Born This Way (Reprise): The New Essentialism

Okay… this is long…

So let’s start with me making some, perhaps entirely groundless, assumptions that we’re already on the same page about some stuff.

Like how the debate between a bio-essentialist “evolved behaviours” view of gender and sex, and the social-constructivist “blank slate” view of gender and sex, is a harmful false dichotomy, that presents a lose-lose choice for anyone who needs or wants actual, lived transgender experiences, in all their diversity, actually accounted for in whatever theoretical framework of gender and sex they sign on for. Or at least wants them accounted for without a lot of bizarre mental gymnastics and convoluted, flimsy theories.

Okay. Agree? Cool.

And how there’s more than one kind of gender-essentialism. There’s the obvious binary, bio-essentialist view, where most or all observed behavioural differences between men and women are “evolved”, and the definition of the terms “man” and “woman” is based on a simplistic “biological” distinction (penises and motive gametes and XY = male, vaginas and ova and XX = female, and everything else is either a disorder, or simply “cosmetic” and not “biological” or ‘scientific”), but a gender-essentialism is any theoretical framework that ultimately boils down to saying men are men and manhood is an inherent, essential quality of such people, and women are women and womhood is an inherent, essential quality of that category of people, and there are other kinds of gender-essentialisms.

For instance, you can have an essentialist version of the “social construct” view. And this actually pops up a lot in some of the justifications some cis feminists provide for trans-exclusionist policies or attitudes. This is where you state that socialization is the root cause of maleness or femaleness, but it nonetheless defines you, and “man” or “woman” is still an inherent, essential quality of the person, that isn’t fluid or contextual, and cannot be transcended or complicated. In this view, if you were raised and socialized as a man, that is what you are, and what you always will be, all other considerations not being relevant.

There are also theological or spiritual essentialisms, like where an Abrahamic God ordered the world into a division of gender and sex, ordains certain roles and behaviours for those sexes, and being a man or a woman is an immutable aspect of yourself that was God’s will, and any beliefs, identities or behaviours contradicting this divine order are simply mortal folly. Or where men and women are respectively two different aspects of a cosmic “balance” of complimentary “energies”, fitting into a cosmic order of other “opposites” like sun and moon, reason and emotion, order and chaos, light and darkness, aggression and passivity, science and art, Apollo and Diana, etc. Or where men and women exude male or female “energies” or “auras”, and only one or the other is capable of performing certain kinds of magic.

And lots of other gender-essentialisms. Gender-essentialism isn’t just an overly rigid, biological view in which gender is a behavioural consequence of (binary, dimorphic) sex. Gender-essentialism is any view based on the idea that being a “man” or a “woman” is an innate, inherent, essential trait of a person. Gender-essentialism needn’t even be necessarily binary.

Okay. Agree? Cool!

So… the framework of “gender identity”, where the quality of being a man or a woman is based on subjective experience of your body and sex, subjective experience of gender roles, and how you identify within them, is the best approach, and totally better than all these other frameworks, right?

Agree? Actually… not okay. Not cool. [Read more...]

Five Ways Cis Feminists Can Help Build Trans Inclusivity And Intersectionality

The title kind of says it all, I guess.

Lately, I’ve come to notice a kind of annoying trend amongst many cis feminists who profess themselves as allies to trans people and trans-feminism. Far too many such allies (I think “ally”, like “social justice”, is a term that I no longer consider benign, and have come to regard as a bit of a red flag) seem to take an approach whereby they implicitly (though perhaps unconsciously and unknowingly) treat feminism’s ongoing issues with cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism and transphobia as being trans people’s job and responsibility to solve. As though the onus is on us, the victims of feminism’s tendency towards privileging the needs of cis women, to “solve” the problem and make it right, rather than the responsibility of cis feminists themselves to, you know… not do that shit in the first place.

It’s never the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to end it. In fact, oppression operates in exactly such a way that even if it were the victims’ responsibility to end oppression, they wouldn’t be empowered to do so. The obligation (and power) always rests on the shoulders of the oppressor and those privileged by the oppression to end it. The victims may fight against their oppression, sure, but the oppressors’ responsibility isn’t simply “don’t fight back”; it is also “fight on the side of the victims”.

It’s also not the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to educate their oppressor as to how to not be an oppressor. That said, I’ve decided to opt to offer some suggestions as to how cis feminists who are interested in ultimately creating a trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism can help do so (cis feminists whose interest in this is hopefully not motivated by cookies or the ability to claim ally status, but instead because it’s the right thing to do and, as the saying goes, “my feminism will be intersectonal or it will be bullshit.”)

So, if you’re more keen for intersectional feminism than you are for bullshit feminism, it’s time to stop sitting around waiting for trans feminists to make everything better. It’s time to engage yourself, and here are some pretty simple, easily-applicable starting points. [Read more...]

Transition As Transaction: “Passing” And The Commodification Of Womanhood

Very early in the film Transamerica, the trans woman protagonist, Bree, is seen practicing along to a “Finding Your Female Voice” video, from Deep Stealth Productions. Deep Stealth is partly owned and operated by Andrea James, who acted as a consultant for the film.

I’ve never been quite able to shake the sense of this as being far more an act of commercial product placement than an attempt at verisimilitude and accurate representation of trans women’s experiences. [Read more...]

The Eunuch, The Rapist, The Whore And The Child Who Simply Knew

(trigger warning for transphobic slurs)

A few days ago I woke up to read an almost hilariously transphobic article on tv.com reviewing a recent episode of the HBO (or Showtime or AMC or whatever… one of those channels adored by critics and people who shop at Whole Foods) series Sons of Anarchy that prominently featured a transsexual (or transvestite? Or drag queen? It really wasn’t very clear) character in a comedic tilt. The review was painful, shocking and strangely distancing in just how overt and aggressive the transphobia therein was. The writer had absolutely no compunctions about addressing the character almost exclusively by slurs (“shemale” was even in the title), and made no effort whatsoever to conceal just how hilarious and zany and wacky and kinky he found the very concept of a trans woman.

This was mostly just the usual kind of depressing bigotry and ignorance I find whenever I engage our culture, but shortly later there was something that occurred to me I found interesting, and allowed me an opportunity to reexamine some mistaken assumptions I’d made about the way trans women’s sexuality is policed, erased or subjugated in cis-patriarchy. Mistaken assumptions about the basic roles we’re forced into in cis perceptions. The character was being simultaneously positioned within both the “tranny rapist” AND “tranny whore” roles. And she wasn’t simply being swapped from one of those pre-packaged concepts to another, but occupying both in the same liminal space.

What interested me about this was how I’d previously regarded the various roles we occupy (analogous to the “maddonna”/”whore”/”virgin” dynamic forced onto women) as being discrete concepts. Discrete means by which a given trans character or archetype is constructed, and discretely simplified, fantasy identities projected onto the complexity of actual trans human beings. That was a mistake. [Read more...]

Bizarro World

“If the catacombs were good enough for the early Christians, then I can survive Obama’s America”

An increasingly common narrative amongst the contemporary American evangelical movement is that of the persecuted Christians. Good men and women whose religious rights are increasingly trampled by a dominant secular, atheist, liberal majority who are trying to bend and subvert their beliefs to their amoral godlessness. The questions of gay marriage or birth control or abortion aren’t matters of protecting the human rights of those with same-sex attractions or the reproductive rights of women, but instead an instance of violating the religious rights of Christians, one of which is apparently the “right” to impose one’s own moral doctrine on everyone else, and to force one’s particular religious ethics into public space and law. [Read more...]

Defining Gender In Sport

Given that the dreaded Olympics have once again cast their dark cloud over us, raining fire and nationalism as the rivers run red with the blood of those who blaspheme the sanctity of LOCOG, I thought the timing was right to have a bit of a discussion about the issue of how gender and sex are determined and defined in relation to sports, and the segregation of athletes into female or male competitions. [Read more...]

Fourth Wave: Part Five

Recently, I was reading a little post over on Lousy Canuck in which Jason referred to the Fourth Wave concept. He made the assertion that, in his perspective, Fourth Wave is where we, as feminists, now are. Something about this didn’t sit well with me at all.

I don’t claim the right to define what feminism, or trans-feminism, or fourth-wave, or anything, is “supposed” to mean to anyone else. Even whatever ideas I myself present are no longer my own the second I click the publish button. At that point, those ideas belong to whomever may find them, to interpret in whatever ways they find useful. It’s only in allowing things that kind of breathing room to be interpreted and reinterpreted, collectively or individually, that they have the power to move conversations forward, or create new meaningful conversations. However, I feel like the idea of fourth wave as “where we are now”, and the way that feels not-quite-right to me, itself offers an opening for important conversations.

Fourth wave is, for me and for many of my colleagues, very fundamentally a work-in-progress. Something we’re trying to arrive at. It’s also, almost by definition, not where we, as vague or precise a “we” as you’d like, have just naturally ended up. The whole concept of a “fourth wave” is necessitated precisely because feminism has hit certain very difficult, very stubborn stumbling blocks. It’s necessitated because we’re not moving past certain things simply as part of the natural evolution of feminism thought. It’s necessitated because we need to make a very decisive and intentional split with certain concepts that are holding feminism back. If fourth wave were simply where feminism arrived of its own accord, there would be no real need for any such concept or action in the first place. [Read more...]

Fourth Wave: Part Four

One of the most lovely aspects of the internet, one of those that has most consistently lived up to the somewhat utopian visions the medium’s emergence promised, has been its capacity to offer a highly democratic, highly populist form of media, information exchange, communication and community.

In a recent “tranchat” (a twitter-based discussion that occurs each Sunday), the topic came up of the tension in feminism between theory or academia, and “real life” issues, everyday praxis, the street level experiences that feminism suggests the capacity to speak to, of, about. It occurred to me, though, that this tension seems much less prevalent and noticeable concerning trans-feminism. Trans-feminism has, thus far, not been a product of academia, nor is it even really practiced there… at least not in any form even remotely resembling the trans-feminism which I’m involved in and accustomed to. Trans voices are not exactly welcomed and embraced within academia, and the experiences of trans people in that milieu, students and faculty alike, are markedly different than those expressing or embodying other queer identities (totes not in a good way, either). Rather than us being the speakers in academia, we are the objects of study. Rather than theorists, we’re something the theorists struggle to explain.

Like other activist movements built from minorities (or ideological minorities) that had previously been scattered, isolated from one another in circumstantial diaspora, with very little access to information, community, publication, media, connection or infrastructure with which to organize, trans-feminism has been overwhelmingly a product of the internet. The internet in general has had an immense influence on trans people and our capacity to even exist, turning what had once been something often impossibly remote and difficult to understand, with intense limitations on who could or could not access the resources to make into a reality, into something that is far far more of a genuine, tangible possibility for those who need it. But beyond simply making our lives so much more livable, and our needs so much more attainable, and our identities and experiences so much more comprehensible, it is has also given us the capacity to find one another, communicate, and organize.

This was the spirit and media in which trans-feminism was born… isolated individuals who had been intensely marginalized from the dominant media and narratives reaching out to one another through the means that were available. It has not been something handed down from “community leaders” to “the people”, but instead something that emerged collectively. In this sense, it feels like those theory / praxis, academia / “real life” tensions aren’t as important for us. Or at least, that we have the opportunity to avoid them becoming important or meaningful. If we do this right, those tensions shouldn’t have to exist, shouldn’t have to feel at all relevant or worth talking about. If we do this right, we will always be a discourse that emerged from and between the people it speaks of, not ever having to position academics, theorists, experts or leaders to speak on our behalf. It’s a pretty awesome thing. [Read more...]

Signifying Gender

Language has for a long time been one of my big passionate interests. In addition to simply feeling an intuitive draw to it, intellectually, it also strikes me as one of, if not the, most distinct feature of human beings. It and semiotic systems in general, anyway. Lots of animals can use tools, but only human beings can pass that knowledge and innovation along, and build upon it across generations, such that we don’t need to quite literally reinvent the wheel every time we wish to roll something. Lots of animals have societies, but only human beings can record and share those social structures, adapt them into and through signs and messages and rituals and myths, build them into a culture.

Language and semiotics are, perhaps, what makes us human.

I’m drawn to it, to learning about it, to thinking about it. I love its hidden structures. I love its relativity. How much it means despite being so arbitrary and nonsensical in what is “really” there (squiggles and tongues and teeth and pixels and paper). I love its fluidity. I love its breadth. I love how it is both social and yet intrinsic, both structured and emergent, both arbitrary and indispensable, both mutable and inevitable. And in all those contradictions and paradoxes of language, I never really feel lost. It always ultimately makes sense to me. The contradictions always balance out. [Read more...]