled and found I’m be no means the first to coin the term, though my usage is different)  It doesn’t matter whether it’s accidental or intentional, it is still hermeneutical injustice. This is why we, as transgender children, had no frame of reference by which to understand ourselves, no vocabulary with which to explain our feelings and when we manifested cross-gender behaviour it was “cis-washed” away by ridicule, disapproval or discipline from peers, parents and other adults alike. Largely tacitly, we learn to conform to expectations in a defensive manner, the “stiff upper lip”, but it serves only to reinforce our gender dysphoria or bury it deeper in denial.

The histrionic performances of drag queens at pride events, garnering attention at the expense of the normal modest behaviour of transgender people participating in the same event, amounts to “cis-washing” because it hinders the implicitly tolerant spectators at the event from identifying and making sense of the lived experiences of transgender people and thereby fostering their acceptance or affirmation of us.

I’ll finish with a quote describing the consequences of such injustice on lived experience. It’s by sociologist William Du Bois, the first black man to gain a PhD from Harvard, from his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” (bold text is my emphasis): “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The parallels between Du Bois, living under white supremacy and transgender people now, living under cisgender supermacy, are clear.

For transgender people to be normalised, ie. not to be viewed with contempt and pity, but to be affirmed in our core gender identities, it is necessary to eliminate the hermeneutical injustice first. In this context, eliminating behaviours in cisgender people that perpetuate hermeneutical injustice, such as drag, pantomime dames and cross-dressing for fun, is both necessary and appropriate. They need to be seen as offensive to transgender people as “black-face” is to non-white people.


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