Open Letter to My Fellow Trans People: Stop Appropriating Other Cultures’ Gender-Variance Into Your Own Narratives

I realise the very slight relative privilege I have in this as a transsexual male (even a transvestive one), and most (though certainly not all) of the people I’ve noticed doing this in the last twenty years have been trans female or otherwise on the MTF spectrum, but it’s something I feel needs to be said:

Stop appropriating other cultures’ traditions of gender-variance.

This isn’t just a matter of white trans women calling themselves “hijra” when they are not even converts to Hinduism. Nor is this just a matter of white trans men calling themselves “Two Spirits” because they went to a sham sweatlodge at Burning Man.

This is also a matter about re-writing deities and Their ancient priesthood traditions to suit your modern agenda.

While it may be easy to work out one’s pet theories onto ancient traditions, the fact of the matter is, no-one alive today is really a part of those pre-Christian cultures, not even Western pagans and polytheists who can, at best, approximate this in a merely semi-removed subculture. We aren’t talking to these people to judge whether or not our experiences are close enough to claim we’re part of the same tradition. Just because ancient, pre-Christian Greece is different enough from modern Greece that it may seem easy to argue that the cultures are two different things doesn’t make the culture up for grabs to appropriate and repurpose for our own agendas.

The second we arbitrarily give a pass to the appropriation of one culture, for whatever reason, we open the floodgates.

After all, many Lakota are Christians, now, and their traditional culture infamously suppressed, so does that make their Two Spirit traditions up for grabs? I mean, if you want to get technical, “two spirit” probably isn’t even a real thing, you know? It’s just the English-language umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of gender-variant roles amongst dozens of Indigenous American tribes, right?

If you can argue that ancient gallai are up for grabs to appropriate and re-write their traditions and mythos for your own agenda, then why?

Broken traditions are up for grabs? I think you’ll get some side-eye from MANY groups of indigenous people who’ve had to reclaim and relearn their traditions from historic record. Hell, why not just tell the Cornish speakers of the world that their traditional language is up to redefine and appropriate because linguists insist that it’s a broken tradition when it’s not, really —take it from someone whose grandfather’s native language was a pidgin of English and Kernewek.

This is why polytheism without engaging the native cultures of our pantheons on some meaningful level is problematic, at its very best, and unfortunately, the slippery-slope, in this instance, is not a fallacy — it’s a legitimate grievance I have with other transgender people, especially in polytheist and pagan communities. By assuming it’s OK to appropriate from cultures that we’re not a part of, for any reason, we’re sending out a signal that we think it’s OK, and that any other indigenous culture is up for grabs, next, at our whims.

But hey, I get it —this helps you feel like you’re a part of something ancient, and therefore like it gives you and your gender/s an air of legitimacy, so it’s all good, right?

Yeah, it doesn’t work that way.

While true that trans people have always existed, we have to look at the root for what that even means:

“Trans”, Latin for “on the other side of” or, to be more specific, on the side away from Rome, which in ancient Roman times, Rome was the default of all that was “good” and “civilized”. At its root, to be transgender is to live a gendered experience away from what mainstream society would consider the default.

That’s all we have evidence of, prior the suppression of gender-variance by Christianity — “trans people” whose experience of gender was away from the default experience of their gender assignment. We have little real evidence of ancient people who were at all like the modern notion of trans women and trans men, and that which does exist was written by outsiders to the experience (even the case of Emperor Elagabalus needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as the only claim that he sought a surgeon who could transform his body into a woman’s was written after he’d died, and by one of his staunchest critics, meaning there’s just as much likelihood, if not more, that it was a political smear).

The biological etiology of trans people is irrelevant. Not only do we lack any cadavers to afford us the most compelling evidences, the arguments from HBSers and their ilk to stress the importance of finding what they’d consider “biological legitimacy” ignore a very basic fact of medical biology: There is never just one potential cause for a condition. While there were certainly trans people whose biologies bore many of the same traits as many trans people, today, we simply cannot say how many shared those biological traits, nor can we say how many chose, say, the path of the gallae in lieu of modern medical technology and how many others simply chose a different path.

It’s nigh impossible to make an accurate comparison of modern trans people to ancient gender-variant paths. To even plant a suggestion that the two pages in history are making the same statements is absurdly appropriative, because the first page only survives in a few small fragments.

I find it highly telling that pretty much every trans person, trans woman or otherwise, I’ve seen make this appropriative claims to traditions it is impossible for them to be a part of, is white or white-passing. It’s not at all uncommon for white people to see a thing that they have no right to, and claim it as something they can use for their own purposes. Maybe they’re even doing what they feel is “sufficient research”, but then again, so are a lot of white people who are running illegitimate sweat lodges. You can’t research your way into a tradition — you are only initiated into them by another!

By appropriating ancient traditions for a socio-political agenda, one sets a bad precedent, and sends out a strong message to indigenous people: You’re next. Maybe not today, tomorrow, next week, or next year, but rest assured, you’re next. As soon as I decide I haven’t heard much about your people are doing with your traditions of gender variance, I will arbitrarily decide how much is “enough research” to appropriate your traditions, so you’re next.

Please think about this.

Yours,

— Ruadhán Jarman-McElroy

PS: I was really disappointed to see such an appropriative person is writing here, because since last I checked, the core team of Gods & Radicals are very much against such a thing as racism, but I’ve also noted that another recent piece there was little more than a thesis against modernity which, as per Rhyd’s controversial page (and pretty much the same words from Amy Hale and likewise parroted by other fans of hers) is one of the checkpoints for fascist vulnerabilities (if not outright fascism). I guess I’m saying that I’m no longer sure what purpose G&R is serving, as we see post after post from Rhyd (on G&R, his personal blog, and on FaceBook) and others in the core staff about the relationship between overt racism and the actions of racist society that those with racial privilege, even without overtly racist beliefs, are at risk of committing, and Capitalism — but this is given a pass, unchecked, when they’re a staff writer. We also see similar, in post after post, about how Fascism is a byproduct of Capitalism, and these warning signs of fascist potential need to be addressed and scrutinized — but this, too, is given a pass, when the writer is working for G&R. I mean, I like Rhyd, as a person, but I’m getting increasingly confused about what his vision for this webzine even is.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

5 thoughts on “Open Letter to My Fellow Trans People: Stop Appropriating Other Cultures’ Gender-Variance Into Your Own Narratives

  1. Exactly. I can fast for the Hilaria festival, whipping myself for the Dies Sanguinis, and party on the Hilaria Matris Deum, but I’ll still never be a Galli because there’s a bunch of initiatory rites and materials that have been lost. Plus, I don’t have the wherewithal to sacrifice a ram, so….

    And ugh white people who call themselves two-spirit

    • Exactly. People today can revive a lot of ancient traditions, but when it comes to things we know were initiatory traditions, with their own secret mysteries, especially for any ranked status, we have to admit that there are some things that are just lay to us, as modern people.

      In those cases, we can approximate and build from what we do know, but to have something close to what once was, we can only build anew, and the language we choose for it really needs to reflect this, or it does open up a gate to cultural appropriation. If we allow people to believe that Gallai is just an arbitrary title that any trans woman who feels devoted to Kybele can adopt for herself, all the social rules that say why it isn’t OK to appropriate the hijra terminology without being initiated o into that tradition (and by engaging that culture, it becomes clear that the traditions of hijra in Hinduism is more complex and nuanced than simply “trans women through the lens of Hinduism”), or Two Spirit, etc…, are then rendered redundant. There really is no argument I can think of for why it isn’t so that doesn’t reek of privilege.

  2. Interestingly, you use the same argument employed by Lierre Keith, Derrick Jensen and Deep Green Resistance regarding trans people. I might suggest looking further into the implications of this logic and the results of their reasoning, which is to isolate contemporary trans folk as an unnatural aberration caused by the ills of modern civilisation. This, of course, is also Cathy Brennan and Ruth Barrett’s line, and with the exception of ‘the patriarchy is at fault,’ is parallel to the conclusion of Jack Donovan.

    Not being trans myself, I’ll hardly tell anyone what they should conclude about their existence and which traditions they might find meaning from to create their identities. Seeing how others have used the argument you employ concerns me primarily because I’ve seen where that goes, and it is not a safe place for many trans people.

    • Regardless of your implications against me (and you imply them all over the place), a simple fact remains:

      Our relationship with gender is a social construct that is subject to vary by society. While there are certainly parallels to be noticed between modern, especially Western trans people, and other gender-variant traditions, both ancient and modern, it is, indeed, presumptuous to assume a perfect overlap on the Venn. Yes, I do maintain that trans people experience our genders differently from how cis people do (this is pretty easily observed, but I can explain it in detail, if you need me to), but unlike those you’ve named, I have always maintained that not only are those differences OK, but that they’re largely irrelevant in our daily lives; the instances I can think of where they are indisputably relevant can be counted on one hand with fingers left over to pick my nose and thumb a ride, if not more.

      And yeah, the patriarchy is at fault. The patriarchy is why trans people are terrified into deciding it’s a better socio-political move to proclaim “no difference at all” rather than admit there’s at least a sliver on the Venn where our experiences of gender do not match up to cis people — because the patriarchy has taught cissies that it’s OK to terrify trans people, and to try and bully those of us who acknowledge social differences, currently and historically, into submitting to the “no difference” assimilationist party line.

      …but then again, that’s why I’ve taken on the names of Derek Jarman and Quentin Crisp, because I like my queer politics to actually be radical, and assimilation is anti-radical.

      [ETA]
      Believe it or not, the world of gender identity and transgender politics isn’t so black-and-white as you’re suggesting with your comment, here. Many of us actually have very complex ideas about our genders and how we live it.

      I mean, your whole comment here reeks of the same mentality that leads Libertarians to insist “Hitler was a Socialist!”, in spite of ample evidence that he was not, just because he took on the name “National Socialist” for his party, and gave lip-service to maybe one or two characterists of “Socialism”. That’s the same mindset that led to Jon Upsal’s bullshit post about how supposedly “Marxism killed more people than everything else combined” or whatever.

      You’re taking the fact that some despicable people are running with ideas, ideas which actually originated in the trans community, in their own despicable direction as an excuse to dismiss my critique of privileged white people who lack the cultural context to have a claim to certain gender-variant roles and identities. Furthermore, in doing this, you’re implicitly supporting an assimilationist party line, which has had zero place in radical movements, ever.

      Are you so allergic to criticism that you’re willing to commit the same ludicrous fallacies of those, I think we’d both agree, who have decided to attack you and your words without actually having taken in what they’ve just read? I really hope not — I like you, but this ego I’ve seen growing is getting frustrating.
      [/ETA]

      Furthermore, let’s put aside what you are intent on dismissing as an isolationist perspective and address something specific I’d brought up:

      One cannot proclaim themselves a part of a priesthood they were not initiated into, and furthermore, one cannot appropriate that title for their own agenda with clearly incomplete research and what’s obviously high revisionism to lend themselves legitimacy; that’s not being part of an ancient tradition, that’s reading Foucault and masturbating. I mean, I can’t just decide one day that I’m in OBOD, without doing the legwork to be a part of that group, especially given its hierarchal nature, so no, it’s not OK to let other people appropriate titles they did not earn, regardless of “the feels” factor for them. It’s really very simple logic, and logic that exists in all initiatory religions (like OBOD).

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