I Am Whoever You Say I Am

In the long march into academia one naturally becomes intimately acquainted with the geeky and esoteric minutiae of whatever discipline one has chosen for their career. Over the last two years I’ve found myself up to my eyeballs in gender studies text and find it utterly fascinating. I’m often seen scurrying to and fro with a book or two tucked under my arm and my desk is covered in all manner of books appertaining to my passions. But importantly, when you are trans-anything and delving into the wild and woolly world of gender studies you have to be ready for the fact that there will be lots and lots of highly credentialed, intellectual academics theorising about you who do not know what the hell they’re talking about.

This occupational hazard is, to put it bluntly, both annoying and the reason I’m doing the sociology of gender in the first place. The only way this is going to be truly fixed is when we start writing the theory and we start conducting the research, casting our eyes not just on this wild and strange tribe of “transgender” but also on cis people whose views are far more powerful in shaping how our fractioned community is gendered and understood. What I’m looking at today is a particular strain of thought that is increasingly common in Third Wave feminist theorising; it is ostensibly trans positive but ends up being highly fetishising, stereotypical, and ultimately transphobic. It stands in contrast to that Janice Raymond school of theorising that constructs us purely in terms of an outsider, an enemy who constitutes a patriarchal invasion-cum-Body Snatchers. This vision instead sees us (or some of us) as ‘useful’- we have utility in the quest of certain cis feminists to smash the gender binary. Yet what unites both of these seemingly oppositional philosophies is that they are theories formed by cis people about us, relative to their gender ideology, and that construct us as ‘other.’

There are a few major currents in this new feminist theory that merit deconstruction and they will likely be familiar to most readers in one way or another:

You Don’t Exist in Utopia

This is probably one of the most infamous and is actually another idea that unifies both old feminist transphobic theory and its newer supposedly pro-trans form. The gist of this idea is a phallocentric one that defines transsexual people as people who get genital surgery, and then goes on to state that in an equal society where gender did not matter, no one would get SRS ever and thus people who feel the need to transition in part through bodily expressions that may require surgery will also not exist.

This is a lynchpin in an idea of modern feminist theorising that holds transsexual people (defined erroneously and narrowly as binary identified people who get genital surgery and retain hetero/cis-normative identities) are inherently conservative and that we are an artefact of an oppressive gender system. What they neglect to explain in this airy theorising is any of the following.

  • Transsexual people who do not get SRS, or people who do but do not identify as transsexual, and/or who do not have a binary identity (i.e. do not consider themselves men or women).
  • Why people get such surgery in the first place.

Furthermore there is an additional, theoretically more complicated idea that is elided here. Some theorists have correctly identified that our system of binary gender rests heavily on genitalia being an immutable and ineluctable base to the superstructure of gendered expression. In short, genitals are seen as being ‘everything’ in determining and attributing gender/sex. Thus these theorists argue that when we reach a point where we no longer see genitals as these all important moorings of identity, no one will ever get SRS. What this conceptual argument neglects is an explanation of why anyone wouldn’t get SRS in such a world. Remember (as if you could forget) that much of the revulsion to trans people is about how we ‘mutilate’ ourselves. Genitals are seen as so sacred and inviolate that cis people project onto us their own fears about their genitalia and use that to question our sanity, agency, and genders. “Only a madman would cut his penis off!” might go the usual, blokey transphobia. Thus, let us imagine a world where genitals were seen as far less vital and integral. Why would someone not get SRS? If there is no stigma attached to such surgeries, it is conceivable (especially in a high technology environment) that people would make the switch, as it were.

For trans people, SRS is more than simple body modification a la a tattoo, certainly. But at the same time examining how all expressions of bodily agency are mediated and policed is critical to any theorising about trans people’s surgeries, rather than this shallow ideology that simply renders it obsolete in whatever utopia feminists may imagine. Its meaning may shift, certainly. But simply saying it would disappear strikes me as a very basic failure of imagination.

It is also, whatever the intent of the theorist, a call for cultural genocide.

He’s Transgressive, She’s a Conservative

This is another dominant theme in this modern feminist transgender theory, and it is one that rests on creating a pyramid of identities with non-binary and transmasculine genders at the top because they are intrinsically ‘transgressive’, and binary, and/or transfeminine genders towards the bottom because they are ‘conservative.’ There are so many things wrong with this that it’s difficult to know where to begin. A useful starting point would be the relatively recent work of two cis women who have made it their business to describe trans people: Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna. Their recent 2006 article “Transgendering” says the following:

Transsexualism, on the other hand, has never created such a challenge because it has been conceptualised as surgically changing a person’s genitals, not changing their (“real”) gender. The assumption that one could be born into the wrong body supports the belief that there are right bodies and wrong bodies for each of the two essential genders. This deep conservatism probably accounts for transsexualism’s relative acceptance.

There is a lot to vivisect here, to be sure. First on the list is that the operative words in this excerpt are “has been conceptualised as.”  Note how that is very different from saying “is.” Yet clearly the authors make no distinction between the two concepts. Even though they readily admit that what they are articulating is a conception, they treat it as though it simply ‘is’ an ontological property of being transsexual. Secondly, a very salient question is who is doing the conceptualising? Not me, certainly, as a transsexual and transgender identified woman. What they say is, nonetheless, familiar to me because that is how cis people, from vox pops to scientists to judges to therapists see us and choose to interpret us. In short, this is how they fit us into their gender schema.

Yet, Kessler and McKenna hold us responsible for this, and indeed so do many modern feminist theorists, which leads them to spout absurdities like “transsexualism’s relative acceptance.” Relative to what? Leprosy? They more than likely mean that it is relative to the “transgendering” identities they celebrate which they define as:

…[M]ainly young people, mainly “born women,” who did not identify as either women or men. Many of them made this transition while in college… referring to themselves as tranny boys, transmen, FtMs, or “bois.”

We will leave aside the fact that they incongruously say that trans men and FtM people “did not identify as either men or women” and thus might fall into the category of “transsexual” that is “conservative” and enjoys “relative acceptance.” When we look time and again at who it is that ends up dead, dismembered, and summarily disrespected in the media it is very often binary identified trans women, and all too often trans women of colour in particular. I should not have to festoon this article with links to recent tragedies to make a point that most readers of this column know all too well. The notion that transsexual people, particularly binary identified women, are “relatively accepted” is a fantasy based on an extremely selective interpretation of events.

The fetishisation of trans men and other transmasculine people as being innately more transgressive or non-gendered is also the product of a serious, often unchecked, problem within feminism: the internalisation of the patriarchal ‘male-as-default’ norm which expresses itself in this case by seeing men or masculine people as more androgynous, and less ‘gendered’ than those who are feminine and/or women. This is a relic of patriarchal thinking that sees women as sexed and men as normal, women as distinct and men as neutral, women as having gender and men being human. The idea expressed by some theorists and the claque of feminists who follow that line of thinking is that trans people with masculine expressions and who are not binary-identified are somehow less gendered or androgynous or even beyond or ‘through’ gender altogether. This neglects one critical reality:

There is no outside to gender.

They are doing gender as much as I’m doing gender as much as your average feminist theorist is doing gender as much as the administrators of Michfest are doing gender as much as you’re doing gender. One does not ever possess quantifiably ‘less gender’ than someone else, they are just gendered differently. Their genders and their bodies may be seen differently and constructed differently, but the idea that one has escaped gender entirely or is somehow closer to doing so than, say, a binary identified person is misunderstanding what gender actually is.

To come back to an earlier point, however, this confusion and conflation of trans identity with cis interpretation and rationalisation is extremely common in academia unfortunately and represents an unchecked privileging of cis people’s often wrong ideas about us over our own lived experience and self-understanding.

In short, I am whoever you say I am, in this line of thinking. And who I am, riding roughshod over everything I know and believe in, is apparently a conservative individual who loves the gender/genital binary, is invested in it, and won’t let it go.

Nevermind that there are binary identified transsexual women who are actually making it their life’s work to undermine and break apart biological theories of essentialism.

Transsexualism and Transgender! It’s the Latest Thing!

Most theory about us proceeds from the premise that we are a recent phenomenon that emerged in the 20th century with the rise of modern medicine. Even a lot of people who claim to support us, like the theorists I am criticising here, will often say that they are speaking of a population that came into its own with the growth of SRS technology and facilities in the 1950s and 60s. Let me sum up my feelings about this in one sentence:

Science ‘discovered’ trans people in the same way Columbus ‘discovered’ America.

We have, one way or another, existed for a very long time. I hesitate to say that this is down entirely to biology, but the existence of people who broke out of their society’s gender norms and gender systems is very long and rich, if often part of a subjugated knowledge of human gender expression. Much like Columbus’ “discovery,” science’s resulted in colonisation and exploitation as well as overt expropriation. Our bodies were no longer ours, our identities were to be strictly managed and mediated, and our lives were to be pre-planned and predetermined so we did not disrupt the gender order. We were and still are exploited by men and women of science to buttress their theories- be they psychological, anthropological or sociological- but rarely able to speak without the cis man or woman in a white coat interpreting our words and interpolating an identity for us.

Thus we have theorists who say very cackhandedly that transsexuals are conservative and transgender people are progressive. Nevermind that the categories overlap a lot, mean different things to different trans people, that people’s self-understanding and self-identity overrides that neat cleavage, and that these categories are based less on truly understanding us than watching us from a distance through the filter of your own gender ideology. Tied into that is the erroneous and cis-centric notion that we’re a new thing. Certainly the bounded concepts of transsexual and transgender are relatively new, but that’s like saying homosexuality was invented in the late 19th century. As a medical, juridical, and social construct, the notion of exclusive hetero/homosexuality is new to our collective consciousness, but acts, relationships, and lives we would now say are some shade of queer have gone on for centuries. Trans people are not extended the same complex conceptual courtesy.

The Very Long Conclusion

Outlined here are three dominant philosophical streams in this new gender theory but they are by no means the only one. In many ways what unites them is an understanding of trans people that blames us for what cis people think of us as. To be sure, there is no doubt some people have used transsexual transition to underscore their belief in biological determinism and in pure sexual dimorphism. Some trans people themselves believe this and may even see themselves as examples of intrinsic sex’s inevitability.

But many of us don’t and we matter quite a bit too. Many of the people who use trans folk as proof of the gender binary’s rock solid truth are cis. But here is what is happening there on a deeper level. Using an ethnomethodological[1] perspective, the one Kessler and McKenna claim to see their research through, we can better understand what cis people are doing when they theorise about us. Whether you’re talking about far right fundamentalists who see us as satanspawn, Janice Raymonds who see us as spies of Patriarchy, or more modern gender theorists who see some of us as intrinsically political, what is happening is the following: trans people “breach” cis-normative explanations for gender in the world. When such breaches occur, almost inevitably people will rush to make rational explanations for this unexpected phenomenon they are beholding. They will try to ‘fit’ this aberrance into their schema for understanding their world.[2]

Thus when cis people of any political persuasion behold us, many will try to rationalise us in whatever way best buttresses their views of gender. Hence it is understandable some people will use us for conservative ends, to reify dimorphic sex, and biological essentialism. But you should never think that anything other than convenient using is going on. We are not intrinsically that thing, or any other thing. People are rationalising us in the most opportune way possible, but that says more about 1) how we are disrupting the social order, and 2) what peoples’ beliefs about it are than it does about anything innate to us. How transsexual people who get SRS are construed by cis people says more about cis people than it does about trans people, in other words.

This way of thinking can be applied to most of these studies and articles written by cis academics. What most of them are writing is less about us and more about how they see us. A meta-analysis of all this research may well prove useful in a study of cis ideologies about transgender people, so they certainly retain a good deal of empirical utility. But not for understanding trans people.

This perspective is also responsible for the utterly shameless victim blaming that many theorists have engaged in, confusing our psychiatric oppression with our own deeply held desires. We are certainly forced through cookie cutters of gender at the hands of conservative psychiatrists- much more so in the past than today, but this still happens- and were often made to fit hetero and cisnormative perceptions. But we were blackmailed into doing so. Does anyone, least of all feminists of all people, really believe that the medical establishment passively responded to the expressed wishes of trans people who would then go on to direct the medical and psychiatric programs they became embarked upon? It’s a facile idea. We did not willingly and lovingly submit to it anymore than cis women loved the suggestion of having “hysteria.” Some trans people did internalise oppression. But they do not speak for all of us, anymore than cis feminists would allow Sarah Palin to be presumed to speak for them.

There are other pernicious effects that accrue to this ideology, ones I am personally less qualified to speak about but nevertheless merit urgent mention. Earlier I alluded to the gender theorist’s pyramid of transgressive identities and said trans feminine people were towards the bottom; this most certainly includes people who do not have binary identities yet adopt various signs of femininity, or people who are non binary but have had vaginoplasty performed on them. These people are systematically erased by a discourse that casts trans women as a reactionary foe, and non binary trans masculine folk as a vanguard of transgression. Whither those who are femme or feminine and weaving their own genders? Their very existence is inconvenient to this particular narrative. While all femininity, however and whoever it is expressed with, can potentially be transgressive, the combination of femininity with non-binary identities poses a special conceptual threat to this kind of theorising that all but guarantees the erasure of such people with this discourse.

Lastly, one of the more vexatious obsessions of cis researchers is that of SRS. For many cis Third Wavers they often apportion judgement of us based on whether or not we get The Surgery, which is itself an internalisation of a cis centric perspective that holds surgery on knobbly bits is the sine qua non of trans identity and experience, particularly transsexual experience. Take an example from some recent neurological research:

““I expect a lot of criticism,” Ramachandran says. “Those who study transsexuality tend to be territorial because they themselves have made so little progress. There is no literature that illuminates the underlying mechanisms, other than psychological mumbo jumbo. And then someone comes striding in and spends two weeks solving the riddle. It must be infuriating.”

The “riddle” Dr. Ramachandran solved is why trans people may feel an overriding drive to get genital surgery. Of course… he hasn’t actually solved it; he’s provided one of several possible explanations, he spoke only to genitalia and none of the other conditions of transition which are far more salient and life-altering, and the idea that we even are a riddle when we’ve been trying to tell people who we are for so long is again a testament to the cis-centric nature of trans academic discourse. But most important to remember here is the fact that Ramachandran believes he has figured it all out because he’s provided an intriguing hypothesis for the SRS drive felt by some trans people.

What becomes particularly maddening about this is that we then find that cis people are saying we are the ones obsessed with genitalia. Fixation on the fact that some trans people include their genitals in a much larger program of transition is then projected back onto us as being our own fixation. It is summed up in a recent interview conducted by Oprah with Dr. Christine McGinn, a trans woman, where Oprah spoke of SRS as “the surgery that made you a woman.” These are cis people’s ideas, not ours. This is how they read us, not how many of us know ourselves. Some trans people may see no problem with such phrasing, but they have no right to define us all.

If the point of the academic canon is to provide a comprehensive and holistic understanding of a given subject, it is going to continue to fail badly if it relies on these half-truths, mirages, misinterpretations, and quasi-bigoted notions.

[1] Ethnomethodology literally means ‘study of the method of the people’- it is a theoretical framework that sees people as constantly and methodically weaving social order and meaning in their lives. Thus how we understand the world around us is a mutual project we share with everyone we interact with in creating the meaning of a given event. “Breaching” came from ethnomethodological research- it basically means doing something unexpected in a given social situation where everyone ‘just knows’ to behave a certain way. The most famous (and boring) example is to stand in an elevator facing the back of it rather than the doors like everyone else is doing. Thus we are constantly involved in the work of creating and sustaining social meaning. Ethnomethodology is less concerned with how we come up with meanings than with how we sustain and reproduce them.


[2] See Garfinkel 1967 and… Kessler and McKenna, 1978. What is baffling is that their own research makes my point for me about the very things these two women need to be criticised for. They themselves pointed out that cis people or “non-transsexuals” as they called them back then, when confronted with a trans person will try to fit us into their vision of gender which they themselves would say was useful to elucidate facts about society’s gender ideology rather than anything intrinsic to us as trans people.