For those of us who recognize that gender is plastic—if not infinitely so—the debate over the notion of “transgender” is of considerable interest.
The actual number of “trans” persons in the population is minuscule. Yet the issue of discrimination against them has been a hot topic in progressive circles for some time, including discrimination by some feminists who are derisively referred to by other feminists as “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).
Why has this been foregrounded in the current debates over gender and oppression?
There is a Bill, presently before the Senate, that would prohibit discrimination against trans people. Perhaps predictably, it’s become enmeshed in frankly stupid discussions about bathroom privileges. Those discussions are simply not worth refuting. Too easy. The doomed US Equal Rights Amendment foundered, at least in part, on similar discussions about toilets. There’s a Freudian monograph here waiting to be written.
It’s not surprising that many of us—most of us—find gender plasticity somewhat threatening. Our own identities are at stake. Recall the discussions about the “place” of women not that long ago. I can’t but think that the trans debate is a condensation of the wider anxiety about gender that was on full display when women wanted access to “non-traditional” paid work, for example, or even the right to enter a restaurant on one’s own, or to wear pants, or to drink in Ontario bars other than the part reserved for “ladies and escorts.” Those were the days.
In Tonga and Samoa, as I have seen first-hand, “trans” men, known as “fakaleiti” in Tonga and “fa’afafine” in Samoa, are respected members of society. If you want to get something done, they say in Samoa, get a fa’afafine to do it. There are many, many other societies in which the “trans” phenomenon is no big deal. The kathooeys of Thailand are another example from a multitude of them. Iran, believe it or not, actively supports gender reassignment surgery, although the matter is complex in Iranian society. But in too many nations, transgender people continue to suffer violent discrimination.
I have a lot of questions.
If gender is really a social construct, “performed” rather than innate—a default-point for those of us who want to abolish rigid gender roles—is it possible to conceive of a society in which “gender” doesn’t exist as a category? What would such a society look like—one transitioning from cis (which, as a term, is itself cis-centric) and trans (which really means “beyond”), to ultra (way beyond) to ultima (the end-point where gender simply dissolves as a meaningful category)?
If we really want to transcend “gender,” the current debates certainly obscure that aim. Because what is currently being discussed is not “trans” at all—that is, going beyond gender—but simply moving from one binary gender to the other. Biological males who “transition” to a female identity (and the far smaller number of women who go the other way) seem, at least to me, to be moving out of the gender role frying-pan into the gender role fire.
This will date me, but I remember reading Jan Morris many years back, and being struck by the way she described being a woman. It was, speaking frankly, a collection of stereotypes. And if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that those exaggerated stereotypes are everywhere in evidence today. One merely has to attend a Gay Pride parade to observe them. Drag is a caricature, and bogs us down in the worst aspects of gender construction.*
Let me digress for a moment. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and all the other additions to an increasingly unwieldy assemblage, seems an odd collocation of widely disparate constituents. I remember how scathing feminist friends were about a once popular gay slogan that marked an attempt to ally with feminism, “same struggle, same fight.” It wasn’t the same at all. And it seems to me that, when it comes to fighting oppression, there are significant differences among the sub-populations of GBLTQQI as well, other than being marginalized by a deeply patriarchal and sexist society.
If moving beyond gender is the goal, “trans” folk are going in precisely the opposite direction. They are, in fact, reinforcing gender. Essentialism inevitably rears its head: “femaleness” and “maleness” remain objective binary categories as before. Trans people just want to switch one out for the other. Nothing really “trans” about that, is there? If gender per se is but a complex, rigid and invidious social construct, where does the transitioning journey take them?
This is where I can understand the reservations of the TERFs, to some small degree at least. Those socialized as men who transition to being women still carry all of that previous baggage with them. Gender identity runs very deep: it’s a key aspect of the construction of the self in our society. It can’t just be magically shed holus-bolus. TERFs, too, seem to me to have a largely essentialist view of “woman,” but insofar as their politics are based upon the experience of being raised in a society that “womanizes” them, if you will, I can see how someone lacking all but relatively recent experience in that mode of being might be unwelcome in their political ranks.
Those who are racialized as Black, for example, might well appreciate the contributions of Howard Griffen in furthering an understanding of racism among oblivious whites, but could be expected to resist any (hypothetical) attempt by him to appropriate “Blackness.” More serious, inquiring conversations across the barriers of “identity” need to happen, if only to break down those other rigid categories from both the inside and the outside.
I well recognize the minefield into which I have advertently strayed. No doubt I’ve missed so much, and so much. Yet there can still be no doubt where I stand. Discriminating against anyone for what they choose to wear (are you listening, Mr. Harper?) or with whom they choose to identify, is extraordinarily dumb and hurtful. Bill C-279 should have had quick passage, and it deserves unqualified progressive support.
In the meantime, though, “gender” continues to triumph, in ever subtler and more contradictory ways. The current notion of “transgender” paradoxically subverts and strengthens the very construct we progressives are attempting to confront. Hence the fear (transphobia, if you must)—and the embrace.
UPDATE: “Politically sidelined” turned out to be prescient. This piece was banned by Rabble.ca!
* I feel I should clarify (thanks to commenter Jaime) that this does not actually describe all transwomen by any means—nor are all drag queens transwomen. I was getting at the performance of gender qua performance, which, of course, can also be done (and is done) unselfconsciously, without parodic exaggeration and caricature. Certainly the transfolk I met in Tonga and Samoa were anything but drag queens. But if gender is performed, there is surely a range of performances available, and we all appropriate those scripts from the society around us, whether self-consciously or (more usually) unconsciously. What is “being a woman” (or a man) but a collection of these scripts, which inevitably bring with them gender stereotypes?
My questions remain, What if we didn’t perform gender? What would that look like?