Friday, December 3, 2010

Sara and Julian Discuss Trans/Feminist Issues, part 4: The Gender Binary, Medicine, Media, Capitalism, and other CRAP

image of three actors from Modern Family is from here
JR wrote:
"So, for me, this is part of the larger conversation about who defines as what, and why. Are the women who would have identified as trans now, but don't, because they came into radical non-trans lesbian feminist identity first, mean they are or are not transgender?"

Sara responded:
Technically, a butch woman, or basically anyone who has a presentation or behavior considered non-normative for their sex assigned at birth, is considered transgender. Wether they identify as such is something else.

Okay. I'm willing to go with that definition for the purposes of our conversation. And what that tells me is that there's virulent anti-feminist misogyny in transgender community, because that population of non-transsexual women: butch, lesbian, and gender non-conforming, are profoundly marginalised and stigmatised and silenced right now UNLESS they cater to a very individualistic and anti-radical ethic of "social change" and "accommodation and inclusivity of unexamined racist patriarchal practices" as the predominant value. I've been seeing this play out for decades, Sara: queer pro-"transgression" politic has been promoted by the least marginalised, most privileged queer people as a kind of "liberation", regardless of how regressive and anti-progressive it is, politically.

JR wrote:
"I've only recently even found out there WAS such a thing as "being intergender". I'd say I always was intergender, but I've only recently begun to identify as that. So what was I before I identified as intergender? Cis gender? I don't think so."

It depends if you give power to name yourself, or to society to do so. I say naming yourself retroactively isn't harmful. I could say I was always female. What does it hurt anyone? I'm not identifying that way for purposes of fraud or deceit, so no one.

I'm in agreement with retroactively naming ourselves. I think it is appropriate and accurate to say "I was always intergender", at least as soon as I socially registered what the politics of gender were. And I registered that consciously by the age of nine.

But, I'd like to add that I think it is a mistake to believe society doesn't also always name us, label us, and put us in boxes that are not easily escaped. As has been noted on some progressive blogs, the privileged believe we can name ourselves and ignore how society labels us, or, at least, "empower" ourselves to not pay attention to that labeling. Less privileged people do not have such an easy time of that, and if you know anyone who is not white, who is female, and who is poor, and ask them how successfully they can name themselves and cast off society's labels, I think you'll find that the less privileges we have, structurally, the more difficult it is to even find validation for who we know ourselves to be. That's why it is usually class-privileged, race-privileged, education-privileged, profession-privileged people who get to say "I am transsexual [or transgender] and I want you to call me by [this or that] pronoun." The Black non-transsexual women I know can't even get dominant society to acknowledge they are human, let alone consider calling them by a pronoun or name they prefer. The politics of accommodation and inclusivity needs to be carefully examined, as I see it, Sara. Because the politics are loaded up with white and male supremacist assumptions about who gets to be human and who doesn't.

I think our community has largely been negligent in addressing this issue. I'd be interested to know what you think about this.

JR wrote:
"This is very complicated stuff, and I see too many trans activists trying to pass off one way of experiencing being transgender or intergender--if and when that even gets mentioned, which it usually doesn't--as like every other trans/intergender person, and I think that's a kind of gross stereotyping and bigotry, or false unification around "what we present to the dominant society" that exists within our community that needs to be called out, interrogated, discussed, and hopefully resolved to some degree."

Sara responded:
I haven't seen this that much. Transsexual people are presented as THE standard, by the medico-legal establishment, not by transsexual people themselves. The experience of being transgender is widely acknowledged as varying extremely. Even the experience of being transsexual is presented this way more and more now, supplanting the medico-legal narrative that used to be necessary to secure treatment at clinics (pretend you're uber 1950s feminine straight, or you don't get hormones or surgery).

I agree with you about a very narrow segment of M2F transsexuals being presented by media to the general public as "the face" of transgender experience. From Renee Richards to the few guests on talk shows, we only get presented as being pro-femme, pro-heteropatriarchal M2F folks who want and say they need complete sex re-assignment surgery, but that's not the case with most transgender people I know. And the 1950s feminine straight model you mention being promoted by the medico-legal institutions are white and middle class without exception. I'm glad to know, from your experience, that the medical professionals are a bit less heteropatriarchal, but from what I can see, we still have a very long way to go!

JR wrote:

"I respect your opinion, Sara, as yours. But I simply do not agree that there is such a thing as "feminine body language" that is innate. At all. If we look at female children and girls across era and culture there is no aspect of "femininity" that shows up everywhere. Not one bodily characteristic, expressive aspect, or way of being. There's not even any agreement about what "feminine body language" is, cross-culturally and across era."

Sara responded:
Something becomes feminine because female people, on average, do it. So yes, it will vary across culture with "what's in" and "what's out". Wearing Victorian-style dresses is not too in right now, but it was 150 years ago. It was a sign of feminity then.

As for bodily characteristics? Well, in Haiti, women are considered more feminine if they have a plump derriere. In the US, not so much. Yet it's a norm of feminity for each of those cultures, independantly. Men used to have long hair, or at worst, simulate their having long hair, using wigs.

In the U.S., Black women's buttocks are highly fetishised and objectified! What do you mean "not so much"?! "Baby's Got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot was but one popular example of how "thing-ified" Black women are in the U.S. in media. Do you see how violently Black women are abused in pornography, and how women across race are abused anally, raped repeatedly, in pornography and prostitution? Haiti is a culture that has been repeated ravaged by white het male supremacist imperialism and colonialism. It was a country liberated by slaves, after all. How do you conclude the values there are or can be entirely free of white Western cultural values?

Some of your other examples, especially things like wigs and dresses, have nothing whatsoever to do with "nature" as Victorian dresses and wigs don't occur in nature and there's no way we're biologically wired to "respond" erotically to things like dresses and wigs. Would you agree with that? I'm concerned that you're conflating biology and culture as somehow tied to each other in a "natural" way. There's little to no indication that's the case, and in fact there's tons of evidence that Western heteropatriarchal culture overrides (and demolishes) nature and other cultures at every turn. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies have had nothing like what Western Civilisation has presented as "naturally occurring sex differences". Shaved legs and shaved armpits for women? What's "natural" about that? Nothing at all. It's entirely cultural and politically "designed" to make female human beings appear to be "opposite" to hairy male human beings, who, after all, are not always hairy.

Sara wrote:
Milton Diamond's theory of sex identity says that someone will identify like peers of the sex they feel they belong to. They will generally self-normalize, based on their sense of who they are the most like, in terms of something I couldn't even name – but rarely having to do with clothes or manners.

But always having to do with politics, Sara. I see it, anyway. Because cultural norms and social peer pressure are both expressions of any given dominant society's sexual (and racial) politics. Even when the politics are egalitarian and communal not domineering and authoritarian.

Sara wrote:
For example, if everyone dressed androgynously, I could still recognize my membership in the category female, without being told so (it would just happen later than it does for children now). Both parents and children are insecure about being viewed (or their children being viewed) as the other sex, starting at a certain age.

Only in societies that have a rigid gender binary. If the gender binary is at all natural (as you argue), why do you suppose is it that less industrialised societies have made more room for a third gender than have post-industrial ones?

Sara wrote:
That's why toddler and small child clothes are all so dichotomous (all pink and glittery, or all blue and with 0 frills), just go see a store for small children and see the colors. Now go see an adult women clothes store, and notice it's not so pink anymore – people then got secondary sex characteristics vouching for their sex.

Sara, I'm really perplexed by this. You seem to be discounting racist patriarchal capitalism as not having any influence on us at all. Children are made to wear pink and blue in societies where pink is associated with being a girl and blue with being a boy. That's far from universal, and it's a relatively recent occurrence in human cultural history. Capitalism sells binary bigotry. Capitalism sells the objectification and commodification of children, including of how children are gendered and raced. That's what advertising is in the business of doing, as well as selling us cardiovascular disease and diabetes-inducing edibles in place of healthy food and pornography in place of sex. CRAP profits mightily from doing it so well.

A great blog that exposes this CRAP regularly is "Sociological Images". Check it out, if you haven't yet, for an over-abundance of examples of exactly how racist heteropatriarchal capitalism does this. You seem to be putting forth a very social-psychological theory of why it is parents and children are insecure about children's "gender". One approach to answering that question would be to look to see who profits most from there being this kind of gendering of children at all. Commercial industries profit. Corporate pimps profit. Traffickers and slavers profit. To pretend that our very dominant society's pink-is-for-girls/blue-is-for-boys anti-ethic would exist beyond misogynistic-racist-heterosexist capitalism is untenable, to me. That's why so many radical queers are anti-capitalist. Are you familiar with BashBack? Let me know what you think of their work, if you don't mind.

If we weren't sold the gender binary, we wouldn't be buying it. Do you agree? The medical and psychiatric and pharmaceutical establishments also profits mightily from this fucked up notion of a rigid gender binary that is a hierarchy. That's why "androgyny" isn't marketed or promoted in pornography. Because industries need there to be something oppositional to package, to sell, to partly disguise the fact that it takes a great deal of brutality to produce a culture like the dominant one we live in. Have you read this book, which gets at aspects of this?

He's someone who has been listening to radical feminists. And we are better off for it. Derrick Jensen is another person who has benefitted personally and politically from studying radical feminists. His work is terribly important. Do you know him? I recommend reading A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make-Believe, and Endgame, volume one and volume two. I don't see how we can be responsible to one another, globally, if we refuse to engage with the world of suffering and survival. Queer politics is often very myopic, very self-concerned. And self-regard is an important value, to be sure. But political activism requires coalition work. And those of us who are white and Global Northern/Western are morally obligated to know how our actions and inactions are impacting people in the Global South and East. I don't see liberals being willing to really engage with radical activists the world over. Why do you think that is? I think it's to protect our political position and status, our privileges, our entitlements, and our quality of life, built on the death and destruction of everyone and everything else.

Radical feminists have been "unpacking" this stuff for decades. If they are stigmatised as only being "unfriendly" or "unwelcoming" how are we to make use of their theories and insights? Do we hold male-men who are theorists to a standard of having to be accepting, accommodating, and friendly? Was Marx a friendly guy? Are pro-corporate capitalist theorists accommodating and accepting of genderqueer realities and people? Not the last time I checked.

Why do you believe there so little education in or ranks about what these radical feminists have been discussing for at least forty years? The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde gets deeply into the medical-industrial politics of manufacturing fake breasts. Why aren't we discussing that, do you think? Whose interests are served by promoting the idea that manufactured, mass-produced, bought-and-sold chest implants are authentically human? Lorde rejected the offer, the pressure to be fitted for a fake breast after having a mastectomy. Why should society refuse to deal with the reality that some women have one or no breasts due to cancer, among other things.

Sara wrote:
“In most societies where there is a hierarchical gender binary, it is usually, but not always the case that there are things called "feminine" and "masculine". Again, people tend to get really sloppy about this stuff. “

I think it's more intra-hierarchical than inter-hierarchical. That is, women have a hierarchy, men have a hierarchy. Those at the top of both hierarchies are considered the most attractive. Ordinary men are considered the least attractive.

I think there might be men vs women hierarchies in certain countries, maybe most, but I think Canada and the liberal non-religious US have mostly stabilized it to be more or less equivalent (even if not ideal). As in, having advantages and disadvantages on both sides that end up having value that's not completely out of whack with each other – though there are still many things to fix, there happens to be some on the men's side, too.

I feel right now like we are living in very different worlds. And maybe we are. In this country, unattractive older men are frequently paired up with media-appealing younger women. Take, for example, a current hit show, Modern Family. Do you see anything grossly racist, ageist, misogynistic, white male supremacist, and heterosexist about the image that opens this post? The woman on the left is the central man-figure's spouse. She's at least half his age. She's Latina. He's VERY white and not "attractive" as Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and pornographers define such things. Why do young women end up with men like HIM so often in dominant media productions? This is a fictional narrative after all. Do you think there's anything natural about that occurring? Surely he's not a good catch due to his gene pool.

How about all the women and girls Jack Nicholson gets to "date"? That's just Hollywood. How about the fact that unattractive men get to rent and purchase women and girls they "select" from around the world? How egalitarian is that? How does that reality, of 12 million sexual slaves, bring us even remotely close to anything humane or just in society? Do you see these as social problems that need to be addressed through sustained activism? What does your queer society offer as a way to end rape, trafficking, and slavery?

JR wrote:
“So while I'm eager to learn more about what you experienced as a child, and what you experience now, I'm not supporting any notion of something called "innate femininity". I don't see it. To even "mark" something as "feminine" is to engage in a very social-political act. There's nothing "inborn" about ascribing meaning and value to sets of behaviors, or to clustering them into one thing called "being feminine". That's all socially done, in the view of the blog. “

Sara responded:
It has to do with behaviors women already do, and an ideal that society as a whole (meaning men and women) set as 'better'. Same for masculine and men. Except that once something becomes acceptable for women, it becomes no way to prove one's masculinity, it becomes neutral. If the social climate had changed to set skirts, dresses and heels as unisex, the way it set shirts, pants and suits as unisex, people would have less ways to prove their membership into either sex (which makes people insecure). People in general don't wear gender-norm clothing just to be accepted as normal, they do so to be accepted as their sex, too.

I just feel like your analysis really leaves out so much, Sara. Like endemic rape, for example. Like sexual slavery, trafficking, and prostitution, all of which require these social standards to thrive. I feel like you're focusing in on one small aspect of gender at the exclusion of all the atrocities, almost pretending the atrocities don't exist. Do you know First Nations women who are being pimped right now on Vancouver streets? Does their experience register for you as human and worth paying attention to? What about the fact that one in three American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime, usually by a white man? What about battery of women by men? What about street harassment? What about marital rape and date rape?

To tune those realities out is to be left with the kind of analysis you offer here. That's how I see it. We can respectfully disagree, I guess, but I can't neglect to mention that there's a lot of social reality you're ignoring to come up with the theories you are proposing here.

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