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.
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.
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.