Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How Not To Have A Conversation

Greetings, ducks! In today's Adventures in Google Reader, we have some examples of Talkin' About Teh Tranz! (Wait, Cat, isn't this supposed to be Back To Feminism Week at TSA? To which I reply: hold yer horses, ducks! Wait 'n see!)

First, let us visit Feministe. Now, you may not realize this, but Feministe is indirectly responsible for the very existence of The Second Awakening. That's because back during my recovery from surgery, when I was beginning to actively avoid trans stuff in favor of reading feminist blogs, I came across this sh*tstorm there. (If you follow the link, you can also see the stuff I was reading at Feministing at the same time--plus BitchPhD's stupid joke. It was a grand old time to be a trans feminist.)

Feministe has taken that time seriously, much to their credit, and they've recently had the fabulous Queen Emily of Questioning Transphobia (one of the best of the trans blogs out there.) Q.E. did her usual bang up job. The comments thread, sadly, was a big ol' bundle of FAIL:

If there was a pill a person could take that would “cure” transexuality, would trans people take it (even without social pressure to do so)?

Is it transphobic if a cis person will not date a trans?

I’m a college student currently taking a Gender in Humanities course and have been assigned a project to find websites that discuss controversial topics, with which I can comment and converse with lots of people.

So nice to see that a blog post that was specifically requested in order to combat a recent history of people cluelessly mystifying trans people in comments threads...we had people cluelessly mystifying and othering trans people. Sigh. Or to quote bell hooks:

I did not feel sympathetic to white peers who maintained that I could not
expect them to have knowledge of or understand the life experiences of black women. Despite my background (living in racially segregated communities) I knew about the lives of white women, and certainly no white women lived in our neighborhoods, attended our schools, or worked in our homes.

(Theres going to be a big bell hooks-loving post one of these days, soon.)

At least we didn't get into the "cis" discussion, the great hobgoblin of mainline feminist blogs' comments threads. ("Cis" is used as the opposite of "trans", i.e. a cisgendered person is someone who doesn't feel the persistent discomfort with their gender a trans person feels--but it's not exactly hard to find that out.) I don't use the word cisgendered here a lot--sorry, I just don't think the Latin is all that well used in this case--but it's without a doubt very useful for trans people who are trying not to be perpetual others. Well, most trans people:

"Cis" is not an attempt to "decentralize the dominant group". It is an
attempt, a blatant attempt, at redefining an entire conversation so that it can't stray into areas that might be uncomfortable. It's being able to cry about "cis privilege"; it is not about leveling the linguistic playing field.

Any civil rights cause needs articulate, reasoned argument. It needs impassioned speech, and it demands a proper feeling of being oppressed. It doesn't need people saying that they are "oppressed" because women talk about some exclusively feminine issue, and they, as a trans woman, don't, can't, have that same experience. The debate about trans discrimination does not need the unwanted, unwarranted, imposition of a prefix onto those who are not transgender.

(Disclaimer: I used to know C-A personally, although I don't remember him--he prefers male pronouns--as being such a transphobic wanker back then.)

Well, now. I suppose if I don't mind being perpetually othered--if I don't mind perpetually having to to put my history on display--if I don't think that there might be some, oh, I don't know, privilege attached to the idea that one gender history doesn't need a prefix and one does, I might agree with Carolyn Ann. (And seriously: WTF is this about "exclusively feminine" things? In the comments, it turns out that this is--wait for it--periods! If you've ever felt "not so fresh," then you qualify for a "Get out of cisgender FOR FREE" card!)

C-A provides a great example of how to talk past people, play fast and loose with your own definitions (using "Orwellian" to describe how people try to recast language to avoid their own oppression is pretty....Orwellian), and in general, not check your privilege. I've come to expect this sort of thing from the allmighty Google Reader--but then, comes something like this incredibly reasoned exchange, where sharply divergent points of view about the use of "Cis" manage to remain mostly respectful:


I don’t describe myself as being “cisgendered” every day, but I realize that the term describes what I am and so I’m happy to claim it. I was born with female organs, I’m comfortable with being called a woman, I appear reasonably feminine despite my incompetence with nail polish, and so I don’t experience any dissonance between my anatomy, my gender presentation, and the way the world views me. That’s a big ole privilege.


My rejection of the adjective “cisgendered” stems from a belief that sex/gender is socially constructed. I don’t identify with the cis/trans binary because it reifies “gender” (masculinity/femininity) and transforms it into a biological property rather than a political construct. If you can explain to me why such a position is “transphobic”, I’d be very much obliged.

So of course I had to jump in (yes, ducks! A double post-within-a-post!):

I’m not exactly sure how rejecting “cis” isn’t in fact an excercise in privilege–that is, it allows the continual “othering” of trans people, i.e. “non-trans” is normal, “trans” is different. (Redmegaera quotes de Beauvoir, but the whole theme of “Le deuxième sexe” was how “man” is constructed as normal, default, and “woman” as permanent and irredeemably “Other.” So I’m not sure how you can use de Beauvoir to justify othering someone.)

Nor does it necessarily destroy other axes of oppression/privilege to acknowledge that another one exists.

As for the biological/social construction of gender: surely nowadays we can agree that this is not an either/or issue? The tragic case of David Reimer would seem to strongly argue that neither nature nor nurture completely explains internal gender identification. (A precis: Only a few days old, David’s penis was accidentally destroyed while undergoing circumcision. Following the advice of John Money, one of the leading advocates of “gender as social construct” theories, David was raised as a girl, Brenda. However, despite the positive reports Money published, “Brenda” never felt comfortable as a girl and continually rejected his imposed gender–even though his parents never told him about the accident, even though to teachers, friends, twin brother, etc., he was always and only a girl. After years of being suicidal and maladjusted, “Brenda” became David after his parents finally told him about the accident.)

This is why I and other trans people find construction of our transitions as cosmetic” (or a “harmful social practice”) so frustrating, and, well, insulting. It silences our voices, it implies that what we do to our bodies is somehow wrong
(isn’t control of your own body a feminist issue?) and it in general enforces heirarchical constructs based on dualisms that non-trans people would reject
having imposed upon themselves. If I am to fight against slut-shaming, abortion-shaming, body-image shaming (as I do) because I believe these are egregious impositions upon a person’s dignity by heirarchical society, why am I supposed to sit in the corner and be quiet when people do the same to me as a trans woman?

It’s the same when people use the language of trans/any oppressed group to describe a form of their own oppression; it creates the very false equivalency that Redmegaera opposes. For example, I’ve suffered both gender dysphoria and body-shaming for being female; and while they both feed similar anxieties, they are not same, do not stem from the same causes, and are experienced in quite different ways by myself. (I’ll hasten to add that I would also not claim that my own experience of having my body shamed is the same as a woman who was raised female and thus had those ideas inflicted upon her at a younger age.) Colonization of other people’s experiences is not liberation.

I’m all for discussions of privilege. I acknowledge freely the privilege I accumulated before I transitioned; I talk about it all the time on my blog, as do many of the trans feminists I know. Often we use it as a way to open up examinations of the invisible privileges that bind us all inside the insiduous system of kyriarchy. Hell, my own feminism would approach radicalism, if it weren’t for the fact that most radical feminists won’t have anything to do with me.

It does not dimish the reality of sexism and male oppression of women to note that other forms of oppression exist, or even to note that sometimes the other forms of oppression are more oppressive and urgent; but that’s what radical reduction of all issues into a sexist template does. As bell hooks says,

Sexist oppression of is primary importance not because it is the basis of all other oppression, but because it is the practice of domination most people experience, whether their role be that of discriminator or discriminated against, exploiter or exploited. It is the practice of domination most people are socialized to accept before they even know that other forms of group oppression exist. This does not mean that eradicating sexist oppression would eliminate other forms of oppression. Since all forms of oppression are linked in our society because they are supported by similar institutional and social structures, one system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact.

Othering isn’t liberation. Silencing isn’t liberation. Imposing your own description on people isn’t liberation. Normalizing your own condition isn’t liberation.

Or more pragmatically, why is it, when so many trans feminists are working against the same issues cis feminists work against, that we get left out in the cold so often by those same cis people?

(I did mention I'm really loving bell hooks, right? In fact, I'm off to read more of her stuff. Keep it classy til I get back!)


  1. Hm. Doesn't Redmegaera's argument also implicitly assume that by definition "socially constructed" = "not real"? I mean, in my view, the content of gender roles, if not the entirety of gender identity (I hadn't know about the Reimer case — thanks for the link!) is certainly a social construct, but that doesn't mean it isn't a real thing that really affects real people in their real lives, and that social construct has a binary (or at least bimodal) structure.

    You can (and I think it's correct to!) reject the fundamental validity of that structure, but denying that it exists, let alone claiming that since you deny it exists, your insistence on leaving the unmarked category unmarked somehow doesn't constitute reinforcement of that structure, seems...implausible.

  2. "Only a few days old…"
    A small point - David Reimer was 8 months old at the time of his circumcision, and 22 months old by the time his parents accepted John Money's advice (Money believed gender identity was sufficiently plastic to allow reassignment until 30 months).

    As I recall (I don't have the reference to hand), a lit review published after the Reimer story became public, found a number of similar cases of very early gender reassignment in non-intersexed children, of which about half did well in their assigned sex, and about half did not.

  3. Thanks for the correction--was working without notes here, eek.

    I remember hearing about the other cases, though given the history of Money's outright falsification of data in this case, I'd cast a pretty skeptical eye at them, especially without knowing any other details about them.

  4. Awesome post.

    I just caught up with BitchPhDTransFail a few weeks ago. Sadly, I'm not really surprised. I stopped reading her for a reason (mostly because I got tired of the "Yes, I'm a white feminist with white privilege. Guilty, weeping me. Oh well. End of discussion." posts).

    It's interesting to see how some cis people reject being labeled as such. It's definitely a sign of our privilege-- benefiting from a status so societally normalized that only the Exceptional Other need be named outright. Sheesh. If you ever get a chance to read Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, there's a study in there which mentions the propensity of some white survey participants to refuse a racial/ethnic label altogether, even to the point of becoming upset by the suggestion. Again-- privilege. Why go out of our way to label the ubiquitous, the "normal?"

    I'm curious as to exactly what the hell a radical feminist is, if anyone would care to enlighten me. I have to admit that I've seen the term mentioned mostly only in conversations about transphobia, and I didn't like the term "radical" as it kind of elicits notions of some kind of pure feminism. I dunno. I don't want to think that the purest or more radical form of feminism is by definition anti-transfolk. :/

    I’ll hasten to add that I would also not claim that my own experience of having my body shamed is the same as a woman who was raised female and thus had those ideas inflicted upon her at a younger age.

    I'm glad you mentioned this. I'm going to admit that when discussions of female cis privilege turn to my relative freedom to engage in certain female-only beautification rituals...I squirm a little. I've got some history and some issues that cause me to take up the whole hyper-femme maintenance thing to another level, and a lot of those activities aren't things I find particularly liberating. So sometimes it's hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who's been denied the chance to engage in them *willingly*. Not sure if I'm making any sense here.

    Anyway, thanks again for this post. :) As usual, you've got me thinking...