When/how does language help us, and when/how does it hinder us? Do words that act as labels limit us, or can they help us define ourselves and enable freedoms? I suspect this will not be the only time I write about this. I think about it a lot …
On occasion I’ve been among people who focus on culturally specific expressions of gender and conclude that gender is purely culturally created and has no underlying reality or authenticity. I think this viewpoint combines a heady mixture of the influence of recent(ish) academic thinking on gender and sensitivity to the way in which people, broups and communities find themselves mistreated or discriminated against on grounds of gender. These discussions often lead in the direction of a particular argument, and then sometimes a further sub-argument focusing on trans people.
The first argument, in its extreme form, is that there is no such thing as gender, and if we were able to truly realize that we could break free of society’s chains and express our gender-free individuality. For these people, the argument is that gender is both a prison and a rulebook imposed by society. Usually someone will then go on to make the point that pink used to be a male colour, talk about Recengy dandies, men wearing wigs and make-up and drawing beauty spots blah di blah. Men look like this now, they say, but then they looked like that, and their gender expression was so different, and that must prove it’s all a conjuring trick so let’s dispense with the lot of it, abracadabra gone!
Some people then take the argument a little further, and start talking about trans people. And in particular, they then start to focus on those medical interventions trans people may seek in order to live in their true gender. If society were free of all this gender fakery they say, I wonder how many people would seek medical help, put themselves through x, y and z? Let’s just focus on the nub of that argument for a moment, shall we? It’s the assertion that trans people who seek treatment may be doing so because of societal pressure, and the suggestion therefore that they are putting themselves through medical processes needlessly. So at a time when many might describe their own sense of self as being more free, these people are arguing that they are surrendering to society-sanctioned medical mistreatment. If you call them on it, they will absolutely say that’s not what they’re arguing – but in fact they are. This is perilously close to the arguments of those influenced by Janice Raymond who assert that trans people are in fact gay men or women in denial, and that the medical treatment they seek is in order to avoid having to come to terms with their sexuality. I can’t really see another interpretation of that argument than that medical assistance for trans people is actually a form of societal gender oppression. Janice Raymond, by the way, also wrote memorably of trans women that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves”.
When I find myself involved in these discussions, it’s at this point that I sometimes feel a little isolated in my point of view – to the point where I have been hesitant to express it, although I think those days may be going or gone. The arguments above are sometimes made by trans people, but more often I hear them from people who do not appear (I must be careful here) to have personal experience of gender variance and who do appear to be relatively comfortable with their gender identity as assigned at birth. I don’t conduct surveys on the spot, you understand. They are often better read than me in the areas of gender studies and feminism. I have always been interested in these areas, you understand, but decades of living in the male role and in denial about my true self put a bit of distance between me and those particular canons. But although I’m catching up, they have the literature under their belt, and I just have the life experience which appears, in some circles to be regarded as less valid and significant.
In those circumstances it is often quite hard to stick your head above the parapet and contest arguments which for many people, who regard themselves as liberated, feel like orthodoxy. But perhaps one teeny, tiny question or two to begin with. In western society, I would suggest, it is considerably easier to be openly gay than it was forty years ago yes? It’s not always easy, but it is easier. At minimum, let’s assert that things are somewhat better for gay people now by comparison with1967, which was when the Wolfenden Report proposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. If trans people are really repressed gay people, then as society becomes more accepting of gay people the number of people seeking medical help would probably go down, not up, wouldn’t it? Then how do you explain an increase in the number of people in the UK seeking medical help since the Gender Recognition Act which I have heard described as being of “epidemic proportions”. The speaker in question was referring to the shape of the statistical pattern, not suggesting that you can “catch” transgenderism. But how do the gender fictionalists square that particular circle?
They also attempt to strengthen their argument by talking about trans people who do not identify at one end of the gender spectrum. Talk of the spectrum also gets entangled with talk of gender binaries, and I’ll have more to say about that another time. I will simply say at this point that I identify as female but don’t believe in a gender binary. But some people seem to feel the first statement in that sentence implies the second. It doesn’t, and I’ll have more to say about that another time, and about the authenticity of my gender identity. My thinking about this is heavily influenced by Julia Serano, whose book Whipping Girl is probably the most useful and important book I’ve read about trans identity. Its primary focus is on trans women although I have recommended it to trans men I know as well. For an excerpt of some newer work from Julia, see the link labelled “Gender is Not Just a Performance ..” below.
- Gender Is Not Just A Performance [Excerpts] (jezebel.com)