So, the Trump administration is planning to define gender by genitalia and so exclude transgender individuals in America from a range of civil rights, in the process, of course, exposing them to increased prejudice and adverse discrimination.
As reported in the New York Times:
“…the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX…The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.”
If my initial statement of the situation seems basic and crude it’s a miracle of eloquence compared to the compound of baseless assertion, pseudo-psychology and terminological blockading put out by the combined forces of the administration. As so often with these people and their ideological banalities it’s hard to know where to begin to rebut them, and in some senses it’s futile to attempt counter-argument because this is about power and prejudice and who has the ability to impose theirs on others.
"TRANSGENDER OR CISGENDER WE SHOULD BE CONCERNED, WE SHOULD KEEP OURSELVES INFORMED AND ALERT..."
Whether Donald Trump can enforce his administration’s intentions, whether his power is as unassailable as he would like to believe or assert, to raise fundamental questions about the wisdom and viability of such an initiative we have only to consider the world-wide diversity of physicality which defies categorical analysis, also the political implications of physical registry, and the irony of denying aspiration and choice in a country which was built on a dream of self-transformation. What should we in the wider world feel about it all? Transgender or cisgender we should be concerned, we should keep ourselves informed and alert, we should hold ourselves in readiness to campaign and fight, and then we should turn our attention to our own agendas, the ones we have set ourselves for the present.
I want to pick up where I left off in my last post, with the debate about gender definition. In that post I quoted a friend as saying,-
“I feel it’s dismissive of this very real struggle to be told, told, that my biological sex doesn’t matter – that my ‘cultural gender’ is more important!”
In my weekend paper I read a successful young writer quoted thus:
“The thing about gender is that I don’t really believe in it. It’s a series of cultural practices…”
Is it enough to say that individual women in a whole variety of situations will have their own take on gender, or can we argue that there is a correct or definitive “gender” which you either “get” or are somehow a failure to the political cause?
And so here we are fighting amongst ourselves again.
It’s time to look back a generation or two. The 1970’s – I was there, but for the purposes of a discussion of trans, I was not there. A lot of the trans-related moments and events of that decade, usefully reviewed in Susan Stryker’s “Transgender History,” a book I have used extensively for this and other writings, passed me by. So much of that history is American history, of course, and I am not American, but I was also preoccupied by other things at the time. For me, and many others, the 70’s were a time of conflict, - reactive, volatile and yet working themselves out against a background of complacency and conservatism. In style they seemed to be split across the mid-decade, when something hippy-ish ceded the stage to something punk-ish, both aesthetically challenged. It was certainly beset by crises, political and economic, and by the end of that decade there had arisen a right-wing tendency set upon reversing the social advances precipitated by the 1960’s.
At this point we can nod ruefully at the correspondences with our present situation, but that would be miss the differences between the two periods. Hold on to that thought.
"TRANS PEOPLE ON THE OTHER HAND WERE STILL MEDICALIZED, THEIR SITUATION DEFINED BY THEIR PHYSICALITY …”
The 1970’s were certainly a tough time for transgender people. Gay men who had been fellow-campaigners in the 60’s began to achieve emancipation and public acceptance. Trans people on the other hand were still medicalized, their situation defined by their physicality and their tendencies pathologized so that it seemed best that they be rectified and “cured” through medical and psychological procedures. And to add insult to injury they were made the scapegoats for societal injustice by many feminists of the period.
It was the time of “women-identified women”, of the primacy of the female body and the sense of being which is “earnt” through pain, also the first full claiming of female space. That sense of being and space was something from which transgender people were firmly barred by ideologists, however much less trenchant activists might welcome them into the many campaigns of the time. To be trans was to falsify reality, and to penetrate, rape even, the female psyche, - to be, in the end, as one commentator put it, “bad, sick or wrong.” It was not until the adoption of the idea of gender dysphoria at the end of the 1970’s that identity rather than physical sex and sexual orientation could be used as a measure of self-hood, the precursor to the present situation which is a time of, we might say, “self-identified self-hood.” That was also a moment when it began to be recognized that stereotyping was not the exclusive province of men.
I simplify, maybe I even falsify, but I am grappling with the character of the conflict rather than its precise terms. When reading the various manifestos of today, I have often been glad of the political radicalism of the 70’s, glad of its lack of irony and hard idealism, but it was rarely grateful and inclusive, and to read now the terms in which some feminists of the decade denounced others and asserted their own needs does send a shiver down my spine. There was a movement, a very significant movement, but it was, with hindsight, conflicted, aggressive and therefore almost inevitably defensive. Is that also the nature of contemporary feminism, or maybe, potentially, contemporary transgenderism?
Let’s look at a key moment in that period and a key piece of literature. It was a speech made in 1973 by writer and activist Robin Morgan which she published as “Lesbianism and Feminism: Synonyms or Contradictions?” It is often cited as a key anti-trans document but, as its title suggests, it is concerned with lesbianism, an area of sexual orientation which many feminists of the period found particularly challenging to their developing philosophies. The speech was indeed a keynote address to the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference in Los Angeles, and it marked a moment of anti-trans activism because Morgan concluded by proposing that the conference exclude a particular trans artist and activist from the Conference. In the end the Conference rejected the proposal but the activist left anyway and the scars of that confrontation were evident through discussions of transgender issues during the 70’s and beyond.
You can find the speech online and make your own conclusions about the arguments, but for me it is interesting that so little of the address concerns itself with the transgender experience. The enemies – and this is a combative speech at a combative time – are men, and then, later, male gays, and later still in the speech, feminist “collaborators” in the masculinist project, the women who counter-define men. It is all very binary. The indictment of the trans experience is clearly directed at a number of socially prominent transgender females, not – and this is almost universal in the 1970’s – trans-males, or queer activists, or intersex or androgyne. If these MTF’s were the first to cross the line into public prominence as trans people they also had to be the first to be beaten back.
Dismissing all of these enemies allows Morgan to settle her differences with the lesbians. The speech is a well- and often poetically-written piece and it ends with the invocation of “Great Love” and “Great Motherhood” on the basis of which feminists and lesbians can unite to fight the enemies. I am reminded of Mao’s Long March in the 1930’s. During that year-long retreat the weak, the insufficiently committed and the questioners fell away which left a small but unified cohort of fighters who were to lead the revolution. I am also reminded of the subsequent Cultural Revolution and its deadly consequences. Do revolutions follow similar trajectories? Now that the trans cause is in the ascendant should we beware of hardening our attitudes and unleashing hate?
Morgan refers to “man-hating” as a legitimate political act. Is hate then a necessary element in political activism? Can we be active in the trans cause without hating? Can we offer a “Big Love” hug to the feminists? It would be good if we could prevail through human qualities unique to us, even in our huge diversity as transgender people. We can all be genderists. If we’re not, some self-styled radicals will, it turns out, be fighting for Trump.
Coming up next - “self-identified self-hood” and my conjectures about its relationship to womanhood.