Foundations of Ethics and Diversity submissions are open to essays completed for UF 200. Students are encouraged to submit an essay exploring civic, ethical, and/or diversity on a local, regional, national or international topic. If the essay is the product of a team project, all names must be submitted and all team members will share the award. Essays should not exceed 20 pages. Finch Johnson wrote the 1st place submission in the Foundations of Ethics and Diversity category for the 2022 President’s Writing Awards.
I am a 20-year-old nonbinary individual from Kuna, Idaho. I play Dungeons & Dragons and write in my free time. I was always considered the eccentric one in my family growing up, and I still am, now that I’m grown. But I am beyond thrilled to have found people who find my ideas and execution of them compelling!
Winning Submission – Transmedicalism, Respectability Politics and the Arguments Against It Utilizing Butler’s “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear”
Butler’s writing talks in depth about what she calls “frames of recognition”, norms that are upholding certain ideals that inherently exclude other people3. These other people are one’s that the frames of recognition deem disposable3. The specific category of people that this paper will talk about is transgender people. However, I am deeply uninterested in talking about how non-transgender people impose these frames of recognition and these norms upon transgender people. I am much more interested in looking at what happens when people outside of these frames of recognition impose these norms upon their own people. I want to talk about what happens when transgender people uphold these systems of oppression against other transgender people. There is this certain idea amongst LGBT+ people at large, that just because you are marginalized, means that you have a free pass to say and think whatever you want and never be wrong. This could not be further from the truth. It is absolutely possible to be a part of the “Other” and uphold the frames of recognition that harm you against others like you, and it is much more harmful and insidious than when the people inside those frames of recognition do the same thing.
Before we get into the meat of the essay, I would like to define the terms that will be discussed in this essay regarding the transgender community. This is both for background, as well as for context. First, I am sure you are well aware of the definition of transgender, however, let me also ensure that you are aware of the colloquial term for non-transgender people. Non- transgender people are called by the term cisgender. There are a lot of different interpretations of this word, but I will say, first and foremost, that it is not a slur. It is simply a term to refer to people who are not transgender expressly for the purpose of conversations like this paper. Next we have the word “gender dysphoria”, which is where one is generally unhappy with the way they look in relation to the gender they are. Next, we have the term “nonbinary”, this simply means that you identify as neither wholly a man, nor wholly a woman. It is an umbrella term in that it encapsulates a wide variety of people who have a wide range of experiences with gender and with life in general. Our next term is “neo-pronouns”, they are exactly what they sound like. They are new pronoun sets that have been being used largely online and sometimes in transgender spaces.
Next, we have “transmedicalism”. This is essentially an ideology that pathologizes the transgender experience. Brennan Beckwith said it best in his video that talked about the subject, “Transmedicalism seeks to make cisgender people comfortable with transness by excluding transgender people who don’t look the part”2. Transmedicalism, at its core, is drawing from the frames of recognition that recognize cisgender people as human and livable, and taking it one step further. It is creating a new frame of recognition regarding transgender people in that they must feel gender dysphoria to be transgender because it is inherently a disorder, that they must then medically transition fully into the gender that defines them, and that they must perform their gender adequately to be sufficiently “trans enough” and to then be respected by transphobic cisgender people.
Next we have “respectability politics”. This is a term coined by the LGBT+ community that is inspired by Butler’s works regarding space of appearance. It essentially talks about how curating your appearance to make people inside the frame of recognition more comfortable, and forcing others in your group to conform to this standard too does not actually help. This is due to
the fact that respectability is specifically meant to cater to the people inside the frame that hate those outside of it.
And finally, we have one more term to define, or rather, a name. That name is Kalvin Garrah. He will be my primary example in this essay because he is the most prominent transmedicalist known by most, if not all transgender people. He is a Youtuber who made many videos that he has since removed from his page, bullying and harassing multiple nonbinary people. We will get into the full extent of the harm that he caused, later, however.
One last disclaimer before we jump right into the essay. I am nonbinary myself, so it is possible that I have a certain amount of bias towards Garrah, as well as people like him. I will endeavor to be as fair as possible to him and his ilk without dismissing the harm their actions cause. However, something to keep in mind is that just because I am nonbinary, does not mean that I speak for every nonbinary person. We are not monoliths, and I refuse to be seen as such.
Transmedicalism and the Gender Dysphoria Debate
As you can already surmise, one of the specific frame of reference that I have chosen to focus on in its far-reaching effects on transgender people is transmedicalism. The first concept of transmedicalism that I take issue with is its views on gender dysphoria. Any piece of media written on transgender people before – and oftentimes after – always portrays gender dysphoria the exact same way. Either a boy “stuck in a girl’s body” or a girl “stuck in a boy’s”, and I am willing to bet that you have seen this narrative countless times before. I certainly know that I have.
Transmedicalism and the way it frames dysphoria is lining out that gender dysphoria is essential to being transgender and is the main symptom of being disordered because of it. It also lines out very specific ways that you must experience dysphoria. It says that you must experience it intensely, that if you are transgender, automatically, you must hate yourself. This is how frames of recognition and norms pop up, when people decide that there is a right way and a wrong way to exist. Which means the people who fit this norm then have the power to determine further rules for it.
Garrah has been a large proponent of this phenomenon. There are many different aspects of people that he would target. How they dressed, how they sounded, and even the extent to which they experienced their gender dysphoria. If – for example – a transgender man, or a nonbinary person who he perceived to be a transgender man, dressed femininely or wore pink, then he deemed them not actually transgender1. To be clear, this is indeed, something that Garrah did. The nonbinary person I am referencing is in fact, incredibly real, and would go on to receive harassment from Garrah’s fans surrounding his dysphoria as a transgender person. This harassment would be online, as well as offline, that is how far Garrah’s influence spreads1.
Many transmedicalists will purport that this pathologization of gender dysphoria helps to normalize the transgender experience to cisgender people. That it is a method of explanation to help them understand us. This way of talking about being transgender is inherently against Butler’s very ideas of gender performativity. It is only a way to pathologize this incredibly real human condition. To quote Butler, “To shift to the “illness” model–or, indeed, the “psychosis” model–is to recruit a pseudoscientific explanation for the purpose for discrediting certain embodied models of existence that do no harm to others.”3 and she continues to say, “Indeed, the pathologization model also works to undermine the political movement for enfranchisement, since the explanation implies that such […] gender minorities need “treatment” rather than rights.”3.
In order to pathologize gender dysphoria as a part of the transgender experience, by its very nature, it requires transgender people to jump through hoops that cisgender people designed and other transgender people pioneered in order to be seen for who they are. It requires us to feed into the frames of recognition to be seen as livable, to not be disposable to society at large. It requires transgender people who might not experience gender dysphoria to hide that part of themselves, to shove it into a closet and ignore it. It alienates people who don’t fall into the cisgender norms or these newly constructed transgender norms to the point where they have no identity. They have lessened means by how to appear in the world, or inauthentic means that are not actually true.
Transmedicalism and Nonbinary People
Since transmedicalism specifically focuses on science and on what it has to say about sex and gender, nonbinary people are the ones most affected by idealogues like Garrah, who perpetuate these frames of recognition. Transmedicalism, as a frame of recognition, only looks at the larger society’s current definition of transgender. It only focuses on binary transgender people and their medical transitions. It very often leaves nonbinary people out of the conversation since transmedicalists as a whole uphold two norms: One, that there are only two genders. Two, that both of these genders corresponds with a given sex, male or female. Since it was derived from the gender norms of the larger society, it is very heavily based on these two ideas.
Often, this is used against nonbinary people in a very specific way, especially in the realm of the Internet. If we are open about our identities online, it leads to not an insignificant amount of online harassment. This can, unfortunately, lead to real life consequences as well. There is one very specific example of this that I am going to discuss. This, once again, involves Garrah and the harm he caused towards a nonbinary person who is named Lars.
Garrah made a video about Lars, as he did with many others. The specific aspect of this video that makes it different from the previous video I brought up, is that this video specifically talks on the person’s identity4. Not their gender dysphoria, but their identity. This is where different social conditions overlap. Lars is a person who is disabled as well as autistic. They have said that due to their autism and how it affects their thinking and upbringing also influenced their view on their gender. Garrah’s video on Lars, like the previous video mentioned, was largely bullying and harassment of this individual. Largely due to the fact that he did not understand – nor did he try – how the conditions of growing up autistic and being transgender could overlap and affect how Lars viewed their gender.
The consequences of this video were incredibly far-reaching. This person, like the previous person mentioned, received online harassment and offline harassment. The harassment followed them to the psych ward where one of the patients reported on their stay to Garrah himself. Not only that, but it inspired another controversial transgender Youtuber to make a video that fed off of the comments made by Garrah about Lars’ disabilities, wherein this latest video claimed that Lars was faking being disabled4. This then circulated to a group of people online who harass disabled people they perceive to be faking it. It eventually led to the point where people in this group were contacting the government of the country that Lars lives in to get their disability benefits taken away, to deprive them of medical care that they need to survive4.
Now, at first glance, this seems like an unrelated issue. Indeed, many of Garrah’s supporters will posit that it is not Garrah’s fault that this all happened. He did not, after all, tell these people to perpetuate these ideas. He did not tell the online group to try and force Lars into a greater state of precarity. However, Butler talks about how we do not exist in a vacuum, that we are not just individuals but a collective. Furthermore, our social conditions do not just exist in a vacuum3. I am not just nonbinary, and Lars isn’t either. They are a whole, complex person and each of the social conditions that make up their life are intrinsically intertwined. Therefore, these problems intersect intrinsically as well.
The largest problem with this, whether the offline harassment is the fault of Garrah or not, is that his actions caused the outcome of this. Whether he intended it or not, his offhand comments about Lars’ disability traveled to the wrong ears. This is not because of chance, but due to the fanbase that he cultivated through transmedicalism. He did not call to have their disability benefits removed, true. However, when you have a sizable platform online where you make content for other people to consume it, there are going to be people that grow to agree with you. The content you make is correlated to the kind of fanbase you cultivate. If you harass people in your videos, you will inherently attract and condone the actions of people who go on to further harass the people in the videos.c
The largest problem with this, whether the offline harassment is the fault of Garrah or not, is that his actions caused the outcome of this. Whether he intended it or not, his offhand comments about Lars’ disability traveled to the wrong ears. This is not because of chance, but due to the fanbase that he cultivated through transmedicalism. He did not call to have their disability benefits removed, true. However, when you have a sizable platform online where you make content for other people to consume it, there are going to be people that grow to agree with you. The content you make is correlated to the kind of fanbase you cultivate. If you harass people in your videos, you will inherently attract and condone the actions of people who go on to further harass the people in the videos.
How Transmedicalism Perpetuates Respectability Politics
Transmedicalism, at its very core, is a tool used against transgender people to make cisgender people more comfortable2, however, it is not the only tool in the toolbox, so to speak. This is due to the fact that transmedicalist is directly linked to respectability politics. Transmedicalism is predicated upon the comfort of cisgender people about transgender bodies. Likewise, respectability politics puts cisgender people’s comfort and opinion of transgender identities at the forefront.
The easiest example of this is with neo-pronouns and the general opinion many transgender people have towards those who use them. For this example, I have watched Garrah’s video on the subject. In it, Garrah gives his reasoning for why he thinks that neo-pronouns harm all transgender people. The one that stood out to me was that it makes all transgender look bad5. Look bad to who, you ask? Cisgender people, of course. Garrah is, by far, not the only transgender person who thinks that. I have seen countless transgender people, even nonbinary people, decry that neo-pronoun users make us all look bad.
The argument to be made in favor of this position is that the appearance of neo-pronouns makes the space of appearance for every other transgender person more dangerous. This point of view argues that the disruption of the norms created within the transgender frames of recognition makes the frames of recognition that exclude transgender people more dangerous for transgender people. This idea has a gross misunderstanding of how these frames of recognition work. These two frames are linked, that is true, you could even argue that the frames of recognition perpetuated amongst transgender people is directly derived from the frame that excludes transgender people. However – and this is the sticking point – they are still two separate frames that operate on two separate levels. They are linked, absolutely, however, they are linked in a one-way direction, from the top down. The norms created by transphobic cisgender people affect the norms that transgender people create for themselves, not the other way around.
We are already outside of the main frame of recognition, following our own frame does not magically make us qualify for the frame that excludes all of us. To use a line of rhetoric often used in the discussion of respectability politics, no matter how respectable you make your space of appearance, no matter how comfortably you curate it for the cisgender viewer, people who do not already buy into our liberation are going to keep hating us anyway. It is not the way that we appear that decides whether we are accepted and loved by transphobic cisgender people. It is entirely on them to decide whether or not they want to try and understand us. All it does is represent a skewed and incorrect appearance of transgender people.
The purpose of creating a space of appearance is not for the individual. When Kalvin Garrah and people like him play into the norms of cisgender people in order to seek validation from them, they are only creating that space for themselves. This inherently excludes the rest of us. Space of appearance is entirely based on the collective, and only creating a space for yourself does not make the rest of us likable and livable by the frames that transmedicalists and people who buy into the idea of the “respectable transgender person” uphold. As Butler puts it, “[…] this means that embodying the norm or norms by which one gains recognizable status is a way of ratifying and reproducing certain norms of recognition over others, and so constraining the field of the recognizable.”3. In other words, by using further tools to attempt to gain recognition by a frame that – by its very existence – excludes us, transgender people like Kalvin Garrah do not achieve transgender liberation. This act does not gain us respect or acceptance, nor does it change the frame of recognition that excludes us as a whole. All it does is narrow the norms down so that there are more frames that we must follow. It excludes the rest of us even further at the cost of one person having an in into the main frame of recognition.
Some of the topics discussed in this paper may appear to be less important than the others. Transmedicalism, at first glance, certainly seems much more serious than people thinking neo-pronoun users make the rest of us look bad. I do not disagree that some of these issues carry more weight than the others. However, as I have stated previously, these issues do not exist in a vacuum. There is not one space where neo-pronouns are ridiculed and another space where transmedicalist ideology is promoted and the two never overlap.
The thing that makes these so harmful is that they do overlap. These ideas are perpetuated by transgender people who just want to be accepted. This does not make them bad people, but due to the nature of how human issues function, these issues are not isolated, and neither are the actions of those who believe in these ideas. Pathologizing transness leads to the idea that something is inherently wrong and disordered about our existence. Dismissing and ridiculing nonbinary people constrains the frames of recognition of who gets to be considered transgender. Decrying neo-pronoun use deteriorates our space of appearance by trying to appear as the perfect transgender collective.
When these frames of recognition are imposed upon transgender people by cisgender people, we have the chance to act as a collective. We have the opportunity to stand together against the norms that exclude us. When these frames of recognition are being upheld by other transgender people, however, it divides us. It divides us for when we need to make that space of appearance to lobby for our rights. It divides us so that the people who decide the main frame of recognition get exactly what they want. Transmedicalism and respectability politics are not just harmful because they promote hatred, harassment, and exclusion. They are harmful because they actively work against what the people perpetuating them truly want, to be accepted by society and to change the frames of recognition that exclude us from it.
- Beckwith, Brennan, “Breaking My Silence On Kalvin Garrah | Part 1”, Youtube video, 39:24, 19 October 2020.
- Beckwith, Brennan, “Transmedicalism is Transphobic | Breaking My Silence Part 2”, Youtube video, 50:06, 23 November 2020.
- Butler, Judith, Notes Toward A Performative Theory Of Assembly, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), Chapter 1.
- CopsHateMoe, “Kalvin Garrah is far WORSE than you thought”, Youtube video, 1:04:54, 14 January 2021.
- Kalvin Garrah, “HOW NEOPRONOUNS HURT TRANS PEOPLE”, Youtube video, 17:32, 29 November 2020.