(false consciousness edition, co-written with Lisa)
I had a half-written post about de-humanisation, but a lot of people have covered this rather well, so I think I’ll hold it back for another time. It’ll come in handy again, believe. Like most of these tropes, most of the examples I’ll use are about trans women, I really should write some more FtM specific ones.
What I want to talk about this time is how trans people are positioned outside of discourse, and our thoughts, motivations and desires are ventriloquised by an array of “experts,” including feminists and queer theorists of all stripes.
One of the comments I made on Laura’s thread on the F Word blog was that trans women are continually posited as naïve in feminist arguments, as though we couldn’t have possibly read any feminist theory, understood it, and still find it problematic to describe our experience. Or heaven forbid, be a trans academic or writer like Susan Stryker, Jay Prosser, Viviane Namaste, Julia Serano or Sandy Stone.
So you have, apparently, on the one side feminist theorists, bloggers etc, armed with a sophisticated array of theory. “Gender is not real,” social construction, all the fruits of the 40 year feminist push towards de-naturalising gender. Many of which, from French feminism to Judith Butler, is heavily influenced by the various anti-humanist currents of structuralist, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis etc. And even online “rad-fems” are aware that to be essentialist is indeed A Very Bad Thing, though some seem to be not entirely sure why.
And then, on the other, you have these poor deluded trannies, who actually think gender is real. So real, in fact, that they have to do something about changing their bodies. And that right there lies the crux of the “reifying gender” argument, that by changing gendered bodies you are making something that is not real solid.
What twaddle. And what a fracking useless application of social constructionist theory.
A social constructionist/performative idea of gender can just as easily assume that as gender is constructed through the re-iteration of behaviours and the already-gendered body matter, trans people’s gender is as socially constructed as anyone else’s. And hence EXACTLY as real. And EXACTLY as fake.
And indeed, that’d be the way a whole swathe of queer theory reads transness (which is problematic in another way – read Viviane Namaste for a postcolonial trans feminist critique of Judith Butler for not paying sufficient attention to the specific contexts of trans subjectivities).
But this “gender is not real” thing is almost always used to ONLY illuminate the falseness of trans genders. And considering the notion that we are “really” a man or woman despite appearances tends to feed into transphobic discourse, legislation and eventually violence, I think it is worthy of refuting those non-trans normative biases and presumptions.
See some feminist and queer theorists approach trans women by applying different rules—a cis woman’s identification as woman is unquestionable, but a trans woman’s identification as woman is incomprehensible because gender doesn’t exist.
It is apparently not possible to identify as a woman, to live as a woman, if you’re transgendered and meet the feminist standard of anti-humanist anti-essentialist social constructionism.
Because the double-bind here is, either you meet societal expectations of a feminine gender presentation, in order to pass on a day-to-day basis without the massive amounts of harassment from the general public a non-passing trans person. In which case you’re a misogynistic man just acting out the dictates of the Patriarchy onto the entire female gender. There we go, polluting the ontology again.
Or, you do not have a traditionally feminine gender presentation, or you’re too loud, too “aggressive,” in which case, well, evidence that you’re really a man. The defense rests, your Honour.
Now imagine, if you are in fact, a cis feminist, a woman whose gender presentation matches her documents, well, how radical is your departure from gender categories? How much are you reifying gender, every single day, without every realising it?
It’s all very well to say “fuck gender,” but what do your documents say? Do you have to travel looking one way and having your documents say another? Because driver’s licenses and passports and 50 other million things have genders on them, and that tiny little M or F makes a massive amount of difference when your documents don’t match up. And most governments make it difficult, expensive, and sometimes totally impossible to change that marker.
This is all part of the social construction of gender–not just the performative, or the Butlerian “gender all the way down” notion of the sexed body–cis people benefit from the freedom of not being considered potential criminals, frauds or even terror suspects (US Homeland Security memo about “cross-dressing terrorists”) by institutions in countless ways. And then there’s Social Security “no-matches” that can out trans people to employers, and very little anti-discrimination legislation etc etc.
Of course, many of these people (eg Sheila Jeffreys, J Michael Bailey, Catherine Millot etc etc) will explicitly say that you cannot believe anything trans people say about our experiences, anyway.
Others say things like “I’m not aware of my gender, why should you be aware of yours?” but resist any explanation that dissonance or lack of dissonance could play any role there – and the fact is, everyone is aware of their gender, it’s just that cis people don’t have to acknowledge that awareness despite the fact that it shapes so much of what they do. For example, a man who insists that he doesn’t really think of himself in terms of masculinity will then turn around and do a great many gendered-masculine things. This of course betrays the fact that he thoroughly considers himself to be not only masculine, but a man.
This notion of an ontology of gender—a category of being “male” or “female”—is one that cis people buy into as much as trans people. The difference is, our identification is constituted from the start as illegitimate.
For instanct, trans women are told—and notice how this work in conjunction with its opposite, transness as “deception”—you cannot be a woman, you can only approximate it. And badly.
And so, the goalposts constantly shift- the fact is that trans people can and do answer questions about being trans. Deciding that “woman trapped in a man’s body” is an unacceptable narrative, but not seeing any other narrative as legitimate, either. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said “it just felt wrong to be male” only to have someone say, “well everyone struggles with that. Nobody really feels they properly fit their gender.” Yes, well there is a difference between gender roles/stereotypes and the gender itself, and the conflation is irritating. And since we don’t always cooperate, they shift the goalposts a bit and ask again – often stating the answer is something they can’t identify with, thus it’s wrong.
And of course there’s the unending stream of strawmen, false dilemmas, question begging, catch-22s, double-binds. Logic must be sacrificed to
explain away the existence of a trans person who can speak for herself and himself and refuses to accept definitions imposed on them. People are threatened by the simple assertion of personhood, of agency. Of saying, these theories you apply to me, they do not work. They’re not true, and I refuse to accept them.
Like I said in my open letter, every conversation about trans people must automatically centre on the reactions of cis people. The limitations of their imaginations must axiomatically be the limits on our behavior.
You see, my body, my choice only applies to some people, some bodies, some choices.
Transitioning is metaphorically killing our mothers as Germaine Greer put it in The Whole Woman. Or the notion that trans women are most “naturally suited” for prostitution or perverts transitioning to get ourselves of proposed by J Michael Bailey in The Man Who Would Be Queen.
And thus, since our experience has been precluded from the start from the field of discourse, trans people are hopeless dupes of the medical
profession, who provide us with placebo treatments because we won’t
allow them to cure the root cause of our desires – whatever that root
cause may be. We’re cajoled, tricked, and coerced to seek surgery, we
never independently come to the conclusion that we want to change our
sex before we even hear it’s possible. And we are, after all, still the proud recipients of all that Patriarchal privilege.
Why would you need to hear from trans people—or heaven forbid read some theory by trans people—when you already know better than we do, our own histories, motivations, and desires? I mean, honestly.