Two feminist blogging carnivals were published this week:
Both carnivals contain plenty of excellent posts to ponder, provoke and especially to disturb. Which brings me to the posts that provoked the rest of this post:
I note a disturbing contrast here between the way in which the two carnivals are dealing with discussions of the transgender experience and transphobia: the Carnival against Sexual Violence includes a post about how yet another murder of a transwoman [triggers] is being reported as the accused “being enraged beyond all reason” about being “duped” about the dead woman’s womanhood (and what this means for all women), while the Carnival of Radical Feminists, (edited to add: implicitly aligning all radfems with the trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists, which I resent), links to yet another post from Miss Andrea that argues that transgenderism should be regarded as just another fetish and that transwomen are wrong and probably deliberately deceptive for claiming that it’s anything more fundamental in respect of gender identity.
I don’t pretend to have any magic wand to wave to reconcile those who accept that people can have a gender identity discordant with biological sex and those who don’t accept it. All I can do is explain my own views, and explore aspects of chains of logic offered by others that perhaps they haven’t fully considered, in the hope that this may lead to further examination of what appears to be very strong prejudices.
Now, on to one argument that Miss Andrea has used repeatedly and has received much praise for as an exercise in logical deconstruction: that transfolk, in reinforcing the gender binary by identifying as the opposite sex rather than presenting as more androgynously genderqueer, somehow undermine the classic view of gender as a social construct. The argument appears to boil down to “when feminists say gender is a social construct, they mean it isn’t “real”, therefore if we say that men can become women and vice versa, then we’re arguing that gender is real, and thus feminist gender theory disappears in a puff of smoke”. This simply does not compute, unless one has a very hazy grasp on the concept of social constructs in the first place.
Social constructs are not “unreal” rather than “real”, they are artificial rather than natural. Artificial things are not “unreal”, otherwise you, dear reader, are not “really” reading this blog. Constructs are made rather than found, that is the crucial concept (eta: and things that are made can be remodelled).
Each of the major social hierarchies of race, gender and class is socially constructed in terms of who is regarded as inferior to whom. Each of those social hierarchies is also based on certain objective physical signifiers – skin colour/physiognomy and sexual characteristics and material acquisitions – which are used to justify the assignment of “inferior” characteristics in those hierarchies (e.g. blacks/Irish are stupid, women are weak, poor people are lazy). But the fact that those physical signifiers exist has no necessitating natural correlation with the assignment of social inferiorities, and it is in the assumption of innate inferiorities that the gender binary is socially constructed on the physical framework of sexual dimorphism. The only innate aspect of the gender binary framework balancing on top of human sexual dimorphism regards who can give birth/suckle infants and who cannot, everything else about gender roles is cultural, not natural.
Miss Andrea argues that “guys in frocks” are merely buying into gender essentialism, but I don’t see how arguing that only those born with ovaries1 can ever be regarded as “real” women isn’t doing exactly that. It’s treating gender as inalienably aligned with biological sex, whereas those who have a trans* history are those are saying that their biological sex has not been sufficient on its own to make them feel comfortable in their assigned gender role. That strikes me as the very opposite of biological essentialism; even in cases where a transitioning individual adopts genderised dressing stereotypes, because the whole point of gender being a social construct is that those stereotypes are artificial rather than essential in the first place.
Of course transgender behaviours are an exercise in artificiality – but is it fundamentally any more artificial than cisgender behaviours? If reifying gender by dressing so very femininely is so fundamentally awful, then why so much criticism reserved mainly for the transwomen who do so, and so little criticism by comparison for all the ciswomen who embrace all the rituals and accessorised impedimenta of femininity?
It’s also important to note that choosing to display conformity to the social expectations of their transgender identity may literally be a matter of survival as much as preference for people who are gender-transitioning. It strikes me that arguments such as Miss Andrea’s are feeding back into exactly the same sort of attitudes about transwomen being out to fool the rest of us that end up bringing on the rage that results in their murders, especially when some of the commentors there respond to a challenge from a transwoman by simply mocking her as a “little boy” and asking “do you miss that penis you had chopped off?”. The contempt just drips from every pixel (eta: of those comments), and why exactly? Isn’t that sort of contempt and disgust exactly what led to Allen Andrade beating Angie Zapata to death when he found out (through an act of sexual assault) that she wasn’t a born-woman?
To demand that those in gender-transition step back and only adopt more androgynous, genderqueer identities rather than “appropriating” womanhood is to demand that they put themselves at greater physical risk, surely? Transwomen who “pass” are far less likely to be attacked when going about normal livelihood and leisure activities than transitioning individuals who are obviously “guys in frocks”. Is this what it comes down to? Back off from our women’s space and no I don’t care if you die because you have nowhere safe to go? The callousness of this appals me.
Now, I also understand that some women who identify strongly as born-women find the concept/presence of transwomen disturbing, confronting and even threatening. They speak of transwomen who identify as lesbians displaying all the sexually predatory behaviours with respect to women that entitled sexist gender-normed masculine men do. I don’t doubt that there are some transwomen who exploit women sexually, and it is right to criticise them for doing so, but are those shits sufficient reason to reject every single transwoman as a potential sister? Not for me.
There are also those who argue that women-born-male can never share some of the most fundamental gender experiences that result from gender socialisation as feminine from birth through childhood, and thus can never be “real” women because they lack this shared experience. This shared-experience is largely true, but I wonder just how crucial this distinction really is. What about those who realise their trans identity very young, before school age, and whose family fully support them in their transgendering as girls? Surely women raised in hypothetical all-female non-sexist communes would also lack the shared experience of a genderised second-sex upbringing, but would any Women Born Women group exclude them because of that? So is this difference in upbringing enough to demand that people in gender-transition divorce themselves from womanhood entirely? Not to me.
Yet, one point of Miss Andrea’s that I think she does get right is that many of the definitions offered with respect to gender transition by various organisations promoting trans* acceptance are hazy and overly generalised, to the point where any departure from gender conformity is labelled “transgender” by some, which I agree is over-reaching if it is argued to apply to boys doing ballet and girls playing football. Not all challenging of gender norms is necessarily about transitioning gender versus extending expectations of gender.
In contrast however to Miss Andrea’s assumption that this reflects an appropriation of women’s and particularly feminist experience, I argue that this more accurately reflects a lack of a proper vocabulary to discuss gender roles without falling back on the assumptions of the gender binary construct. That vocabulary will never develop or gain traction in these discussions while some people simply mock those who have gender-transitioned as fraudulent cross-dressing fetishists.
1. For the sake of brevity, I have ignored here all those women-born-women with vaginas and breasts who don’t actually have ovaries because, unbeknownst to themselves and the world unless they get tested, they are not XX women e.g. XY women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and XO women with Turner’s Syndrome, as well as intersex individuals with rarer conditions, all of whom further complicate biologically essentialist arguments. [back]