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SEXUAL SUBVERSION & THE END OF GENDER:
Interview with Rikkie Anne Wilchins
by Peter Werbe
Whether picketing an annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association or getting kicked out of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival for not being a womyn-born womyn, transexual Rikki Anne Wilchins confronts gender driven identity politics wherever she finds it. Her new book, Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender (Firebrand Books, 1997) takes the discussion over the top and challenges the way all of us think about our bodies, sex and gender.
Wilchins is the executive director of GenderPAC. She signs off on e-mail with, Just your average white straight guy with a cunt who really digs lezzie chicks like me.
Peter Werbe, a talk show host in Detroit, recently spoke with her for [FILL IN PUBLICATION].
Peter Werbe: OUT Magazine says you have emerged as the Superhero of the burgeoning transgender movement. Do you feel comfortable with this definition?
Rikki Anne Wilchins: I don't really define myself as transgendered. For me, these things are political categories you get cast into or forced to occupy when you do certain things to your body. But I accept that's going to be the label used with me a lot.
PW: You were once what people define physically as a man and now you're what is commonly defined as a woman. Isn't that transgendered?
RAW: That's an interesting question. People look at me and say, Gee, the doctors sure did a great job, but nobody really knows, since I don't make a habit of dropping my drawers in public. I think people make assumptions about someone being transexual and what this means and doesn't mean. I think it has a lot more to do with how your body is read on the street. I usually don't introduce myself as saying, I had a sex-change operation in 1980-something, but people usually draw conclustions and it's interesting to see how those conclusions work.
About half the time I get referred to with masucline pronouns, so I assume I'm being read as a man with breasts or as a superfem gay man. With the other half I get read as female and people use she and her pronouns with me. But I try to keep the conversation away from the particulars of my situation because for me these are political problems. It's not so much what I am; it's about why we care so damn much and why it causes someone to encounter so much oppression, discrimination and violence.
PW: I asked two guys I work with whether they would have sex with someone who had a sex change operation and both showed signs of utter disgust. To them it was still having sex with a man; how do you react to that?
RAW: I don't blame them (laughs); I have the same problem; that why I have trouble masturbating.
PW: Well, I know you're joking, but on the cover of your book, you are shown as both an alluring, half-clad woman and a handsome, bearded man.
RAW: Yeah, I thought I looked really hot, but I look like I'm in drag in both of them; neither really looks like me. Going back to the two gentlemen you checked with. What would happen if they had sex with someone and then learned after that the person had undergone a sex change operation? Would this suddenly re-do the entire experience for them? Again, this isn't about the facts of people's bodies, but how bodies are read and what they mean to us.
A lot of trans people look at the cover of my book and just go to pieces; they don't know what to do with it. The whole emphasis of the transgener movement has been, this is who I really am inside and you ought to accept me. However, my emphasis in the book has been, I can be anyone you want me to be; I'm no one in particular.
PW: Are we talking about only an exotic fringe or are there lessons here for those who have very essential definitions of their gender status?
RAW: Both. Transexual and transgender stuff is an exotic fringe, but I think all the interesting stuff comes from those fringes. A lot of the work I do with GenderPAC comes from finding people at the fringes and bringing those issues and ideas back into the political process. We've done a lot of work with the inter-sex communitywhat most people refer to as hermaphodites. We've done work with kids who are diagnosed with a mental disorder called gender identity disorder because the boys want to play with Barbie dolls or the girls want to climb trees. We work with transgender people. We work with straight men who have been raped in prison. But they're all issues at the fringes that are trapped out there and the parts that have been excluded from discussion.
Transgender status for me is not particularly interesting. What makes it useful is being trapped in this fringe and seeing all of the other people, ideas and problems out here with me. I start the book talking about transgender, but move onto other types of despised bodies like people who are considered fat, and harassed because of that Fat is one of those things that is still socially accepatable to hate. When you see Jurasic Park, you know the fat guy is the bad guy as soon as you see him and you know he's going to die horribly.
Also, differently ablied bodies, people with disabilities are usually treated as less than human. Aging bodies. We have older women going through unnecessary hysterectomies because their bodies are seen as desexualized and not counting as much. We have all kinds of different bodies that are despised, marginalized and discriminated against that are stuck on the fringes. So for me, transgender is just a lens to say this isn't really about being transgender; it's about all kinds of bodies and gender and desire that are stuck at these weird fringes no one wants to talk about.
PW: If tolerance is the official ideology of liberal society, why do you think such virulent prejudices remain active?
RAW: There's a tremendous tolerance of something as long as it's confined simply to one's bedroom, which essentially means not dealing with it. This country was founded as a Puritan society and that stream is still very strong in the public consciousness.
The first openly gay television character we get is Ellen Degeneres; we don't get Lea Delalia [ED: PLEASE SPELL CHECK]. Even someone like RuPaul, who is flagrant and blantant, and does his wonderful thing, is funny as hell in the studio. But if he walks out of the MTV studio and tries to get to the subway in New York City, he's going to be a grease spot before he gets more than a block. There's still this tremendous undercurrent of antagonism and fear and loathing around issues of sex and gender.
The gay rights movement at one time had the potential to force a discussion of this postponed and important subject, but it chose to define itself as not being about gender. That cuts loose the uncomfortable part. People don't like femmie guys and butchie women. Increasingly, the gay movement has said, we're not even about sex, we're about affectional preference, we're about who I am inside and about discrimination. It's become a rights movement for gay people who are essentially straight in everything but what they do in the bedroom. The public has bought the idea that gayness is ok as long as you appear straight, look straight, act straight. What this has done is gotten gay rights for the few, but it's also disenfranchised the many who have been left behind who are gender queer or who want to be more open about their sexuality.
PW: Struggling to gain rights for a discriminated against minority doesn't seem like such an awful agenda to me.
RAW: If that's the agenda you want to push forward, that's fine. But the gay movement, as I understand it, has neglected to make any type of wider connections that would give it a moral focus and a moral voice with which to speak. The gay movement as far as I can tell does not make any kind of connection between sexual orientation and gender, sexual orientation and class, sexual orientation and race.
This bridge hasn't been built because we tend to separate, but I don't see those distinctions. I see this as the oppression of all kinds of bodies, gender and desire. For me, the tools are very similar from one group to another. These groups are stigmatized in some manner, they're pushed out to the margins of society, and flushed out the bottom economically. You can't change that social machinery simply by getting your own rights and then leaving the playing field. You have to attempt to dismantle the whole machine.
Unfortunately, the gay rights movement says we're not going to do race, we're not going to do culture, we're not going to do gender; we're just going to focus on this one thing. Increasingly, the movement serves only people who are white, middle-class males, and straight appearing. Now as long as that happens to be your agenda and you happen to be one of those people, the movement is doing a great job for you. But I want you to be aware, there's people like me who are left behind.
If you're just trying to look out for yourself, that's not a moral message; that's just enlightened self-interest.
PW: Do you feel there are any essential gender characteristics that are important or need to be defended?
RAW: My idea is to help people be what ever they want. If you woke up tomorrow, Peter, and decided, god forbid, that you really wanted to put on a nice flowered skirt to go into work, that shouldn't be a problem. And, it's not only not a problem, it also doesn't mean you or more or less masculine, it's just what you felt like wearing.
A lot of people have said to me, it's about sexual orientation, not gender, but that's not the way my mom reads it. Most people hate gays because they see them as being gender inappropriate. If you're inserting your penis into someone else's body, that body had better be female otherwise you're doing something gender inappropriate or faggy or queer. And that's the gut level hatred of homosexuality; it crosses some kind of malesness or femaleness that we're supposed to have. It's not just what we do, it's how that plays through gender.
It's like those guys at work you mentioned. The idea of them playing with someone who used to be a man is disgusting to them not because of the way it looks or feels (the person may look or feel like a woman to them), but because it somehow compromises their masculinity. So, underneath there's homophobia always a gut genderphobiathe fear of losing one's gender boundaries. That's the root of the disgust and rampant violence we sometimes get towards gay people.
PW: What can gays and straights do to change the gender status quo?
RAW: Make connections. Think about larger social agendas. I think we've gotten stuck in an identity politics which asks us to sever the connections of our lives and think about this part of us going to feminism and that part gay rights and this part to the NAACP. We are complex, messy people and lead complex, messy lives in which many kinds of oppression meet. We need to think about a post-identity politics which asks us to take the complexities of our lives and use it as an advantage to build bridges instead of trying to sever it into so many different wedges of a pizza.
To build a pluaralistic society we need those bridges, not just a bunch of competing special interest groups of which gay rights happens to be the latest.
Read My Lips is available from Firebrand Books by calling 800-243-0138.
Peter Werbe is the Public Affairs Director for WCSX radio in Detroit.
Attention editors: There is another untranscribed section of this interview relating to the hilarious run-in Wilchins had with the gender police at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival which can be added on request.
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Last modified: December 12, 1997