A guest blog post by Helen Spandler and Meg-John Barker With the recent emergence of Mad Studies we thought it timely to explore some connections with Queer studies – another critical field of enquiry. We wanted to examine their similarities and differences; any points of tension; and what each could learn from the other. Helen […]
Most of my choice to not self-identify as trans* has resulted from what I now know to be clinically-derived and perhaps unfairly “psychological” conditions (or, according to psychology, “symptoms”), primarily gender dysmorphia, which by most people’s definition usually includes body dysmorphia. I will not claim to never experience ‘dysmorphia’: I have, at various times, been uncomfortable with and even resentful of aspects of my gendered self, particularly my physical self, including my breasts and much more frequently my hips, butt and thighs. No, male-identifying friends, your comments that my figure is womanly, that I have a nice butt, that it is only natural for a woman to have hips [like mine?], that certain clothes are flattering in a feminine way, etc. do not improve my self-image or make me feel better about my body. Feel me? Female-identifying friends who assure me I’m not fat, I know you mean well, but we are trapped in this constant-body-analysis thing together, the thing where we worry about our bodies more for how they translate in the eyes of others than for our own Selves. And it’s because we are trapped in this together that leads me to my next reason for not self-identifying as trans*.
By being myself but also associating my Self with that category Woman, I think I (and others like me) are consciously doing two things: 1) we are decisively stating that Woman is not something to fear, resent, or despise. ‘Woman’, whatever that is (and I’ll get to that) deserves recognition, deserves to be loved and embodied. Woman is not Lesser Than, Woman should not be shied away from. Woman should be confronted, thought about, challenged, forwarded. 2) We are demonstrating, with our bodies, minds and spirits, that there are many ways to do Woman, many ways to be It. There are so many ways to do and be It that one must wonder what the necessity is of having the category Man, at all. All of those things which can be done, embodied in Man can be also be done in Woman. Maybe Woman/Man are too essentialist, universalist, generalized, specified to be useful anymore. Maybe we need a different way of understanding, thinking about, talking about and being human. These categories feel spent, outdated and inaccurate.
Yet. They still shape our realities in unwelcome and harmful ways. So while we are working towards a new conceptualization of Human, I will choose to associate my Self with Woman. This is not to say that I do not value trans*; I consider Trans* extremely important. Trans* is transcendent. But let me clarify my feelings about Woman.
Culture is not finished shaming and hating Woman. I think a huge difference between Woman and Trans* is that the latter is much more Self-aware, much more politically conscious, and much more active in terms of that consciousness. Their ball is picking up speed fast. Woman’s ball, however, will sometimes gain momentum and then be kicked in a different direction, hit walls, keep going, roll to a stop. Women who self-identify as such (as Woman) are still invested in hating and confining Woman. Woman hates ItSelf, and unlike Trans* does not understand why this does not need to be.
Thus it is a conscious decision for me to associate myself with Woman. Do I self-identify as female? Not particularly. Do I call myself cisgender? Absolutely not. But is an embrace of Woman necessary to end Its Self-hatred? I believe so.
I realized this at the same time I realized I do not clinically want to be seen as trans*; I do not want to feel shame and hatred towards my body, I do not want to look at my body and say it is Not Woman (because I will not look at it and say it is Man– or Not Man). This is the only body I’ve got; culture has attempted, as it will, to shape it in terms of its conception of binary sex/gender, but I have moved beyond this. Culture’s binary sex/gender construct is inadequate for describing me and other people I know (and others I don’t know). I do not need to alter my body to more closely align with this construct, or even to move away from it (eg towards Trans*).
The body is a terrific, awesome vessel for transversing this reality. It holds my Me-ness, in many ways it is my Me-ness. Without it, I couldn’t fathom my Self, and probably neither could anyone else. We are living in a very interesting and pivotal time in which binary sex is being confronted and it cannot withstand the pressure of this. Gender is all kinds of confused. Yet we’ve not thus far reached a point where we can even begin to dream of calling our culture ‘postgender’. Gender is still very relevant and meaningful. Can I do both: can I stand inside of Woman but also self-identify as not a woman (or as a man, or as trans*)?
I think we can, and in fact I think they compliment each other. We can simultaneously embody something that we feel is other-than-Woman, but we can also tell our Selves as Woman. If you self-identify as a man and have a penis and have never had a period, will you suddenly, by telling your Self as Woman, know what it feels like to shed the lining of your non-existent uterus every month? Will you suddenly know how it is to carry a baby to term, or to be fired from a job because you are pregnant? Standing within Woman is not the same as being Woman. I will never carry a baby to term and when I dress as a boy I am relieve of being sexually harassed on the street, but I can and do choose to stand within Woman. Many women do not have breasts or uteri or ‘typical’ levels of estrogen or even xx chromosomes, yet they self-identify as women and culturally ‘read’ as women. And I promise you, if you read as male but tell others you’re Woman (are Woman, as a distinction from ‘are a woman’), you will know not only know some of the feelings of being Woman, but also some of the feelings of being Trans*.
Why is this good, or useful? I believe empathy is a powerful tool, an element which is not just human but which shapes Human at its core. Maybe we are interesting, naked social hominids who we need empathy to survive within human culture, and to survive, at all. Let’s take empathy and extend it beyond survival, into cultural transformation.
Addendum: This ‘Statement‘ was recently brought to my attention, and it illumined another aspect of ‘standing inside of Woman’, for me. I take it as further evidence of the validity of Woman as a subversive, radical and activist identity in that trans* people are also firmly included inside this ‘category’. Self-identifying trans* women and men can both comfortably assume a place within Woman, should they choose to. I imagine there are those who are concerned with this conception of Woman: how generalized can it become before it loses all meaning? I would argue that I am not attempting to broaden or generalize Woman out of existence, in fact I am not broadening Woman in an unproductive way. The way in which Woman has traditionally been used within whitestream feminisms implies a unity and universality that is pure fiction, and (as pointed out in the aforementioned ‘Statement’) remains incredibly transphobic and queer-phobic. Such a category has long been discussed, forwarded and reconstructed always within the Binary and ever in opposition to Man. How subversive is it to critique, deconstruct, reconstruct inside the Binary? We are always operating on the Binary’s terms if we continue to determine eligibility for entrance into Woman based solely on a traditional, whitestream, or oppositional view of Woman. Thus, I am more interested in the capacity of Woman to turn the criteria for eligibility on its head, and through this, to expand our gendered consciousness beyond Binary thinking, (perhaps idealistically) gendered and otherwise. In the same vein of the Statement, I question the stability of the identity known as “woman”, and wondered what new paradigm awaits us as our consciousness transforms.
Humanity has reached an incredible and transformative period in its life, one in which those of us who question, reject or simply do not “qualify” for membership in the oppositional Binary (or even Binary spectrum) are feeling the pushback of those who are invested in its maintenance and propagation– or should I say survival? Some of this pushback has even come from my fellow feminists (“feminists”? [Feminism only serves to aid women?]*). Some feminists seem to be highly invested in Binary (e.g. sex binary, race binary, etc.) for its ability to distinguish between oppressed/oppressor, but as intersectional feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, identity is not simply black/white, literally or figuratively. If we really want to make progress on issues that matter before it’s too late, we are going to need to overcome the false sense of security and comfort we derive from the Binary, and one stepping stone along the many paths to accomplishing this is a rethink of Woman.
*One might also argue that investment in the Binary has long appeared in a seemingly unlikely place: parts of the trans* community.
The Multeity Manifesto, pt.1
Under the influence of heteronormative and sex/gender binary-normative (largely Patriarchal) culture, the world’s progression towards a deeper understanding of gender has inched forward slowly, out of the assumptions of “natural gender roles” and related gender mythology and into a more complex analysis of gender that acknowledges the influence of social construction. While perhaps the majority of people still hold the view that gender traits and roles are inherent and immutable facts of Nature (e.g. “girls are naturally more talkative than boys”, “boys are naturally more gifted at math”, “girls are natural nurturers”, “women are nurturers”, “men have a higher proclivity to violence than women as dictated by their nature”, etc.), there is growing acceptance of the theory of gender as a social construction— in other words, as not natural.
But while we can tolerate theories of gender norms and roles as rooted in sociocultural construction, there is very little tolerance of theories that question the absolute validity of dividing all human beings into two categories of biological sex. The notion of biological sex seems infallible: at birth, a child is clearly determined to be either male or female, typically based on their genitalia (when possible). Broader definitions of biological sex consider hormonal and chromosomal makeup in addition to anatomy– which is where problems begin to arise, but doubts are quelled by labeling any individual body which resists sex binary classification as “deviant.” Indeed, “biological sex deviation” is seen as “abnormal” and, perhaps ironically, “unnatural”; this is reinforced by highlighting the adverse health affects of chromosomal or hormonal “syndromes“, depicting these “deviations” as clearly problematic.
Some biologists and scientists of the human body resolve such difficulties by redefining biological sex as a two-point spectrum, rather than an absolute binary. Such a spectrum, with “male” at one end and “female” at the other, allows us to consider variations of biological sex which fall “somewhere in between” these two absolutes. The problem with this spectrum is that it positions “male” and “female” as opposite, and further assumes that any deviations from “properly male” and “properly female” still land between them somewhere, thus being either “more male” or “more female”. The idea of “properly male” or “properly female” implies an unquestionable truth, thereby maintaining the correctness of binary categorization where possible.
This construction of biological sex as dichotomous or oppositional is extremely limited and inadequate. The diversity of human biological sex simply cannot be described or conceptualized by attempting to position “deviations” between two “true” or “real” points. It certainly can’t be done so without marginalizing those persons who defy the “reality” of sex binary or two-sex spectrum.
This reveals a very deep-seated problem, which is the fundamental assertion that there are correct sexes (namely, xx with socially-defined “female” anatomy and hormones, and xy with socially-defined “male” anatomy and hormones), and any sex (or a-sex) which cannot be described in these terms is deviant, abnormal, wrong.
Human investment in this conception is so deep that we go to great lengths to reinforce and protect it, even so far as “correcting” individuals who pose a threat to its stability and infallibility: there are standards by which we determine the correctness of the sizes of penises and clitorises, standards against which we measure the correctness of male and female hormones, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s chromosomes, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s reproductive tissues, et cetera.
At birth, doctors and medical staff examine the infant’s genitalia to determine its sex. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, as many infants are not born with what is obviously a penis or obviously a clitoris. Sometimes a penis is “too small” (less than an inch long) and needs correction. A common way to “correct” an “abnormal” penis is to cut it off and remake the infant as female. Similarly, infants may present with a clitoris that is “too large”. An “abnormally large clitoris” is usually shortened (sometimes called female circumcision or female cutting). Normality and abnormality defined by what Martha Coventry calls “the tyranny of the esthetic”, or more broadly what I will term the Sex Binary Construct.
The Sex Binary Construct identifies only two “real” or “true” categories of sexual distinction. To account for all individuals who do not fit neatly into this paradigm, the SBC labels them “deviant”.
The idea of “remaking” or “assigning” an infant into one sex or another is evidence of the elastic and abstract nature of sex. Indeed, the very notion of “reassigning”, “remaking”, or “defining” a newly born human as either male or female seems to discredit the SBC, even as these are the methods used to uphold its infallibility.
Many other challenges have been posed to the concreteness of SBC. Apart from “intersex” persons (individuals whose sex cannot be established as “typical”), persons self-identifying as transgender, Third Gender, asexual, or otherwise genderqueer contradict the fundamental tenets of the supposedly infallible SBC.
The power and authority of the Sex Binary Construct appear to be absolute. Its tenets are supported by reputable and highly-respected scientific institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which call the intersex birth a “social emergency”. As a social emergency, the concerns of society are placed above the welfare and human rights of the individual. These institutions have control over decision-making processes about intersex bodies. Some have tried to argue that when children and infants fall prey to such decision-making processes, it is in violation of their human rights. This argument could also be made on behalf of queer persons who are declared mentally ill when their behavior and/or attitudes fails to conform to the SBC.
There are countless examples of the harm done to individuals and overall human rights by the Sex Binary Construct, which are not even remotely limited to intersex, transgender, or genderqueer persons. But what is the solution? Simply banishing “gender” and “sex” to the dustbins of history would not truly resolves these problems– not to mention the notion is unrealistic.
I cannot purport to have a definitive solution; I do wish to join my voice to those seeking alternatives to the current reality. If in seeking to dismantle the SBC we have no adequate (and accurate) conceptualization to take its place, the old tenets will continue to shape sociocultural consciousness. Thus the first thing to go should be our cognition of gender as a dichotomy, and even as a two-point spectrum. In place of it I suggest a radial spectrum, upon which any “point” is not more or less “true” than any other, and which can describe an infinite number of sex possibilities. A radial spectrum would also solve the problem of oppositional categories, for “points” may be unfixed and mobile. The symbolism of the circle also invokes images of fluidity and changingness, which more accurately embody the lived human experience of gender/sex and sexuality. Does this disrupt the “scientific ideal”? Is it imperfect? Probably so. But our current science is hardly ideal, and very much imperfect. All communities with an interest in seeing the SBC on its way out should be coming together for dialogue, idea exchange, and redefinition of gender/sex. In that vein, I welcome comments and criticisms on these subjects.