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In analysing the place of transgender and transsexual people in the theorising of various disciplines one finds several common threads that link together the entire enterprise. Society can often be quite messy and yet paradoxically can also be found to have identifiable mechanisms of operation that grind certain social forces inexorably forward. So what am I getting at with this? What are the common threads? Well, with the invaluable assistance of an expert social theorist who happens to be a trans woman, I believe I have found four.
Trans people are not the only group of people hard done by social and political theory; there is a lot to be learned from analysing how theoretical paradigms have utterly excluded other marginalised peoples. In her 2007 book Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell articulates an excellent exegesis of Western social theory that lays bare its deeply Eurocentric assumptions as well as the colonial enterprise that underlay it. The colonised world, she says, was merely a data mine whose raw numbers would be exported back to ‘the metropole’ (Europe and America) for theoretical production that would then come together as a definitive vision of the colonised. In this way the relationship between coloniser and colonised is no different when regarding the academic realm as opposed to, say, the political or industrial ones.
The links to how academics conceptualise and (more importantly) use trans people are quite clear here. Metaphors of colonisation are quite useful for discussing vastly unequal social dynamics within Western countries as well; histories of appropriation and exploitation are certainly not limited to the majority world and ‘data mines’ can be found just down the street from where I’m sitting as surely as they can in Ghana or Pakistan or Aboriginal Australia. What’s more the trouble with such theory is not just that they appropriate, misuse, and distort the experiences of the colonised, but that in other instances (particularly in the weaving of generic theories of society) they are ignored altogether. Connell has identified four movements of colonialist academia that she says characterise most attempts to theorise about society: the claim of universality, reading from the centre, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. I will go through each in turn and discuss their relevance to gender theory and trans folk specifically.
In her pathbreaking paper The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto , trans woman cyborg-feminist theorist Sandy Stone articulates in brief summary an idea that structures both this article and a lot of my thinking in general about trans people’s relationship to medico-juridical establishments and the academy:
I wish to point out the broad similarities which this peculiar juxtaposition suggests to aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitation. …
Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practises within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorising are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorising about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency.
This all makes itself manifest in the fascination some theorists have with us, fetishising the exotic trans people they see in their mind’s eye as either innately radical or conservative, denying that trans people’s individual self-understandings are meaningful (unless they comport with a dominant cis narrative), and a belief that the ideas expressed either in patriarchally-controlled medicine, psychiatry, or the academy can somehow save us. Thrumming beneath it all as a foundational gloss is the idea that we can neither speak nor act for ourselves, that we could never be adequate producers of knowledge about our own lives.
This is accomplished in the following ways:
The operation of Kyriarchy in its peculiarly patriarchal forms never fails to impress me. As I look at a certain claque of radical feminists who claim to be fighting against a system of gender oppression in our world I find myself confronting women and men who have, in truth, merely internalised patriarchal power arrangements and are regurgitating them in a strange way. I’m speaking, of course, about radfem transphobia. Joelle Ruby Ryan, a trans woman academic, recently attended a conference in New Hampshire called Pornography as Sexual Violence. In trying to present on the often untold story of how trans pornography impacts both our community and gender in general, she found herself attacked by two transphobic feminists: Robert Jensen and Lierre Keith. Her story, passionate and quite understandably outraged in tone, can be found here.
In it she quotes at length a screed from Ms. Keith. You’ll forgive me if I decide to take a shotgun to yon barrel of fish. Some might say that it only dignifies the remarks of such people to debate them or to fisk them. I prefer, however, to think of it as providing a learning resource to someone who might find themselves oppressed or harassed by such ideas. The power of symbolic violence- the use of rank, position, privilege and entitlement to impose meaning on a subordinate person- should not be understated. I and many other trans people have learned the hard way why such arguments are wrong, but someone still struggling to find themselves and feeling vulnerable might be hurting. To me, the more responses there are to this kind of nonsense, the better. Now, on with the show.
A Journey Down a Familiar Path
Keith begins by saying the following:
Well, I’ve personally been fighting about this since 1982. I think ‘transphobic’ is a ridiculous word. I have no strange fear of people who claim to be ‘trans.’ I deeply disagree with them, as do most radical feminists.
When I was a wee lass back in high school I used to argue with this rather tiresome Republican boy (incidentally his name was Robert as well) who one day angrily declaimed “there’s no such thing as homophobia! I’m not irrationally afraid of gay people! And ‘homo’ means same! I’m not afraid of things that are the same!” Now, I know what you’re thinking. “He has a career waiting for him in Fox News!” Quite. But secondly he sounds quite a lot like our friend here who’s supposedly from the opposite side of the political spectrum, which is not uncommon when dealing with this minority of radical feminists whose stock and trade is inverting reactionary arguments and using them against the oppressed in the guise of being anti-oppression.
When we’re children we’re often taught that great ideas are the product of great minds; blessed ideas that spring forth from the creator’s cranium like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and miraculous. But the truth is that ideas of the most compelling sort have no one source, and can come from the most intriguing of places assembled from seemingly dissociated bits and pieces. Recently in my writing about theory I’ve tried to convince you to look at it as something that grows from daily life and is itself a kind of practise as a result. What this way of looking at things enables you to do is see ‘theory’ as being more ubiquitous than it may first seem when you, say, look at a college textbook.
Enter Eclipse Phase, a pen and paper RPG set several hundred years in the future with a post-apocalyptic setting. The action, however, need not take place on the despoiled Earth. Our Solar System is home to countless colonies, some independent, some confederated, that express the gamut of human ideologies. One of the game’s overarching themes is transhumanism which the book itself defines as: “an international cultural and intellectual movement that endorses the use of science and technology to enhance the human condition, both mentally and physically.” Now, there is certainly no question that such an ideology has innumerable pratfalls. It could potentially become a 21st century expression of eugenicism, for example. People with disabilities in particular are right to be wary of such and the cultural genocide it can entail in the wrong hands.
But the funny thing about ideas is that they are multifaceted and thus easily repurposed, and Eclipse Phase’s presentation of its interpretation of transhumanism is quite compelling. Loving a good ‘trans’ pun myself, I decided to explore the concept a little bit, and sure enough, I was rewarded:
To many transhumans, gender has become an outdated social construct with no basis in biology. After all, it’s hard to give credence to gender roles when an ego can easily modify their sex, switch skins, or experience the lives of others via XP. Though most transhumans still adhere to the gender associated with their original biological sex, many others switch gender identities as soon as they reach adulthood or avidly pursue repeated transgender switching. Still others examine and adopt untraditional sex-gender identities such as neuters (believing a lack of sex allows greater focus in their pursuits) or dual gender (the best of both worlds). In many bioconservative habitats and cultures, however, more traditional gender roles persevere. (Eclipse Phase Sourcebook, p. 35)
You see, in this distant future, humanity has discovered technological means of changing bodies at will, preserving consciousness in a handy, downloadable file format, and in the process taking “my body, my choice” to a whole new level. The game explores economic inequality in depth as well, and thus the limitations of one’s bodily autonomy imposed in a world where economic injustice has simply evolved in certain crucial ways. But nevertheless, this section on gender elucidates something rather fascinating that RPGs can do for us: allow us to imagine and actually play around in a future that we might do well to fight for (at least in part- I could do without the rampaging out of control military AI that destroyed Earth in Eclipse Phase’s canon, thank you very much).
What is fascinating, in part, is twofold. One, trans people of all sorts (myself included) are already living that paragraph in various ways, and two, that the future it posits is one in which being transgender is not only accepted, it’s an experience virtually the whole of transhumanity (transhumanity!) shares. Biological essentialism has been well and truly shattered, and right along with it, patriarchy.
When one reaches a certain point in transition and begins to delve into this riotously diverse, loose aggregate we call the “trans community” and its close cousins to whom we are the red-headed step sister (yes, quite the odd family, no?), one inevitably hits the wall of language.
What do you call yourself? To what group do you belong? How should you be addressed? How does this relate to how you address others? What language is hurtful and undermines you? On and on the questions and contemporaneous realisations go. Words, wonderful words, surround, bind, and penetrate you. At the end of the day again and again we are learning, re-learning, and un-learning language. Trans people are, along with certain other loose confederations of humanity, perhaps more deeply attuned to the vicissitudes of linguistic power and how language does power than your average bear.
And why is that? Because there is one realisation along with all the other usual ones (i.e. why it hurts when, as a trans man, someone calls you ‘she’ or a ‘woman’) that demonstrates language’s power.
The words we have often obviate any meaningful way of discussing our experiences.
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.
What follows is another journal entry, as the really bad title might well have clued you in to. This one is a brief analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Needless to say, I loved the book, and equally needless to say I found a means of relating some trans issues to it. The entire thing is nowhere near as deep and comprehensive as I would have liked. There are a multitude of ways to read those 120 pages that comprise Ms. Woolf’s most famous feminist work. For instance I did not get to expound much on my idea that the Internet allows countless people from a variety of backgrounds, including otherwise very marginalised ones, to have a vast and endlessly interesting room of their own. The proliferation of blogs has created innumerable platforms that are both very personal and very public- perhaps transcending the firm dichotomy between them- for people like sex workers, trans folk, radical activists across the various spectra, people with disabilities, the impoverished, and more. It is, certainly, a point I should have dwelled on.
It is a great shame that a feminist blog named after Woolf’s book is a hive of transphobia, but excepting the corrupted allusion that it represents the growth of the Internet and the infinite number of ‘rooms’ it has created has advanced the cause of social justice like no other.
I should also not have to belabour the point of a certain significance that accrues to a simple fact: I’m getting perfect scores on these essays that routinely mention trans people in a positive light, and that routinely critiques (and indeed, more often than not, trashes) our opponents, feminist and otherwise. Where among other professors this might occasion deeply undesirable battles, I find myself supported at every turn by both my professor and others in the department. Comments where my professor expresses mirth at my witty eviscerations of transphobes are more common than not. It is also worth mentioning that the room of my own this blog represents, and the larger salons of our own that websites like Questioning Transphobia embody, are what helped me hone my skills to not only speak in my own voice as a woman who is trans, but to do so well.
With that, I raise my coffee mug to Virginia Woolf and pray that I am doing her proud. She exhorted us, with passion and verve, to write and add our wisdom to the libraries of the world. Goddess knows I’m now trying to do my part.