Tuesday, October 14, 2008

When Feminists Go Awry

Don't get me wrong - I'm probably about as ardent a feminist as you can get. I'm not talking about the average feminist that believes in social and political equality, but rather the ones who want to define who can be feminine - or more particularly female - in a way that suits their particular ideology.

Consider these two posts:
Part One Deconstructing Transgenderism
PART TWO: Deconstructing Transgenderism for non-radical feminists

If you can get past the author's condescending attitude and slightly rude language, she's actually trying to make a coherent argument - and sadly misses some key points in her fervent desire to prove how evil transgender people are for feminism.

First, we have someone who claims to not feel comfortable in hiz own body. All well and good, many people are uncomfortable about some aspect of their physical appearance that they wish to change. This individual claims to be a different gender then hiz birth body indicates. Well we have a problem with that word gender. Because feminists keep saying that there is no gender. So if transgenderism is a valid medical condition, and transfolk really do need to change body parts, then the reason they need to change those body parts is because gender is real. Which automatically makes the favorite feminist theory invalid — yanno, the one where they screech that gender is a social construct. Yanno, the one theory which has formed the foundation for all other subsequent feminist theory for the last three centuries. Yanno, the one theory which if rendered invalid automatically reboots every other feminist theory in existence. That one, ya fucking pea-brain.


I hate to point this one out, but it is such an obviously flawed bit of reasoning to begin with - and one which just about every transsexual has needed to dismantle themselves to understand what they need to do.

Let me preface my comments by stating that I will focus upon transsexuals in particular. No offense is intended to other members of the broad transgender world, but the arguments being raised are ultimately focused quite specifically upon those whose gender identity leads them to transition.

The opening supposition here is that if we acknowledge transsexuals as valid, that everything that has ever been theorized or described in feminist theory must become invalid.

This is not the case at all. In fact the reasoning appears to be rooted in the realm of confusing the distinct physical, psychological and social aspects of gender in the first place.

I'm not about to claim the that three attributes do not interact with each other, for they clearly do - otherwise the social aspects of gender would not differ so dramatically between men and women. (again for simplicity, I will not be directly addressing the consequences of intersex conditions directly)

However, I will claim that the writer of the above comments has made quite a significant error in stating ... transfolk really do need to change body parts... that she perceives gender transition as primarily a physical event. It isn't - far from it in fact. Transition has much, much more to do with changing one's social gender than it does the physical gender. The physical changes are almost coincidental - they facilitate the individual's integration into the new social milieu that matches their chosen gender - no more. (Yes, I would go as far as arguing that SRS falls into the same basic category for an awful lot of transsexuals) If one views transsexuals as primarily integrating into a new social gender role, I would claim that the phenomenon should cause very little difficulty for mainstream feminism at all.

However, she isn't finished yet ... and neither am I.

The reason we know those differences must be internal is because the transgendered themselves say that it is impossible to change their internal structure, and so they are altering their external body — the only thing they say which is capable of change. ... But darlings, when those differences become worth switching body parts over, then those differences become major, and then gender discrimination becomes not only reasonable but acceptable.


Ummm ... again, this is the flawed model that presupposes - fundamentally - that biology is destiny somehow. That if one is born with 'male plumbing' or 'female plumbing' that gender starts and ends there. If only it were so simple.

The author gives a 'tip of the hat' to a key part of the transsexual narrative - that of persistence. It is not uncommon for transsexuals to be able to trace their cross-gender identity back to early (and I mean very early) childhood. Even more troubling is the fact that no matter what coping techniques they have tried, those who do decide to transition invariably will have tried just about every combination you can think of, and probably a few that most would never consider - only to find themselves facing precisely the same dilemma time and again.

It is this essentialism of gender identity that is in fact so troubling for gender theorists in general, and the "radical feminists" in particular. You see, it tends to break down arguments that claim gender identity is purely a construct (similar to what writers like Butler argue), but it also flies in the face of the notion of birth gender is all that there is. This is one of the reasons I distinguish between the physical and psychological aspects of gender. In order to reasonably account for the persistence of identity that transsexuals claim, and to still make sense of the social constructs around gender in a meaningful way, it seems to me to be one of the few viable options.

No, claiming that the transsexual is deluded or lying - the Bailey/Blanchard argument - is not adequate here. There is a lack of clinical evidence that corroborates such an argument - clinically, most transsexuals are far more grounded in the reality of their situation than they are given credit for. Like many criticisms of transsexuals, it relies upon declaring the narrative of individual people to be invalid - not on the grounds of actual evidence, but rather because the evidence that the transsexual's narrative presents is deeply troublesome for a particular social theory construct.

Remember, the transgendered claim they can only express their feminine attributes if they have a feminine body. By making each set of approved gender characteristics utterly dependent on which body the transgendered person happens to claim, — guess what we get to say next?


Uh no. Not true at all. In fact, if one considers the transsexual narrative carefully for a while, it becomes clear that in fact what is happening is the physical changes that take place (e.g. growing breasts after taking hormones for a while) merely facilitate the social transition that is taking place concurrently. Those physical cues go quite some distance in making it easier for the transsexual to be perceived by others - and thus treated socially - as a member of their chosen gender.

Does this have any impact upon the feminist desire for equality, or the feminist desire to 'break down the patriarchy'? Not really - not if you are sensible about it.

In fact, I would argue that transsexuals in many ways are natural allies of feminism. These are people who have walked through a world filled with social animosity towards them - subject to hostility and discrimination at almost every turn. If there is someone whose life contains a visceral understanding of what discrimination is, and how society can marginalize people based on what it assumes about them, it is transsexuals. It would be a mistake to assume that a transsexual is oblivious to the social and political challenges presented in their chosen gender. (and even when those challenges severely limit life options, as seen in some Islamic countries, people still transition)

7 comments:

Lisa Harney said...

Hey, I really appreciate that you're responding to m Andrea's arguments, but I take issue with this:

However, I will claim that the writer of the above comments has made quite a significant error in stating ... transfolk really do need to change body parts... that she perceives gender transition as primarily a physical event. It isn't - far from it in fact. Transition has much, much more to do with changing one's social gender than it does the physical gender. The physical changes are almost coincidental - they facilitate the individual's integration into the new social milieu that matches their chosen gender - no more. (Yes, I would go as far as arguing that SRS falls into the same basic category for an awful lot of transsexuals) If one views transsexuals as primarily integrating into a new social gender role, I would claim that the phenomenon should cause very little difficulty for mainstream feminism at all.

Changing my body was extremely important to me. Not coincidental at all, and a lot of trans people I know say the same. I'm not saying that the social gender aspect isn't important - it certainly is important to me to be accepted and seen as a woman - but that for a lot of us, the physical transition is a big deal.

Also, I think that for transsexual people, feminism is ideologically (not naturally) hostile. I mean, as long as writers such as Robin Morgan, Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffreys, and Julie Bindel receive a lot of currency in feminist theory and discourse, feminism is not friendly to trans people at all.

You made several excellent points, though. Thank you.

MgS said...

Hi Lisa!

I do not wish to trivialize the importance of the physical transition as part of the picture, far from it in fact.

My point and purpose is to underscore that the physical changes in transition occur within a context that involves the social and emotional changes. It is folly to view transition as occurring along a single dimension of experience.

The criticism I'm bringing to the 'Radical Feminist' argument is that they have focused upon the physical changes (largely because they are easy to understand), and minimize or ignore the importance of the social and psychological adaptation that is taking place. (Let's face it, if one cannot make the social transition, it is very difficult to be successful in the world)

With respect to feminism, my experience in general is that it isn't particularly trans-hostile until you bump up against the ideologies which attempt to define feminism in terms of some strict notion of the feminine and what that means. (and inevitably there are all sorts of half-baked reasoning thrown about by then) Mostly it seems to be the theorists that create hostility by putting forth conceptual models that fall apart in the face of a transsexual's story.

Lisa Harney said...

My experience debating this with radical feminists is that they want to undermine the physical, social, and psychological aspects of transitioning. They refuse to believe that the psychological aspects are true at all - that trans people experience the sense of subconscious sex differing from anatomical sex. They continuously try to reframe it as something like "trans women want to transition because they like to wear dresses or are feminine" creating this idea that trans women think that if you're feminine you have to be a woman, and flipping the whole thing around from the fact that many trans women tend to be feminine because we see ourselves as female (consciously or subconsciously) and absorb gendered socialization intended for girls. That I didn't transition because I liked to wear dresses, I liked to wear dresses because that's something that girls do (and I was forbidden from doing, which gave it more power before I transitioned).

And that of course brings up the social aspect - they barely acknowledge the social aspect, which I think is wrongheaded. Some even suggest that if trans women were truly genuine, that we'd just transition physically but live as men, never changing names or sex on documentation. This is a ridiculous standard, of course.

They don't want transsexuality to be valid, so of course any argument must be rejected, ignored, or refuted according to their convenience. Nearly always, they reword anything a trans person says into something completely different but easier to dismiss - or just say we're all lying liars who lie.

This is woman-centric:

My point about feminism being hostile to trans people is that it's nurtured these transphobic writings for the past 36 years. Trans women have been actively excluded and rejected from feminism, and we've been held to higher standards of activism when we talk about feminism - that in order to legitimately engage in trans activism or expect support from other feminists - we have to place cissexual women's issues ahead of our own.

And this plays out when there's even a debate as to whether trans women should be allowed access to domestic violence or rape shelters, or when any feminist of any flavor starts talking about trans women's male privilege - because it's not enough that we don't have access to male privilege in the present, but that if we've ever benefited from something that resembles male privilege, it taints our access to womanhood and cissexual women need to be protected from us.

Many feminists who aren't themselves radical feminists, who may even identify as third wave, will openly question whether anyone should be allowed access to SRS at all, implying that SRS itself reinforces oppression against women by defining what women should look like (and ignoring that the people seeking such surgery need it to live a normal life, and that the surgery itself is about being female, as social womanhood tends to arrive well before that).

I mean, I'm not arguing that trans people aren'tfeminists, but rather that a lot of feminism is built on keeping trans people out of the club. :(

I guess I expect more than simply acknowledging that trans people should be welcome in feminism - that we've been actively excluded for over three decades, sometimes violently - Sandy Stone received death threats when she was at Olivia Records, for example.

I hope this makes sense - basically, I agree with you, but I hope for higher standards than what I've seen so far.

And I agree with your point about theorists creating hostility with conceptual models.

MgS said...

Nearly always, they reword anything a trans person says into something completely different but easier to dismiss - or just say we're all lying liars who lie.

This is the Bailey/Blanchard model being exercised. I've dissected that in some detail here, and here.

My point about feminism being hostile to trans people is that it's nurtured these transphobic writings for the past 36 years.

One of the great ironies of gender theorists is that they are trying to apply a variation on "the scientific model", but then they turn around and blithely ignore data that they find inconvenient. (and transpeople in general throw a monkey wrench into a lot of topics)

I suspect in fact that hardline political feminism's hostility towards transpeople - and transwomen in particular - is a direct result of the same pressure for hierarchy that exists throughout human society. (Even among the broadly defined term 'transgender', we find a quasi-exclusionary hierarchy that evolves - there are reasons why support groups for CD's often don't include those who are intending to transition.) Transsexuals are simply a small enough group that they can be dismissed politically without any serious consequences.

I hope this makes sense - basically, I agree with you, but I hope for higher standards than what I've seen so far.

I presume you are meaning from political feminism, not from this lowly blog writer? ;-)

Nichole said...

MgS,

I think you've got it just about right from both the "scientific" side and from the "political" side.

We inconvenience certain basic presumptions in both areas that the arguers against us see, quite rightly, would require them to re-think certain accepted notions that have arisen and become bedrock simply because "well that's just a given."

The fact of women and men not all being nicely packaged in easily definable bodies, or in easily conditioned realities throughout their lives, requires that certain basic notions require some re-adjustment and not simply an a priori fact that is beyond the bounds of questioning and re-adjusting.

I think that in reading Raymond, Blindel, Jeffires and mAndrea as well as reading and understanding the writings of Freund and Blanchard (forget Bailey, he's an entertainer who uses Blanchard and has no clear distinction from Blanchard) one sees again and again an inability to question the basis of their Neo-Freudian belief-system.

The rub, for them all, is exactly what mAndrea and you have said it is: one would have to actually go a bit deeper and with less of an "everyone knows that" foundation to their arguments.

The problem is in lazy psychology and in lazy political thought. The reason, why change my entire structure of presumption for something less than 1% of world-population?

There are reasons, it seems to me, that FTMs are almost universally in any of the arguments brought forth by certain feminist groups and by the Freund/Blanchard religionists. That reason is that there seems to be a basic atavistic demeaning of the Feminine by both of those groups.

Both seem to presume that "male" conditioning and male behavior are the default good for human interaction and society. Both tend to exclude the Feminine as being either the remembrance of things past in the case of rad-fems or a position not worthy of inclusion in the case of the psychologists.

One way or another the upshot is that in so doing the number of un-includeds rises to far more than 1% or less of population and more into the range of 52%-53%.

Lisa Harney said...

Yes, MgS, I mean from feminism, not you. :) I appreciate you taking this on.

I mean, a lot of feminists do get it, and I should acknowledge that, too.

MgS said...

Nichole writes:

forget Bailey, he's an entertainer who uses Blanchard and has no clear distinction from Blanchard

Actually his public profile, and the fact he reacts in such amusing ways makes him rather more enjoyable to poke at than Blanchard - who seems to mostly be off the radar even in published journals.