Sunday, 20 September 2009

Cyborgs'r'us - Haraway's Manifesto: Transgender Studies Reader, #3

This is one good bit of work: Haraway's concept of cyborg is very apt, and fitting of the trans condition in many ways, and it's hardly limited to that (I think it can be applied to cis womanhood easily, too), but as I'm not cis, I'll limit my comments to the bits that interest, fascinate and engage me, 'cos I'm so me me me, me.

Anyway: what I really liked about her piece, and what really spoke to me was her central concept of cyborg. That none of us cultural creatures are "natural" or can be clearly and cleanly differentiated from machines, or animals. That we don't exist as natural bodies, 'cos "natural" (as in opposition to unnatural, bit like "unfallen" vs. "fallen") does not exist for us, anyway. However we view it, the world is not separable from the concepts we use to map it, communicate it, think about it.

The other thing that I find real useful is the notion that there are no overarching systems of thought - no system can explain everything, and indeed, should not even attempt to do so - and that every system will distort whatever it views in some way. That systems of thought should be developed with this in mind, that there is no privileged narrative, no (absolute) ground on which to stand on, is so bang on in my mind I'm tempted to join some Haraway fan club and send her cookies.

This is the text that shows more than a modicum of understanding how science (as in physics, computer science, biology) works: that's excellent in my opinion, too - this text also isn't frightened of technology and the possibilities it offers, but seeks to subvert the aims for its own use, and embraces technology as a useful extension of our embodiments: this was written in 1984, and here we go, extending our embodiments in the cyberspace like this blog post, for example. If you think this text you're reading does not embody me, think again - who has written this? Who controls what happens with this text, here? Whose thoughts, whose formulation of them are you reading? How is this not embodiment? Where do I stop and you begin?

Then there's the "sod organic families" -bit that makes me cheer: "The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project." (105) The organic communities some of us are trying to find are simply stated completely unrealisable - give up: they're not to be found on some organic ground of being: we have to make them ourselves if we are to have them at all. There's no "natural" womanhood - there's only the womanhood we make, ourselves, and we should build it knowingly, accepting our real differences, building an alliance of women instead of an total, organic community, which would be an extension of the patriarchal origin anyway, a return to the primordial paradise which never existed.

I found some spiritual Christian value in Haraway's manifesto, too (113): I realised that in my theology, God/man binary does not exist - I don't do that dualism. For me, God is about incarnated God, God made flesh, God becoming human - there's no clearly defined limit, or a border, between God and human, which, incidentally, is reflected in the 5th century CE Chalcedonian Christological formula: "We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis." It's a contradictory formula, and precisely that is why it's so perfect: there can be no clear border, nor no no-border between God, and human, the tension remains. A rather cyborgian view of God and human, I'd say.

I can only agree with Haraway's call for "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction": precisely that. Confused boundaries, esp. with regards to binaries, and responsibility in their construction are exactly what I'd prescribe to this society, and they're what I'm working towards, too: for my own small part I'm re-educating the doctors I meet on the need to draw the border between "men" and "women", between "female" and "male" in a responsible way that does not erase people and their experiences, nor endangers their access to health care. That such borders will inevitably be confusing and confused is, I think, a cause for celebration - a binary system can never hold the riot that is human sex and gender, nor should it try to: such subsuming would (and is), in my opinion, be of an extremely totalising and patriarchal in nature.

I wonder if there'll be anything better in the book? If there is, it has to be something totally gobsmacking.

with a h/t to Paula Sankelo.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Why so many people do accept one of the two socially sanctioned genders (myself included)?

I realised I hadn't given this much thought, and I'd perhaps better. After all, I went through all that bother of transitioning - why settle for something relatively simple and normative, even, when I have had all the possibilities and dislike giving in to the norms, too?

Much as it shocked me, transitioning felt right when I did it. It wasn't just another of those things you do because it's convenient, because it saves a lot of hassle (although it did do all those things, too): I hugely enjoyed, and still enjoy, the results. I know it sounds trite, but this is how I was meant to live. This is the body I really needed to have. It felt physically good. I know, words don't seem convey what I'm trying to say, but it's like getting a proper meal after being hungry for a long time, and not knowing what food is like, even. Something you never knew even existed clicks into place and you realise what a huge, previously unknown hole there had been before.

And I don't know why. I really don't. All I have is speculation and conjectures.

Silly as it sounds, after vaginoplasty I felt whole. Part of it was no doubt psychological - no-one can take me back - but I suspect that wasn't all. How does one describe a body that feels right?

And, to continue the silliness, being a woman in this society feels right. It fits. While there still are very real problems in my life, there isn't the feeling of not fitting in, of not belonging. I still keep wondering if this how cises feel all the time. If they do, let me tell you they don't know how lucky they are.

This feeling highlights, of course, the horror that was living with untreated transsexuality. More on that elsewhere on this blog, and numerous other places - no need to go there now.


The reason why I accept one of the socially sanctioned genders is 'cos it fits. For the lack of better words, it just fits. I guess developing a proper answer to the question in the headline requires a theory I'm not sure even exists - a theory of fitting in, of normalcy. No-one seems to examine that. I wonder why?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

On the limits of theories, both social and biological

I quoted Nan Boyd in my last post about desperate attempts to save the foundations of sexual nationalisms. What I mean, more specifically, is that I find the attempts to save a clear-cut binary sex, or gender division rather funny: no clear binary exists, not in a biological sense (there's the pesky intersex, plus we don't exactly know how bodily sexing goes, and in order to have a clear binary, you really do have to know), and certainly not in a social sense - just go see your local genderqueers for a proof.

Moreover, there are some other fundamental problems, too: when we speak of biological sex, we are applying human-invented categories to phenomena we observe in nature, and it's pretty clear to me that the categories themselves are socially constructed, too - they're sure rooted in biology, but they're just as deeply rooted in human needs to categorise and dominate the world. There's no disentangling the social from the biological, or vice versa.

Which brings me to my point: sex and gender are interrelated in multiple ways, and we don't have a complete picture of how this happens - and it may well be we shall never have the complete picture. You see, when we're observing something outside ourselves, we have to classify it to be able to express the observations to anyone else in language - and when we do this, we're already bringing in the socially influenced apparatus of language, and, in effect, shall never have such a thing as pure, unbiased results. We can certainly try, and I'm not so pessimistic as to think we'll always be badly wrong, but I am confident we shall never get it totally right. We'll always be somewhat wrong. Strangely enough I find the thought comforting.

My second point is, social construction is on its own insufficient to explain sex or gender. If all gender really is socially, and socially only constructed, why does it fail so badly? Why does the construction make such a botched job of building two, and two only, genders and sexes? Why do people rebel against it? And on the other hand, why so many people do accept one of the two socially sanctioned genders (myself included)?

What I see, in my culture (big city, middle class, educated - I'm basically your privileged white girl except for the trans plus queerly sexual bits) is people who mostly toe the line when it comes to gender. They seem to be mostly happy with their sexed bodies, too. This is not to say they're happy with the very real inequalities between sexes and genders, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find a substantial amount of women, or men, who are intensely unhappy about there being sex/gender combinations such as "women" and "men". The unhappiness lies - or is made to lie - rather solidly in the margins: those who do not want to, or cannot live the binary in the way they want, or need to.

Thus, the (political) problem of sex and gender is manifold: part of it is just plain ol' oppression - patriarchal, cisarchal, classist, the lot. Part of it is that binary sex and gender really seem to fit a large majority of people, and thus it's rather hard to see a future development where sexes and genders would be significantly more complex, and would thus open up the possibilities more easily for those who need or want them. Thus, a wholesale queering of everyone and everything is, in my opinion, an utopia: all very nice, but it's not going to happen because there's insufficient demand, and the benefits are not tangible enough for the majority to get really excited about. Heck, there's very little tangible benefit from seriously queered gender and sex to me now, as it is.

Going back to theories, a large part of the reason why current theories on sex and gender are so insufficient in my opinion is that there's so little research into how gender and sex works for the majority. So far, almost all research into sex and gender has focused on the "non-normative", on the "abnormal" bits, and as far as I can see, majority sex and gender has largely been ignored - it has been taken for granted, as if it was a simple question: "duh, everyone knows what a woman is". As if! I'd really like to see, say, a majority feminist organisation, or our national health system, really dig into its own practices of sexing and gendering - how does it do those, who are included in practice, who are excluded, why, what are their solutions to the practical problems of sexing and gendering that happens on the margins - as far as I can tell this isn't even documented, let alone analysed. The results should be interesting (probably shocking, too, in many ways).

Monday, 14 September 2009

Transgender Studies Reader, #2: Patrick Califia gosh darn

What he writes about hormones is, like, that's what it's been like for me, too. Hormones change you in so many ways, and what they do to your thinking and to your sexuality is interesting (not to mention a huge relief, a lot of fun, and deeply satisfying to boot). For me, the direction was, obviously, different - I went from T to E. I cannot but feel a deep sympathy for Califia as he writes: "Perhaps transition will be an ironic experience for me, and I will discover that I remain the same person, having changed only my physical appearance. Now, that's a depressing thought!" (436) I thought like that, and I was right - and deeply wrong, too, as Califia himself suggests in the following passage about the effects testosterone (T) has had on him. Where he went, I have been - and I'm entirely of the opinion that if you're a man, that's the place for you, and in retrospect, I'm glad men really enjoy it - I couldn't, but no sour grapes over that: I'm not a man.

Nan Boyd's piece on the claiming of historical figures for lesbian, or transsexual visibility is good, too: a solid account of the facts, and it does seem I'm not the only one thinking "...despite anti-essentialist gestures to the contrary, contemporary sex/gender politics often document the absolutely desperate reiteration of bipolar gender as a foundation for sexual nationalism (431)." Bang on!

This is not quite the book I thought it'd be - I'll say right now I've been wrong on academic trans studies. There's a lot more to it than these literary theorists I've known about so far.


I've been searching for a word to describe the attitude of the likes of Greer, Jeffreys, Raymond, Hausman and their ilk - the word is cissupremacism.

It's the belief that the sexes and genders embodied by cis bodies are better, more valuable, more real than the sexes and genders embodied by trans bodies. I really don't understand how this is compatible with feminism, but then again, I don't need to: I'm not trying to say it is.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Transgender Studies Reader, #1

I'm reading the book by dipping in at points that interest me, and blogging about those bits - I'm not meaning to go through all of it, but might, should I feel like it.

Here goes:

Jay Prosser's essay was the first thing I read properly. Mostly rather impressive, the critique of Butler is spot on: she does seem to have this queer - straight -dichotomy, which is pretty silly considering she otherwise would seem to like to shun clear-cut divisions (265). Jay's take on the issue of queer inclusion is also spot on - I don't want to be included in genderqueer, 'cos I'm not genderqueer, as much as genderqueers might like to appropriate me. And damn straight I will raise hell if people try to subsume me under some great queer umbrella - my issues are mine, and while there certainly is room, and a need for, alliances, there's hardly any point in trying to build coalitions across such diverging needs. I don't, personally, need much more in the way of self-expression than I have now - I can live with the binary most of the time. It doesn't, of course, mean that I'd like to participate in oppression of genderqueer people: it's not right and it's got to stop. But I'm not genderqueer myself, and it's silly to try and queer me.

Prosser's essay has some interesting verbal slips going on. Jay uses the word "transsexual" as if it was a noun: "The transsexual doesn't necessarily..." (271). I find it really telling: calling people "transsexuals" instead of, say, "transsexual women" or "trans men" or "transsexual people", even, makes for an othering: there's the men, there's the women and there's the transsexuals.[1] This usage occurs in the context of speaking about transsexed bodies, and it's precisely this that's my biggest bone of contention with academic trans studies.

For all their talk about the social construction of gender, they still seem to fall back onto biological sexes as a ground of sexed being (I can live with that) - but they don't seem to read much biology to notice there's plenty about the process of sexing a body that we know precisely nothing about. There is no such thing as a clear, biological sex. There are no "naturally" sexed bodies. What there is, is an assigned sex, and assigned gender. The biological sex of the body need not (and in fact sometimes is not) congruent with the assigned sex, no matter how fine you slice it, because we do not know everything there is to know about the biological process of sexing.

Please take bodies seriously. Please take people's own descriptions of their bodily existences seriously, and do not try to force-fit them into your theories, no matter how well-meaning, nice, or nasty those theories are. Theories should follow from observations, not the other way round, even if you're in the humanities.

Prosser's analysis of the Butler's less-than-nice entanglement with Livingston, the director of the film "Paris is Burning", and the revelation of Butler's and Livingston's vested interests in portraying Venus Xtragavanza in the way they do is pretty bloody excellent - and it also makes my blood boil (275-277). How the fuck do they dare? That's such a clear-cut case of a) appropriating Latina trans woman's experience and b) an attempt at colonisation of our lives as "performative". I don't bloody perform myself. I am myself.

Prosser's relative ease with which ze (I've absolutely no idea how ze likes hirself to be referred to - thus, gender-neutral pronouns) talks about "the difference between sex and gender identity" (279) is also pretty cis- and perhaps queercentric: not all of us do identity at all.

Jacob Hale's piece was pretty damn good. It gave me a new respect for the work of Monique Wittig - her very pertinent question of if lesbians are women opens up multiple new ways of questioning sex and gender, and Hale's analysis of how the "natural attitude" toward gender works is simply excellent (286-290). If you're cis and read only one passage from this book, I'm pretty confident this is the bit you should read. It deconstructs the common currency of gendering thoroughly and analytically. It refers to Kessler and McKenna (in the same book) - and it's based on actual research, instead of just pontifications in a university study. Hale's attitude towards gender mirrors mine (it has to be consensual), so this is perhaps not too much of a surprise.

With Dean Spade I take some issues - especially his attitude towards people like me, who do vies transsexuality an unfortunate disease with a good treatment (hormones, surgery, lifestyle changes - all of it or any bits you like): his final statement on page 329, that I somehow undermine the threat to a dichotomous gender system which trans experience can pose is a bit rich. That I've transitioned, that I've had my body modified in ways suitable to me, that I live the life I want to live, and have rejected almost everything gendered/sexed that this society has tried to force on me - if this is not rebellion, I sure don't know what is. I just don't insist I'm something third, something different from other women - I insist I'm a woman just like all other women, and that this society simply fucks up when it forcibly assigns all people a gender, and a sex, without asking them, and without giving them an option of opting out of it altogether or changing those assigned characteristics at will. I know my experience, my lived life, has rocked the bedrock of many people, and frankly I think it rocks it all the more because I'm cisgender. Trans, sure, but cisgender. I can't be written off as a weirdo quite as easily as the majority can write off anyone visibly very variant. My relative assimilation is precisely the threat. I'm one of those cases where the forced sexing really bungled it up.

This is a common problem with theories - theoreticians would like to subsume all experience under their theory, and when something unpalatable appears, it's shoved under the rug as "wrong consciousness" or "bad politics" or some such gobbledygook. Academic theories my experiences trump not.

That's that for now - have a nice week!

[ETA notes]
[1] "transsexual" is an adjective. This is why I write "trans woman", not "transwoman". It's similar to black, white, long-haired and so on.

Friday, 11 September 2009

How ciscentric writing on trans issues makes me feel

In a word: awful.

In more words: it's like peering into the mind of an almost alien species. The way ciscentric people privilege their own view on sexes and genders is just breathtaking. They try really hard to believe they can get the sexing-at-birth -bit right, when it's bloody obvious to me they can't.

They also don't seem to recognise this. Acronyms FTM and MTF are a nice case in point: why the hell would the initial mistake be relevant in categorising people? It's like calling a divorcee a wife-to-divorcee - as if the first bit was somehow relevant to what she is today.

Cises don't want to admit they're cis - they'd much prefer "normal", for which there's the very handy counterpart "abnormal" which is reserved for riff-raff like me. Using words like "woman" to mean "cis woman" is a nice case of this.

Then there's the bit how the cis don't seem to get it's a different thing to be a girl than to like girls: the conflation of sexuality with sex/gender is pretty common, too. They're related, sure, but if you like to peer into that more closely, I think it's easy to notice it means there's a lot more genders and sexes than two - if sex/gender and sexuality are linked, it kinda means lesbians are a different sex from het women...

...and it means that the words homosexuality and heterosexuality lose their meanings, too. For how can one be homosexual if there's no opposite, or same with regards to sex/gender? We're all heterosexuals, but that means the word "heterosexual" doesn't denote anything on top of "sexual" any more. Words like "androphile" and "gynophile" and "sapphophile" would be more meaningful, perhaps. Once you mess around with the binary, you do lose a lot of words, and there are very few, if any, alternatives. I find it very telling that both "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" are used without questioning so widely even in gender studies, where otherwise gender is seen as something more complex than either woman or man.

Oh yeah, it makes me angry as a hornet, too.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Why academic writing on trans is pretty shite, short version

Has it ever occurred to anyone academic that we just might simply be mistaken about sexes and genders every now and then when we do the initial, forced sexing? Anyone?

(have been browsing Transgender Studies Reader. It's pretty awful reading, to be honest. I'm not sure if I can manage to read it all - the mistakes and the hate reeks so badly. If I was a Roman Catholic I'd perform an exorcism on the book)

I'll write something better when I'm up to it. But yeah, it makes for pretty godawful reading.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Go see a picture of a normal woman

Yeah, that's right. There it is: Vitamin G Health & Fitness:

I read about it in the Guardian, and what really stopped me in my tracks was her measurements. Which are the same as mine. I've never, not once in my life have imagined myself to be the same size as someone who models, let alone looks like that. Of course I don't look exactly like her, but oh shit it is a revelation to realise I'm roughly speaking the same size as that thin, pretty woman in that picture. I never thought I'd write anything like this, but thanks, Glamour, you made my day!