Monday, 29 April 2013

Twenty-One Questions.

No, this isn't an addendum to my earlier ‘Eight Questions’, nor to Laurie Penny's 26 Questions. ‘Twenty-One questions’ is a series by musician, writer and activist CN Lester on trans issues, with answers from a varied panel comprising Natacha Kennedy, Maeve, Roz Kaveney, Naith Payton, and CN themself.

CN relates the impetus for this series as follows:

So, back in January I asked my cis readers if they had any questions about trans issues they’d like answering – I’ve collected the responses into just over 20 questions, which will be answered at length one question per day. Personally, I’d seen an outpouring of support from cis people in the wake of Julie Burchill’s vile diatribe in The Observer. I’m not the only trans person to have seen it again, following the terrible news of Lucy Meadows' death and the exposure of the mauling she had suffered at the hands of the press. I don’t believe that we can expect people to know more, to engage more, without being willing to reach out in conversation – and I like to think that genuine questions deserve genuine answers. So, in the hope that this will prove helpful – here are my lovely panel (thank you so much) and their answers.

I was going to give a run down of the questions (with links), but CN has already done that in this post (which also includes brief bios of the panellists). So I'll just flag the question that most interested me personally:

Question Eighteen: What kinds of meanings are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

I’d like to hear some different opinions on the meanings of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. With an awareness of them being cultural labels as well as linguistic ones, I still find it difficult to pin them down. I *thought* gender was in the head, and sex was in the body, and “trans” meant changing that. However, if one was born with a sex (body) that didn’t match gender (head) how is the gender changing at all? Does transgender rather mean *perceived* gender is changing/has changed? Are the terms in fact synonymous and I am looking too etymologically at them rather than semantically? If a person wears the label transgender or transsexual, is there something specific that they are trying to tell me about themselves that I am missing, because I have difficulty distinguishing the meanings of the words? I have discussed this with my partner (who wears the label transsexual herself) and we both just get more and more confused the more we discuss it. Some more opinions would be very helpful. Also, I have recently heard the term “of trans history” a few times, and wondered if this has yet another meaning. Is it all just a matter of preference?

A convoluted question indeed – and the gist of the answers was:

Roz: Pretty much – you seem to be getting it.
Natacha: The answer to this depends on who you talk to.
CN: ‘more and more confused the more we discuss it’ – I think that just about covers it!

Quite so – and that's especially true when language is rapidly and constantly changing. And yet, if the meaning of the words we're using is not clear, it becomes very difficult to communicate, and misunderstandings and arguments arise. In particular, the lack of agreement on what we each mean by the (deceptively simple) words "sex" and "gender" is, I think, at the heart of the conflict between (aspects of) trans/queer theory and radical feminism (highlighted in my previous post). For instance, to lay claim to "gender identity" as an indicator of (binary) sex, when radical feminism regards gender as an entirely false (and oppressive) social construct, is to head into pitched battle straightaway.

And I wonder whether these arguments might be avoided by simply changing our language: such that, if and when trans people really mean sex, we just say "sex" and leave the confusing word "gender" to be considered and discussed separately. It was this position that prompted my own response in the comments:

Rather than gender being in the head and sex in the body, with "trans" indicating a conflict between gender and sex, I much prefer Julia Serano's idea of sex being in the head (i.e. our sex is what we each know it to be; "subconscious sex") with "trans" (in this context) indicating a conflict between sex and morphology (the apparent sex of the body). This leaves (the idea of) a person's gender free (though often intertwined) to be whatever it is, irrespective of sex – for instance, femaleness (sex; whether cis or trans) and masculinity (gender) in one person is not necessarily a conflict (or "trans") at all, except culturally (within patriarchy); and gender expression (how we choose to express our gender) is something separate again.

What do you reckon?


  1. How do we know that our head has got it right about our sex? xx

  2. An interesting question, Deb. I was just going to say: "How does anyone know?"

    But now I'm wondering... Are "don't know" or "not sure" valid positions? Or "don't care"? Can we refuse to be sexed altogether? Is sex a necessary and definitive property of every human individual?

    Hmmm :)

  3. We can define ourselves how we like. There may be a limit to how reasonable it is to demand everyone else to accept our self-identifications. xx