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.
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.