Tuesday, August 25, 2009
My Own Political Struggle with Transgenderism
[the image above is a pro-transgender feminist symbol from here, and I have added that networking site, anarkismo.net, to my important webpages to me list on the right side of this blog]
[Revised on 27 August 2009, adding bits about John and Julian Lennon, and clarifying a few point.]
There was another post made here a couple of weeks or so ago that a good friend noted was potentially transphobic, or, at least, not very welcoming of trans visitors to this blog. I agreed with her and pulled the post. I revised it so much it became something else. What follows is that something else. (I sometimes use the word "they" or "them" as synonymous with "she/he/neither" and "her/him/neither", respectively.)
I haven't dealt much with trans politics here, and I'd like to explain why, and what my own conclusions are about my politics, and my understandings of gender based on certain feminist writings, campaigns, and analyses as they meet up with my own experiences.
First, though, I'll remind the returning reader, or let the new-comers know, that had I been born at a time such that I'd be in my early twenties now, instead of, well, older, I'd likely be trans-identified. That is because in the community in which I live, radical feminism as a political movement is practically non-existent, while queer politics and, even more so, dominant gender politics are very popular. Of course only dominant gender politics is socially valued generally. No matter how much of a queer presence there is in a city or town, it remains unsafe for all queer people to be out, due to a combination of racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
In a conversation with one of the most diligently anti-racist white people I know, we discussed our own experiences of growing up as it pertained to gender identity and "fitting in" as a gendered person. Neither of us really felt like the gender we were assigned and raised to be, but were aware there was apparently only one other option. (Not all societies are like this, of course. But the ones I have been part of are.) Both of us, to varying degrees and in different ways, identified somewhat with the gender we were seen as not being.
For me, I was very girl- and woman-centered in my ways of being in the world from an early age. Woman and girl did not mean "other" in my mind, heart, and spirit; boys and men did seem, at least at times, both foreign and scary; this was especially true for me when it came to dealing with non-Jewish white heterosexual men. For the transperson I was speaking with, also Jewish and queer, they grew up to feel quite a bit of alienation from the gender assigned to them at birth, and, for a time at least, began requesting to be referred to in the pronouns of the non-assigned gender. In this person's case, they did not take hormones or pursue surgery to "be" another gender. They understood, and perhaps still understand, their gender to be fluid, flexible, and simply beyond what the dominant white society has said "exists".
When in my early twenties, I read Andrea Dworkin's book Woman Hating, and related strongly to all she said about dual gender: that woman and man, while real is not true. It was also the first book I read that actively and compassionately supported transgendered people as an oppressed group inside the patriarchal dual gender system.
My questions, concerns, and experiences led me more into radical feminism. And it, in its many forms and colors, was flourishing at the time. There I found out much more than I had been able to articulate about society, power, gender, and race. Woman and man were not just positioned as opposites, polar opposites, but also "in opposition" with men being greatly opposed to womanhood, in various ways, all the while needing womanhood in order to be alive and survive. With race also always present as a political reality, gender was deeply raced and race was deeply gendered. This has become clearer to me over the years, but it was no mystery why African American and white Jewish women were seen as "too masculine", stereotyped as they were as being the heads of households, "the ones who wear the pants* in the family", whether or not a husband or boyfriend lived there as well. (*Trousers, for those in the UK.)
Many theories have surfaced, mostly white supremacist psychological ones, to explain why men hate women so much: why rape by men against women is rampant, why men beating the shit out of women they say they love is commonplace, why poverty and famine overwhelmingly has the face of children and women of color.
One theory was that men resented how dependent they had been on a woman when little, which of course presumed either no man around or not enough of a man-parent presence. It also presumed that one's early dependence on a mother should, for some strange reason, manifest as misogyny later in life. My problem with the theory was that it was based in misogyny; it didn't explain misogyny. Why children grow up to hate women is not because women take care of them. Actually, to the degree women are able to do this well, they tend to be loved by their children. (I know: what a strange theory!) It's the absent or neglectful parent who tends to be hated and shunned, and that parent is disproportionately a man. John Lennon, to take one famous family example, hated his father for abandoning him and his mother, Julia, who died when he was a teenager; John loved his mother deeply and wrote a beautiful song about her. Julian Lennon has hated (and forgiven) his father, John, for abandoning him and his mother, Cynthia. We can hope that if Julian becomes a parent, he'll be a far more present and attentive parent than his dad was with him.
I was raised by a few people; all were family members. Those who cared for me I cared about strongly; those who didn't care for me well I had mixed feelings for, including hatred, at times. To all the Men's Rights Psycho-babblists out there: I wasn't raised by any feminist women. In fact, no woman over my age in my family of origin would identify as a feminist or womanist. Their own political views ran along and off a spectrum called conservative to liberal. The same was true for the men: conservative to liberal, in the meanings whites tend to apply to those terms. The only "woefully inadequate" parent I had was one of the women. I hated her at times for being so callous and self-absorbed. I also felt great compassion for her, for, against many odds, she struggled mightily and successfully to stay in this world.
I loved my father; he was a good role model for me in terms of how to be a person, not "a man". Many of the women were good role models for me as well, and I loved them too. They were individual people, not just "the wife of" or "the mother of". None of them would have ever considered going by the prefix "Ms." And none of them ever bought one issue of Ms. magazine or any other that went against the status quo's standards for what women are supposed to be.
The first "Ms."'s I met were teachers in high school. One was married to a man and one was not. I found this very cool. I tend to dislike double standards and different levels of social-political status being based on completely irrelevant and impersonal facts about someone. For example, a man's name did not change dramatically when he married a woman, but hers did, both at the beginning and the end: Miss to Mrs., Maiden name to Married name, even to the point of (gag) becoming "Mrs. John Smith". Whose interests are served by coming up with THAT custom? Invisibilising women's identities, or eclipsing them with men's lives, was imagined (by men) to be a good thing when I was growing up, but it never seemed like a good thing to me or to this person I was having the conversation with. Back to white music for a moment: how many people know the name of the person who was instrumental in getting Beach Boy Brian Wilson back into his creative self so he could complete the legendary unfinished album smile? Answer: Melanie Ledbetter, the woman he was wed to in 1995.
Along with the eclipsing of identity, being a woman raised as a girl also brought with it the vulnerability to men's violence, particularly and especially violence that men made into or about sex.
What's a person in a heterosexual world to do who doesn't want to be "the eclipsed" and "the beaten-up one" and also doesn't want to be the eclipser and the batterer?
The feminism I came to know well was committed to exposing the degrees to which gender and race was fused to power imbalances, structural, systemic power imbalances. The radical feminism I came to trust helped me see just how bound masculinity was to being anti-feminine and pro-whiteman, and how much femininity was bound to worshipping masculinity while not emulating it. Some of its founders and more prominent activists were Flo Kennedy, Alice Walker, Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde, Catharine MacKinnon, and bell hooks.
For me, gender was primarily a socially constructed hierarchy. It wasn't "natural" or "how things are just because". I, for one, didn't comply with its demands for conformity nor obey its mandate to hold masculinity as inherently more valuable and honorable than femininity. I also knew there were human qualities that were neither and there were people who were neither.
The trans person and I were two of those people, but had been assigned a gender at birth, and visually appeared enough like that supposedly true gender to "pass" as it.
Most of my learning about transgenderism was not very sophisticated or filled with wisdom. Not surpisingly, it also was not introduced to me by trans people. This meant I had a skewed to messed up view of what transgenderism was or is. What I've learned from my conversation partner, and other trans people, was that it isn't one thing, but it isn't everything either. It's a cluster of experiences that meet or clash with social expectations, just as being gay is.
As I understand transgenderism now, it is the lived experience of not belonging to oneself or the status quo in a profoundly significant way. It is the sense of something being really off about one's experience of self, and what the world tells you you are, with regard to gender.
Now of course this is true for many people, especially women raised as girls. As noted, some of the women in my family figured out how to work around the expectations and demands, to create social space where they could be more or less themselves, to the degree any oppressed people can be themselves.
But I have come to see that there is a difference, a genuine, felt difference between women raised as girls who feel like they don't belong to patriarchy, or don't wish to satisfy the ridiculous demands of heteropatriarchy, and socially named girls and boys who are transgendered. The matter of intersexuality has still not "come out of the closet" as far as I can tell. And that's due entirely to the oppressive gender system which says "you are either this, or you are that, and you can't be anything else." Trans people, gender variant people, and intersex people are living proof that hierarchical gender dualism is a political idea, not a natural truth.
Where things got confusing for me was when media started portraying transgendered people as "people who want to be the other sex". Studies showed lots of African American girls knew white girls were valued more, and much has been written about how oppressed people try and assimilate into the oppressor class. I, for one, didn't want to be "the other sex"; I wanted the falsehood of that two-gender hierarchy exposed at the roots, challenged through organised radical activism, so that the violence that inheres in it could end, and people could be freer to be themselves.
When I mistakenly learned that transgendered folks want to be the other sex, this notion too reinforced rather than challenged the basic premise of their being only two sexes. The transgender people I know want to be themselves, whether that fits one of two gender categories or not.
Feminism encouraged women to love their bodies however they were shaped, however big or small, however tall or short. ALL women's bodies are beautiful was a message I got from feminism in the 1980s. Let no man or men tell women which ones are beautiful and which are not. And fuck the focus on beauty anyway.
White men, throughout history, could be fat or thin, ugly or attractive, big or small, and still be categorised as "men"; they could still have social status, standing, position, privilege, and prestige. They could be a CEO or principal or dean at a school. Men of varying sizes and shapes, and with many different physical features could be and were president of the U.S. Almost all of them white. But they had to be men. When and if socially and politically powerful and influential people are women, they are seen as being masculinised by wanting to do what only white men have given other white men permission to do. To simply run for president means Hillary Clinton is, somehow, more man-like than if she were perfectly content being an apolitical, soft-spoken First Lady. And God forbid if Michelle Obama says anything deemed "out of line": this both masculinises her and effeminises her husband. Never in the social world does a man "being more like a woman" mean he has a superior status, greater privileges, and a more dominant social position.
Since I am not transgender, the internal personal project (and external political battle) of striving to make my physical, social, sexual, and psychic selves find some form of harmony or unity is not my primary struggle. I cannot make my sexuality fit with society's. That's true. I cannot find representation of myself in media. That's true. My politics, my values, my core beliefs about justice and the world are not reflected back to me by the status quo or the visible social order. My politics, values, and core beliefs, instead, are stigmatised as worthless, stupid, insane, ridiculous, and man-hating, just because I don't worship the heterosexual cock over everything else.
I know some transgendered folks for whom the struggle mentioned above is not their central concern either. But society-at-large will make that the most significant aspect of their being, if it is disclosed. Similarly, in a conservative to liberal society, me being gay and pro-radical feminist makes me seem and feel like an outcast, a heretic, albeit sometimes a "tolerated" heretical outcast. (And in racist heteropatriarchal societies, there are far worse things to be, according to white masculinist men, such as a trans or non-trans woman of any color, or a trans or non-trans man of color.)
Radically pulling up and throwing out the oppressive, anti-woman two-gender hierarchy of the dominant West was a key project of the feminism I came to value and trust. No "trim, trim here" "trim, trim there" approach was sufficient. Getting those roots exposed and torn apart was necessary. As with Kansas's Dorothy needing to kill the Witch of the East in order to get her broomstick and have her wishes fulfilled, so too must patriarchy die for women to be free. "Ding dong, the Dickdom is dead" is a song I look forward to singing. Mulching is a good thing. ("Compost CRAP" is a bumper sticker I've been wanting to mass produce for a long time.)
And media was portraying trangendered people (often called transsexuals) as wanting to be part of that hierarchical two-gender system; as spending lots of money to be part of that system--going "so far" as to have ones breasts and genitals surgically removed or altered. In this, those few transgendered people who do try surgical approaches to finding that harmony of being are both like and not like non-trans women and men who do the same thing, to feel more like the gender they supposedly are. If a man gets his penis enlarged, it is because he has heard the patriarchal rumor that big dicks are more valued than small ones. That this is true symbolically far more than it is physically is not mentioned by the pornographised media. If women raised as girls get their breasts enlarged, it is because they know they will either feel more feminine with the implants, be more attractive to others, often men, and be paid more to do certain kinds of work (often by pimps). These are somewhat different motivations for physically altering oneself surgically than those of most of the transgendered people I know. For example, an MtF trans person is likely to lose family members, status, work, and privileges, not gain them. And s/he is not likely to be accepted as "a woman" by masculinist men. An FtM trans person is not really ever going to be accepted as "a man" by masculinist non-trans men.
The issue that I've heard a lot of discussion about is this: do feminist non-trans women accept transgendered MtF people as women? (In fact, I hear that question infintitely more than the one about whether masculinist non-trans men accept MtF or FtM trans people as human beings.)
From what I can tell non-trans feminists are not unified on this matter. As a pro-feminist man raised as a boy, I have to wrestle with where I stand on the matter of transgenderism as it relates to the struggle of all women to be free of men, of all women to be women defined not by patriarchy, but by themselves.
All of us who participate in the practice of making ourselves into more heteropatriarchally acceptable gendered people ought to be aware of why we do so, if we have the time and energy to spend trying to figure that out. Most people, feminist and anti-feminist, trans and non-trans, mainstream or outcast, do participate actively in maintaining the dual gender system in some ways, as I see it. Just as people of all races participate in white supremacy. But only some benefit materially and socially from this participation. And some of us become very ill or are killed in the process of trying to be part of it.
Lesbians, gay men, trans people, and "out" radical feminists are among the populations of people whose ways of being and belief systems make them particular targets for men's misogynistic violence.
The reason I focus so much energy doing and promoting anti-misogyny work, rather than on pro-trans and pro-gay work, is partly because I'm not trans; I'm also not in solidarity with the woman-hating values and practices of many of my gay brothers; I find a heterosexist politic centered around appeasing and pleasing the heterosexual cock abhorrent, and despise the fact that heterosexual white men's values rule the world currently. I despise it because it harms so many people, non-human beings, and the Earth with such callousness and force. But I also focus on supporting radical feminism because I see misogyny and male supremacy as core underlying reasons that transphobia and homophobia exist. Oh, and I love and respect women raised as girls, as individuals and as a particular class of oppressed people, perhaps more than any other group of people, principally because of how courageously and creatively they figure out how to survive in a world that hates them so much, while still managing, somehow, not to be like virulently masculinist men.