I think Ian Cromwell (www.crommunist.com, formerly of this very blogging nexus) has made some very cogent analyses of race that can, mutatis mutandis, be appropriated to gender analysis with respect to gender identity and gender expression. To paraphrase Ian, race is a social construct, and as such is equal parts ‘how one sees oneself’ and ‘how one is seen by everyone else’. (There is more involved, to be sure, but Ian’s archives are free for the perusal of the curious.)
Similarly, I think gender can be described as a confluence of ‘how one sees oneself’ and ‘how one is seen by everyone else’. Ophelia, MrFancyPants, and I are more-or-less comfortable with the gross dynamics of how we’re seen by ‘everyone else’ in regards to our genders, though indeed we all have some very strong disagreements of the specific assumptions that come along with that assignation. None of the three of us particularly identify with being men or women very strongly, in the same way that Ophelia and I don’t particularly identify with being white people. We understand that that is how we fall under the social classification system, we acknowledge it, and we don’t feel misidentified when other people look at us and say ‘Oh, there goes a [woman/man/white person]’. (Of course I’m being a bit presumptive, but I think it’s a fairly safe presumption, given my familiarity with Ophelia’s archive; I’m open to correction.)
Indeed, this is the very definition of what it means to be cisgender: when society (aka ‘everyone else’) looks at us and shoves us into a box, we do not grumble about the label on the lid of the box. We don’t feel a fundamental wrongness with the overall shape of the box. We could take or leave it, really. For many people like us (and, indeed, for the three specific people I’ve named here, including myself), we might disagree with the colour of the box, or with some of the other items that get shoved into the box along with us that we’re expected to contort ourselves to accommodate, but the box itself isn’t the issue.
For transgender people, however, the box is very much the issue. When they get shoved into their box, they cannot recognise the shape that it contorts them into. Or, more analytically and less analogously, their self-identification does not match with how ‘everyone else’ identifies them. And, when you know that EVERYONE ELSE is wrong about you in such a fundamental way, when you feel it in the marrow of your bones, it is very, very tempting to build up mental systems wherein your own perception of yourself is the only valid and acceptable perception. The seeming alternative is self-invalidation and self-alienation, wherein you try to conform to the society’s identification of you instead of the truth you know about yourself…and I don’t need to spell out how that tends to work out, I hope.
Currently, some transgender people are staking the claim that their own perception is the only one that should matter in the social construct of gender. To descend into analogy again, they are climbing out of the boxes that other people have shoved them into and are crawling into boxes that they feel more comfortable in. The more comfortable boxes are very important to their self-identity, and their broader mental and emotional health.
One of the goals of modern feminist critique, as I understand (and attempt, in my own inept way, to practice) it, is to liberate everyone from the necessity for the (gendered) boxes entirely. To build a world in which the only relevant box is ‘human’ or even, perhaps, ‘sentient creature’, into which more-or-less everyone should be able to find a corner that fits them well without causing anyone else harm. A world in which people are ‘just folks’, where there isn’t a such thing as ‘people’ as opposed to ‘female people’. The more proximate goal is to make all of the individual boxes more accommodating, looser, so that each person in their own box has freedom to shift around without being packed so tightly by all of the objects (read: gendered expectations) that are also shoved into the box with them. To someone with such goals, the fact that someone else wants to crawl into a box, with all its constricting objects, can be somewhat incomprehensible.
Contrariwise, to someone who’s spent their whole life railing against the confines of their box, it can feel like any criticism of their decision to find a more personally-accommodating box is the same as saying ‘Your ill-fitting box shouldn’t bother you so much! In fact, you should stay in it and make it fit you better, and help all of us eventually destroy the boxes!’ Even if that isn’t what the critic is implying, or even intending to imply. Even worse is the all-too-frequent ‘You aren’t even in the box you think you’re in; you’ve just redecorated your own box, badly, into a parody of what our box is supposed to look like.’
After enough time having to battle those kinds of perceptions, of having your own self-identification invalidated by (almost) everybody, it is not surprising that so many transgender people are not only claiming the fact of their boxes, but championing them, and using what few means are at their disposal to try and reframe the narrative to support their self-identification. At the same time, this seems like an invalidation of literally centuries of work that have gone into deconstructing gender roles.
The boxes need to be destroyed, but that is going to take a lot of hard, long, slogging work. In the doing of that work, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the boxes still exist, and must be made as comfortable as possible for as long as that’s true. I hope there is a way to unite the seemingly-disparate goals of gender critique and transgender activism. Both goals are worthy, and necessary, and I firmly believe the conflicts within them are mainly topical and surmountable.
Trans people are people. One day, “people” will have to be enough for the lot of us. Until then, though, we’ve got a lot of work to do.