If There's a Transgender Culture, I'm Not Part of It

Recently the term "transgender culture" has became more and more common a term in discourse about LGBT topics. Perhaps alongside "gay culture" or "queer culture," this new term is seen as recognising the unique lived experiences of transgender individuals. Yet, is this a term with actual substance?

There most certainly are transgender cultures, such as the Hijra in India, the Kathoey in Thailand, the Waria in Indonesia, etc. There are transgender communities within indigenous cultures. This is not what seems to be discussed here. What is a transgender culture in a Western, and especially Americentric, context? This Western, even Americentric, idea of a "transgender culture" seems to have really come up in wider pop culture headlines, in articles, in blog posts, and in comments over the past year.

There's just one big issue with this concept of a "transgender culture." I have no idea what it means. And I can't seem to figure it out in the references to it.

Even Huffington Post's transgender page references a "culture." Of course, as Mitch Kellaway says, HuffPo probably isn't exactly the best source when it comes to learning about trans issues, let alone what might constitute a transgender culture. Kellaway was one of HuffPoGay's writers until the website's decision to run Alaska Thunderfuck's controversial video which many (including myself) felt targeted trans women writers (and perhaps one in particular). That incident was what finally pushed him to end the relationship, but he'd been uncomfortable with the website for some time.

My growing qualms had everything to do with your position as a non-trans-run platform that has real effects, via your editorial choices, on how trans people can expect to be publicly related to...

It's really important to note that when I have seen "transgender culture" written, it has almost always invariably been in works by cisgender individuals. The works seem more like those of amateur anthropologists discussing some foreign group, rather than descriptions of an actual culture, while others just don't even describe what it is. Vogue ran a piece on Barney's use of transgender models which included a title that referenced "transgender culture," yet then did not go on to explain of what this supposed "transgender culture" actually consisted. Huffington Post, as mentioned earlier, didn't either. The closest I could find to anyone actually discussing "transgender culture" as an actually identifiable culture was extremist religious groups denouncing "transgender culture" as part of the "gay agenda." Not exactly reliable.

Honestly, if there is a "transgender culture" of which I am a part, I sure don't know it. How do I identify this "transgender culture," anyway? Before answering this question, I think we have to ask ourselves what marks out identifiable transgender communities in these non-Western cultures (India, Thailand, and Indonesia), and perhaps what marks out identifiable "gay" or "queer" subcultures within our own. Is there any real way to compare? And just what is culture anyhow?

Simplified, "culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts," but not necessarily all of the above. There are very clear aspects of the Hijra, Kathoey, and Waria communities which would label these as cultures. They are particular groups of people, with specific linguistic peculiarities which mark them out from cisgender individuals in their wider national and regional cultures, they often have unique views on religion (the Waria, as an example, are devout Muslims, even though many mainstream strains of Islam reject them), with distinct social habits, music and arts (in the case of both Kathoey and Waria, many are entertainers, and Waria specifically are often "street singers" with their own unique musical style). Perhaps culturally identifiable "cuisine" is the only thing missing from this list in the case of the three communities mentioned.

It is worth noting that while these communities are historically recognised as part of the wider culture, they are still isolated and insular. It appears to be difficult to take on the labels of one of these groups while avoiding being thrust into the communities the labels seemingly "represent." With little legal recognition, but wider cultural recognition, there appears to be little concept of "stealth" (that is, the ability to simply live as one's gender identity with past unknown) in wider cultures. Have some individuals been able to do so? Probably. Biology and anatomy are very interesting, and with many different combinations of traits, given the reality of the diversity inherent in the human form, it is likely that some individuals in these cultures were correctly gendered with such frequency that they were generally able to avoid being pigeonholed. For those who do not "pass," especially those without access to medical intervention, either due to lack of funding or due to lack of availability, this is much less likely.

How about in the West? There are certainly elements of culture in "gay culture" or "queer culture" which seem to be identifiable. There are linguistic peculiarities among some gay men and lesbians. The lesbian and gay influence on music and arts, especially in literature and film is definitely identifiable. Cuisine? Probably not. Religion? Fractious. Social habits? Definitely identifiable, but also heavily stereotyped. Perhaps more identifiable in the case of heavy persecution and its attending subcultures (ballroom and drag cultures come to mind). As support for LGBT individuals has risen in the West, the isolated and insular nature of gay and lesbian communities seems to have lessened. Many young queer individuals are choosing to be both "out and proud" while having less engagement in the communities of their forebears. And older members of the LGBT community, such as the New Republic's Andrew Sullivan, are noticing:

For what has happened to Provincetown this past decade, as with gay America as a whole, has been less like a political revolution from above than a social transformation from below. There is no single gay identity anymore, let alone a single look or style or culture. Memorial Day sees the younger generation of lesbians, looking like lost members of a boy band, with their baseball caps, preppy shirts, short hair, and earrings. Independence Day brings the partiers: the "circuit boys," with perfect torsos, a thirst for nightlife, designer drugs, and countless bottles of water. For a week in mid-July, the town is dominated by "bears"—chubby, hairy, unkempt men with an affinity for beer and pizza. Family Week heralds an influx of children and harried gay parents...


Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town: on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians will not exist—or that they won't create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may become more helpful not to examine them separately at all.

Frankly, I think Sullivan is a bit behind the times. I would say that all he speaks about in his article (which comes highly recommended) on the meaning of "gay culture" and how it is coming to an end, has essentially already come to pass with those under 30. Certainly it has come to pass entirely with those college aged and younger. There are still reasons for LGBT youth to band together into organisations and to have queer spaces, but there is no longer a need, and no longer a desire, to be seen as a cut-off, externalised culture to the wider cultural paradigm.

So what of "transgender culture?" Does it exist? Does the "trans community" have identifiable peculiarities of language? If it does, I am not aware of them. Most of the terminology I use is from a wider feminist discourse, and it borrows heavily from black feminist and womanist texts and third wave explorations of those texts. Religion? Like "gay culture," fractious. I'm a devout Christian, most of the trans people I know are agnostic or atheist. Sometimes militantly so. I have met Jewish trans people and Muslim trans people. Yuuka (who is not Japanese, that's just a moniker) is genderqueer and a practicing Buddhist. Cuisine? Well... uh... Nope. Music and arts? Only now are we starting to explore the idea of transgender art and music, but I think that exploration has not come to pass while the community was still isolated and insular. It will be part of the fabric of the wider cultural paradigm—which is a more inclusive fabric.

If "queer culture" has ended or is nearing its end in the West, then "transgender culture" never had a chance to rise. It is unnecessary before it even has come to exist. And in any case, I'm not part of it.

Image via Shutterstock.