To start, transgender people exist. If we admit this, we’re already ahead of the game, though not exactly a good sign that that is ahead of the game. There is a problem of many issues with how transgender people are made intelligible to people of different frames of mind, the first of which is that they don’t exist, but there are many more problems. Now, I am a socialist feminist which gets much of its hermeneutics from radical feminism, which has the most problematic relationship within the Left towards trans people, which is why much of this post will be heavily criticizing this, as I see it as a heavy burden which feminist communities need to own up to and turn away from. Let’s begin.
Gender essentialism is a term to describe permanence to gender. There is an “essence” to it. Gender essentialism is primarily thought of as, though is not limited to, equating sex and gender. The feminine gender is as much a part of the female sex as ovaries or two X-chromosomes per cell. In short, a vagina is a signifier of woman and a penis is a signifier of man. Now, this carries further in effect in many ways beyond this by bifurcating between a “morals for men” and a “morals for women” because of the perceived endowment of a certain purpose associated with each gender which is perceived as affixed to an embodied sex. Men are a certain way and their “morality” is associated with whether or not he properly abides by this and women are a certain way and their “morality” is associated with…and so on. Obviously, there are problems with this in how trans and intersex people are understood by society. Since female is woman is feminine and male is man is masculine is the logic of society, bodies, minds, and preferences that don’t match this can misunderstanding at least and outright hostility at most. Ambiguous genitalia (in regards to a male-female dichotomy) are often “fixed” to a proper sex soon after birth, a seemingly drastic solution for a purely aesthetic difference, but in the face of a cultural context in which things like that don’t exist and a rite of passage for parents is picking out colors for nurseries, an all too common one. For the record, this practice is one the Intersex Society of North America pushes to end. Now, one might think that this is a rare occurrence but given that this occurs in over 1% of births, it might be advisable to consider your options (of which I would agree with ISNA that perhaps having a child that is intersex shouldn’t be considered some horrible thing to be prevented by surgery against a child’s will).[i] So the seeming lack of option for gender without an embodied sex seems to be frightening to people, perhaps not surprising given we only understand the world as male men and female women. Now, I would suggest intersex conditions should tell us a lot about how tying a personality (i.e. gender) to a body should be insufficient if we really believe in the “liberal individual” and damning towards those who can’t understand this. But maybe the anxiety does tell us a little about trans people.
Transgender people come in many different bodies and genders, but carry one common characteristic: they don’t fit the body-mind-personality framework that gives two options in which all three of these characteristics is super-imposable. They are people who defy the embodied form of gender essentialism directly. They are the other that should be scary to those who wish to understand people in a gender dichotomy. However, why are we scared of this? Only because it challenges what we’re taught. Now, radical feminists fear it for a different reason: that it reduces gender to being performative and not powered. This is not true because a) some trans people feel it is their true “essence” or “inner self”, not unproblematic for anti-essentialists such as radical, socialist, and Marxist feminists, but nonetheless at least indicates it’s not all about life being an absurd theater of gender, race, and class in which we have existential agency and b) because being performative is not exclusively separated from being powered. Let’s start with the problems of radical feminism in understanding trans people.
Radical Feminist Interpretations of Trans Identity
Okay, first, radical feminism sometimes errs on an oddly essentialistic side sometimes. Second, it has a history of raw transphobia that would make hate speech scholars shudder. Janice Raymond, a prominent radical feminist, once wrote that all transsexual “she-men” rape women’s bodies and Sheila Jeffreys has also said things on a similar ground that radical politics should more readily understand as hate speech. However, what I believe Raymond means, instead of suggesting all transsexual women are rapists, is that transsexual-embodiment of trans women is appropriating women’s bodies. Now, she’s wrong but here’s where the logic comes from: to be able to fully understand women’s experience, one has to be born a female and understood as a woman in our powered and essentialistic framework. I.e. if you were born a male and made a boy because of this, you have been given privileges in society that you could not understand were not part of the different girlhood and therefore, by your own agency given to you as a man, you are inappropriately entering the unique space of womanhood and the female body if you live as a woman and transition to a female body. Here’s why it’s wrong: nobody universally experiences their gender. There are powered trends, yes, but not universally applied modes of power and gender can’t be extricated from it’s experience among the experiences of gender, class, and gender-related identities such as sexuality. (I.e. the oppression gay people face, though is very highly related to our understandings of gender and is related to patriarchal power [compulsory heterosexuality as necessary to delineate gender and provide power of men over women for example], cannot be fully subsumed into “gender”.) In fact, gender, race, and class produce the modes of power among each other and contribute to related oppression. Bell hooks rightfully criticized radical feminism for its erasure of race and class (hence her treatise Ain’t I a Woman?) and how race, class, and gender are coproduced. There are different womanhoods and manhoods because, well, there are rich, white, straight men and poor, black lesbians and everything in between. Multiple considerations for how agency and power are experienced in their lives that imprint across each of their identifying markers. For example, a black manhood can’t be understood as a “black” experience+ “man” experience= “black manhood”. For the reason of all these ambiguities and intersectionality, there is no reason to universalize womanhood in such a way that shapes trans women into “invaders” and “appropriators” and trans men into “women embodying their own self-hatred” and genderqueer people into “vain performers”.
Sexual Frauds, Gender-Betrayers, and Freaks
This is the primary way of understanding trans people within patriarchal society. A powered production needs to regulate when people can “cross” the boundaries and when they can’t. By being trans in any way, someone is violating the “codes” of gender that society wishes to have which gives a few results. Because women are understood as female-bodied, a misogynistic and trans-erasing presumption, when a trans woman has a rapport going with a man in a romantic or sexual sense they are perceived as fraudulent and violating of such a code as to deserve rejection, be perceived as a liar, or even face violence. This has a strange intermingling of homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia that ultimately are heavily interconnected. By perceiving someone as a “woman”, the straight cisgender man who is likely on the other end of such an interaction, is presuming the right to know that there is a “vagina” and by presuming that “penis” means a “man” he perceives it as a homoerotic encounter that threatens his heterosexual status, ultimately a threat that is apocalyptic to some. The “reveal”, however it happens is a very risky endeavor because of the many ways it can be taken, few of them good. Living out the sexual lifecourse for trans women isn’t only complicated, it’s dangerous, emotionally and physically. Take Trainspotting and The Crying Game for examples here. (Ewan McGregor’s narrative over this event in Trainspotting is a beautifully radical understanding of gender by which I was pleasantly surprised.) How it can also be understood is as “betraying” your gender. “Choosing” to be a woman, however that’s understood, hypothetically threatens the hegemony of men’s status, because if it is so much better why would one ever leave it? “Choosing” to be a man, ultimately means you’ve given up on your sisters. “Choosing” to be genderqueer means rejecting everyone, because friendship is predicated on common identity more than we’d like to think. This is how different trans identities are understood because gender is somewhat tribal (which is hardened by compulsory heterosexuality, which is why it is necessary for many variants of patriarchal productions). Being a freak is ultimately what this comes down to for others. It makes people uneasy. The idea that you can look at a man and he could have a vagina, but you gave him the status of “man” scares people. The gendered lifecourse is so associated with forever and always being perceived in the same way that any aberration makes it ultimately scary to think that perhaps it could have been different. Everyone is a feminine, female woman or a masculine, male man and any aberration ultimately melts this one sureness of the world that all of us know. This is why we owe trans people so much. They make us grow if we can look them in the eye and accept their identity. We learn much more the ambiguities of the world.
This doesn’t even begin to describe all of the unique experiences of trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming people and am only wishing to show some of the problems with how they are understood among an essentialistic, patriarchal society that cannot comprehend them in a comfortable way. I do not wish to appropriate them for others’ purposes or my own. I only wish to describe parts of why they are unfairly treated.