Theory is Yours: A Brief Archaeology of Trans Feminist Awesome

This post will appear as a crosspost on QT very shortly and was addressed chiefly to its audience, and thus the ‘this space’ term refers to Questioning Transphobia. Otherwise, enjoy!

In looking out at the vast, expansive canon of gender studies literature, and in light of even the most superficial analysis of its myriad failings it is easy to feel dispirited by what it has to offer trans people. It is all too easy to understand the instinct to abandon both queer and gender studies as a privileged exercise in neo-pathology, the postmodern turn of the same ideologies that guided the hegemonic psychiatrists of decades past. One could find yet more examples, of course.

Judith Lorber, someone readers of my blog may remember my past disagreements with, had this to say in 1994 about trans people: “[trans folk do not challenge the gender order because] their goal is to be feminine women and masculine men” (Lorber 1994, 20). Yet again we find the tireless obsession with attributing a politics to identity in the simplest possible terms, yet again we find the clutching of pearls with regard to the innate, literal body politic of trans people. It might perhaps be too obvious to tell Professor Lorber that for all of her elegant theorising about the socially constructed nature of gender she cannot bring herself to describe trans people by their proper pronouns (for example calling Renee Richards “he” and Billy Tipton “she”) nor to belabour the questionable hypocrisy of being unable to break out of the role of arbiter even as she derides the imposition of gender schema upon people.

However, to simply shine more light on the white cis women of gender academia and call them to the carpet for their tacit transphobia does a disservice to the armies of trans folk that have devoted their not inconsiderable intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy to challenging these things since before I even drew breath.

Unearthing the Good

We know of Janice Raymond, but do we know of Carol Riddell, a trans woman who, just as 1980 rolled around, published a sterling critique of Empire from a feminist perspective?[1] Neither she nor many other trans people let Raymond go unchallenged, and while critiques of her can be found into the present day, Riddell represents an early injunction against feminist transphobia by a trans woman who would not let cissexism rob her of feminism, nor of her dignity. Riddell was an early articulator of the, by now almost ritualistically familiar, arguments against Raymond’s work. She drew from personal experience, attacked Raymond’s broad generalisations, called attention to her erasure of trans men, the basic issues of biological determinism inherent to her work, and more still that I imagine would cheer many contemporary readers. To be sure, some statements and language reflect ideas I disagree with, but excepting these artefacts of her time, Ms. Riddell wrote something that is a timeless milestone in the gender studies canon.

So the Trans-sexual Empire sets out to ‘prove’ something which it has already assumed, allows nothing but male scientific limits for its determination of gender identity, and uses a method which denies us the right to know what she is really feeling. (Riddell, quoted in Stryker and Whittle 2006: 151)

In one sentence she sums up Raymond’s pretensions to masculinist objectivity, her work’s predication on taken-for-granted patriarchal assumptions, and sets out a radical and sophisticated thesis that remains the most damning criticism of Janice Raymond: her entire magnum opus is itself an artefact of the very patriarchal system it supposedly strikes against.

Who judges such questions? Who dares to set themselves up as such an absolute arbiter of human experience? Janice Raymond does, in regard to trans-sexuals, at least. We violate our chromosomal identity by having operations. But is this identity to be the ultimate determinant of human action? (Ibid, 154)

A little further in she says what all of us already know:

‘The Trans-sexual Empire’ is a dangerous book. It is dangerous to trans-sexuals because it does not treat us as human beings at all, merely as the tools of a theory; because its arguments may make things more difficult for trans-sexual women and men as they strive to come out; and because it seeks to create hostility towards us among women who have no actual experience of trans-sexual people, find the subject disturbing, and want some simple, straight-forward answer that allays their unease. I think trans-sexualism is frightening to many of us because, in an unstable, insecure world, basic sexual identity, male or female, is one of the few fairly firm constructs we have.

There is also much to critique in Riddell’s analysis which I have not quoted here, of course. But the broader point is twofold: we’ve been at this for a while, and two, that we have also been doing theory that’s every bit as much a part of gender studies as Judith Lorber or Kessler and McKenna’s work.

There is still more, of course: The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto by Sandy Stone or My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix by Susan Stryker or Jay Prosser’s critique of Judith Butler’s postmodernist gender theories in Second Skins, Vivian Namaste’s crusade to give voice to the most dispossessed of trans women, bright flashes of which define her work in Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, and more still. Even in Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna articulate what was- for 1978- a relatively positive vision of transsexual people (and as my last article demonstrated, that wouldn’t last). More important to me, however, was what was in Appendix A of that book: letters from an intelligent and thoughtful young trans woman grad student named Rachel. Yet again I do not find myself in agreement with everything she says, and there is distasteful analysis at the end of the appendix by the two cis authors, but Rachel’s words are theory and they in their totality are part of the chorus of trans voices subjugated by years of institutional cissexism. For all that Kessler and McKenna might get wrong in their quest to divine an ontologically political meaning to transition, their 1978 work should not be discounted lest we inadvertently subjugate the voices of trans women and men raised in both Chapter Five and its Appendix.

In flipping through the annals of feminist and gender theory I could quote scholar Hilary Rose, a cis woman who studies the philosophy of science:

My difficulty with radical feminism… is not that it admits the body for I welcome this, but that in a peculiar mirror image of the patriarchal ideology it opposes it frequently reduces women (and men) to nothing but biology. (Rose 1994: 186)

And I can point out how this way of thinking was hardly alone in its time. That same year, another cis theorist, Linda Nicholson, would articulate a valuable framework for imagining gender, fluid and free flowing that was explicitly meant to allow the inclusion of trans women in the category of ‘woman.’ It appeared that year in the leading women’s studies journal, Signs.

But of course it falls to trans people and our allies to do the best work on the subject. From Jay Prosser criticising one of gender theory’s leading lights (“Butler’s essay locates transgressive value in that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe.”) to Nikki Sullivan (who, while not being trans herself, speaks quite eloquently on the subject) and Susan Stryker reclaiming the body in new and interesting ways there’s a lot to love:

I want to mention [Susan] Stryker’s claim that despite the conservative and normalising aims of the medical profession, the bodies that it ‘creates’ with its scalpels and sutures, its injections and implants, nevertheless “are something more and something other than the creatures our makers intended us to be.” As Stryker goes on to explain, the subjectivity shaped in and through the (un)becoming process of transsexual embodiment “is no more the creation of the science that refigures its flesh than the monster’s entire being is the creation of Dr. Frankenstein.” (From Nikki Sullivan’s Transmogrification: (Un)becoming Other(s).)

In other words both Sullivan and Stryker were wrenching back from the more shallow writers and thinkers in the field of gender studies any notion of an inherent meaning to trans bodies. We are not, they say, simply the product of a doctor’s scalpel. Surgical outcomes are not the total sum of our being. Even if we have to jump through the hoops and over the traps of gatekeepers, we do not become what even the most conservative doctor intends for us to become, simply because our behinds graced their operating tables. The righteous rage that Stryker brings to the fore in the piece that Sullivan was quoting is also worth reprinting in full:

By speaking as a monster in my personal voice, by using the dark, watery images of Romanticism and lapsing occasionally into its brooding cadences and grandiose postures, I employ the same literary techniques Mary Shelly used to elicit sympathy for her scientist’s creation. Like that creature, I assert my worth as a monster in spite of the conditions my monstrosity requires me to face, and redefine a life worth living. I have asked the Miltonic questions Shelley poses in the epigraph of her novel: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” With one voice, her monster and I answer “no” without debasing ourselves, for we have done the hard work of constituting ourselves on our own terms, against the natural order. Though we forego the privilege of naturalness, we are not deterred, for we ally ourselves insread with the chaos and blackness from which Nature itself spills forth.

If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.

With those closing words she, in a fell swoop, excavates and reclaims ‘darkness’- long a quasi-racist metaphor, the ‘evil’ end of a light-dark dichotomy- in much the same way that Starhawk does when she enjoins us to “dream the dark” (and for me, this too has relevance to imagining the beauty of my own trans-ness), and she reclaims the notion of being monstrous. Long has that term been a slander against us, she instead thrives in it and uses it as a site of self-knowing and of righteous rage. “So what if I am?” she seems to say, and it stands at the bleeding edge of a new tradition among trans folk who no longer strive to prove that we are what cis people say we ought to be in order to be taken seriously, just as Static Nonsense has done in this space with their neurotype and its imbrication with their own transness.

It Belongs to You

I could go on but I think I’ve made abundantly clear that I am, thankfully, not the pure originator of many of the ideas I have hitherto articulated both in this space and on my own blog. I stand in a tradition of trans folk, men, women, and many genders besides (see Raine Dozier, for example) who have thought critically about this. I list here only those whose work has penetrated the maze of academia to make it into that privileged black and white space of a journal, an anthology, or a book. But my point goes well beyond being made when we consider the legions of trans people of all experiences who are now doing theory each and every day though their blogs. The whiteness of the people I have listed here is also unavoidable and speaks to the other institutional forces aside from transphobia that can work against us, and those who are for a wide variety of reasons kept from the privileged halls of the academy nevertheless each day stick one in the eye of those who would see us dead and buried. Because we write, we speak, and we live.

This, above all, is the essence of theory. It is not jargon, it is not a cap and gown- literal or metaphorical, it is not a title, a JD, a PhD, or an MSW, it is not what you have read or who you can name drop. In that great canon of feminist and gender theory lies precedent for this, whether you look at bell hooks or Gloria Anzaldua (who, incidentally, was one of the reviewers of Stone’s Manifesto), you find the spirited intellectual framework of the theory of everyday life. What bell hooks says about theory speaks most stirringly to those who may think theory flies somewhere above and away from them:

I came to theory because I was hurting- the pain within me was so intense I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate- wanting to comprehend, to grasp what was happening around me and within me. Most importantly I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing. […]

Whenever I tried in childhood to compel folks around me to do things differently, to look at the world differently, using theory as intervention, as a way to challenge the status quo, I was punished. I remember trying to explain at a young age to Mama why I thought it highly inappropriate for Daddy, this man who hardly spoke to me, to have the right to discipline me, to punish me physically with whippings. Her response was to suggest I was losing my mind and in need of heavier punishment. (hooks 1994: 59-60)

Thus it was for me in my own life. Theory did not grow out of masturbatory inclinations towards self-aggrandizement. Rather, I wanted to know why my father was hurting my mother. I wanted to know why I grew through my teenage years wanting to kill myself. All this was combined with that everpresent sociological inquiry: Why? Theory was not just how I would look at others as a perfectly objective, passive and external observer, peering through her spectacles into a glass box. Theory was how I also knew myself, my own place in this world, how I came to truly know my experiences were not what I was told they were, and how I came to know- above all- that I could be proud of who I was. Precious little that meets the definition of “objective” can be found in this miasma of riotous feeling, but it is unequivocally theory.

There is no delimiter between life and theory at its best. Theory is praxis for me, it was how I came to understand that I need never hang my head in shame about being trans, nor about being a woman. It allowed me to very quickly and ably toss overboard any existential angst about “not being a real woman” because the streams of my academic and personal theorising ran together to help me have that essential epiphany: that the very idea of “real woman” was useless and was simply a piece in a game I was destined to lose. Theory does not just descend from Olympus shrouded in a thick nimbus of dense neologisms. It grows from the earth as well, and from the experience of each and every one of us. Every word spoken here is theory, powerful, real, and insightful. For me personally, theory was my right to kick open the oaken double doors of academia and assert powerfully my right to speak in what Gloria Anzaldua called “esoteric bullshit” and reclaim those sesquipedalian terms that I might break my chains and the chains of the people I love most. No longer was I “only a trans woman” whose right to theorise was questionable. I became a trans woman whose theory was made flesh:

A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives- our skin colour, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings- all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity. Here we attempt to bridge the contradictions in our experience: We are the coloured in a white feminist movement; we are the feminists among the people of our culture; we are often the lesbians among the straight; we do this bridging by naming ourselves and by telling our stories in our own words. (Moraga and Anzaldua 1981: 23)

Let not yourself be deterred from revelling in theory and seeing yourself through it. Guiding every last syllable of my criticisms launched at gender studies is that fundamental principle that these people do not and should not own the canon. We are there too, we always have been. Not just as the objects of study, but as speaking subjects who refused to be silent in the face of hatred. This too is a proud part of our history as trans people, and for me personally something that inspires me every day and reminds me that I too can do this, I too can claim theory as my own. Sisters, brothers, and siblings stood before me, and were fighting dangerous battles since before I was even a thought in my parents’ minds. Not just trans people either, as my allusions to some powerful feminist authors here alludes to. That theory too can be ours. For me it answers the question of whether or not I as a trans Latina can stand toe to toe with those supposed giants of gender studies and roar.

The answer is a firm “hell yes.”

[1] Originally published as Riddell, Carol. Divided Sisterhood: A Critical Review of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire (Liverpool: News From Nowhere, 1980).