I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York– New Paltz […]
[11:59] john: so u r a natural woman?
[12:00] sarahlizzy: Like the song?
[12:00] sarahlizzy: Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe?
[12:00] sarahlizzy: Because I like to think so.
~Activist Sarah Brown having a bit of fun with a “tranny chaser”
As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.
It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.
In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :
“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.
The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”
The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.
Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.
None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.
Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s” meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.
Therefore they mean nothing.