Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part I

This evening I started an introductory Women and Gender Studies class which I’m taking over the Summer to both help me catch up and get me a headstart on one of my two major tracks. I am very excited, of course, and I had a good evening in the first class today. I was also very pleased to see that I had done several of the readings on the course syllabus, and was able to confidently explain a lot of things to my classmates during our group session, so I’m in a very good position to make this a breezy month.

One of our regular assignments is to write a weekly journal entry on our readings. What follows is the first entry, hot off the presses and emailed to my professor moments ago. The class is designed to emphasise the voices of women of colour and other groups that have been traditionally marginalised from feminist and activist discourse, and in that spirit I’m bringing the trans perspective in as well. The following entry will, I hope, set the tone of my participation for the next month (and provides convenient blog material!). Where it is relevant, I will always try to provide a ‘trans response’ to material that directly or indirectly bears on us, or excludes us. I also hope this will provide a bit of background for those interested in gender studies and the ideas, debates, and theories percolating within.

Enjoy.

Judith Lorber’s ‘Night to His Day’ is a foundational text in the women and gender studies canon, and has been included in countless anthologies usually as an introductory overview of a feminist theory of gender and its socially constructed nature, as well as its ramifications. It is not a wholly inaccurate view, either. For instance her analysis of stratification has, for me, the ring of truth; the nature of privileged groups of people and how they are often understood implicitly to be the neutral or default group. As she says “white is not ordinarily thought of as a race, middle class as a class, or men as a gender. The characteristics of these categories define the Other as that which lacks the valuable qualities the dominants exhibit.” As will be explored later in the readings, such is inscribed in the marrow of our very language- the pseudogeneric ‘man,’ mankind, and so on.

Where Man and Human are synonymous, in other words, it is indicative of how- in the case of gender- men are understood as the default neutral category of humanity. Where people are distinguished by their signified group, be it people of colour, women, transgender people, the poor, and so on, what it is they are ‘marked’ with is often a stereotype. Usually it is a negative one, but other stereotypes (with multiple intersecting meanings) can be seen in other ways. The placement of white women on the storied pedestal, for instance, or the stereotype that all black men are adept at sports, or all Asian people are skilled at maths and engineering. These represent signified characteristics that are assumed to be inherent to these groups, where as the generic cisgendered white man has no such stereotypes attached to him. This connects to Orientalism and other forms of exoticisation very easily.

Lorber also speaks of “doing gender” which is a very critical concept. We often think of gender as something one has or that one is. We use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, helped along by infinite government and corporate forms that use each term to basically mean the same thing: do you have a penis or a vagina? The number of assumptions such a binary question is lardered with are myriad beyond words and well beyond the scope of this brief essay. Suffice it to say, that complexity is bespoke when one says that gender is something you do rather than something you are. Lorber’s exploration of the mental process she went through as she tried to ‘gender’ a baby she espied on the New York City Subway is part of an excellent introduction to her work, as it speaks to something all of us do on a daily basis, myself included, often without thinking. The never ending drive to put people into category A or category B. That is what makes her failure further along in the text so incredibly frustrating for me, personally.

In this day and age when one speaks of the complexity of gender, its performance and its socially constructed nature, those of any degree of sophistication will invariably bring transgender people into the discussion and often, in my view, cackhandedly. While the theoretical model sketches out broad truths, some of which I have hitherto elucidated, I feel it too often tries to force trans people into its framework in a way heedless of their actual experiences. For example, when she says “Billy Tipton, a woman, lived most of her life as a man. She died recently at seventy four…” she is erasing, and dare I say gleefully trampling on Mr. Tipton’s knowledge of himself as a man. Putting him in the category of “female transvestites” erases his experience in a flagrantly transphobic way. His whole life and career, his clearly expressed sexual and gender identity, none of that was enough to dissuade Ms. Lorber from misgendering and erasing him so that he could fitted into her theoretical paradigm. Furthermore, her entire discussion of “female transvestites” is very historically suspect and constitutes wilful appropriation of transgender history. We simply do not know how many of these people were actually trans men, how many were butch lesbians, how many didn’t truly identify with either prescribed gender, and so on.

For me, it makes it extremely difficult to take seriously her academic sincerity when she then says “genders, therefore, are not attached to a biological substratum.” This is absolutely true, and it is an idea that is well understood throughout modern gender studies. Yet despite her saying this, she still feels the need to access that mythic substratum when discussing Mr. Tipton and his life. Her entire phraseology in that section implies a falsity to his identity, leads readers to think “he’s really a woman” and treats elements of his life- being a father, a husband, ‘one of the boys’ with his musical partners- as mere artifice exercised by his sartorial choices (which is, after all, what transvestite refers to).

This fundamental failure on her part spoils an otherwise good piece and illustrates how trans people remain a blind spot in cis dominated gender studies.

The second reading, Marilyn Frye’s Oppression, is another pathbreaking reading in gender studies courses because it illustrates at some length what is meant by the term “oppression” which appears so often in left wing politics, emancipatory academia, and social justice movements. Frye’s accomplishments with this piece are twofold. One, she illustrates how when a marginalised person points out some oppressive act (like, say, a single act of employment discrimination or a single act of sexual harassment) they are not saying they are oppressed because this one isolated event befell them. Their claim to oppression relies on this recent material event as an example of one thing among many that disadvantages them. An example of the systemic nature of oppression that allows things like this to happen. Ms. Frye compares them to bars in a bird cage. One by itself, if focused on and analysed in the absence of all the other bars, does not seem to an outsider to be ‘oppressive’- which is why rather than focusing on one instance of oppression and navel-gazing at it, attempting to rationalise or excuse it, one has to pull back and see that it is not the only bar preventing the marginalised from spreading their wings.

Her second accomplishment is making a powerful statement against the ‘definition creep’ of the word oppression. Some people who do not belong to historically disadvantaged groups cite instances of hardship, tragedy, or suffering in their lives as if to claim that because they don’t have it easy either, they are also oppressed and therefore some cosmic balance of oppressions occurs and through such alchemy, white men are no longer privileged. Frye distinguishes oppression by saying that the occurrence of an unfortunate event is not in and of itself oppression. It has to be part of a system that is attacking you because of who you are. White men are very rarely explicitly discriminated against for being white men. Virtually no one is discriminated against simply for being cis. Able bodied people are not singled out for bigoted jokes, scrutiny, pity, or discrimination. But women are, people of colour are, transgender people certainly are, and disabled people are. Therein lies the difference.

Her illustration of double binds also provides a useful distinguishing characteristic of oppression. In her words, such moulds, immobilises, and reduces; it creates the ‘press’ in oppression. The “networks of forces and barriers” that surround various oppressed groups are of great significance. The difference between a cis white man and a transgender woman of colour is that many people feel entitled to decide whether the latter has a right to live, for no reason other than the fact of her gender identity. It is still a disturbing reality that many cis people, commenting on a news story about the murder of a trans woman by a boyfriend or other male antagonist, try to rationalise it by saying that it is completely understandable that a man would want to kill a woman who’s “really a man.”

In this lies the reason Ms. Lorber’s critical failure is so disturbing. Her casual misgendering and appropriation, even if she never holds a knife in her hand, helps perpetuate the very system of oppression that enacts that double bind on transgender people and puts their lives at risk. In a curious way, it helps illustrate Frye’s concept of oppression as pervasive, binding, and institutional, and how that sort of thing is broadly distinguished from non-oppressive tragedy and situational suffering. The entitlement to the bodies of women, be they pregnant women, disabled women,  fat women, or trans women, is something cis white men qua cis white men do not have to confront regularly or en masse as a group.

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