Appearances can be deceiving

This started out as a response to comments by Monika, Zelda and particularly Elizabeth’s concern–on the PAR-L list–about the “confusion and contradiction” regarding the “reductive, and of course, essential” aspect of sexual orientation. It started out there, but ended up somewhere else.

The first thing I want to point out is what Stephen Whittle, the current president of the World Professional Association on Transgender Health (WPATH) has said:

I don’t care whether I was ‘born this way’ or ‘became this way’. The question of the ‘gay gene’ or the ‘tranny brain’ is a potentially frightening route to another eugenics programme to destroy the brilliance of difference in the world, and the sooner we reject these projects the better.

I would gloss Whittle’s comment by saying in our culture/society if there is a cause there is a cure; I don’t want to be cured, either

In the history of the evolution of this terminology, where we have, since about the end of the 19th century, been using terms that became gay and lesbian, and from about early 20th century, we have been using terms that have become transvestite, transgender and transsexual, before that time there were people of/about whom we might be tempted to use these terms in the strict demarcations they now have between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression but it would be incorrect to do so. We cannot retrospectively use modern terms; we cannot project our identities back in time.

From my contact with young people, I suspect they may be going back to something like this.

An historical example–before the elaboration of modern terminology–two women are in a relationship, but because they are women there are probably no records of the most important part of their relationship, what they thought of themselves, each other and their relationship itself.

We could, of course, define their relationship by their anatomy, without regard to their self-identification, whatever that might be–it would be easier and support certain political claims of arguments of identity politics.

But for the moment, at least, I would like to leave this question open.

As well as the question whether there is any connection between GLB and T–which arises in the course of the historical evolution of terminology and certain political claims of arguments of identity politics which both reflect and shape historical reality.

This is by way of a response to Elizabeth’s assertion that sexuality is socially constructed. I might well accept the position that sexuality and transgender identities are socially constructed but I strongly contest that transsexual identities are socially constructed.

(It is from here my post to PAR-L continues.)

In any discussion of social construction it is difficult not to mention Judith Butler, especially in relation to both gay and lesbian identities, and transgender identities. I’m not the first but I reserve for myself an emphatic refutation of equating transgender identities with transsexual identities.

This is, I believe, an unfortunate and widespread category error that simply repudiates and erases the everyday/night lives, struggles and needs of transsexual people, particularly transsexual women.

In reading Gender Trouble, now almost 20 years old, one receives the strongest impression Butler was arguing gay and lesbian people, particularly lesbians, are a kind of third sex. This is curious to me in that this attribution, in more recent years, seems exclusive to transsexual people–and in some way connected to our repudiation.

Much more recently, on the Egale Canada email list, in vigorous debate around this matter, one salient point was illuminated: the gay and lesbian people on that list do not accept they are a third sex. One gay man described himself not less a man in sex with men, but, on the contrary, hypermasculine. No lesbian was equally emphatic but the clear message is they are, as Egale Canada and Canadians for Equal Marriage have argued, just the same as heterosexual people, except for what they do in bed and who they do it with.

Now, Egale Canada is open to much criticism from the perspectives of race and class, among others–as I, among others, have quite vigorously done–but it does represent a position that cannot be ignored.

Pichler has asserted that transsexual advocates argue it is about gender. He has simply made the usual category error of subsuming “sex-changing” transsexual people into “gender-changing” transgender people.

I assert I have not changed my sex, merely affirmed it, even though my appearance, over time, seems to support the contention I have merely changed  my gender.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Which brings me back to Butler.

In her essay on the tragic life of David Reimer–Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality, originally published about 10 years after Gender Trouble–Butler uses Reimer to illustrate her central contention: we are inscribed by the Law of the Father/ the Semiotic/the Symbolic; that we have no existence, ontologically or linguistically, before or after this inscription. This is how the subject, or the “I,” comes into existence.

Running through the essay is a reference to Kafka’s “In A Penal Colony.” In it a remarkable execution machine inscribes on the body of The Accused the law he has been convicted of breaking as it kills him.

Throughout what of her work I have read Butler continually returns to her central contention, illuminating it from many quarters of philosophy, psychology and literature in a manner that justifies the description of her work as literary theory–a point she somewhere describes with some bemusement.

Reimer, as a newborn, in what is often described as an accident during circumcision, left his parents frantic. They came to the attention, or brought themselves to the attention, of John Money–one of the “fathers” of transsexual theory–who recommended Reimer be raised as a girl since our gender, if not sex, according to Money, is socially constructed.

To begin all that was needed was an involuntary sex reassignment surgery. Not uncommon for intersex babies–but Reimer was not intersex anymore than he was transsexual.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Growing up Reimer was subject to a further aspect of Money’s social construction theory, behaviour modification: Reimer and his brother were required to play out stereotypical intimate sex/gender role behaviour in front of Money and associates, surprisingly similar to an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It is my understanding these theories have evolved into the current work of Kenneth Zucker of the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto (the former Clarke Institute of Psychiatry).

All his life, Reimer contended something was wrong, long before his parents revealed what had been done to him. At the point they did they sought out the help of Milton Diamond–a long time critic of Money–who advised Reimer to revert. As best he could.

Butler alludes to these parts of Reimer’s life as inscriptions of first Money’s theory of social construction and then Diamond’s theory of the sufficiency of the Y chromosome to determine maleness–and presumably masculinity.

Butler describes the horror of Reimer’s life and his rage, but in a postscript written after Reimer’s suicide and the death, possibly suicide, of his brother, curiously seems not to understand his rage and suicide.

How could Butler, or any cissexual person, understand our rage at being mis-sexed? Or the repudiation of our claims to being mis-sexed?

Reimer was, of course, no more a transsexual person than he was intersex, but his tragic life illuminates that gender identity is emphatically not socially constructed, that it remains constant through no matter what behaviour modification life throws at us.

Appearances can be deceiving.

I have not forgotten Whittle or Elizabeth’s comments.

In the United States more than Canada, gay and lesbian people, not to mention transgender and transsexual people, must ground their identities, much like African-Americans, in biology to withstand the attacks of the Religious Right, even as the Pope over the holidays promulgated a notion of an “ecology of man” positing “natural roles for men and women” that, like the rainforests, must be protected.

One can see in this “ecology” common cause not only for gay and lesbian, transgender and transsexual people, but women also, many of whom are lesbian, transgender and transsexual.

There has always been common cause for gay, lesbian and transgender people on the one hand and transsexual people on the other. Transsexual people have always been part of what, retrospectively, is called the gay rights movement: Reed Erickson and Beth Elliot before Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at Stonewall, Sandy Stone after Stonewall. Not to mention all of us who are gay, lesbian and transgender in about the same proportions as cissexual people.

Until repudiated and erased from the history we helped create/continue to create.

From a feminist perspective this history and present is more pressing still. As women we are subject to the same objectification and hypersexualization as all women are. I argue, with Julia Serano, that our position is more threatening, having given up male privilege.

This is why transsexual women seem so often to be a “spectacle” society can’t get enough of, unlike the relative anonymity of transsexual men; it is the sex we are now that determines, not the sex we were.

This is quite the reverse of the attitude in gay, lesbian and transgender community(ies).

After all, who would want to be a woman?

References

Butler, J. (2004). Doing justice to someone: Sex reassignment and Allegories of transsexuality. In Butler, J. Undoing gender, pp. 57 – 74. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Serano, J. (2007) Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Whittle, S. (2006). Where did we go wrong? Feminism and trans theory–two teams on the same side. In Stryker, S. and Whittle, S. (eds.) The transgender studies reader, pp. 194-202. New York: Routledge.

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7 Responses to Appearances can be deceiving

  1. m Andrea says:

    Sorry to be so brief in my comment since you seem like a nice person, but time is limited and watching intelligent people butcher logical form is frustrating.

    This is, I believe, an unfortunate and widespread category error that simply repudiates and erases the everyday/night lives, struggles and needs of transsexual people, particularly transsexual women.

    A valid ideology is not the same as a valid individual (or erasing the existence of an individual). Logically, individuals cannot be valid because individuals are comprised of subjective beliefs, and there’s nothing inherently valid about any belief. It’s the underlying premise of any political action which arises from a belief which can either be valid or invalid.

    If you want your argument to make logical sense, then you need to prove that “an ideological belief held by an individual” is the exact same as “an individual”. Then, and only then, would invalidating an ideology be the same as “erasing the existence of an individual”.

    Reimer was, of course, no more a transsexual person than he was intersex, but his tragic life illuminates that gender identity is emphatically not socially constructed, that it remains constant through no matter what behaviour modification life throws at us.

    The argument doesn’t prove what you what to believe it does. “Reimer had a tragic life” is your premise, and “therefore gender is real” is your conclusion. The habit of tacking a conclusion onto an unrelated premise is easier to see if we write “Reimer had a tragic life” and “therefore the sky is blue”. The argument fails by not accounting for or refuting any other reasons which could result in “Reimer having a tragic life”. The simpliest alternative reason could be that: society mandates all those who feel like expressing socially accepted boyish traits either possess a penis or suffer extreme discrimination.

    “After all, who would want to be a woman?” Is not a logical argument. It is a justification.

  2. m Andrea says:

    Would probably make more sense if written:

    A valid ideology is not the samme as a valid individual (or validating the existence of an individual).

  3. No, m Andrea, nothing I have seen that was written by you ever made sense.

  4. Ethan Kincaid says:

    I understood m Andrea well enough to think they have some good points there. I’m not great at stating pure logic in the standard forms. I’d like to be better at it, and admire those who can set forth their arguments with the simple eloquence it provides.

    In any case, what I wanted to say is that this an interesting commentary on the whole. Once again, I don’t agree with everything but it’d be boring if I did.

    I have some thoughts to share on this statement:

    “This is by way of a response to Elizabeth’s assertion that sexuality is socially constructed. I might well accept the position that sexuality and transgender identities are socially constructed but I strongly contest that transsexual identities are socially constructed.”

    I think that all identities are socially constructed, or at least that they have very strongly-ingrained social aspects. Don’t get upset just yet. I don’t mean that all identities are invalid, just that they don’t mean very much outside social situations.

    If one is black, well, that’s a skin colour. It’s a very clear physical trait, but the associations with that skin colour are made by society. Similarly, a Caucasian, Canadian, Francophone, could appear to be an English speaker until they open their mouth. Not as obvious as a skin colour but no less shot through by attributes assigned by society. Transsexual and transgendered people are no different, in truth. We each have our own physical makeup which has attributes attached to it by society, plus how we present ourselves in social situations.

    But getting back to the point, if you stand in the middle of an uninhabited forest and shout “I’m a woman!” It will have no effect other than startling some animals. If you stand in the middle of a crowded supermarket and shout the same thing at your employer, the results will be quite different. What our identities MEAN has a great deal to do with who we are presenting them to.

    I’d like to comment on the idea that transsexual women are “more threatening” than transsexual men because they have relinquished their masculine superiority. I’m not going to argue that men and women are absolutely equal because I don’t have to look far to see evidence to the contrary. However, I will submit that transsexual men are quite threatening to our social structure because we are grasping at that masculine superiority. We were not born into this privilege, but rather we have taken it, STOLEN it in some people’s opinion.

    One more thing made me raise an eyebrow enough to want to say something:

    “There has always been common cause for gay, lesbian and transgender people on the one hand and transsexual people on the other. ”

    I realize that’s only part of the paragraph but it really threw me for a loop. Why are transgendered people grouped up with gays and lesbians while transsexuals are separate? That’s a really weird way to divide it. For one thing, “transgender” is not a sexual preference. For another, transgendered folks can be gay or lesbian. I myself am bisexual, for example. And many transgendered people are transsexual, like myself, so I hardly know which camp I belong in.

    I think for the sake of your argument it would be better to divide them into three because I know how you feel about grouping transsexuals and transgenders together. I won’t bother arguing about that as it gets quite tiring after awhile.

    “Who would want to be a woman?” Well, I might know a few people. 😉 But here’s a more interesting question: What good is a name if no one calls you by it?

  5. Shannon Blatt says:

    I’ll offer up an answer to Ethan’s final question. It’s good because it’s yours, you own it. As someone once quoted a wise Jewish person who experienced the Nazi death camps: “dignity can never be taken away…only given away.” his point was that despite being relegated to literally non-human status, the Jewish people in the camps never gave up their dignity. It didn’t matter that the Nazis didn’t call them humans anymore, because they knew they were humans and wouldn’t give that name and knowledge up to the fascists. And so even if they ended up being murdered, they died with dignity, knowing their own name, with the murderers of their humanity and identity never achieving that final victory over them of having them give up their name, their humanity.

    (and no…this is not an example of Godwin’s Law..which is a stupid concept in itself anyway, lol.)

  6. Shannon Blatt says:

    As usual, I typed too fast and messed up my last sentence, which should have read:

    “And so even if they ended up being murdered, they died with dignity, knowing their own name, with their murderers never achieving that final victory over them of having them give up their name, their humanity.”

  7. Mike says:

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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