Every now and then someone says something like this to me.
“I never would have thought you were a lesbian.”
I am hurt and angry. I recognise the statement, usually made with a coy smile, as an act of violence against me as a person. I am forced to remember that I am always subject to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the heterosexual ‘privilege of unknowing.’ I am made aware of the unequal power relationship that exists between myself and heterosexual people, and which empowers them to ignore and question my hard won identity when it suits them.
Identity categories are tricky things. They pre-exist us and some we are slotted into from birth. As soon as the doctor says, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”, much of our future life experience is decided entirely without our consent and in the service of a naturalized heterosexual order. As transgender activist Susan Stryker observes, ‘A gendering violence is the founding condition of human subjectivity’ (‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein,’ 250).
Other identity categories are not handed to us on a plate, or upon us; some we have to fight to occupy. The identity category ‘lesbian’ was not made easily available to me. It was withheld. When I was 9 and my parents told me about sex, they did not say, “Of course you might be a lesbian, so here’s a book about lesbianism in case you need it.” They gave me a book which presented a very limited kind of heterosexuality as natural and inevitable. I had to find out about lesbianism on my own and in secret. Coming out and occupying a lesbian identity as an adult comes with a price which I’ll be paying for the rest of my life, but which I’m prepared to pay because my life would not be worth living otherwise.
I read writing by transfolk about their experiences of being slotted, non-consensually, into gender categories that don’t fit their sense of themselves as they really are, and about their battles to be who they feel themselves to be, despite enormous personal cost which sometimes includes death itself. I don’t know what it feels like transgender but as a lesbian, I can imagine that if you’ve spent years fighting to be who you feel you are in terms of your gender, being denied that gender is likely to be experienced as a kind of violence to you as a person.
There is very good reason for challenging the naturalized heterosexual order in the hope of loosening up the binary constructed gender system into which are slotted, but as Stryker implies in her comment above, we also have to deal with the fact that under current conditions gender identity is still a founding condition of human subjectivity, socially constructed or not, whether we like it or not.
The social constructionist anti-trans feminist argument proposes that transfolk reify oppressive socially constructed gender norms by actively choosing to buy into the binary gender system and taking on fictional gender categories as if they are essential or inevitable. If the feminist aim is to get rid of ‘class woman’ altogether, transitioning is by implication a counter-feminist activity. Of course the argument is more complex than this, but I just want to look at with this strand here and use it as a starting point for some thoughts on gender and personhood.*
In the first instance, it seems to me that the majority of transfolk do not see themselves as actively choosing gender categories, or even as choosing their gender identity at all. As far as I can tell, transitioning is about getting one’s body and external self-presentation to match up with the way one has always felt inside. It is not about choosing; it is about being and about living as authentically as possible. There are choices to be made in terms of how a person acts on their feelings, but when I have had discussions about the feminist anti-trans position with transfolk, they find this argument particularly difficult to grasp because it just doesn’t resonate with the ways in which they experience their bodies and genders.
Then there is the argument that since gender is socially constructed, it is not real, so how can you choose to occupy a fictional category? What, indeed, is the point of going to all this effort to occupy a fictional category? I happen to agree that gender is socially constructed, by which I mean it has a history and it always mediated through language and discourse, but I do not think that makes it imaginary or “unreal”. Gender shapes our lived experience in very real ways. Just because something is socially constructed does not make it any less profound, deeply felt, or easy to change, than something that is viewed as “natural.” I consider “lesbian” to be a modern socially constructed category, but it is extremely important and real to me because it gives my life shape and meaning and enables me to find a community.
I am not arguing that we shouldn’t try and change the current binary heterosexualized gender order. It is incredibly oppressive and I believe that it can change, should change and is in the process of changing. I think we should be working towards a world in which gender attributes are no longer bound to biological sex, in which there are more than two options in terms of gender categories and in which no gender categories are ever policed with threats of violence and death.
‘The task of all these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself’ (Butler, Undoing Gender 8).**
Trouble is, that might be a little different for different people, depending on where they’re standing.
We have a problem with a clash between theory and lived reality here, because at the moment gender is powerfully linked to concepts of personhood. This goes for all of us – trans and non-trans. As the gender theorist Judith Butler notes, ‘Gender … figures as a precondition for the production and maintenance of legible humanity’ (Undoing 11). Occupying a coherent, relatively stable, recognisable gender identity can be a matter of life and death, because being intelligible in terms of your gender is tied to your worth as a human being. This is one reason why transfolk are killed simply for being identified as trans. If you slip into the category of the subhuman, your life is no longer considered valuable, or worth loving, or worth grieving when someone beats you to death in an alleyway. Off the radar, in terms of gender, is a very dangerous place to be when ‘the viability of our individual personhood is fundamentally dependent on these social norms’ (Butler, Undoing 2). It must be painful for transfolk to hear that their embodiments reify the gender binary when it seems that the rest of society would disagree with that proposition, and when working to make your gender presentation intelligible in terms of norms is not done from some nefarious desire to support gender oppression, but to gain as viable and as bearable a life as possible. Being loved, being recognised as human, being able to be part of a community, these things are vital to our sense of self worth as well as our personal safety
It is sometimes suggested that while transfolk should not be abused or denied the ability to transition, neither should they expect to be accepted into the recognisable gender categories because they are, in effect, a kind of third gender. Aside from the fact that most transpeople do not appear to feel that they occupy a third gender, no such category is currently available to people in western culture. In general, telling people they are not allowed to be the gender they feel themselves to be, and that they should live in some kind of liminal state is a terrible thing to say because no such option for a viable, loveable life is currently recognised in our society.
‘To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor’ (Butler, Undoing 30).
It is also suggested that transfolk should not go through with gender reassignment surgeries because doing so mutilates the body in the aim of supporting the binary gender system. Again, there is conflict here between life and theory. Living in an in-between state is incredibly difficult for all sorts of reasons. In my last job, I went to an older LGBT peoples’ network where the case of an older transwoman who needed full-time care was discussed. She had not had genital surgery but had lived as a woman for over 30 years and now she lay blocking a hospital bed. Every care home in the area had refused to take her in because they “couldn’t cope with it.” “It” the problem? Or “it” the individual?
There is certainly a critique to be levelled at the medical and psychiatric pressures put on transfolk in terms of gender performance (being bullied to be more masculine or feminine than they feel in order to get treatment) and in their being pushed to go through with surgeries when that might not be the best option for them, but transfolk have already been making these critiques themselves and should be supported in doing so. And, at the end of the day, we come back to what counts as a viable existence for a person in the here and now, which is ultimately all we have.
*This post has not been conceived as a contribution to internet “trans wars,” by the way, although it is obviously informed by them. Some of the arguments I’ve seen lately have just made me think a lot about gender and personhood, particularly two posts by feminist Avatar here and here.
**My thinking in this post has been influenced by Judith Butler in her chapter ‘Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy’ in her book Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). I have kept quoting to a minimum because I didn’t think many people would thank me for huge chunks of Butler, but for anyone who does like that sort of thing, you can go and read it yourselves.