Appearances can be deceiving

February 17, 2009

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?


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.