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.

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