Lost in Trans-Lation II: This Time It’s Personal…er

So begins Episode II of the Lost in Trans-Lation saga. I realise this is, in many ways, a terrible title whose badness is compounded by the fact that it’s yet another bad ‘trans’ pun (and don’t worry, there’s more where that come from) but it’s grown on me and I’m going to keep it around for its humour value. I’m in a new Women and Gender Studies class with the same professor giving the same weekly journal writing assignments, and so I felt that like any badly named movie it needed a sequel. The sequel no one was waiting for. (Rejected titles include Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Two Ivory Towers; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Revenge of the Poststructuralists; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Return of Marilyn Frye. Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Identitarian Menace. Look, do you know how hard it is to make jokes out of words like ‘ethnomethodology’? Give me a break!)

Onto more serious things. In this space I clearly devote an extensive amount of energy to trans issues. In the near future I will write my thoughts on the etiology of transgender and I think that this journal entry I’d written that reviews Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body is a very good place to start that might give my readers some insight into the intellectual underpinnings of the opinions I’ll soon be expressing. Dr. Fausto-Sterling presents a very compelling view of biology, its relation to politics, and the project of sexual dimorphism, with profound implications for how we understand transgender and transsexual people.

It would be difficult to overstate just how vital Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work should be to any discussion of sex and gender, particularly in its ponderous neurological and biological contexts. Her earlier book, Myths of Gender, explored the myriad of problems with simplistic biological explanations for gendered phenomena in society, but Sexing the Body’s implications reach further. She proposes a radically new means of understanding sex and gender. I would not simply say she has proposed a new ‘system’- rather she challenges the need for a system at all, and trading heavily on the examples of intersex people demonstrates the radical implications of it and the need for a vision of sex and gender the centralises the individual rather than privileges the preservation of already-existing groups. In the opening chapter, Duelling Dualisms, she uses illuminating examples that highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of our present ‘two party system’ as she wryly calls it later in the book, focusing on the topic of Olympic sex testing. While this work was penned in 2000, the very contemporary example of Caster Semenya demonstrates the ongoing, painful relevance of the Olympic examples and the absurdities contained in its assumptions. From a Nazi athlete who disguised himself as a woman in the Olympics for easy gold medals, and then lost to three actual women, to a Spanish runner who found herself under vicious attack after an Olympics sex test identified her as “male” Sterling brings to life a complex issue that we do not often think about. What does it say about our world when we have powerful people sitting in a “femininity control head office”?

Sterling paints a picture of a gender system that is as much enforced as it is naturally occurring, and one that treats exceptions to it not only as curiosities, but even as things to be utterly annihilated, denied, and erased. Such language may seem extreme, but it is hard to look at the surgical alteration of intersex infants in any other way. Her chapter Should There Be Only Two Sexes? demonstrates powerfully why these surgeries appear to be more in the interest of preserving a social ideal than in the welfare of any given child. She demonstrates that while intersex people without surgically altered bodies lead productive lives, including lives that are active sexually, those who undergo the surgery face mixed results and the doctors themselves admit that the goal of such surgeries is merely a cosmetic effect. Virtually no attention is paid to the psychological health of the child or to their future sexuality, which is often irretrievably harmed by the surgery.

I have often said that this failure to treat intersex children properly is best described by one of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s best turns of phrase wherein she says such surgeries constitute “the literal social construction of sex”; contained in those words is the essence of the very problem that intersex people and transgender people are confronted with. Sterling points out that many of our sexual woes are essentially conceptual problems. We find ourselves unable to break out of dualistic thinking on the subject: sex and gender, male and female, nature and nurture. She argues convincingly for a vision that regards the connections between mind and body, as well as body and society, as a Mobius strip where there is a simple but elegant continuity between the two ‘sides.’ This stands in a long line of feminist thinking that has sought to challenge dualism as a destructive idea that necessarily flows from (and thereby reinforces in dialectic fashion) systems of domination and subordination. Starhawk spends much time challenging dualistic thinking in both religious and secular life, arguing that it promotes the idea that one end of the polar split is good and the other evil, a metaphor that plays out on countless aspects of ordinary life with disastrous consequences. Sterling takes this conceptual vision and suggests that we reunite concepts previously held to be opposites, echoing my own long standing injunction “can’t it be both?”

Another problem, as I already alluded to, is that such dualistic cleavages invariably create hierarchies. Quoting Judith Butler, Sterling asks “Why […] has the idea of materiality come to signify that which is irreducible, that which can support construction but cannot be itself constructed?” This echoes my past thoughts about the long shadow Karl Marx’s base/superstructure paradigm has cast on the sciences. Even feminists would come to see it as salvation, allowing them to argue that yes, while biological sex is natural, real, and unchangeable, gender was constructed and malleable, thus social change was possible. It is a compromise argument that has left feminism the poorer and painted it into a corner as it still fights on numerous fronts against biological determinism. Sex is accorded the status of timeless reality, that which simply is, while gender is conceptually granted the possibility of some flexibility but is still seen as an outgrowth of sex’s foundation.

In addition to this, however, she proposes an equally interesting idea that has much merit as well. She holds that homosexuality and heterosexuality are themselves constructed and are predicated on a reinforced binary sex/gender system that only came into full force with the rationalisation of the 19th Century.  She argues that our culture presumes that when a middle aged person comes out as gay that they are revealing something that has been cosmically true all along and invalidates years of prior heterosexual activity. The truth, she says, is more complex and the idea that one is exclusively hetero or exclusively straight (and sometimes bi) is a scientific fabrication enforced by powerful social norms that ensure a general degree of conformity and compliance. Certainly this is true to a great extent. Many gay/queer people who come out later in life feel as if they have been living a lie. It is not to say, however, that heterosexual acts might never have occurred to them in a more tolerant society, only that the stifling burden of compulsory heteronormativity limited their options to a ‘straight’ presentation. That is most certainly living a lie. But does it mean that there is a “gay gene”? Both Fausto-Sterling and I are sceptical.

In Should There Be Only Two Sexes? Sterling makes a brief reference to transsexual and transgender history that is interesting and does ring of some accuracy, but suffers enormously from its brevity. My concern is that readers new to the subject may walk away with a somewhat skewed view of this history. She briefly mentions but does not go into detail about just how powerful medical and psychiatric professionals were in determining the gender presentations of trans people. There can and should be no mistake: trans people, women especially, were a highly vulnerable population that many psychiatrists took advantage of to enforce the most rigid gender norms possible. To the extent many such trans people enacted, and perhaps even internalised, this performance it is assuredly the fault of the psychiatric establishment, not of transgender women, that there was a “reinforcement of a two gender system.” She does also muddy the streams when it comes to the transsexual/transgender distinction, incorrectly making transsexuals seem conservative, and transgender people more inherently liberal or gender fluid. I identify as transsexual but I am certainly no gender conservative, and may even fall into the category of people she says do not surgically alter their bodies but identify as women. She also says something that I agree with, when she says “permanently assuming a transsexual identity that is neither male nor female in the traditional sense.” She is correct, certainly. I identify as a trans woman, maintaining the firm double-thought of that identity and resisting any artificial bifurcation of it. I am not a broken woman in need of correction or fixing. Sterling touches on a debate in the transgender community: some feel comfortable referring to being trans as a “birth defect” or saying “I’m just a woman, not trans-anything” while others like myself consider her transness to be an inextricable part of her identity that cannot be excised and should instead be a matter of pride. I distinctly remember when I first read this book my great disappointment that Sterling did not spend more time on trans people as we are- and I do not think she’d deny this for a second- quite helpful to her general argument. But as I have just pointed out, it is very difficult to summarise the complex politics of identity in the trans community. Perhaps she was avoiding a minefield after all?

Sterling’s photo of a much younger version of herself still makes me smile very broadly. It reminds me quite a bit of myself at her age, endlessly fascinated with test tubes and the other trappings of the great scientist, saving the world through mixing brightly coloured chemicals. I imagine that had I been raised as a cis girl I might’ve been given a similar epitaph “In memory of Katie, who liked space rocks better than boys.” The point she makes about innate inclination versus environment, and how it cannot be resolved or intuited as being convincingly one or the other is a good one. There may well be no way of knowing for sure if she truly was born to be a scientist. After all, the science I decided to pursue after many years of faithfully stealing my mother’s food colouring to better enhance the sciencey look of my fake chemistry sets was, of course, social science. How did she end up a biologist and me an aspiring sociologist? The resolution that she proposes for understanding how these things happen is a sound one, and her flair for apt visual metaphors continues into the final words of the book: a matryoshka doll. For her the famous Russian nesting doll symbolises the various layers of sex and gender, interconnected, each interesting by itself, but only fully intelligible and complete as part of a larger, continuous whole. Each layer- history, society and culture, the mind’s psyche, the physiological organism and so on- shapes gender. How much? That depends on the individual. Individual body, personal history, personal relationship with significant others and society, personal biology. It all adds up to a unique individual. This is the frightening answer that many people do not want to face up to- it fails to offer the silver bullet much desired of those who want an easy and simple gender order.

But it does have the benefit of being correct.

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