Thursday, August 02, 2007

Reasoning That Arrives At *Gaaah*!

Once in a while, you run across a writer that seems well reasoned and thought out, and then they throw a complete monkey wrench into that impression.

Such is precisely what I found reading Julie Bindel's columns.

In particular, what drew my attention was the reasoning in this column on transsexuality.

Feminists want to rid the world of gender rules and regulations, so how is it possible to support a theory which has at its centre the notion that there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave?

Oh oh ... I've read this before - when I found myself reading some of Judith Butler's essays. Like Butler, Bindel is adopting a stance that gendered behaviour is purely a social construct.

The problem with this particular line of reasoning is pretty easy to pick out - young children demonstrate gendered behaviour long before there is any significant socialization. Second, one of the most common attributes of the transsexual narrative is a knowledge that "something was wrong" from the beginning - usually among their earliest memories. Like it or not, it's hard to say that

As someone who spurned dolls and make-up as a child, I find it deeply troubling that, had I gone to one of the specialist psychiatrists while growing up and explained how I did not feel like a "real girl" (which I did not, because I wanted to be a lesbian), I could be writing this as a trans man.

At about this point, Bindel has just shot her argument out the door. This is a fairly typical problem when you attempt to apply a gay or lesbian narrative to gender identity. There's quite a distinction between gender atypical behaviour which is often part of the gay or lesbian narrative, and the transsexual experience. While some transsexuals do show strong, gender atypical behaviour, a large number adopt strongly "biological gender typical" behaviour, and live for years that way.

The second thing that Bindel vastly misconstrues is the diagnostic process itself. It is very rare indeed for a competent therapist to tell a patient "I think you are a transsexual". The reality is that the therapist's role is help the client find ways to reconcile their feelings about themselves in a constructive fashion. For some clients that may lead to transition, for others it will lead to a much different understanding of themselves.

Bindel goes further, and claims that gender reassignment surgery is "aversion therapy":

During the debate I argued that sex change surgery is modern-day aversion therapy treatment for homosexuals. The highest number of sex change operations take place in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. Sex change surgery, therefore, renders gays and lesbians "heterosexual".

Using the example of Iran to justify her position is something of a red herring. I would hardly point to Iran's approach to transsexualism as exemplary of the rest of the world - and in particular the "Western European" tradition which modern psychology has its roots in. I imagine that most gender and sexuality therapists in North America and Europe would be very troubled by what is going on in Iran.

However, this underscores the muddled thinking that infects Bindel (and in many respects Butler as well). Transsexuals are not gays (or lesbians) that wish to appear straight. If that were the case, then we might expect that transsexuals would be commonly homosexual prior to transition, and apparently heterosexual afterwards. Sadly for Bindel's reasoning, this is not the case. Just as there are gay, straight and bisexual people in the population, the transsexual population shows a similar range of variability in their sexual expression post-transition. There are Male-To-Female transfolk who are straight, and some who are lesbians. (Read The Sexual Spectrum for more insight into this topic)

Sadly, like a great many people who speak out against treatment for transfolk, Ms. Bindel has started from a muddled set of premises, and derives a position that ignores both evidence and clinical reality.

In large part, both Butler and Bindel have made very fundamental assumptions in their arguments that simply do not hold up to scrutiny. By claiming that gender is essentially learned behaviour, they lose sight of the fact that we can think and feel things quite different from what we demonstrate through behaviour. To make a simple example, I am very unlikely to cry at a funeral. This doesn't mean that I do not feel sadness or loss in the circumstances, but merely that I do not show my emotions outwardly. What's to say that a Male-to-Female transsexual would not feel inwardly that they should be a woman, even though their behaviour is typically masculine? (Which is actually an amazingly common narrative)

I admire and support the feminist drive to break down artificial lines between gender roles in society. I do not believe that anybody should be put in a social straightjacket based on their physical gender. I've known men who are amazingly caring, gentle people (attributes often assumed of women), and women who are strong, competitive individuals whose business savvy and negotiating skills would put most businessMEN I know to shame. A society that encourages people to be real about themselves and their feelings is a noble goal. Oddly, I don't believe that such a society would be "transsexual-free" - because a transsexual's issue is not with mere behaviour, but with a deeper sense of identity that goes to the core of the person's identity.

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