Subjectifying Trans People: Explorations in Transgender Studies, Part I

What follows is a modified and edited version of my thoughts on two recent readings that I did for my Transgender Studies course. I was responding to a chapter from Viviane K. Namaste’s book Invisible Lives that critiqued queer theory-based transphobia, and to an article by Judith Butler entitled Undiagnosing Gender.  The editing was not extensive, just some minor edits for clarity since this article began as an email written in one draft, and removal of names and personal references. Regular readers of this blog may recognise some familiar themes, such as my almost requisite praise of Anne Fausto-Sterling and talk of ‘dynamic history.’ Usually I wouldn’t belabour that, but this was written for an audience less familiar with my writing, so bear with me! These admittedly lengthy musings were well received by both my advising  professor and my colleague in this independent study.

Viviane K. Namaste:

Her Tragic Misreadings chapter from Invisible Lives is a brilliant analysis of how trans people are often misunderstood in postmodern queer theory. It’s a brief overview, sometimes all too brief, and perhaps vulnerable to criticism because of that. But the points she makes are well defined, sharp, and poignant. Last semester when I critiqued Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and her take on Venus Xtravaganza, it was this book I was reading, which you may well recall. Namaste makes an excellent point by bringing to light the fact that, as she says, “Here is the point: Venus was killed because she was a transsexual prostitute.” This is a matter she raises very bluntly in response to the fact that Butler seems to elide that point entirely, and more specifically Venus Xtravaganza’s trans subjectivity. In attempting to assert that her death represented a “tragic misreading of the social map of power” Butler seems to suggest that Venus Xtravaganza’s death was the result of her pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle.

I disagree with that vehemently.

Naturally I also disagree with Butler’s assertion that transsexual people only offer an “uncritical miming of the hegemonic [sex/gender system].” In the entirety of Bodies That Matter’s treatment of Venus Xtravaganza, what emerges is a rather callous effort to misuse the material that Jennie Livingston recorded of Venus Xtravaganza to support a particularly cissexist reading of trans people. There can be no question that Xtravaganza wanted a nice house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a “washer and dryer” as she said during interviews, but this has to be understood in the context of growing up in abject poverty and having very few vectors along which to cultivate dreams of a better life. It is particularly unreasonable for a white cis woman with an upper class education to cast aspersions on such desires. I don’t think Xtravaganza misread anything. She knew the risks, she knew the unlikelihood of her long term dreams coming true, but she did what she needed to in order to get by in a world where no one would even claim her body after she’d been murdered.

It is in this vein that I also agree with her critiques of other writers like Marjorie Garber and Carole-Anne Tyler. The issue with Garber as Namaste paints it is that she uses simulacra of transvestism that continually make reference to the transgression of gender boundaries, but does not seem to really dwell too much on the actual lived experiences of people who may be crossdressers; in my view, regardless of the intentions that inhere to her discipline’s epistemology, this is a fatal flaw that dooms her analysis to having an all too limited purview. Namaste is eminently and resolutely sociological when she critiques Garber and Butler by insisting that they do not examine the “material, discursive, and institutional locations” that TS/TG/CD people occupy. The title of her book, Invisible Lives, is her fundamental point: the quotidian lives of trans people, the whys and wherefores of what we do, and the experience (a concept so foundational to women’s and gender studies) of everyday life is completely ignored. This is central to Namaste’s entire work and it is the absence of such from a lot of Butlerian theory that annoys her.

It can be said that Namaste is missing the point of what Butler and other postmodern theorists are trying to do, but I disagree with that for one reason: even if Butler and those like her are being headily theoretical on purpose to discuss that miasma of social construction that is greater than the sum of its parts… the practical and day to day effects of that kind of theorising are what truly miss any kind of postmodern point. To wit, Butler’s theorising that transsexual people ‘uncritically mime’ dominant gender is an old idea that is still used to oppress trans people and actually obviates complex understandings of how everyone reinforces gender in one way or another, whether they are cis or trans; or gay, queer, bi, or het. It leads to the academic fetishising of trans people who are held to a double standard. It is categorically unpostmodern to do so and it actually reifies ontologically strict categories that should be anathema to postmodern theorists (i.e. to say that all people from this constructed category are thus and so seems to go against everything postmodernism and poststructuralism are trying to do).

From here Namaste pivots to a larger critique of postmodern and queer theory and the ability of either to adequately theorise the transsexual or transgender person. The cure to the academic fetishisation is, of course, to provide a detailed analysis of everyday life for trans people, which is a significant reason that it’s important to do so academically.

What I disagree with is her sweeping dismissal of queer theory’s usefulness, but given the time at which she was writing (2000) I think she could be forgiven for seeing an academic monolith in the version of queer theory that dominated the academy when she was writing this in the late 1990s. Nevertheless she is correct when she says: “Critics in Queer Theory habitually fail to consider that their selection of texts is a social process that embodies the production of knowledge and discourses on sexual and gendered objects. In this manner, queer theory is blind to its own institutional workings.” What she goes on to say about what queer theory connotes as “inside” and “outside” (heterosexuality and homosexuality respectively) is also very apt and it leads into a point I have made many, many times over on this subject:

There is no outside to gender. We are all part of the productive power structure that creates gendered meanings in one way or another. It is unethical to suggest that trans people reinforce gender norms without critically interrogating how you yourself reinforce those norms and how other cis people might also be doing so. This is not the first academic quest to search for an “outside” that just so happens to include the academics penning these ideas. For a lengthier and more brutal analysis of the Quest for Outside as I call it, you can see my blog post on the matter here.

It does not work like that. Seriously.

Namaste’s critiques are, ironically, vividly illuminated by Judith Butler’s Undiagnosing Gender. My thoughts on it below are in some ways an expansion of both what I have said here and Namaste’s thinking on how to approach social analysis of trans lives.

Judith Butler, Undiagnosing Gender:

This piece from Professor Butler represents, I think, a profound evolution in her thinking that takes a completely different view of transsexual and transgender people than she seemed to in the early 1990s, and it was with this ‘era’ of her work that Viviane K. Namaste was so critically engaged. In Undiagnosing Gender, however, there seems to be a change in Butler’s perspective that responds to Namaste’s criticism. In writing this piece about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis she begins by asking straightforwardly:

“To understand the differences between these two views [broadly, pro- and anti- diagnosis] we have to ask how the diagnosis is actually lived. What does it mean to live with it?”

With that simple framing, Butler takes a rather different road than she did in Bodies That Matter, or even in Gender Trouble and it gives her a rather authoritative tone as she explores this particular issue. I feel that she sketches out rather expertly the two broad scatters of views that surround the issue of GID: those who want to keep the diagnosis to ensure medical access to transition for trans people, and those who oppose it because it stigmatises trans people and permanently relegates them to a second order of humanity.

She also brilliantly lays out the complications inherent to each perspective, and makes a very thoughtful point about the differing views of autonomy that seem to accrue to each camp. Is autonomy something that is facilitated socially? In this case, by a diagnosis of GID and with engagement with a medical and psychiatric community? Or is autonomy gained by not having that diagnosis hanging over you and your agency recognised as legitimate?

Don't you hate it when this happens?

My answer to that is one that falls in line with another one of Butler’s smart insights here when she critiques her own suggestion about community facilitation of autonomy. Like me, she suggests that GID is not a necessary component of trans autonomy and that it actually undercuts that autonomy because of the definitions that inhere to it: “It subscribes to forms of psychological assessment that assume the diagnosed person is affected by forces he or she doesn’t understand; it assumes that there is delusion or dysphoria in such people; it assumes that certain gender norms have not been properly embodied and that an error and a failure have taken place; it makes assumptions about fathers and mothers, and what normal family life is and should have been…” and on she goes. I don’t disagree with a word of it. She gets it here, and it’s worth making prominent note of.

It is also very much worth praising her for her deft paragraph about why gender does not necessarily make reference to a prior sexuality and how she neatly unpacks the heterosexist assumptions that still dog so much discourse around trans people. A lot of binarist, heterosexism tends to cloud people’s perceptions of trans people- such as thinking that trans people transition in order to be heteronormative (which doesn’t explain the fact that I, personally, transitioned into queerness- just to name one example). Or, from the far right, the idea that some kind of non normative gender identity is always already a kind of homosexuality. Butler dissects all of this neatly. I especially like this:

“…or one can become a transman and undergo a set of shifts in sexual orientation that constitute a very specific life history and narrative. That narrative is not capturable by a category, or it may be capturable by a category only for a time. Life histories are histories of becoming, and categories can sometimes act to freeze that process.”

Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has said that the body is “dynamic history”- a beautiful metaphor that I have since applied to sexuality and gender. Butler’s quote above, I think, brilliantly captures that reality, and the problems of binarism that surround conceptions of both homosexuality and transsexual/transgender lives. It matters to me personally because as I think on it I never had a good term for my sexuality, save ‘queer’, because it’s felt so fluid and in flux that I just can’t pin it down with certain terms like ‘lesbian’ which do not fully describe who I’m attracted to. Will that change? Perhaps. For all my critiquing of Butler I’m going to sound a lot like her in a moment, because she is often right about this sort of thing, but I do not believe that sexuality or gender is truly fixed. There is no truth that is obscured by a performance, the truth is the performance. Even as I lived a lie of malehood back in the old days, I did so in ways that were unique to the person, the woman, I was becoming, and elements of things I learned and personality quirks from that period persist in the woman I am now. Even as I lived a painful lie, there was a truth in it that I was cultivating.

Either way, the long and short of it is that this article is Butler at her best, in my view.

I could write all day about the accuracy of the insights she puts forth in this article, such as how she expertly demonstrates how and why living with the GID pathology is paradoxically advantageous and deleterious to the trans community.

Further along she also corrects her previous erasures of trans subjectivity by saying the following:

“Now there are crude analyses that suggest that FTM happens only because it is easier to be a man in society than it is to be a woman. But those analyses don’t ask whether it is easier to be trans than in a perceived bio-gender, that is, a gender that seems to “follow” from natal sex.”

The word she’s struggling to find at the end there is “cis”, of course, and the awkward, outdated language (bio- anything is untenable and a bit silly, and the various acronyms are also problematic). But! But! Behold, she gets it. Leaving aside the specific language, her broad point is as cutting edge as it gets: trans people have distinctive lives that cannot be understood in qualitatively cis terms. This comes in the midst of a critique of the GID language, the actual text that appears in the DSM IV, that I wholeheartedly approve of. Her questioning of the way the DSM examines childhood is pointed to me because if I were rigidly held to those standards I might not have been considered a ‘legitimate’ or ‘true’ transsexual by psychiatrists. I didn’t do certain things when I was a child that would have lead one to assume womanhood was in my future.

While I’m at it I’d like to point out an interesting connection here. When picking apart the psychiatric criterion that holds that little trans girls like myself were supposed to be playing with dolls (and Barbie is mentioned by name) she says the following:

“But the DSM assumes that the doll you play with is the one you want to be. But maybe you want to be her friend, her rival, her lover. Maybe you want all this at once. Maybe you do some switching with her. Maybe playing with the doll, too, is a scene of improvisation that articulates a complex set of dispositions, and that something else is going in this play besides a simple act of confirming to a norm.”

A book I’ve read recently is Sharon Marcus’ Between Women, which goes into some detail about the variegated meanings of doll play for Victorian girls. She too busts the mythology of doll playing as having only one meaning. Marcus suggestions that the homoeroticism that occurred between Victorian women occupied multiple subjectivities (friend, lover, companion, dominant/submissive relationships, etc.) and that these could be embodied by girls’ treatment of dolls. I thought it was an intriguing connection.

But back to Judith Butler, she critiques resoundingly the idea tacitly promulgated by GID: that the source of dysphoria comes from within trans people. But as I and many other trans folk have said: I don’t have gender identity disorder, society has gender identity disorder. Butler asks again and again why the GID makes no accounting of the social conditions in which trans people grow up and are made to live (again, Namaste might well praise this much more sociological perspective), and why it always locates the dissonance within the trans person. I have often said in the past that the self-loathing and depression of dysphoria is real, yes, but it’s created by social conditions, not by some chemical imbalance in my brain or somesuch.

Cis gay/lesbian people often feel a good deal of depression, stress and anxiety before they come out, and that’s because we live in a homophobic society, they know this, and they rightly are afraid of the consequences of openly accepting an LGB subjectivity in that world. But we do not say that they have Sexual Identity Disorder or somesuch. I felt suicidally depressed before I came out as a woman, and a huge part of that was the fact that I felt forced to live in a way I didn’t want to, not because there was something wrong with my neurology. I felt I wanted to express myself, to be a certain way, but also felt this strong invisible hand urging me away from the path I wanted to follow. I also knew life wasn’t easy for LGBT people and I had a deep, persistent fear that no one would love me if I came out. All of this fuelled a whirlpool of depression.

But that does not mean I had or have a “disorder.” It just means I could read society and that I understood the consequences of coming out.

Butler asks if the diagnosis process does not act as ‘social violence.’ I feel that it does. It is, to use Bourdieu’s term, symbolic violence. The imposition of hegemonic meaning on trans people. I feel that Butler has at last discovered the error she made when she said that trans people uncritically mime gender: she realised that to the extent this occurs, that’s not our doing. That’s the result of social and medical colonisation, it’s something many of us are frogmarched into doing. I thank the Goddess every day I never had to jump through hoops to get where I am, that I went to an informed consent clinic to get my hormones above board without using the cissexist psychiatric care system that would have asked me to deny myself even as I affirmed myself.

3 thoughts on “Subjectifying Trans People: Explorations in Transgender Studies, Part I

  1. Lisa Harney March 22, 2011 / 11:56 pm

    I think that the diagnostic process is definitely a matter of social violence, to varying degrees.

    I know my miming of gender was largely because other people kept telling me I had to do things a certain way, and whenever I strayed outside the “woman” box I was typically reminded that I was “doing it wrong.” Sometimes explicitly, more often passive-aggressively. I did willingly participate, even when it came to things I didn’t see the point of doing, because I was trying to fit in properly.

    And of course, once I could fit in more or less “properly” I was reinforcing the gender binary. Kind of a catch-22, right?

  2. QueerCoup April 1, 2011 / 4:32 pm

    I just cracked open “Undoing Gender”, published in 2004, which includes Undiagnosing Gender. In the introduction she writes, “My own thinking has been influenced by the ‘New Gender Politics’ that has emerged in recent years, a combination of movements concerned with transgender, transsexualism, intersex, and their complex relations to feminist and queer theory.” Hopefully her politics have moved beyond cissexism in response to the criticism she’s received.

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