[COLUMN] The Gender Binary: TERFs, terms and conditions

4 November 2016

By Nadika

This article is part of a series of GenderIT columns. Four columnists, 2 in English and 2 in Spanish, will open up topics and themes that we want to learn more about. Nadika looks at how writing and creating things online has helped herself and other trans people; Sonia Randhawa from Malaysia is writing about the links between climate change and gender justice. In Spanish, Evelin Heidel from Argentina will share her experiences in gender, technology, programming and access; and Angelica Contreras from Mexico will write about young women and their lives immersed in technology.

Original artwork by Flavia Fascendini

David Abbot, a copywriter in the mould of Don Draper, once said, “A little admission gains a large acceptance.” So let’s begin this with an admission, or a confession, if you will.

For the longest time, I called myself a shemale.

I know.

I know.

It’s possibly the worst label / word I could use for myself. I now know it to be a term steeped in Victorian sexism, in big-studio porn fetishism, big media cliché, bigotry and hatred internalised by trans people themselves, and some general TERF violence.

It was there. On the internet, every time I wanted to figure out the idea of transgender femininity, the friendly neighbourhood porn person flashed this big neon-lit word in my eyes. It didn’t help that every forum and chatroom I spent time on had at least 10 men looking for sexy times with a shemale. Everywhere I turned, in the late 90s and early 2000s, this was the only word I could see.

Admittedly I wasn’t looking particularly hard for an alternative.

The ‘S’ word was descriptive, I thought. And catchy. And fit me perfectly. Or so I thought. I used the term on my Yahoo chat profiles. I even had an email address with that word in it, and I described myself as one on many of my blogs.

The alternative was to adopt and adapt one of the local language terms for transgender women who were and are still very visible in the country. However, that label brought with it stigma sharpened over the years to inflict the maximum pain. As someone born into a family with considerable privilege (although I was unaware of this privilege till very recently) – both socially and economically – in a country like India, I could just not describe myself using “those terms”. The vocabulary to describe transgender identities – depending on your family and background – could result in homelessness, violence, and even death. I needed a label that wouldn’t have the shame and stigma associated with the ones I already knew. The irony didn’t strike me till much later.

***

The internet gave me a sense of who I can be – an idea of me as a gendered person outside the two strict sex categories I was raised to think were set in stone – it also clothed this understanding and this identity with layers of shame. I’ve wondered at this often – how a space with no “real world” fallout, with a completely anonymous, open-minded, open, accepting membership – could still engender shame and fear. How, even as we the members of this open-minded forum seek to break out of restrictions in one form, accept to wear other shackles, other forms of control and pain.

I’ve wondered at this often – how a space like the internet with no “real world” fallout, with a completely anonymous, open-minded, open, accepting membership – could still engender shame and fear. How, even as we the members of this open-minded forum seek to break out of restrictions in one form, accept to wear other shackles, other forms of control and pain.

The early internet liberated me, but I couldn’t exactly proclaim this freedom to every one.

I knew who I was but I could only tell it to the very people who helped me find myself – this was not public information. And so I hid myself, and hid the only label I felt halfway comfortable in, among the scores of anonymous, pseudonymous blogs, profiles and forums there were.

And it was thus that the internet Truly liberated me.

Hypergraphia – the overwhelming desire to write, record – led me forever in search of blogging platforms to express myself on. And with every new platform, every new community I built for myself, my idea of myself, the labels I used for myself, slowly began to change. I was becoming more aware, more politically conscious. I was growing up.

For this, the political awakening, I must thank Tumblr.

Another admission? I first got on to tumblr for its porn.

That’s not entirely true. I was attracted to the platform’s user interface – which I thought was easy and intuitive and fun. And I learnt there was a lot of free porn. Sign me up now!

As with most things internet, I had multiple identities and blogs on tumblr. Five or six blogs under my “official” identity, and three under my “other” identity. I kept them all as distinct as I could. I changed my tone of voice, changed the way I spelt words, used contractions and slang on one, and not the other, followed entirely different sets of people; all to maintain the illusion – more perhaps to myself – that no one could really say that the one was the other.

I had multiple identities and blogs on tumblr. Five or six blogs under my “official” identity, and three under my “other” identity. I kept them all as distinct as I could. I changed my tone of voice, changed the way I spelt words, used contractions and slang on one, and not the other, followed entirely different sets of people; all to maintain the illusion – more perhaps to myself – that no one could really say that the one was the other.

I followed a large number of people: a lot of them other trans girls and women, some of them “shemale” porn aggregators, and some indie porn performers and producers.

It was the last set of people who first taught me that shemale was not a term to be used lightly, not without understanding its origins and its usage through history, and how it has been co-opted by porn industry, by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and medical community to inflict pain, and to negate the identity of trans women.

The transwomen who were also sex workers, porn stars, slowly began to talk about the need for positive categories and descriptions. Sex positive, super queer porn performers campaigned against industry norms that deemed trans women were “men in dresses”. And they hated the term shemale. And so I learnt to hate that term to. And I learnt how to describe myself, and lose the shame over my gender choices.

The transwomen who were also sex workers, porn stars, slowly began to talk about the need for positive categories and descriptions. Sex positive, super queer porn performers campaigned against industry norms that deemed trans women were “men in dresses”. And they hated the term shemale.

What porn giveth, porn taketh away, via tumblr.

The other trans girls and trans women I was following on twitter also furthered my learning. All of them very vocal and very outspoken, they wrote about their lives, how they came to adopt or reject labels and identities, and their idea of transgender femininity. Feminists all, even if they would personally not describe themselves that way, they criticised ideas of gender and notions of womanhood. They wrote extensively about how trans identities are oppressed by patriarchy and global capitalism. They were severely critical of the role of state in how people expressed their gender. They were my mentors and friends, and helped me become the political person I am now.

Today, I cringe when I read my old tumblr posts, and have deleted my old email ids. I try and talk to people on twitter and tumblr who use the ‘S’ word, I debate furiously with TERFs who think I and other trans women are nothing more than fetish objects for male gaze.

I do this, because the internet made me do it.

Feminists all, even if they would personally not describe themselves that way, they criticised ideas of gender and notions of womanhood. They wrote extensively about how trans identities are oppressed by patriarchy and global capitalism. They were severely critical of the role of state in how people expressed their gender. They were my mentors and friends, and helped me become the political person I am now

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