WHERE DID WE GO WRONG? 
FEMINISM AND TRANS THEORY - TWO TEAMS ON THE SAME SIDE?

© Stephen Whittle, February 2000

 

A Short Piece of History

Existing feminist oppositions to transsexual and transgender people, the medical processes they undertake and the knowledge and understanding they have of gender and sex, like all oppositions have a history. I want to start by framing this presentation in a small piece of my personal history. Like all trans people speaking on almost anything related to what trans is, the subjective experience always becomes the primary reference point.

In 1974, as a member of Manchester’s ‘Radical Lesbian Collective’ I attended the ‘Women’s Liberation Conference’ which was held in Edinburgh. The conference was an incredibly stormy affair. Loud and heated arguments took place around issues such as ‘why were men providing child care in the conference crèche?’ and ‘how could women claim they were women-identified women if their sexual or homemaking partner was a man?’ All of these discussions took place around a backdrop of the fundamental ideological differences between Liberal feminism, Marxist feminism and Radical Separatist (lesbian) feminism. At that time, and through my membership of the Lesbian Collective, I was firmly placed in the camp of radical separatism.

I believed – and still do believe – that there are values inherent in the complex understandings that arise out womans’ collective and individual histories which are better values in terms of informing people about ways of living and being. Those better values, if only articulated [through the process of women’s consciousness raising] would lead to the deconstruction of the power inherent in the patriarchal structures that dictate gender and sex roles. That deconstruction project could only take place if women had a separate space, a place from which to speak and to formulate a new understanding both of patriarchal and heterosexist oppression and the oppositional tactics needed to combat that oppression. As such, I had no problem with my positioning as a radical separatist. Liberal feminism merely sought equality but on men’s terms – it would not introduce a new set of values to the world. Marxist feminism simply viewed patriarchal oppression as being the revolutionary overturning of the economic structures that had made women members of the caste of ‘slave’, but even with the revolution and the discovery of women’s power – it would however retain women as the partners of men, not as people with a separate and distinct voice.

When we returned to Manchester after the Women’s Liberation Conference, I announced to the other collective members that the conference had confirmed for me that I was in fact a man (this was 1974 remember). I expected to be ousted from the collective and to be ostracised - not least because I was ‘betraying women, by copping out, escaping my oppression and becoming an apparent oppressor’. Ironically the values that arose out of belonging to the slave caste of woman, and the untouchable sub-group of lesbian woman at that, were to be my saving grace. I was listened to, I was given gifts of shirts and ties out of the back of ‘formerly identified as butch’ women’s wardrobes. I was taken to clubs where I would be able to meet other people who identified as I did – as trans - as a person whose self was not dictated by the labels attached at birth to genital morphology. My separate and distinct voice was not only heard but it was listened to, and a new set of values was followed. My belief in radical separatism was confirmed – for the time being.

Raymond and the Transsexual Person

However, with the publication in 1979 of Janice Raymond’s ‘The Transsexual Empire’, feminist theory and praxis was suddenly given a framework in which to,

See(n) transsexuals as possessing something less than agency [in the words of Sandy Stone, a lesbian feminist transsexual woman vilified by Raymond]....... transsexuals are infantilized, considered too illogical or irresponsible to achieve true subjectivity, or clinically erased by diagnostic criteria; or else, as constructed by some radical feminist theorists, as robots of an insidious and menacing patriarchy, an alien army designed and constructed to infiltrate, pervert and destroy "true" women (Stone, in Epstein and Straub, 1991, p 294).

Raymond made 3 arguments for use by feminists to condemn the transsexual woman (n.b. transsexual men didn’t really exist in 1979, and probably still don’t) that are undoubtedly very powerful,

Firstly: "Transsexuals are living out two patriarchal myths: single parenthood by the father (male mothering) and the making of woman according to man's image." (Raymond, 1979: xx)

In other words the process of transsexual "medical rebirth" is a process of mythic deception, which was one response, by a male power base, to the second wave of feminism in America in the 1960s.

Secondly: Transsexuals are one result of a "socio-political programme", controlled and implemented by the medico-legal hierarchies of, and on behalf of, a patriarchal hegemony which has used them:

"to colonise feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality" (Raymond, 1979: xx).

Not only do they construct women out of men, but just as the androgynous man assumes the trappings of femininity when he identifies as, and is reconstructed as a transsexual, so:

"the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist assumes for himself the role and behaviour of the feminist" (Raymond, 1979: 100).

Thus the transsexual is created as an alternative to biological women who are becoming obsolete. In this way the medical aspect of the patriarchal empire does not just attack women; it goes further so that their sense of self is being penetrated in every way. Womens' identities, spirits and sexuality are all invaded. The physical loss of a penis does not mean the loss of an ability to penetrate.

Thirdly: In this context, Raymond made her most damning statement:

"All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive." (Raymond, 1979: 104)

The discourse of rape is a subtle one of possession, in particular of the flesh of women. When a man penetrates a woman, he is often referred to as "possessing" that woman. Raymond's constructed transsexual woman who identifies as a lesbian feminist exhibits:

"the attempt to possess women in a bodily sense while acting out the images into which men have moulded women" (Raymond, 1979: 99).

Women were in 1979, therefore justified in thinking transsexual people were not innocent victims of oppression arising out of patriarchy’s controlled gender and sex roles (which would have been one alternative reading), but rather were co-conspirators in an attempt by men to possess them and to remake them in a mould that suits them.

The historical location of Raymond’s book places it in the history of sex-role, early feminist theory and from it emerged a construction of the transsexual person in which they are no longer merely a medico-legal construction, but they become part of the story, and mechanism, of patriarchal oppression. This discourse, documented by Raymond (she did not invent it single handedly) reproduces the power relations that are themselves inherent in radical feminist separatist theory. That some values and some knowledge are better…… and others are inherently flawed.

The Effects of Raymond

Raymond’s discourse, I would argue, has had far-reaching ideological effects:

it promotes radical separatism as the only viable alternative to the patriarchal hegemony, because the patriarchy is always involved in the treacherous act of building the Trojan Horse [containing the transexual woman] (and liberal feminism and marxist feminism will always open the gate to the horse);

it supports the notion of separatism in that it sanctions an "invisible" oppression of transsexual people by women. It allows women to become dominant in telling their narrative about their past in order to justify and promote the use of sex-role theory, and, in assuming a homogeneity in women's voices, it subsumes any other discourse about gender and sex. In this way the transsexual person’s story of gender oppression and a search for identity is silenced.

It assumes that biology is destiny, despite all that feminism seems to say in opposition to this in terms of the pre-determination of sex and gender roles. What is anatomically observable - the possession of a penis or a vagina at the birth of a child – what is viewed as ‘natural’ becomes the dictator of the socially constructed gender role.

The Relationship of Trans People With Feminism

The reason that I wanted to talk about this is that being like all trans people I was obligated to explore the complex pedagogies that informed myself.

Initially, I was compelled to do so with practising clinical psychologists. It was part of my ‘treatment’ – a way in which others could actually justify allowing me to do to myself things they felt very uncomfortable about – a point I’ll come back to presently. 15 years later, I undertook this exploration by default, when I embarked on reading the work of academic psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists for my doctorate.

In both circumstances I felt washed out, mangled and hung out to dry. What did I discover about myself – well :

Between the faults of my over bearing father and weak mother - or depending upon whom you read, my overbearing mother and weak father, I should have certainly known that I :

was escaping my disgust at my lesbianism, or

my fear of economic dependency, or

just simply my inherent failure to conform to my gender role, or

I was seeking a cure to the obsessive compulsive disorder which manifested itself as a psychological desire to cleanse myself of the disgusting bodily attributes that came with a female morphology, or

I was so overwhelmingly bound up in my incestous desire for my father that I had to inscribe himself upon me, or for that matter

my oedipal desire for my mother which meant I had to re-present myself as her possible sexual partner.

And so on and so forth - a diarrhea of theories, none of which fit my, not fantastic but also not awful, experience of childhood and life. However what I did know, on both occasions, was that trans people had to ‘pass’ the ‘examinations’ of the psycho -‘experts’, who acted as the gate keepers to the medical professionals who would provide the hormones and surgery that I knew were essential to not only enhance my life, but in order to keep me alive. As such the psycho -experts became the enemy I had to either persuade to believe me or to defeat (regardless of whether they believed me or not) in order to enter through the gateway. Yet – I also discovered that the psycho-experts were contained and controlled by both the overarching assumptions of their own disciplines, and the schools of theory they belonged to within those disciplines: that it is possible to find scientific evidence to ‘truths’ which have some sort of universality, but that that universality depends upon the paradigms of the theoretical understanding of the nature of ‘human-ness’ and its interaction with society, and culture. Where was feminism in all of this? In reality it has been moving forward from Raymond’s objectivist view of what feminism is.

As Margot Llombart outlines in her chapter in the 1997 collection; "Deconstructing Feminist Psychology":

"Feminist critical contributions to psychology have played a crucial role in the process of unmasking the objectivist fallacy of psychology. They have ensured that the second part of that equation is now included – that it that there is a social dimension, which had in the past been driven into oblivion by the positivist project, present in the production of psychological knowledge. Feminist psychologists have been instrumental, just as feminist have also been in other fields, in unmasking the effects of power, domination and exclusion. In psychology feminists have been instrumental in criticising the classical model of the production of knowledge, and the masculine ideology in most scientific practices. Further they have shown that most ‘general’ theories about human beings are nothing more than fictions."

 

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Feminists when faced with trans people find themselves between the devil and deep blue sea. They now see that general theories are nothing more than fictions. But how does this pan out in real life?

Those who claim the right to a feminist theoretical position are apparently, when faced with trans people, faced with individuals who simply are not whom they claim to be. How can a person born with a penis claim to be a woman, when to be a woman requires that you are not born with a penis (or vice versa).

It begs the whole question of the existence of a feminist understanding. It is this challenge that we have to address in both theory and practice. Can feminists learn anything from the experience of the trans community. The transsexual person faces the problem of interpretation, and feminists have to address that interpretation through their understanding of the objectivist fallacy they have underlined, yet by doing so they challenge the very basis of feminist thought - that there are 2 sexes and there are 2 genders.

The transsexual / transgender community through its own writings and theorising has attempted to offer an "insider's" exploration of the ways in which trans people view gender issues and the use of transsexual and transvestite iconography in particular. However the trans community acknowledges that it is not, however, a clear cut issue. Trans theory has amongst its predecessors the work of neo-marxists and feminist theorists. These schools of thought have had some difficulty in reconciling transgender behaviour with their political stances, as can be seen by the work of Janice Raymond or for example Sheila Jeffries whose radical feminist viewpoint cites trans men as being ‘poor oppressed women pushed into self-mutilation by patriarchal oppression’.

Transgendered people as writers and speakers used to have to be primarily apologists. However the time has come when we are seeing a new form of transgendered performativity and text giving: now we have become theorizers about the idea / the word / the signifier ‘gender’. It is only been in the 1990s that transgendered people have felt able to participate in the theoretical discussions that surround sex and gender. The fight to be included in those discussions has involved the facing of several serious problems.

Firstly, any discussion of gender by the transgendered community has been hampered by the medical discourse surrounding transgendered behaviour which makes transgendered people out to be simultaneously self-interested and decidedly barmy.

Secondly, they have been hampered by social and legal restrictions which have made it very difficult publicly to come out as transgendered, and which further add another aspect of self interest to any work they might do on gender issues.

Thirdly, Janice Raymond's thesis in "The Transsexual Empire, the Making of the She-male" (1979) discredited for a long time any academic voice they might have, in particular with feminist theorists.

Fourthly, transgendered people have not been allowed either objectivity or sexuality. Objectivity was lost because of the combination of the other three factors; also, if they questioned gender and sex-roles, they were put in the invidious position of having to justify any sex-role change they might undertake to accommodate their gender. Sexuality was lost as it was constructed for them in the form of repressed homosexuality being appeased through reassignment surgery, or heterosexuality (in their new sex-role) was imposed on them by the medical profession in order to justify what was seen as a "medical collusion with an unattainable fantasy" (The Lancet, 1991, as cited in the 1994 preface to the reprinting of Raymond’s "Transsexual Empire").

The transgendered community have not attempted to avoid these difficulties; rather they have tackled them head on.

Firstly, the postmodernist acknowledgement of a multiplicity of voices has been adapted to theoretical stances and there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the medical profession should take a diagnostic or merely enabling role for those people who actively seek reassignment treatment.

Secondly, the trans community has consistently fought through the courts and the legislature not for the right to marry or the right to dissapear, but for the right to be trans and yet to be afforded what others are afforded; relationship protection, personal safety, anti-discrimination legislation, access to appropriate health care and treatment.

Thirdly, transgenderists have tackled the problems raised by radical feminism by continuously asking for answers to the very awkward question. If there is an insistance upon the existence of and resultant oppression of binary sex and gender roles then you cannot exclude all trans people from experience any of that. For example trans men and trans women challenged the "Womyn born Womyn" policy of the 1994 Michigan Womyn's Music Festival by asking for their right for either group to enter the festival.

Fourthly, transgendered people have questioned the whole notion of objectivity - they do not try to claim it and instead they have built upon the tradition the community has of autobiographical writing to give a voice to their self-acknowledged subjectivity. As to sexuality, they have begun to reclaim it. Through the work begun by gay, lesbian or bi activists they have started to come out. The argument is simple: if you can acknowledge in yourself that what makes a person is what takes place between the ears and not between the legs, then a trans person is in a privileged position to know that sexuality is a movable and mutable force within us all.

Default assumptions are (as they always have been [ see Jason Cromwell's recent book on this]) one of the biggest problems facing the acceptance of the trans community's contribution to any academic work or, for that matter, any acceptance at all. There is the first assumption that females do not become men or males become women: they become pastiches, surgical constructions of imaginary masculinities or femininities. The default assumption that underlies any notion of a transgendered existence is that gender is immutable and it is fixed through biological constraints, and social construction merely affects any representation that the biological may take. This is also the default assumption of feminism - biology is destiny, no matter that in the same breath we say it is not.

Transgendered activists and academics are attempting to deal with the volatile concept of identification, but it is against all the odds: the rigidity of a set of default assumptions concerning sex-roles that pervades all discussion of gender - that the two have an incorruptible sameness that makes them all pervasive. Yet gender and sex are fundamentally different for the transgendered community. They face the everyday reality of that difference in their lives, and attempts to reconcile it have led to it being challenged in unanticipated ways. Many have had to move on from seeking any biological basis for their state of being; all searching for aetiology has been unsuccessful. Any aetiology that has been proposed, whether social or biological, has been torn down by the mass of exceptions. It has been accepted that seeking aetiology is a fruitless occupation as the multiplicity of possible factors increases. And even if it were found and there were possible points of interception, would the "cure" be wanted?

Expressing the move to a theory in which gender and sex roles are clearly separated (at least for a large number of people) and what that means to the modernist view of gender theory is a challenge the transgendered community is not ignoring, nor is it prepared to come up with trite self-serving answers. Challenging their own sense of self, looking inwards to find who they are, using the process of autobiography that they know so well, is producing some very interesting answers which challenge the very binary structure of the complacent world in which gender was invented, and by which it has become obsessed. After all trans people did not invent gender. Gender is a merely a word to signify a concept of the human imagination that belongs within and supports the foundations of a patriarchal heterosexist hegemony. Feminists can take heart from the fact that within the trans community there is no hidden answer as to what gender is. However there are answers to how it is experienced and what those experiences mean.

As a ‘born female bodied’ person I was, in 1997, the first ‘man’ to be asked to edit the Journal of Gender Studies. The Journal is the voice of British academic socialist feminism with its roots entrenched in both Marxist and radical separatist feminism. I wrote in my editorial to the ‘Transgendering Edition’ (Journal of Gender Studies, Nov 1998)

"Trans has problematised all the categories and all the words of sex, gender and sexualities. No amount of trying is ever going to clearly pin them down again, they have become linguistic signposts which we now know are often pointing down the wrong road. The audible gasp when I asked ‘am I the first man to edit the journal?’ was what I expected, because the acknowledgement of the questions has to arise before we can even start to formulate the answers. I have no idea whether I have been asked to edit because - and here I give as many choices as I can think of, and my responses to those choices:

I am a woman really but deluded in thinking I am a man, therefore as a woman I can edit the journal

(This is still the predominate medical model of the transsexual condition. It is a mental health problem which as yet psychotherapy or other forms of mental health treatment mechanisms have been unable to cure, so medicine colludes with with person's delusions by performing ‘sex change' surgery, which has, at least, been shown to enhance the individuals social functioning. Do the journal editor’s follow this school of thought? -- I hope not.)

or I am a woman really and an acceptable performance of masculinity by a woman, because I acknowledge it as performance, by being out about my trans status

(As Riki Anne Wilchins would put it "Trans-identity is not a natural fact. Rather it is a political cetegory we are forced to occupy when we do certain things with our bodies" Performance is a theory which dictates people and who they are as much as biological essentialism does. It removes any sense of personal choice and freedom. I would agree with Wilchins, it is a category placed by others because I choose my freedoms.)

or I am a woman really and my oppression as a woman lies in my childhood experiences as a girl and my experience as a woman who lives as a transsexual man

(Undoubtedly my childhood was seen by others as being a girl’s childhood, but would the second part of this statement be different if I was not 'out' as being a transsexual man. Does it rely upon it position of open oppression? However it was this viewpoint that was to enable the radical separatist women's group of Sussex University to invite me to their 1978 Christmas party, even though I had it heard although at that party a woman left after being criticised for wearing a skirt and living with a man.)

or I am a woman really and it is just that my body morphology simply is no longer 100% female

(I have no idea whether it ever was -- I have never had my chromosomes tested, though I do know I had a uterus and ovaries because they were apparently, according to the surgeon, removed. How do we define people through bodies when, to date, medicine acknowledges over 60 intersex conditions and one in every two hundred babies is born with a question mark over their 'sex'. I really have grave doubts as to whether anyone knows my body morphology, apart from a few clone friends.)

or I am a man really but the acceptable face of manhood because of' my childhood experiences --herein others thought I was female and therefore oppressed me as such

(This presumes that manhood can be defined through body morphology at any given time, though of course in my case it is not 'penis' dependent. In that case, would a trans woman have been asked to edit the journal because, of course, in childhood they would have been given the privileges afforded to boys (although probably a sissy boy, I presume it would still be better than my existence as a tomboy.)

or I am a man really but my position as male is undoubtedly contested

(The contestation comes as part of this process of being asked to edit this journal. If my maleness (manhood) was not contested I expect I would not have been asked, but in turn by asking me it becomes contested.)

or I am a man really but my feminist credentials are pretty good

(They are: I attended the 1974 and 1975 Women's Movement Conferences here in the UK and I was part of the Lesbian Collective who worked towards creating the women's refuge and centre in Manchester in 1975. But I don’t expect anyone ever knew that about me when I was asked to edit)

I actually do not care which of the above possibilities were the justification for my invitation to edit, and though I have contested them they all have some potential validity to me. I hope they were subconscious rather than conscious if conscious we should have, at the very least, started a dialogue around the issues. However I do not care just as I do not care whether I was 'born this way' or 'became this way'. The question of the ‘gay gene’ or the ‘tranny brain’ is a potentially frightening route to another eugenics programme to destroy the brilliance of difference in the world, and the sooner we reject these projects the better. Whatever made me, I am, and I can no longer say who the `I' is, except through a descriptive process in which the words man/woman, male/female, straight/gay become absorbed into Queer (I have a friend who says 'what I like about you is that you are just SO QUEER for a straight person' and straight does not refer to my sexual behaviour).

To get back to this special Transgender edition: It is a first because it is queer/feminist writings, not one nor the other, it trans'es that border, by which I mean something specific. Trans'ing is not just 'crossing over', not just 'blurring boundaries', not just 'blending categories', but it fully queers the pitch by highlighting, clarifying, deconstructing and then blowing apart the border between queer and feminist theory, just as in 'real' life it highlights, clarifies, deconstructs and then blows apart all the things we know about sex, genders and sexualities.

This collection prioritises, for the first time ever I suspect, the experiences of the 'born female bodied' trans person and through that it highlights the experiences and issues of it whole new ball game going on in a different ball park with a different set of boundaries. When I played lacrosse (originally devised by Native Americans whose cultures had spaces for taco spirit people) at my all girls school, playing the 'women's' game meant that our pitch had no boundaries (unlike the ‘men’s’ game which has clearly-marked white lines). This was possible because unlike 'born male bodied' people playing as men with all the social constraints and values that entailed, as 'born female bodied' people playing as women, with it different set of social constraints and values, we were in a position to reach a consensus as to when the ball was out of play."

Perhaps this is the position we - both feminism and trans - can now reach: knowing when the ball is out of play through consensus rather than rules.

I wrote a few years back that ‘gender’ was an excuse for oppression – nothing more and nothing less. As Kate Bornstein has put it so succinctly: It is like a caste structure – it includes many facets and many aspects of a person’s life. The perfect gender is not just male, it is white, it is tall and of slim build, it has money and political power, sexual choice, it is fertile but has control of that fertility, and it is probably American and called Bill Clinton. For the rest of us, it will never be perfect and for some, it will be less perfect than for others. Feminism is about a better set of values in which gender loses some of its power of oppression, in which separate and distinct voices are not only heard but also listened to, and in which a better set of values is followed. That is what we who are trans can gain from them - but perhaps much more importantly now, it is also something we can give back to them.

REFERENCES

Burmen, E. (ed), "Deconstructing Feminist Psychology", 1997, London: Routledge

Raymond, J., "The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male", 1979, London: The Women’s Press

Stone, S., "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto" in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub "Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Abiguity", 1991, London: Routledge

Wilchins, R., "Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion And The End Of Gender", 1997, New York, Firebrand Books.

 

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