Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Transwars, Part 67458.

[This is a post that I have been reluctant to write because I am not trans* and don’t feel that I can talk for trans*people’s experience. But, the latest round of transphobia that has manifested in the latest Carnival of Feminists has made me want to say something. So, I apologise in advance to trans*people if I get it wrong and I direct non-trans* readers to here and here to talk to people who actually know something about it.]

Once upon a time, many, many moons ago, a famous philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am’ (only he wrote it in Latin). Descartes’ words are often flung about, but the larger point he was making at the time was to have significant repercussions for centuries to come. Descartes posited that there was a distinction between mind and body. The body was fallible and the senses flawed, but the mind was capable of deduction and so able to transcend the limitations of the physical. His model of mind and body led people to distinguish between the inner and outer body. The mind, or soul, was the person, where the humanity lay; the body was a mere vehicle for the mind and of little real significance other than as a means of communication. This differentiation led to a medical science that deals with the body and psychiatry/ psychology that deals with the mind. All that was important and real came from within; physical acts and behaviours were either inconvenient biological necessities or forms of communication controlled by the inner being.

‘Twas not always this way. Once a long time ago, and still today in some distant lands, the body and mind were not seen as separate, but the human operated as one, her mind and body in sync. Indeed, even in times and places where a Cartesian model was in place, not all people could free themselves from their bodies. Only the rational, the superior, the male, could truly rise above their physical beings. Women, with their hormones and menses and wombs and too much water and small brains, found it very difficult to make the separation between mind and body. They were never truly rational, never completely separate from nature, never fully human.

Then one day, feminism came along and women were allowed to be rational, our minds fully separated from our bodies. We ignored our menstrual cramps and swollen breasts and embraced Cartesianism. We determined that the body was a static model on which we placed meaning. Gender was a construction of the inner, not the outer (and sometimes the outer was constructed too). And as feminists, we built theories and more theories and some theories, and a bit of activism, and some more theories, but, all the while, the easy distinction between body and mind wasn’t all that easy.

We knew that gender was a construction, but we couldn’t quite figure out why our bodies continued to bug us. They niggled and wobbled and we ran and we ran, but still they followed. And then in twenty-first century came The Transpeople™*. They said our inners don’t match our outers and we want it fixed! And, the feminists cried, but your inner is constructed, so if it doesn’t match your outer, then you change it, not your genitals! And, they said, but my outer looks wrong. And the feminists cried, but gender isn’t real, so your genitals shouldn’t matter.**

But still the genitals mattered. And the Cartesian model allowed no in-between.

So we need to rethink the link between mind and body. My body is me. It is not just a vehicle that carries me. I love my body in all its lumpy, imperfect perfection. When I look in the mirror, it is what I expect to see and I expect people to react to me in particular ways because I have this body. I know that having this body led me to be raised to behave in particular ways and that as a result of this body, people respond to me differently from how they respond to other people. But, ultimately, I would not change this body. It is me.

Now, what if, one day, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognise the person looking back at me? It would fundamentally change who I am, both because I would be a different person, and because the world would react to me differently. Now, imagine that for as long as I could remember the person looking back at me didn’t feel right, for whatever reason, and then wonder what I might try to do to get my body to feel right. Women do this every day. They put on make-up to cover up the blemishes and wrinkles that aren’t them. They lose weight, and more weight, and get implants and surgery to try and make their bodies match who they are. And for many, the feeling of being right never comes.

Other people’s bodies are not sexed in the way they feel they should be. And sometimes they do things to try and make their bodies more like they believe they should be, whether dressing differently, taking hormones or having surgery. Indeed, if it was not because our genitals are what are used to separate us into two different genders, having genital reassignment surgery would only be more radical than breast implants in the degree to which it is a more complex surgery.

As it is however, the powers that be have determined that certain sexual organs come with certain behaviours. So when people choose to change their genitals, we assume it is because they are buying into the belief that gender exists and so reinforcing this binary. And, perhaps, sometimes this is true. Perhaps (and this is where I am a bit uncomfortable talking about experiences that are not my own), for some people, trained from birth that certain sex organs come with certain behaviours, when you change genitals, you also need to take on the traits of that sex- the two things come together. After all, it is only natural; it’s what we’ve been taught our whole lives. Certainly, this seems to be the line the medical profession takes. Want genital reassignment surgery, then you better act like a man/women (delete as appropriate). Lisa Harney in a comment over at Questioning Transphobia describes her experience thus:

In order to be diagnosed in the first place, I had to disavow any attraction I had to women, and state that I was attracted to men. In order to be prescribed hormones, the psychiatrist wanted to see me in a dress or skirt. The therapist I was seeing for voice work (and she was an awful voice therapist) insisted that I always wear dresses and skirts to her office. Even years later when I needed to see her about something, she insisted I wear a dress for the appointment, and not show up in my preferred (at the time) jeans.

And this wasn’t just something I experienced. Psychiatrists involved in the early days of gender clinics talked about assessing whether trans women would be attractive enough as women after they transitioned, and required a specific narrative to diagnose trans women that emphasized femininity. Since trans women are just diverse as cis women, a lot of us had to misrepresent ourselves as more feminine than we would have preferred just to get the treatment that would help encourage us to not kill ourselves, or at least not live out our lives in depression.

Some trans*women were forced to become feminine to justify their desire for surgery, whether or not that was how they personally wanted to behave (and of course the reverse is true for trans*men). Because genitals were never just genitals, they were the basis on which gender construction lies. If you want the outer characteristics, you damn well better have the inner ones too. And the thing is because gender is constructed and not natural, it becomes very difficult to decide what behaviours are natural/normal, and it all becomes very confusing. How much more so for people whose bodies do not feel right? As ciswomen, we spend so much time worrying about whether our behaviour/dress/bodyshape is feminine or too feminine or, better yet, is it feminist?

The thing is all behaviour is taught. There is not hidden or innate you (or me) waiting to emerge once we get rid of gender, like a heavy blanket holding us down. If we want to get rid of gender, we need to start normalising a much wider range of behaviours and questioning why certain behaviours are tied to certain biological characteristics- we effectively need to increase choice. This will not make behaviour ‘natural’, but will hopefully allow people more freedom in their identity. As feminists, we also need to challenge why power comes with certain traits or behaviours and why others are oppressed because of their characteristics. We also need to rethink the place of the body within identity. It is more than weight around our neck, pulling us down and restricting us.

Trans*women are like other women, except their situation is more complicated. They know that they are women whose bodies don’t fit with their expectations, and they have the same problem as the rest of us, trying to figure out what the hell it means to be a women, to dress like a women, to be a feminist women. Because, just like the rest of us, they have a very limited choice in what it means to be a woman (and because sometimes that choice is further constrained by the medical profession) they endorse models of femininity that are problematic. They are just doing exactly the same thing as every other woman, every other day.

*Please note that this is hyperbole. Gender non-conformity of all sorts has a very long history.

** Please also note that I realise that people who are transgendered are not all about the genitals and that not all transgendered people can or want to have genital reassignment surgery. The genitals here is a shorthand for a much wider range of behaviours.


polly styrene said...

The issue as I see it here is that "woman" is different from biologically "female". Because gender is different from biological sex (which itself is not the straightforward matter it's made out to be - binary sex is a fiction in itself). And that is what Mandrea's piece is about. There is a problem which can be summed up as follows:

If you say that someone can be born a 'woman' in a 'man's' body then you are saying that gender is real. Not biological sex, gender.

It is entirely possible (though not in any way proven) that there is something in our brains which expects to have a certain set of genitals, and that sometimes people get the wrong type. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that is true for the moment.

So X is born with a penis and testes, etc, feels this is wrong for them, and wants to have a vagina, clitoris etc and has surgery to correct this, all well and good.

BUT - and this is the big problem that is not the way the issue is presented. The way the issue is presented is that X is a 'woman' trapped in a 'man's' body. People speak of knowing they are a 'woman'. They do not say that they know they should have had a vagina instead of a penis. They say they are a 'woman'.

This reifies gender, and is biologically essentialist like it or not. It says that having a vagina/breasts/clitoris MAKES you a woman. Rather than that "woman" is a an entirely artifical category constructed by a patriarchal society to describe people who have a certain set of genitals. I am a human being who has a certain set of genitals which put me in the binary sex category female. I am not a 'woman'. Woman is a class I am placed into.

The 'science' of transsexuality, like it or not, is based on some deeply dodgy assumptions. Harry Benjamin, who coined the term, thought that being passive was a secondary sex characteristic of women, and that being aggressive was a secondary sex category of men.

Even now, people who seek gender reassignment from 'male' to 'female' (and vice versa) are expected to obey gender stereotypes to earn the privilege. For instance, they would be expected to always wear a skirt and make up, even though that is something a large number of females assigned at birth would never do. Again this reifies gender and gender stereotypes.

I do not behave in a stereotypically "feminine" way. Indeed if I read the Harry Benjamin standards of care it appears that I am transgendered. However as far as I am concerned I am not. Because I think gender is a complete fiction and you can't transition something that you doesn't exist in the first place. And that is what MAndrea is saying in her supposedly 'transphobic' post.

If people want to change their body fine. Neither M Andrea or myself (the other transphobic public enemy no 1) have said that they shouldn't. What we have said is that we object to the idea that this moves you from one (entirely fictional)category 'man' to another (entirely fictional) category 'woman'.

'Woman' only has any meaning as a category which is used under patriarchy to oppress those born 'female'. You are not born a woman and you do not choose to be a woman. You are classed as a woman by patriarchy. It isn't a decision you get to make, it's made for you.

Is Michael Jackson white? Despite endless surgery and skin bleaching? No? Why not? Think about it......

Feminist Avatar said...

I am not saying you are born a woman. No one is born a woman, but you might be born with the wrong genitals?

I think you're right that it is hugely problematic that we present having set of x genitals as female and y genitals as male. But, I don't think we can blame trans*people for describing this as being a 'woman' trapped in a 'man's body' when that is the only vocabulary we have for this situation. This is the way we are all taught to think to about our bodies and our socialisation. I think it's only 'natural' that if you believe you have the wrong type of body that you would want to behave like people who have the desired type. Especially when that particularly body type has so much meaning attached to it.

I also think you are right that we do not choose to be women, but trans people aren't really choosing to be women or men; they are choosing to change their bodies and as a result are re-categorised as male/female by society (and by themselves as part of that society).

And yes they are moving from one fictional classification to another, but all classifications are fictional, yet they remain essential to how we view the world. Our entire world is given meaning through classification, and even the most post-modern of us have failed to find a way past that- although we might reject certain classifications as problematic or power-laden.

The thing is that if male and female don't exist (which they don't), then you can't transition between one and the other, but you can't remain one either. Michael Jackson may not be able to transition from black to white (because both categories are fictional), but if they are fictional you weren't ever that category (black/white) in the first place.

So you can't really turn around and say 'don't change your gender because by doing so you reinforce the concept' without also saying 'stay your original gender' and so reinforcing the concept of gender. Cause unfortunately, under patriarchy, nobody is gender neutral.

Zenobia said...

Is Michael Jackson white? Despite endless surgery and skin bleaching? No? Why not? Think about it......

Actually, this is slightly off-topic, but Michael Jackson has a skin disease that caused his skin to turn that colour, which he apparently inherited from his father (believable, as Joe Jackson seems to wear tons of make-up and looks like he's had a certain amount of plastic surgery), so he's slightly irrelevant here.

Anonymous said...

Transsexuality was not based on sexist assumptions. The doctors who first permitted people to transition were incredibly sexist, just like everyone around them. These days, the medical and psychiatric community is about as sexist as the culture in which it resides, which means that it's better than it was in the fifties but not well. Nor did doctors like Harry Benjamin create transsexuality. They had a bunch of patients who were demanding to be allowed to change gender, completely against the belief systems of their doctors. When they permitted it, the doctors felt entitled to impose their sexist beliefs on patients. If doctors believed that depressed female patients should try motherhood or makeup before resorting to medication, would depression become a figment of sexism? Would it cease to exist, and would these women deserve a theory that pretended it did?

Another note on the Harry Benjamin standards: you are not a transsexual under the HBSOC. Why? Well, you don't want to change sex. The HBSOC are not based on making sure that someone is sufficiently feminine or masculine, and these days they are increasingly divorced from concerns about passability. They're about making sure that someone really wants to change sex: how long have they wanted to do this, and how much? (And, less and less: how much are they willing to do to get what they want?) Harry Benjamin himself certainly confused gender nonconformity with gender dysphoria, but the HBSOC don't conflate the two. It's possible to transition as a genderqueer--to take hormones and undergo surgery even if you refuse to identify with either gender, let alone refuse to perform gender appropriately under sexism.

Finally, they've been updated several times since they were first implemented, and it's intellectually dishonest to blur them together. It would be like using any obsolete standard of care in lieu of the current one.


Lisa Harney said...

Feminist Avatar, thanks for writing this post. I'm not entirely comfortable with all the genitals talk, but realistically, in the United States specifically (where I live), that does become a central issue due to a raft of legal issues.

Polly, It's not reasonable to assume that just because Harry Benjamin carried regressive, sexist, and incorrect assumptions about men and women (passive and aggressive behavior, for example) and applied those assumptions to trans people that this undermines the existence of trans people in the first place.

It's also not reasonable to assume that any trans person agrees with these assumptions - consider that this post here has a quote from my blog where I deliberately and explicitly refute those assumptions. Feminist Avatar talks about that in some detail, from her own perspective. You even parrot those exact points right back at her.

As far as it goes, a trans woman's brain expects her body to be female. What does being female entail? Culturally speaking, it entails being a woman. It's not biologically essentialist - I have to argue that the process of being born male and becoming female is completely contradictory to biological essentialism.

If you're upset that trans people not only expect their body to actually be the other sex (and engage in hormonal and surgical intervention to get as close to that as possible) but also expect to adopt the social role associated with that sex, then you really should be upset about all the men who were born male and identify strongly as men, and the women who were born female and identify strongly as women.

I don't see why you believe that trans people identifying along these same lines are somehow reprehensible in ways that the large majority of cissexual, heteronormative people are not, when it's the cissexual, heteronormative people who participate in the oppression you're complaining about - not the trans people who are stuck with infinite permutations of the same gender oppression you're talking about.

Or is it the belief that womanhood is defined solely by oppression and nothing more? That strikes me as a remarkably convenient assumption if you want to attack trans women. How horrible it must be that there are actually people who proclaim that they enjoy womanhood and were born male (as opposed to the large number of women who proclaim they enjoy womanhood and were born female - and yes, they do exist).

Also, when you say that you appear transgendered by the standards of care, you have to keep in mind that the primary diagnosis for transsexualism comes from the person experiencing it. I didn't have a doctor tell me I'm trans. I told the doctor I was trans. Since you lack the core diagnostic - you don't see yourself as trans - there's no way the SOC could identify you as trans.

The SOC is a tool to enforce cissexual standards and heteronormativity on transsexual people. In that sense, it's oppressive more than anything as I already pointed out in the quoted text above.

I've said it on my blog and I'll say it here too: Having breasts and a vagina (or a uterus, or ovaries) doesn't make you a woman. Having a penis and testes doesn't make you a man. As a woman, having breasts and a vagina makes life a lot easier (especially considering that in the US, the states that allow you to change your birth certificate require surgery before you do).

In the US, the disadvantages of not having surgery include: No chance to marry if you're heterosexual (that is, a trans woman attracted to a cis man or a trans man attracted to a cis woman), and even marrying a member of the same sex (trans woman - cis woman, etc) would be complicated.

Also, "no match" letters from Social Security. For a period last year, it was required to fire employees whose SS records didn't match what the employer sent - and since SS records sex, you need surgery to change SS' records. With that requirement gone, SS still outs trans people to their employers with no match letters.

Real ID will further complicate things. Many states allow trans people in transition to change the sex marker on their drivers' license. Real ID will remove that allowance - all states will be required to use the sex on the birth certificate. So a trans woman who hasn't had surgery will be required to out herself every time she shows ID. And consider that only 1 in 10 trans women has surgery due to money considerations.

Your arguments, Polly, boil down to complaining that what trans people do as a matter of survival contradicts your political theory.

In science, if a theory can't stand up to real world evidence, it's not the evidence that's discredited. Either you're using the theory wrong, or the theory itself is wrong.

I, personally, believe you're using the theory wrong.

Also, everything Piny said.

Feminist Avatar said...

Yeah sorry about all the genital discussion. I think as feminists, we also end up concentrating on the genitals a lot, because we find it so difficult to conceive of gender without thinking about genitals (because secretly deep down, we find it impossible to conceive of gender that is seperate from them). The fact that real experience is much more complex than a simple relationship between sex and gender is acknowledged, yet we never seem to be able move past it, conceptually or otherwise. Plus we like our theories to be neat and tidy, which genderqueer certainly isn't!

Lisa Harney said...

It's realistic to address the genital issue, because for a lot of people, genitals are the mark of authenticity. I mean, the common view is, as is bluntly put in Kevin Smith's Dogma, "There's only one thing that makes a woman, and it's between her legs." Or something like that - I've sworn off Kevin Smith for his constant transphobic comments, so I can't really go back to double-check it.

A lot of people believe this - that genitals define a person's gender. That it's GRS that makes a trans woman into a woman, and that trans women who haven't had surgery yet aren't authentic. Or that seeking surgery objectifies women as being a product of her anatomy (as Polly Styrene claims above).

Never mind people who see a trans woman on the street - a complete stranger to them - and demands to know "have you had the surgery yet?" I mean, for most people, genitals are private. They're called that - your privates. But when you're seen as trans, suddenly they're public and up for immediate scrutiny.

It's just hard to get away from genital essentialism, which is why the talk bothers me. I think, when you're dealing with trans people, that genitals are not really all that important as compared to health care, employment, housing, the ability to walk down the street without being verbally (or even physically) assaulted. Admittedly, the genitals can become the point of such oppression and worse. Tyra Hunter didn't receive timely life-saving medical assistance from paramedics because they wasted precious minutes mocking her for having a penis.

Sara said...

"Tyra Hunter didn't receive timely life-saving medical assistance from paramedics because they wasted precious minutes mocking her for having a penis."

So much for a penis giving male privilege in that situation, huh? The privilege to be laughed at instead of receiving emergency care.