Today I came across a blog article on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), in which the condition of wanting to be a deaf person (but living, contrary to this desire, as someone with hearing) is compared to the condition of being mis-sexed (Gender Identity Disorder, or GID). I have very clearly different feelings on this subject than the author does, and after having done some out-loud thinking on it, I’ve decided to write this blog entry to address those feelings.
The first of these issues is the coining of the term “transableism”, When I read this word for the first time today, knowing what the word ableism means, I was expecting to read a blog article about ableism within trans communities. Trans and gender-variant people aren’t immune from harbouring internalized prejudices just because we’ve reached out to friends, family, lovers, and/or professionals for help to deal with being gender-incongruous. I thought this topic would be of particular interest to me, because a lot of people within and outside of trans communities seem to think that ableism is just made-up, or that it’s the only remaining acceptable form of discrimination that does not warrant being challenged by anyone, disabled or not (which may or may not be disputed by people of other marginalized groups). I was surprised to learn that this word apparently means that a person is able-bodied but wants to socially and/or medically transition to being physically disabled (such as electively becoming deaf or paralyzed). I can’t speak to whether or not “transableism” applies to mental disability as well, but I can’t fathom why anyone would have a desire, for example, to develop habitually disordered thinking. I suppose if it were possible that “transableism” included a desire to develop a specific mental disability, it wouldn’t be written about exclusively as a form of BIID.
It seems to me that coining the term “transableism” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word ableism means, in addition to a very likely ignorance of the disability rights movement that has been ongoing for decades. For instance, as I understand it, when you build new buildings in Canada these days, you are required to make accommodations in your plans so that it is accessible to people who are not able-bodied (and this includes the washrooms). But this was not the case until fairly recently, and older buildings can still remain inaccessible to people who use a wheelchair or power scooter to get from point A to point B, or even people who are able to walk with the use of prostheses and/or canes. It also seems (though I am not certain about this) that new building plans are required to make accommodations for the legally blind, such as Braille indicators on elevators and washroom signs and fixtures, but older buildings can remain unaccommodating (thus, essentially saying “We don’t serve your kind here”). The requirements also apply, as far as I know, to building renovations in which the building code changes as a result, but not to renovations where an upgrade is not a factor. These limited systemic social changes have only taken place because of the disability rights movement, and we still have a long way to go.
In other words, we live in a society in which disability is still systemically marginalized, and as a result, people who live with disabilities are treated as icky, unworthy, unsightly, inconveniencing, and just generally lesser than people who are demonstrably able-bodied and able-minded. This is, in fact, a critical aspect of the dialogue about why Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) and Gender Identity Disorder (GID) are even listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostics and Statistics Manual year after year. Doctors just have the most impossible time believing, without a series of barriers and impediments collectively referred to as a process of gate-keeping, that a person can be genuinely mis-sexed or… mis-abled (to stipulate a word that, for this blog entry, may just.be more useful). And since the doctors write the books on it, the rest of society believes that they have authority on the subject, and therefore exhibit the belief that the self-report of anyone diagnosed with these conditions is neither objective nor valid (a form of ableism).
This brings me to my second issue with this subject. The direct comparison between GID and BIID suggests that being a post-operative transsexual is to live with a disability. This is accomplished by oversimplifying the condition of GID, and oversimplifying the transition process itself. While the author of the article stated that they “want” to become deaf, for the purpose of generating a more legitimate comparison between their experience and mine (as a person who is trans), I’m going to frame their experience in stronger terms. When someone argues “I was born in an able body and believe I should have been born in a disabled body” is comparable to “I was born in a mis-sexed body and believe I should have been born in a body with a different phenotypic sex (or lack thereof)”, they are arguing that having a sex change (or having one’s sexual organs nullified) is comparable to being rendered physically disabled. I find this offensive, and I know I’m not alone in my feelings on that. In fact, I find this revealing of how medical gate-keeping came to be established in the first place. If anything, I was more mentally and emotionally disabled prior to getting help to start testosterone injections (and to pursue a surgery to remove my reproductive organs), than I am today. Many people I knew before I started injecting testosterone can testify to that fact.
Now, before this puts a twist in someone else’s boxer briefs, let me clarify that there is nothing wrong or bad about being mis-sexed, mis-abled, or disabled. To an extremely limited degree, I am mis-abled (I have persistent thoughts about removing the most distal segment of one of my fingers); and I am also both mis-sexed and disabled, and receive treatment for these concerns. None of these facts make me a bad person, and none of these facts have any bearing on my capacity to be a good person. But as much as I believe that being disabled or mis-sexed or mis-abled are simply not bad or wrong in any way, I also have to acknowledge the fact that I still live in a society which privileges the cisgendered, able-bodied, able-minded, and the fully integrated body image. As such, until this power dynamic is dismantled, being mis-sexed, mis-abled, or disabled can be understood as both a medical condition and a social condition that is associated with social oppression. That is, though there is nothing innately bad or wrong about living with any or all of these conditions, badness and wrongness are systemically projected onto that state of being.
After thinking about the first two reasons I identify the language and comparison in that blog article as problematic, I started to realize a third reason. As human beings, when we age, so do our organs. The older we get, we experience an inevitable and progressive loss of sight and hearing, mobility, flexibility, and function. Occasionally, we experience unfortunate accidents, assaults, or ailments that may cause any one of us to lose a body part, or the function of a body part. For instance, I’ve transcribed numerous letters describing the events or biological processes that led to partial or full, reversible or irreversible loss of sight in one or both eyes, while I worked for an ophthalmologist. Everything ranging from being accidentally struck on the eye with a plant frond while gardening, to having a botched cataract transplant surgery overseas, or being assaulted in such a way that one eye was permanently lost and a prosthetic had to be made, to autoimmune disease literally dissolving part of an eye in its socket repeatedly after multiple surgeries. My training in school simply did not prepare me for the possibility of typing these letters out day after day, and I am actually relieved in recent years that this particular temp job didn’t turn into a career, but I digress.
The point I’m trying to get at here is, loss of body parts and/or loss of functions of the body occasionally happen by virtue of inevitable, accidental, or involuntary aggressive processes. But nothing happens by accident or by virtue of progressive aging/disease processes that changes one’s phenotypic sex. And as much as one might argue that the single case of John and Lorena Bobbit represents an aggressive involuntary act that resulted in a sex change, I beg to differ. Not only was Mr. Bobbit’s appendage successfully reattached, a gender reassignment surgery is a lot more complex than simply hacking off everything that hangs (and therefore, is simply not comparable).I could not, for instance, get a job as a baggage handler at an airport, and successfully transition into the body I believe I should have been born in by removing my earplugs on the tarmac.
It seems to me, it’s fair to suggest that the comparison of transsexuality to “transableism” just isn’t an appropriate one. I’ll even further emphasize that the word “transableism” could be so easily misinterpreted as an intersection of completely different ideas that are only distantly parallel, that it doesn’t serve the conversation to continue using it.