Tuesday, 14 May 2013

More on Trans (vs.) Feminism.

The following is my own personal take on things. (I don't speak for anyone else.) The simplifications therein are for theoretical clarity; they do not (necessarily) describe every individual's complicated reality. Similarly, I've used the word "transgenderism" only because it was linguistically useful to do so. Trans people may agree on some things (sometimes), but really transgenderism doesn't exist as either an ideology or a movement.

I was hoping to get back to writing about femme, which I've neglected for quite a while in favour of trans, feminist and more general gender topics. But since I have been preoccupied by the latter topics lately, I felt the need to respond to a new article, ‘Who Owns Gender’, on the radical feminist website Trouble and Strife, which has been going the rounds:

Julie Bindel: “Brilliant analysis of the essentialism of transgender politics”.
Liz Kelly: “a thoughtful and clear discussion of what is at stake in recent debates on trans and radical feminism”.

In reply (to JB), I tweeted: “It misses the point entirely. Trans (in this context) is about *sex*, not gender. A trans person's *gender* might be anything.” And: “To put it another way: When we each talk about "gender" we don't mean the same thing. This is a conflict of language not politics.”

Because: No, it is not brilliant analysis. No, it is not a thoughtful and clear discussion. What the author (Delilah Campbell) has done is set out what she thinks trans politics are about and then proceed to censure them. This is typical straw man argument: “an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To ‘attack a straw man’ is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the ‘straw man’), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged, emotional issues.”

Personally, I'd dispute that we are in fact opponents, but in this type of article authors always assume that we are, that radical feminism and trans politics are completely at odds, and then set about a critique of the latter by applying ideas from the former. Whereas it would be far more productive to assume the reverse – that we're not at odds – and try to understand how the latter might be accommodated by the former. And that turns out to be not so very difficult. It only requires the acceptance of three basic axioms:

1) sex and gender are not the same;
2) cultural gender does not inherently correlate with binary sex;
3) transsexuality is about sex not gender.

I think we can probably agree on #1 and #2 straight away. #1 can also be applied to trans: i.e. transsexual is not the same as transgender. This is worth noting, since Campbell acknowledges differences in trans positions without appreciating how they mostly arise. As for #3, this comes with a crucial corollary:

3a) sex is a property of the mind, not the body.

In other words, our own sex is what we each know it to be and this is not dependent on any specific aspect of the body. This corollary might be difficult for some people to accept, but as I think it is the best way to make sense of these matters, please suspend disbelief for the moment and just allow that it is so. (To put it another way: for any morphological definition of sex there are always exceptions; transsexuality can be regarded as such an exception.)

The point is that if transsexuality is about sex (not gender), feminist critiques of gender are not threatened. They remain valid irrespective of whether someone is trans or not. In particular, problematic issues of "brain sex" (which Campbell highlights) simply disappear. Sexed brains already are different – microscopically in structure; more significantly in size, and how they sometimes light up under resonance imaging. But simple physical (or neurological) difference doesn't imply any difference in function or inherent capability. All attempts to infer gendered difference from sexed brains have been thoroughly debunked (as related in another article on site, linked to by the author: ‘Brain Wars’). Whether someone's brain is "trans-sexed" or not doesn't affect that debunking in any way.

Transgenderism, on the other hand, supports such critiques of neuroscience intrinsically, as it does axiom #2. By definition transgenderism is gender which runs contrary (in a cultural sense) to binary sex. It demonstrates that, despite the rigorous and constant efforts of the gender system (aka the patriarchy), gender cannot be forced into discrete binary boxes. That (gender) difference is a human quality, not one predicated by binary sex. That masculinity and femininity (however defined by the local gender system) are not essential properties of, respectively, men and women, but appear where they will in the human population as a whole.

The main disagreement between transgenderism and radical feminism is about what gender is and how each person's gender arises (as noted in my earlier post). Radical feminism proposes that gender is socially constructed. Transgenderism proposes that gender is also intrinsic (to some degree) but is forced along false and discrete binary paths by an oppressive gender system. Thus described, transgenderism hardly threatens feminism either. Feminist critiques of how and why binary gender is culturally maintained, feminist analysis of gender structure and power relations, again all remain valid.

So what are we actually arguing about? And why do trans activists (as the author rhetorically asks) direct so much ire at (some) radical feminists? Because radfems are always starting fights (her article being another case in point). And because many trans activists are feminists; this is our turf as well, and we'll fight battles over it. But these battles are never really about gender. They're always about the nature of trans. (The author was right the first time.) And we fight because you don't understand trans. You think you do, but – as her article shows yet again – you really really don't.

Footnotes (for Julie Bindel):

While I was writing this piece, JB tweeted me back: “why do they call it 'transgender' then?”
My quick response: “Just to be confusing ;) . No, it depends on context.”

The "confusing" part of that is a serious point (if flippantly made). As I said in my previous post, I think it would be helpful if we refrained from using the word "gender" altogether when we really mean "sex". As for the context part, "transgender" relates variously to:

1) the crossing of cultural gender lines;
2) a political coalition of people who cross – or appear to cross – cultural gender lines;
3) transsexuality – a linguistic confusion arising from a colloquial interchanging of the words "sex" and "gender".

Note, too, that the trans prefix describes sex and gender within the prevailing gender system. From a radical feminist perspective "trans" doesn't actually exist at all. Transgender doesn't exist because the gender lines that trans supposedly crosses are a false construction of the patriarchy. While if a trans person's declared sex is (regarded as) their true sex (see corollary 3a) and not "crossed" over from anywhere, then the trans part of transsexuality doesn't exist either.

Speaking personally: I am transgender within contexts #1 and #2. But ultimately I don't see myself as trans, because I regard my "femininity" (my supposed gender crossing) as perfectly valid for my sex (male). It is only the gender system that falsely (and oppressively) equates "femininity" with "femaleness" (and vice versa).

Two final things:

1. All this is but a framework in which trans matters might be understood from a radical feminist perspective. It isn't (necessarily) how each and every trans person understands themselves.

2. The corollary (3a) is very important. The actual truth of it is unproven, but you can't understand trans – and transsexuality in particular – unless you accept that it might be true, or at least that it is true for us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan

    A really interesting blog. Would you be interested in writing a guest blog for a charity?

    I work for Link Up (UK), a new registered charity founded to offer a unique approach to dealing with issues of prejudice, community and belonging. Our flagship project is the Great British Community website; a space where we challenge misconceptions and break down stereotypes.

    At the end of every month we publish guest blogs and we would be grateful if you could write one of these blogs for Link Up (UK) on the subject of sexuality. You could break down myths, write on personal opinions and/or experiences. Ideally, we try to have drafts before the end of the month. I understand you are very busy, but if you have the time a piece from yourself will be very much appreciated.

    I can be contacted via email: natashaholder007@gmail.com or by telephone: 0207 928 7585. Our website is http://thegreatbritishcommunity.com/; you can take a look at our aims, supporters, articles, infographics and previous guest blogs. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Kind regards

    Natasha Holder