Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cis Gender, Ipso Gender


Last week, the Oxford English Dictionary, revered by many as the arbiter of the English language, finally added the term "cis gender." Many, like Slate's Anna Diamond, consider this an important step forward. Others, however, resist using the word. Some are overtly transphobic, and insist that they just be called "normal." Others claim to be allies, but insist that the term cis gender is just too strange or clinical or academic for the general public to ever use. The Guardian's Paris Lees says that it fails "the hair salon test."

I find this claim that "normal people" can't be expected to use the term cis gender ridiculous. My daughter was all of eleven when she started to use the term cis gender in conversation. By the time she was 13 or 14 she was having discussions with friends in which she could clearly articulate that she enjoyed wearing boxer shorts sometimes because messing around with gender expectations was fun, but that this activity did not make her any less a cis girl. When she was fifteen, she started dating her partner, who is genderqueer.

We do not live in San Francisco or New York--we live in the staid Midwest.

For kids growing up as digital natives, puberty involves surfing the internet and reading about a wide range of identities. The idea that the term "cis gender" is used only by academics and gender theorists and not hair stylists would make my daughter and her peers chortle.

For me, the struggle I'm involved in is not to get people to learn the term "cis gender," it's to get people to understand how that term does not apply in the way often presumed in the case of intersex people. I want people to learn about the term "ipso gender"--because that's a term that really is not widely known.

The term "cis gender" is often defined--I would say incorrectly--as having a gender identity that matches the sex one was assigned at birth. So, in standard usage, if your birth certificate says "F", and you identify as a woman (whether feminine or masculine in presentation being irrelevant), you are cis gender. If it says "F" and you don't, because you identify as a man, or as genderqueer, or as agender, or as anything other than a woman, then you are trans.

In the popular imagination, a trans person is someone "born in the wrong body," meaning they have a gender identity that conflicts with their physical sex. Trans people have been shifting the conversation away from the framing of trans experience as a gender identity/sex characteristic conflict, and toward framing it as a conflict between gender identity and sex assigned at birth, for understandable political reasons. Transphobes often present physical sex as binary, natural, and determinative of "reality." Trans advocates battle this by pointing out that physical sex is actually a spectrum, that binary sex is coercively imposed (see intersex people), and that gender identity determines one's reality. 

The problem is that this argument, which is conceived of as centering intersex experience, actually renders invisible much of my intersex community's experience with violence and gender identity. And that's because it refers to a person as "cis gender" when they are born with primary sex characteristics that are intermediate in nature, but are surgically reassigned to conform to a binary sex ideal, if they grow up to identify with that assigned sex. Calling someone who has essentially undergone a forced sex change in infancy "cis gender" is extremely problematic. This is something that intersex people have been justifiably protesting for years (for example, see gender fluid author and intersex activist Hida Viloria).

So, when speaking of intersex experience, what I hope people will do is to recognize that primary sex characteristics do matter, and we can't just talk about binary sex assignment on one's birth certificate. I urge people to define someone as cis gender if they have a binary gender identity that matches the one expected for people born with the primary sex characteristics they had at birth (genitals, gonads, chromosomes). For intersex people, being born sex-intermediate, a cis gender identity would be a nonbinary identity of some sort. A trans gender intersex person is one who gender transitions to the binary sex they were not forced into at birth. And a person who is born intersex, then medically and legally assigned to a binary sex, who then grows up to identify with that sex is ipso gender. (Ipso gender borrows from the prefix used in chemistry to refer to a substitution in the same place, as cis gender uses the prefix meaning "on the same side" and trans gender uses the prefix meaning "on the other side.")


So, for those of you who are fully familiar with the term cis gender as it is typically used, I'd like you to please consider rethinking it a bit. Because the majority of intersex people today do identify with the binary sex we were assigned, typically surgically, in infancy. The percentage of intersex people who gender transition is high, comparatively speaking (estimates vary widely, but the percentage is higher by at least a couple orders of magnitude in comparison to individuals who are not intersex by birth). Still, the majority of my intersex sibs do not gender transition from the sex they were assigned at birth. Yet great violence was done to my ipso gender siblings in forcing an assignment, rather than letting them grow up to assert their own identities, and to make their own decisions about what surgery, if any, to seek. Infant sex assignment surgery often robs a person of all or some capacity for sexual sensation, and leaves many feeling mutilated. Calling an individual who has endured this "cis gender" makes the pain and violence involved invisible.

I do want to point out that a cis gender intersex person, who has a nonbinary gender identity, suffers in the same way that a trans gender intersex person does, because they were assigned, typically surgically, to a sex with which they do not identify. For intersex people, cis and trans, this often means having to cope with two gender transitions--the first imposed in infancy, and a second one we consent to later in life. Ipso gender people at least have the privilege of not having to gender transition again. But we need a term to center the fact that imposed genital surgery in infancy, along with other unconsented-to medical interventions in later childhood, are a form of violence, even if a person does grow up to identify with the sex assigned at birth.

I hope people will familiarize themselves with the term ipso gender. Thanks!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

TERFs of the Times


This week's Sunday Review section of the New York Times has as its headline article an opinion piece by feminist academic and film director Dr. Elinor Burkett, entitled "What Makes a Woman?" The tagline summarizing the post is "There is a collision course between feminists and transgender activists." This of course frames trans activists as antifeminists, making it clear at once that this piece is a manifesto of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, ideology. It's written with a sympathetic tone, and Burkett positions herself as someone who wants to support trans people. She claims she just can't because we are seeking to undo the hard work she and other feminists of her generation have done. 

(One way you can tell that Burkett is a TERF is that she calls the term TERF a "trans insult." In fact, the term was coined by radical feminists who are not transphobic, to distinguish themselves from bigots. But TERFs inevitably claim that the term is a trans slur and that they should be referred to simply as "feminists.")

Burkett's piece is the second-most emailed NY Times article at the moment I'm writing this, and the comments section shows it's struck a huge chord with transphobes. Since so many people are talking about the piece, and since it's such a painful read for trans friends of mine, as it was for me, I'm going to present a take-down of her arguments here, as a sort of public service. If you know people who are talking about or citing this article, you can just link them here rather than having to wade through and counter the key points yourself.

Expressing Femininity


First off, let me show you the official headshot of Dr. Burkett that appears on film festival programs. As you can see, she is wearing lipstick, has dyed her hair red, and is wearing a floral top. She clearly presents herself in a feminine manner to the media. But her "What Makes a Woman?" piece starts and finishes by critiquing Caitlyn Jenner for being presented in a glamorous feminine fashion in Vanity Fair

Burkett decries Caitlyn Jenner's wearing of "a cleavage-boosting corset" and "thick mascara," although such things are typical for those pictured in Vanity Fair. Burkett particularly focuses on Jenner's statement that a reason she wanted to gender transition was that so that she would be able "to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off." Burkett concludes the piece by scolding, "I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make."

Let's look at several of the key problems with this framing. First, there's the ridiculous assertion that Caitlyn Jenner believes in some way that wearing nail polish makes a person female, or is something only a woman can do. Were that the case, gender transitions to female would be extremely inexpensive, and thousands of unsuspecting dudes in bands would now find themselves women. . . Very few people over the age of four believe that putting on nailpolish literally defines a person as female, and portraying Caitlyn Jenner as actually believing this insults her by presenting her as having an infantile understanding of gender.

Looking beyond that obvious point, the tactic Burkett takes in this opinion piece is to critique Caitlyn Jenner as a means of critiquing all trans people. This presumes that all trans people are alike, so that what Caitlyn Jenner does and thinks represents what all trans people do and think. By this logic, all cis women think and act like Kim Kardashian--something we can presume Burkett does not believe. But Burkett ignores the fact that many trans people have spoken about how Jenner's experience is not at all like theirs. She does not acknowledge, for example, that trans people have expressed concern that the way Caitlyn Jenner is presented in Vanity Fair perpetuates the idea that to be "successful" in a gender transition, a trans person must want and get a ton of plastic surgery to make them look just like a cis person, and must appear conventionally feminine or masculine.

Not only is Caitlyn Jenner not representative of all trans people, her experience is representative of vanishingly few. Rare is the person who has the kind of money to be able to access such medical and aesthetic transition services. Jenner also enjoys privilege as a white woman. She's a Republican. She has a binary gender identity where many trans individuals do not. And she is conventionally feminine in her post-transition gender presentation. Many binary trans women and men are tomboys or feminine men. But by presenting some interview quotes and fashion photos of Caitlyn Jenner as representing us all, Burkett frames all binary gender transitioners as walking gender stereotypes.

Another thing you may have noticed that Burkett does in her concluding scold is to refer to Jenner as "Bruce, now Caitlyn." While better than refusing to acknowledge Jenner's transition at all, throughout the piece, Burkett makes sure to refer to Caitlyn as Bruce, Mr. Jenner and "he" as often as possible. The phrasing, "Bruce, now Caitlyn" also puts Jenner's deadname first, centering it while giving lip service to acknowledging her as Caitlyn. To use a trans person's former name and to use the wrong pronoun when speaking of a trans person's past are classic tactics used to belie our gender identities and presentations. It's cruel, it's rude, and it's against the NY Times' own style guide, but Burkett is allowed to get away with it.

Brain Sex

Moving on, the next thing Burkett does is to present trans people as having as a core ideology the belief that we are born with binary male or female sexed brains. Burkett frames us as having the goal of convincing society that brain sex requires people to act in a gender stereotyped manner--for example, that being born with a female brain makes a person bad at science and math, good at nurturing, and into frilly dresses. 

Now, it is true that Caitlyn Jenner makes sense of her identity as a woman by saying, as Burkett quotes, "My brain is much more female than it is male." There are many binary trans people who use this sort of language to try to explain what it feels like to have a gender identity that doesn't match one's assigned sex. But please note that the reason trans people do this so often is because cis people constantly demand that we explain how we know we are trans, and where our trans identities come from. 

Thirty years ago, when I was in college, straight people were always asking gay men and lesbians how they were sure they were "homosexual," and what made them gay. Back then, lots of LGB people were very interested in brain studies that claimed to show that gay men had brain characteristics similar to those of women, while lesbians had brain areas that were similar to those of men. Today, that just sounds silly, and scientific exploration of the idea that lesbians think like men and that gay men have girl brains has largely petered out, because people no longer demand to know what biological factor could possibly explain sexual orientation. With the depathologization of same-sex attraction, the search for some biological basis to explain it has faded away.

But when it comes to gender identity, many cis people still refuse to accept a person's self-report of how they feel. They demand that we "prove" our gender identities, and explain our "compulsion" to gender transition. There are scientists studying this question by examining brains, and so some trans people turn to this idea when asked to justify themselves.

What Burkett does not acknowledge is that there are many trans people, myself included, who are quite critical of the idea that there is some simple brain center that determines gender identity. There are many, like myself, who discuss how so much of the neurological research into "brain sex" has been deeply flawed, and used to bolster misogyny. What we argue is that gender identity is a deeply complex matter, that gender varies over time and between cultures, and that while you will find minor sex differences in specific parts of people's brains, the brain is a plastic organ that is shaped by our lived experiences. 

What the differences found in the brains of deceased men and women show is that we die with slightly different brains, not that we are born with our gender identities stamped in some simple way on our hypothalamus or some other brain center. The fact that trans women's brains resemble those of cis women's reveals shared identity and experiences, but the factors being studied as differing between women and men are tiny. "Brain sex" is a complex and subtle thing--not some matter of pink brain centers that are obsessed with makeup and blue ones that refuse to ask for directions. In any case, neurologists' understandings of sexed brains are still very limited and contested, and ordinary people can't be expected to parse their scientific articles.

What we urge is that cis society stop requiring that we somehow prove that our gender identities have some biological basis, and just respect our self-report of what our gender identities are.

So later in the piece, when Burkett goes on to report on the work of feminist neurologists who say that sex differences in the brain develop over a lifetime of experiences, she is actually arguing the exact same thing that many trans activists argue. But Burkett is oblivious to this fact, because she has stereotyped all trans people. She presents us as all as believing men and women are both with vastly different brains, that we were born with female brains in male bodies (or vice versa), and that this requires us to act as hyperfeminine trans women (or hypermasculine trans men).

I suppose Burkett must believe that nonbinary trans people believe they were born with androgynous brains. But she doesn't say anything about this--probably because she sees androgyny as a morally good counter to gender stereotypes, so has no motivation to bring up the topic here.

Hormones and Emotions

OK, next. Burkett takes a moment to sneer at Chelsea Manning, saying she "hopped on Ms. Jenner's gender train on Twitter, gushing, 'I am so much more aware of my emotions, much more sensitive emotionally (and physically)'." I do find it ironic when a feminist seeks to discredit another woman by accusing her of "gushing" overemotionally. . .

Chelsea Manning recently started hormone therapy, after much struggle with the military. Apparently Elinor Burkett believes that hormones produce no effects, or only affect physical things like breast or beard growth, so that to say hormones influence one's experience of emotions is an antifeminist delusion. This is just silly, because you don't have to be trans gender to see that sex steroids influence emotions. Tons of cis women are familiar with the emotional lability of PMS. Sure, this fact has been used by misogynists to frame women as too moody to take seriously, and this is ludicrous. But you can put your fingers in your ears and go "La-la-la" all you want to when people report that they cry less easily after having their ovaries removed, or cry more easily now that they are taking estrogen and progesterone to gender transition--it doesn't make the fact that this happens go away.

It seems from this section of her screed that Burkett believes any discussion of embodiment in relation to gender is evil sexism. Saying "I cry more easily with high levels of estrogen and progesterone in my body" is equivalent to saying, "A woman can never be president because her hormones make her too irrational." Burkett frames Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning as representatives of all trans people, and as what they are saying as evil. They are voicing "hoary stereotypes" that have been "used to repress women for centuries." And worse, they are convincing progressives that this is a good thing, undoing all the hard work of feminism.

Trans Women as Sexist Men

Next, Burkett comes out with a truly vile and nasty paragraph, which I will replicate here so we can unpack it:

"People who haven't lived their whole lives as women. . . shouldn't get to define us. That's something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman."

Notice what Burkett is doing here. Trans women are called first "people who haven't lived their whole lives as women," and then flat out "men." Trans women are "men" who are trampling on the rights of "women," and "women" of course here means cis women. "Transgender people" are in this paragraph all trans women. And by asserting their dignity as trans people, trans women are proving themselves to be really men in that they are seeking to control (cis) women.

Now what, exactly, are trans women trying to force cis women to do? Burkett states that trans activists are not just asking for equal treatment as are "African-Americans, Chicanos, gays and women"--instead they are "insulting" (cis) women by "demanding that women reconceptionalize ourselves." Apparently Burkett believes that trans women not only assert, but demand all women agree, that gendered behavior is not socially constructed at all but is inborn and fixed. Gender roles are eternal and innate, and thus biology compels that all girls love playing dress-up, and all boys love sports!

This is ridiculous on so many levels it's hard to list them all. First off, since we have to think about gender a lot in order to figure out our own identities, most trans people I have encountered know a whole lot more about what social construction means and how it operates than do most cis people I encounter. The chances of a random trans person--be they a man, woman, nonbinary or agender--being a feminist is also much higher than that of a random cis person being wiling to call themself a feminist.

I know hundreds of trans people. Of the binary trans women I know, some--a minority--have the narrative of having been very feminine children who constantly wanted to play dress-up and house. But exactly zero of those individuals would say "real girls must only want to play with dolls and not chemistry sets."

Compared to the cis people I know, my trans acquaintances are much more likely to admire and support gender-transgressive children and adults, whether the gender-transgressive individuals are cis or trans. (And studies show this is true of trans people generally, not just my personal friends.)

I have no idea where Burkett gets her bizarre idea that trans women demand hyperfemininity of cis women. (Except I do--it's a common slander perpetuated by TERFs.)

Gender Socialization and Brain Sex Revisited

Burkett underlines her positioning of trans women as men by repeating the old TERF saw that gender is determined by socialization, not identity. Burkett claims that Caitlyn Jenner and nameless other trans women have not experienced sexism in their lives as Burkett has, and that therefore "their female identity is not my female identity." This implies a trans woman doesn't know what a "real" female identity is, while Burkett does.

Burkett either doesn't understand what gender identity is, or pretends not to. There is immense diversity of experience among people who identify as women, by age and race/ethnicity and sexual orientation and a wide variety of other factors. But this doesn't mean some categories of women have a less truly female gender identity than others. For example, Burkett says that part of what creates a female identity is being relatively poorly paid at one's job. Now, since white women earn more than African American, Latina or Native American women in America, does this mean that as a white woman, Burkett has a less real female identity than do women of color?

I don't imagine this parallel has occurred to her.

Anyway, what Burkett says is that trans women live with male privilege: male earnings, male freedom from fear of sexual assault, the male privilege of being treated as a subject and not a sex object. And, she says, this socialization shapes their brains. So in fact, trans women must have male brains, not female ones.

I'm struck by the illogic of framing trans women as "having a male brain" while simultaneously claiming that saying there's such a thing as brain sex is a sexist act being perpetuated by trans activists. But beyond that, there are two fallacies here. The first is that Burkett ignores how we are active participants in our own socialization. In fact, socializing messages are received quite differently by different people. And a person who identifies as a girl or woman will attend to socializing messages about girls and women.

The second fallacy comes from framing all trans women as being like Caitlyn Jenner: as living for many decades being perceived by others as masculine men, and as having started their transitions very recently. In fact, trans women who have been perceived as feminine boys or men will have dealt with lifetimes of bullying, harassment, and unequal treatment at school and work because of their femininity. And whatever her past experience, once a trans girl or woman comes out, she gets to experience all the (uniformly negative) social things Burkett lists as female socializing experiences at levels typically much higher than those faced by cis women. Getting stared at by men. Fearing sexual and physical violence. Job discrimination. And socialization doesn't end in young adulthood--all of us are always having our behavior shaped by the socializing messages we receive from those around us.

What Burkett would say about the socialization experience of binary trans individuals who come out as children in supportive families and are treated as their identified sex from a young age I do not know, because she doesn't address them. In her NY Times piece, all trans women are Caitlyn Jenner.

Is a Woman Defined by a Uterus?

Another topic which Burkett treats with eye-popping logical inconsistencies is the issue of whether a woman is defined as a person with a vagina, uterus and ovaries. On the one hand, Burkett asserts that trans people who say they were "born in the wrong body" are offensively "reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas." In fact, many trans people critique understandings of us as "born in the wrong body." I am one of many who has written about how it's not my body but society that is the problem.

And Burkett is part of that social problem, because while she sometimes asserts biology is irrelevant, she also states that trans women can never understand what it means to truly be women because they have never "woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before." Suddenly, in a scenario where it can be used to discredit trans women, having a uterus and ovaries becomes definitional to being a "real woman." This implies that cis women who were never fertile are not real women, and is offensive and absurd.

In fact, most trans people argue that bodies do not determine if we are really women or men. It's gender identity that is determinative for us, not genitals or reproductive organs. A cis woman who has a hysterectomy or mastectomy does not become unwomaned by the surgery. A trans man does not need genital reconstruction to deserve to be respected as a man. And a nonbinary person is not "really" a woman or a man because they were born with a vagina or a penis.

Can We Speak Differently About Genitals?

Eventually, Burkett gets around to talking about trans people other than binary trans women. It's two-thirds of the way into this diatribe that centers transmisogyny, but in the end, those under the trans umbrella who are not trans women finally get called out as oppressors as well. The reason? We don't want to equate women with vaginas.

One of the things that makes life difficult for trans people today is the way that so many people, organizations and institutions treat genitals as synonymous with gender. Most trans people in the U.S. have not had genital reconstructive surgery, and many of us have no interest in it. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about our genitals with others (and really, so are most cis people, even though the stakes for them are lower).  Often, we use terms other than vagina or penis or clitoris to name our genitalia in private discussions with partners or friends, because those terms are so loaded with gender expectations by our society. 

Burkett mocks the use of alternative genital and reproductive terms in her piece as "politically correct" nonsense.

But what gets Burkett all riled up is that there are people who were assigned female at birth--genderqueer, agender, and transmasculine--who are trying to raise consciousness about more trans-inclusive ways to talk about anatomy and gender in pro-choice organizations. Not everyone seeking an abortion identifies as a woman, and the difficulties of seeking to terminate a pregnancy are compounded for such people by constant misgendering, and ignorance of the very idea of using alternate terms to describe anatomy. To Burkett, an effort to raise consciousness about these individuals' experience and shift the language employed constitutes some kind of war on women and attack on feminist leaders that will endanger reproductive freedom.

Burkett is apparently in love with the word "vagina" and using it as a synecdoche for "woman." She is indignant that many trans people of all sorts have gotten tired of the play The Vagina Monologues, performed annually at colleges and women's centers all over the country since the late 1990s. Yes, trans people critique performances that equate vaginas with womanhood--but not because we are antifeminist, as Burkett frames us. It is because we too are feminists, and we expect more of our feminist cis siblings.

When trans activists critiqued the choice to call a feminist event "A Night of a Thousand Vaginas," the goal was not, as Burkett believes, to turn back the clock on feminist progress. It was to urge feminism forward toward greater inclusiveness.

Do Trans People Oppose Women's Institutions?

Another source of panic for Burkett is the idea that trans people are doing damage to institutions such as women's colleges. She notes that there are students at some women's colleges who do not identify as women, and that that some individuals at women's colleges use the term "siblinghood" as an alternative to "sisterhood" to acknowledge them. And she reports that there are some trans male students who ask their professors to stop using the pronoun "she" to refer to a generic, abstract student at the college.

The thing is, the focus of most trans advocacy has been on convincing women's colleges to admit trans women, which is as it should be. Most trans people are fine with the idea of there being women's spaces and institutions, so long as they don't exclude trans women. And many of us have in fact written critically of trans male students who decide to continue to attend a women's college after coming out, and then want the colleges to center their experiences as men. That's male privilege--not young trans women daring to assert that they should have a right to be considered for admission by woman's colleges.

Who Owns Feminism?

The last segment of Burkett's diatribe before she concludes by recapping her dissing of Caitlyn Jenner is both infuriating and smarmy. In it, she discusses who is moving feminism forward, and whether trans people should be welcomed to that project. The smarmy answer is, in her words, that "we'll happily, lovingly welcome them to the fight" if "they" do the right thing. The feminist "we" is cis gender, and the "they" seeking admission are trans people.

In this section of her piece, Burkett writes as if trans people didn't exist until a couple of years ago, and up until then, all the good work of seeking gender equality has been done by cis women. She goes on for a while about the revolutionary nature of the amazing work people she describes as "women like me" have done in advancing equity and freedom. She describes this as including "smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word 'transgender' or used the word 'binary' as an adjective."

Apparently it has not occurred to Burkett that many trans people have been involved in feminist advocacy for much of their lives. That some of those who have been fighting gender stereotypes as long as she has did so because they had or have nonbinary identities. That some did so fighting side by side with cis women in organizations like NOW, and that others fought from the margins, because they were excluded from mainstream women's organizations, either because of their gender presentation/gender identity/sex assigned at birth, or because those organizations excluded them for other reasons, such as their race. In fact, a multitude of young and old people with all sorts of identities other than cis gender are involved in gender activism and scholarship at this very moment, without noticing that they do not carry Burkett's seal of approval.

Burkett doesn't even acknowledge that among the people fighting gender stereotypes, there have been, and still are, cis men.

In any case, Burkett posits that cis women own feminism, and they have the right and the power to decide whether to admit trans people.

What most underlies Burkett's stance in my mind is cissexism: the belief that cis people's gender identities are authentic and real while trans people's are questionable, coupled with the belief that cis people have the right to sit in judgment over trans people's gender expressions, and decide whether to acknowledge a trans person's gender identity. Burkett has positioned herself as having the right to decide who is acknowledged as a woman, or as a feminist, or as having a "real" gender identity.

Fortunately, Burkett and her fellow TERFs do not in fact get to own feminism or to set the rules for gender authenticity. All of us are collectively involved in these projects, and the number of us coming out under the trans umbrella is rapidly expanding. The number of young cis people who are trans allies has been expanding in the same way. 

Burkett and her ilk can make our lives more painful and difficult, but they can't make us disappear.

What Does Burkett Want?

The really ironic thing is that trans advocates share a good deal of what Elinor Burkett at least claims that she wants. And that is that we agree that confining people to gender stereotypes is bad, that gender roles are socially constructed and change over time, and that we can and should work to change things about contemporary gender norms because they disadvantage women, cis and trans. As I've noted, the percentage of trans people who agree with this is higher than the percentage of cis people who do.

The other thing Burkett says she wants from trans people, before she and her cis compatriots admit us to the club, is that we affirm this statement: "So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be 'assigned' [binary sexes] at birth." This one a lot of people might just shrug at, but that I reject. 

I am intersex by birth. It's vital to me that we stop naturalizing the idea that sex is a binary, when it is a spectrum. It's important that we acknowledge the medical violence done to thousands of intersex children every year, in an attempt to make our sex variant bodies conform to this ideology. And it's high time we stopped putting imposed gender markers on birth certificates, as we've stopped having doctors chose a race marker for birth certificates. Burkett wants us to acknowledge the social construction and cultural variability of gender, but denies that sex is socially constructed and culturally variable. This betrays an ignorance not just of intersex experience, but of the fact that many world societies have divided the sex spectrum into three or more sexes, and that the binary sex system we see as natural is in fact ideological, only one system among many.

It seems to me that what Burkett really wants is to stop the progress in social acceptance trans people have been winning, at least in more progressive social circles, by framing trans people--especially trans women--as regressive and antifeminist. I don't know what motivates her to want to do this any more than I understand what motivates any sort of bigotry. Usually there's some combination of personal insecurity and a fear that one is losing social power.


What Burkett frames as triggering her whole opinion piece is that she wants to critique Caitlyn Jenner for presenting herself in such a gender-conforming manner, but feels she must bite her lip and stay silent, lest she be viewed as transphobic. Of course, she hasn't in fact stayed silent in the least. Having this op-ed critiquing Caitlyn Jenner as a representative of all trans people published as the headline piece of the NY Times' Sunday Review is about as opposite from staying silent as a feminist author gets.

So apparently what Burkett wants is to be able to say transphobic things and not be called a transphobe ("TERF is a trans slur").

Sorry, Dr. Burkett, that's not going to happen. 

However, that's not to say people shouldn't be able to critique Caitlyn Jenner because her trans status is some sort of magical shield and she can do no wrong. Critique her all you want, so long as you do it in the same way you would were she a cis woman. And if you're going to attack her for her conforming feminine self-presentation, then you should also publish diatribes about how Vanity Fair cover model Scarlett Johansen is undoing the work of feminism by displaying vast amounts of cleavage and wearing thick eyeliner, or how Jennifer Lawrence is a dupe of feminine stereotypes because the cover photo of her complaining about how nude photos of her circulated without her permission shows her apparently nude except for a diamond necklace.

Or you could stop framing all trans people as embodied by a couple of interview snippets and a photo shoot of one star in the Kardashian celebritysphere, and tying them to tired old claims about how trans people are all walking gender stereotypes.

And you could start reading the writings of transfeminists.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Gender Trouble and Trans Affirmation

As a college student thirty years ago, I took a seminar called Gender, Identity and Desire, and it was taught by a young professor named Judith Butler. That class changed not only my academic path, but how I understood myself--the sort of transformation we romantically hope college classes will inspire, but that rarely actually occurs. I was a young intersex person with no vocabulary to think about my experience outside the pathologizing medical one, and Butler gave me the tools to do so. I was grateful. A few years later, she would publish the materials we engaged with in that seminar in her classic book Gender Trouble.

However, in recent years, as an intersex trans academic and advocate, it's been dismaying to see how Gender Trouble and its central theme of gender performativity have been cited many times by transphobic people who think of themselves as radical feminists--some old second-wavers, but others young university students. They share a belief that there is no such thing as gender identity--only an evil (for those assigned male at birth) or Stockholm-syndrome-style (for those assigned female) embracing of patriarchy. These trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs see themselves as having escaped the trap of gender. They believe that gender is somehow fake--a performance in an oppressive play that most are fooled into thinking is real, while they have learned better. And because Judith Butler speaks about gender performativity and the value of gender subversion, they cite her as "proof" that trans people are dupes who are in love with patriarchy and gender stereotypes.

That's why I was very happy to come across this interview. What Judith Butler makes clear in the interview is that Gender Trouble is a book that was written in the 1980s (though the publication date is in 1990, the seminar which I took with Butler in which she was working through the manuscript took place in the mid 80s). This was a very different era, in terms of thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. The humanities were enthralled with the then-novel precepts of postmodernism and deconstruction, which strongly shape how the book is framed. Sexual identity politics were still nascent, and not only were trans issues little on the radar, wars were being fought on campuses over the legitimacy of even a bisexual identity. Thus, the discussion of sex, gender and sexuality in the book is limited, as entire identity categories such as binary and nonbinary trans identites, transmasculine and transfeminine identities, and a language to express agender experience, had not yet been articulated.

Gender Trouble is still a very interesting book, but it's hardly a bible speaking eternal truths. Judith Butler herself has moved on in the way she thinks about and frames issues. Her main project remains the same, and it is mine as well--to find ways about talking about the constraints put on us as people with legal sexes and gender identities and gender expressions and sexualities, and to look for ways to increase our agency to escape those constraints. Butler makes it very explicit in this interview that she embraces trans identities and despises transmisogyny as fully as she does misogyny aimed at cis women. She asserts the lived reality of gender identity, and states that she too has a gender identity she experiences as fully real and unchanging.

Butler continues to use the language of gender performativity instead of the more broadly used language of social construction. But she makes it clear here that the two ways of talking about gender are very similar in her mind, and that they are both misused by TERFs. To say gender is performative or socially constructed is not to deny its reality, or frame it as voluntary--something we put on in the morning when we choose an outfit. 

The way I as a sociologist put it is this: that we are naturally social beings. Our biological reality is that we cannot think or live without being members of a society, and from birth this shapes not just our behavior, but our bodies and brains. Now, societies vary--they employ different languages; they may understand sex as a binary, or as comprised by three or more categories; they have different gender roles and norms, so that, for example, women may be viewed as physically weak, or women may be viewed as the physically robust gender expected to carry massive water jugs for miles on their heads. Experiences of sex, gender and sexuality vary hugely across times and cultures--but all of these variations are real for those living within them. And in all societies, there are those who do not conform to the norms. 

The question then becomes how those minorities are treated: are their variations celebrated, treated as having no more or less significance than variations in toe length, or are they despised and marginalized? For those who are marginalized in any society, "liberation" consists of seeking to be treated with social respect without hiding one's sense of authentic selfhood. For intersex and trans people today, this involves trying to change social institutions and beliefs that frame sex as a binary and sex assignment at birth as immutable. So, recognizing that binary sex is a social construct, as are particular ideas about who is a "real" woman or man, as is the social ideology that nonbinary gender identities are not "real"--that recognition is important. What is socially constructed can be changed over time through social movements.

What recognizing that gender is social constructed or performative is not is some excuse to perpetuate transphobia, especially transmisogyny. And that's what Butler assures us she agrees with in this interview: "we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization." We must not create a new feminist "moral prison" in which some people (cis feminist women in pants) are centered, some (cis women in skirts) pitied, others (those who assert nonbinary gender identities) treated with exasperation, yet others (trans men) scolded, and a last group (trans women) despised and attacked.

Hear, hear.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Testosterone Does Not "Work Better" than Estrogen

Hang around with trans people and you're bound to hear it. Testosterone, it's said, is more powerful than estrogen. It makes for a faster and more robust gender transition, while estrogen works a more subtle form of magic.

According to this reasoning, "trans men 'pass' better than trans women" because we win at hormones.

This is a load of hooey.

As trans people, we are fundamentally opposed to classic biological essentialism. According to classic binary sex essentialism, a person born with XX chromosomes is ever and eternally female, and a person born with XY chromosomes immutably male.  (Biological essentialists tend never to consider nonbinary genotypes like XXY or intersex people generally, because they're all about the ideology of the sex binary.)

Those who gender transition must reject chromosomal sex essentialism.  We live by the tenet that it is gender identity that determines who we really are, not our chromosomes.

But a fair number of binary trans people actually cling to a variety of sex essentialism--specifically, a biological essentialism that centers hormones, not chromosomes or genitals.  Hormone-replacement therapy is the most common medical transition service we access, and we are raised in a culture that treats biological sex as "more real" than gender identities or gender expression.  So many find comfort in framing both their bodies and their psyches as rewrought in nature by testosterone or by estrogen and testosterone-blockers.  Obviously, HRT has visible effects. Our body hair grows more robust or more fine.  Voices drop or breasts bud.  Our faces are gently transformed by the loss or addition of subcutaneous fat and the bulking or shrinking of facial musculature, rounding the cheek of the estrogen-employing, and chiseling the jaw of a person using testosterone. When you've been living with gender dysphoria, these physical changes are very welcome.

I've met my share of people who overgeneralize from the celebrated physical changes of hormone therapy into hormonal essentialism, attributing every change they experience to sex hormones. "Testosterone has made me less interested in talking, talking, talking." "Estrogen has made me a lot better at matching colors."  But sex hormones don't make us more or less verbal, or improve or deaden our color vision.  Those are social effects, and they are culture-bound.

That doesn't make them any less "real," mind you.  Just like hormones, socialization is a powerful thing.  Living as a woman in our society means receiving constant cues about appearance that unconsciously shape behavior, just as living as a man in our society means receiving social deference that makes a person act more boldly.  And these things affect us even if, consciously, we challenge them.  Estrogen doesn't make a person a better parent, nor testosterone make a parent a less-engaged one.  But caring behavior is so intensely socially reinforced in people living as mothers, while those of us living as fathers receive so many messages that we're not expected to know how to braid our kids' hair and should prioritize work obligations over family ones, that we are inevitably shaped by these socializing messages without our realizing it.  We can resist those pressures of which we are conscious, and socializing forces are experienced differently when one's gender identity conflicts with one's perceived sex, but nonconscious socialization is a real and powerful and ongoing process. From the moment we begin a social transition, our behaviors and inclinations are impacted strongly by socialization, which changes our perceptions and our behavior.  (This is one of the things that transphobic radfem "gender crits" get all wrong.  They treat socialization as something that happens when you are young, and then stops, rather than something that is happening to all of us, every day of our lives.)

But taking a shot or a pill seems much more real and concrete to people in our society than does being (re)shaped by social cues.  And one way this manifests that I believe is particularly damaging is in the belief held by many people that "testosterone works better than estrogen."

Here's the thing about gender transitions: it's indeed true that most trans men transition more smoothly and swiftly than most trans women.  But this isn't because testosterone "works better" than estrogen.  It's because of how gender policing works in our society.  Our culture values masculinity and the male while it devalues femininity and the female.

Let's examine how this works through the lens of facial hair.  I've often heard people use as "proof" of the greater efficacy of testosterone the fact that taking T makes a person grow facial hair, while taking E doesn't make a beard go away.  But it would make just as much sense to say that estrogen is more potent an agent of transition, because it makes a person grow breasts, while taking T doesn't make breasts go away.

Let's consider facial hair and transition in greater depth.  Often before even starting hormone treatment, transfeminine individuals seek facial hair removal via electrolysis and/or laser treatments. And many experience ongoing anxiety because some hair may be left behind by these procedures, leaving a trans woman constantly worried that she may have some stubble, as the social consequences of being seen as a trans woman with a beard shadow are high. Those who transition using testosterone, on the other hand, have a much less anxiety-ridden experience in the facial hair arena. Sure, most trans men wait anxiously for their peach fuzz to materialize, and for some, peach fuzz is all they'll ever grow.  But every whisker is celebrated--and not just by us, but by society.

Think about it.  For a trans woman, a few whiskers are seen by a cissexist society as belying her gender identity, and the stubbly trans woman is a figure of mockery. Meanwhile, for a trans man, a few whiskers are all it takes to get a pass from the gender police.  If there were actual parity in treatment, the gender police would be imposing some sort of 50% standard on either side of their gender binary.  But instead, a trans woman must remove 100% of her facial hair to avoid harassment, while a trans man only needs to be able to grow 10% of a full beard to be treated as one of the brotherhood.

It's not testosterone that is working so well to benefit trans men.  It's patriarchy.

Our society trains people, especially cis males, in patriarchal binary-gender-policing from an early age.  Here's how we can imagine the "logic" of this system as operating: (1) immediately upon seeing a person, classify them as male or female.  (2)  If you can't immediately do that, this is a PROBLEM and must be addressed.  (3) When your initial glance leaves you in doubt, always treat the person as male.  Calling a man "she" is a terrible insult--and is dangerous, since a man whose masculinity has been insulted may feel compelled to prove his masculinity by doing violence to your person.  Calling a woman "he" is actually a sort of compliment, since it confers status.  And if a woman is insulted or has her feelings hurt, it's not likely that she's going to punch you in the face as a result, because that would make her look even less feminine.  Anyway, she should work harder to appear feminine and attractive to men.  (4) Now that the immediate snap judgment about whether to say "sir" or "miss" has been made (when in doubt, say "sir"), study the person to figure out what's wrong with them.  Not being instantaneously classifiable into an M or F box is an affront, but maybe it was the last thing the person wanted (it's some really short cishet guy who is sensitive about his height).  Maybe it was "negligence" (a straight cis woman who isn't doing her duty to be attractive).  Or maybe it was intentional (the individual is an "effeminate" gay man, a butch lesbian, a genderqueer "he/she" weirdo, a transsexual).  Intentionally breaking the binary rule of the gender police means that the offender should be punished with disdain, mockery, harassment, or even assault/sexual assault.  And the harshest punishment is to be directed at those who could have had male honor, but are traitors to the brotherhood--the "swishy faggots" and "trannies" and "shemales"--dishonorable freaks all.

So those are the rules of gender-policing engagement.  Now, combine them with what we discussed earlier--the high standards for inspecting the suspected transfeminine body combined with the low standards of inspecting the suspected transmasculine one. Interactively, they produce a situation in which gender policing affects those assigned male at birth much more strongly than those assigned female at birth. Of course, this is counterbalanced by the fact that people perceived as female or feminine (whatever their gender identity or physical status, really) win as a prize the joy of being catcalled and sexually harassed. But think about it.  This means that for a trans man, once you've crossed that scraggly chinpatch threshhold, chances are good you get to avoid both catcalling and gender-policing harassment. The path to male privilege is pretty short. For trans women, the path to freedom from constant misgendering is much longer, much more fraught with danger, and doesn't end with the prize of relative freedom.

I know that nobody is safe from male street violence, even those deferred to as masculine men, but there's a huge difference in the regularity of the onslaught.  And believe me, I understand that the safety experienced by trans men is conditional, and that if we are discovered to have breasts and/or a vagina, the best outcome is usually disgust, and the worst assault or reparative rape.  But most of the time, these body parts are not seen.  Transmasculine individuals just need to show up sporting that minimal evidence of beard stubble (or its inverse, the receding hairline), wearing moderately standard guy clothes, with chest bound or bundled under a sweatshirt, and the gender policing inspection stops. Not for us the unavoidable requirement that every body part be inspected for "questionable" hand size and foot size, adams apple or hairline.

So, please, let's stop spreading the lie that testosterone works better than estrogen, and that this explains trans mens' advantage over trans women.  Patriarchy and the male privilege it produces explain the transmasculine advantage.  And as long as we naturalize this transmasculine advantage, we do our transfeminine siblings a disservice. What we should be doing is fighting gender policing, not treating it as a fact of nature--and doing that fighting from a position that acknowledges it affects trans men less severely.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Trans Gender Body Mods: Who is "Obsessed"?


Many—though by no means all—trans people seek at least some body modifications (hormone replacement therapy, hair removal, surgery, etc.).  

In this post I want to talk about why we do this, and to critique the way seeking trans body mods is often framed.  The common medical framing presumes a cost-benefit analysis in which reduction of internal psychological distress is weighed against medical risks.  And the common layperson’s framing centers the problematic idea of us seeking to “pass.”

In my last post, I explained why I believe the language of “passing” is damaging.  I know that there are some trans people who get upset by such critiques, because they hear an attack on the language of passing as a dismissal of the pain of their gender dysphoria or the intensity of the transphobic violence and disrespect they face.  This post should make it clear that I want to do the very opposite of that.  I just want us to approach this discussion in a way that facilitates change.

Let me start with a personal example.  

A while back I participated in a study on chest binding. In filling out the questions, it became clear to me that the researchers framed chest binding in terms of a risk-benefit analysis.  They presented the benefit of reducing bodily dysphoria by binding the chest as balanced against physical risks associated with binding.  This is a framing that I find to be commonplace today in medical circles.  A trans person is presented as engaging in practices considered physically risky (binding or tucking, taking hormones that increase cardiovascular risks, undergoing surgeries that cause pain and always involve the danger of infection, a poor reaction to anesthesia, etc.). If these physical costs are seen as outweighed by the mental health benefit of reducing psychological dysphoria with the body, then the physical risks are justified. 

This is such a very American professional framework for transition: economic, rational, and individualistic. In its deployment by many cis laypeople, the same framework is given a rather sadistic moral cast.  Undergoing painful and dangerous body modifications is understood as the price trans people must pay if we want to be respected in our identified genders. (This is why, I believe, many cis people feel they have the right to ask us whether we’ve “had the surgery,” despite our protests that other people’s genitals are none of their business.  They feel that if they are being asked to respect our gender identities, they deserve to know if we have paid in coin of blood for that recognition.  The idea that we should not have to pay to have our genders respected any more than they do is apparently novel to them.)

Anyway, back to the study: the tension that I saw in the survey is one familiar to many people seeking medical transition services: paternalism.  It seemed to me that the researchers believed some binding practices (such as the use of duct tape or ace bandages or binding for extended periods of time) are too risky to be justified by any psychological benefit.  This will sound familiar to many trans people who have sought medical transition services.  Often we are turned away, as medical gatekeepers have declared hormones or surgery too risky for us.  My own spouse had had a doctor refuse to refill her prescription for estrogen because her total cholesterol level on one blood test was 201, 1 point into the “high” range.  It was blindingly obvious to my wife, to me, and to most any trans person that the risks involved in withdrawing transition services were much higher than the risk posed by a single cholesterol point of possible added cardiovascular risk.  But under medical paternalism, it is not the trans person zirself who decides if the benefits of medical transition outweigh the risks—it is the doctor.  This gives a doctor’s idiosyncratic beliefs about trans people a great deal of power. This is evident, for example, in how many genderqueer people seeking medical transition services have found they have to present themselves falsely as having a binary trans identity in order to access those services.  Presenting as genderqueer/agender/etc. is a disadvantage because doctors often impose their personal belief that nonbinary identities are weak, wishy-washy, impermanent, or insufficiently “real” to justify the risks of treatment.

After being rejected by paternalistic medical gatekeeping to transition services, some trans people just give up, resigned to lives of psychological misery.  Other, shall we say, more self-actualizing individuals simply turn to the grey and black markets, for example by buying hormones online.  Responding to this reality, the modest number of regional trans clinics mostly operate under the “harm reduction” philosophy, under which clients are advised of the risks involved in hormone replacement therapy, permitted to sign an informed consent form, and then allowed access to hormones.

I’m fully in favor of the harm reduction approach, which grants trans patients the human dignity of being allowed to make informed decisions for ourselves. But the framing of decisions about transition under harm reduction is just as individualistic as the paternalist model.  It’s about a contract being signed by a rational actor weighing physical risks against psychological benefit.

As no man, woman, person of any other gender, or person of no gender at all is an island, I find this pretty silly.  

We are not atomized individuals free-floating in space, making decisions about whether and how to modify our sexed bodies.  We are social creatures, with employers and coworkers, partners and offspring, schoolmates and neighbors.  And so many of the current risks and benefits of trans body modifications are social in nature, not medical.

Anyone who gender transitions does so because they wish social recognition of their gender identity.  If it is enough for us to know in our own minds what our true gender is, then being forever misgendered by others matters not at all, and transition is unnecessary.  Note that I am not equating gender transition generally with medical transition—many people transition socially without the use of hormones or surgery.  But whether we choose to and are able to access medical services, choose not to do so, or try but are unable to access them, the acts of coming out to others and of asking that others change the pronoun by which they address us are social in nature. 

And this brings up the thorny issue of being accepted in our identified genders.  For many binary gender transitioners, this is conflated with the idea of “passing,” or being perceived as a cis person of one’s identified gender.  (I’m very critical of the term “passing”—you can read my full critique here if you like.)  In my ideal world, gender identities would be accepted in the same way that, say, religious identities are: we just take someone’s word for it.  If someone tells you they are Catholic or Hindu, you say, “OK.”  If someone tells you they have converted to Judaism, you say, “Oh, OK,” and maybe you ask them about their experience, but you never say, “I refuse to acknowledge your Jewish identity because you don’t have a Jewish nose.  If you get a nose job maybe I’ll think about it, but since you didn’t grow up Jewish, I really don’t think you can know what it is to be a real Jew.” (By the way, I’m Jewish, and I am aware that there are some Jews who see Jews-by-choice as less authentically Jewish, though that is against both Torah and rabbinical advice.  But I’ve never in my life encountered a person, Jewish or otherwise, who has said “I won’t acknowledge you as a Jew unless you get plastic surgery to make your nose look Jewish.”)

Unfortunately, my ideal world where gender identities would be respected when announced, without regard to physical appearance, is far from the world we live in today.  

In the real world we have no choice but to negotiate, not only is transphobia, or hatred of trans people, rampant, but so is cissexism.  Cissexism is the belief that cis people’s gender identities are authentic, innate and unquestionable, while trans peoples’ identities are questionable performances.  One aspect of cissexism is the belief that one has the right to choose to respect a trans person’s gender identity or not—that one sits in judgment on our identities and presentations.  And central among the criteria that cissexist people use in deciding whether to respect or mock us is physical appearance, especially bodily configuration.  To be deemed “worthy” of the pronoun “she,” cissexism holds, one must have a body that looks like that of a cis woman.  To be granted the right to the pronoun “he” requires a body appearing cis male.  And to be acknowledged as genderqueer, a person is expected to be completely androgynous in physical form.

Now, the prize that cissexism dangles before us turns out often to be illusory.  Cissexism is deeply bound with enforcing the gender binary and essentialist notions of binary sex.  No matter what a person’s body looks like, it turns out, cissexist people generally treat all nonbinary genders as jokes, refusing to use nonbinary pronous or just “forgetting” all the time to try.  A trans man can bulk up, grow a beard, and get top and bottom surgery, but no matter—many cissexists will assert that he doesn’t have a “real” penis, and is thus a poor simulacrum of a man they will call “he” out of pity.  And transfeminine peole have it worst of all.  Transmisogynistic hatred focused on trans women is intense, presenting them as deceivers of straight cis men, potential rapists of cis women, and some unspecified but ominous threat to children.  Cissexist gender policing of trans women’s bodies is most extreme, inspecting necks for adam’s apples, staring at the size of hands, scrutinizing chests, and monitoring jawlines.  If they are visibly trans gender under this scrutiny—as so many trans women are—they are the subject of constant ire and harassment, mocked as “shemales” and “he-shes.”  Only the most model-perfect are granted the prize of being treated as women.  And even this prize turns out to be booby-trapped, because their very cis-conformity is reframed in romantic and sexual contexts as a sham, a trap, tormenting cis straight men by somehow making them gay.

So: cissexism is rampant in our society.  Its claim that it will grant us respect, if and only if our bodies “match” our identities, is largely a sham—and yet it is compelling to so many of us as trans people.  It keeps masses of trans people in the closet, convinced they can never transition because their bodies appear too stereotypically cis male or female.  We transition so that others will respect our gender identities, and if we are convinced no one ever will respect us because we don’t have the price of a nice suburban home to spend on plastic surgery, or that even if we spent a million dollars, it would never be enough, then many of us decide there’s no point in even trying.

For those of us who do come out, bod mods often become almost an obsession.  If you take a look at the mass of trans support sites, and you will find a million posts entitled “How well do I pass?—X months on HRT.”  Go to some genderqueer support groups, and you will find masses of people binding their chests, agonizing over whether they would look more androgynous if they took a little estrogen or testosterone, or commiserating over wanting some of the effects of HRT but not others.  The way this is framed by psychotherapists and doctors is as an individual preoccupation that is a keystone of the formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria.  It’s treated as an internal psychodrama of alienation from one’s flesh, the idea of feeling “born in the wrong body.”  And it’s certainly true that many trans people are driven to transition in part by a sense of unhappiness with their curves or lack thereof.  But this feeling does not emerge in a vacuum.  It is born from a life lived in the context of cissexism and its insistence on “passing” as cis gender as the gateway to respect for trans people. 

We’re the ones diagnosed with a mental illness, but it’s society that is sick.  Doctors say that we as individuals are weirdly obsessed with our sexed bodies, but it’s gender policing by a cissexist society that makes us rationally preoccupied with how our bodies appear. 

I’ve had conversations with various trans friends that start, “If you were living your life alone on a desert island. . . ,” as we have tried to disentangle personal wishes for body modification based on internal dysphoria from social forces pushing us toward them.  It’s an impossible exercise on many levels, because we’re never going to live such a life, and because social forces have shaped our feelings and understandings on an unconscious level.  Still, it’s interesting to me, because while some friends have said nothing would change for them, other people I’ve had such conversations with have said they’d want fewer body modifications.  Personally, if I were living on that proverbial desert island, or, slightly less implausibly, in some sort of trans gender utopian commune, what would change for me is my attitude toward top surgery.  I want it now, living in my Midwestern American context, but I wouldn’t in an ideal or asocial setting.

If nobody was around gender policing me, I could deal with having moobs.  I mean, I wouldn’t mind looking like Michelangelo’s David, but I'm a middle-aged guy with reasonable expectations and hardly obsessed with having a model body.  Early in my transition, I wore my binder every waking hour, but now, as soon as I get home from work, unless there’s company, I immediately take it off and relax.  Let’s face it: for most of us who wear them, binders are really uncomfortable.  But my attitude of relaxation and body acceptance has very little effect on my binding behavior outside the house—I bind tightly, whenever I’m stepping out my door, which often means for 12-18 hours a day.

Now, here’s where I return to that study I mentioned (remember the binder survey?).  According to the health information given with the survey, binding for more than 8 hours a day is medically risky.  As a rational individual, I should balance my dysphoric urge to bind against physical risks, and apparently I'm doing a poor job of it—I’m too obsessed with my body, making me put it at risk.

But I’m not obsessed with my body.  

I’m not binding for long days due to psychological reasons.  I don’t want top surgery because my body revolts me, or because my moobs feel like alien flesh somehow appended to my chest, or because I have a desire to live “stealth,” hiding my trans status.  I am responding to a social context in which the risks of my not binding or getting top surgery are huge.  I teach large lecture classes full of Midwestern undergraduates.  I sit in meetings with Midwestern administrators.  They all know I'm trans—I’m not in the closet—and there are rough patches, but mostly I get by pretty well by wearing jacket and tie, growing my beard, and binding my chest to pass muster with gender policing.  I recognize that in this I am privileged. But if I suddenly showed up with size D breasts bouncing around under my shirt, I have no doubts that it would trigger a cissexist freak-storm.  It’s one thing for your standard cissexist onlooker to see that I’m short and wide-hipped for a man, and have a somewhat odd-shaped chest.  I fall short of the masculine ideal, but it’s clear I’m making an effort.  Presenting as a man with a free-flying and quite substantial set of breasts, however, is a crime according to the gender police.

Unintentionally violating the cissexist law that gender identity and body must “match” gets you stigma, but overtly flouting this law is treated as a much more serious crime.  Now, the results are generally much worse for the transfeminine than they are for transmasculine people like me.  But there would be consequences—material consequences—for me, for example in the form of poor student evaluations and negative interactions with colleagues, and I am the sole economic support for a family of three.  Furthermore, the other members of my family have physical disabilities, meaning they must rely on me to do tasks like the shopping that would be made much more difficult and potentially dangerous if I appeared, not just as trans, but as “flaunting” a nonconforming body.

I know that there are people in the U.S. walking around in public with the combination of beard and big breasts and an androgynous body, if not in the Midwestern setting I live in.  Frankly, I’m in awe of their strength.  If I were single, maybe I would find out if I am strong enough to take the body I’m comfortable with in the privacy of my own home, and live with it in full view of a cissexist society.  Maybe I could dare to swim in a public pool, furry moobs exposed, or mow the lawn with my shirt off, like my cis male neighbors do, and dare the police to arrest me for bodily nonconformity.  Certainly I’d love to give the finger to our society’s gender policing, sexualization of body parts deemed female, and general body shaming.

But I am not just an individual with political goals and psychological impulses.  I am embedded in a society and in a family.  And I have duties to my spouse and child that mean that since I cannot afford top surgery, and my insurance excludes coverage of transition-related services, I have to bind my chest for more hours a day than is medically approved.

Any study or theory of trans experience that presents us as acting solely in response to internal psychological impulses deeply misrepresents our lived reality.  And a medical establishment that withholds hormones or surgery based on a cost-benefit analysis that only takes into account medical risks, and not the social stigma, unemployment, and violence that those of us transitioning in a cissexist society risk without those services, does trans people a great disservice.

At the same time, it’s very important to me to resist naturalizing and internalizing gender policing by evaluating myself using the language of “passing.”  Besides implying that my presenting myself as a man is deceptive, the language of “passing” puts trans people in an impossible position, where the “success” of our transitions are determined by something we cannot control: the way we are treated by others.  No matter what body mods we seek, or voice training we do, or how carefully we choose our clothing, other people can still mispronoun us, either consciously and cruelly, or based on their unconscious cissexist ideas about bodies without actively intending to be cruel.  We cannot control whether we “pass”—we can be passed as cis gender by others who honor our gender identities, or not passed as cis gender by those who do not, and control of that lies with them, not us.

So I want to emphasize that I am advocating for the great import of trans body modification and access to medical transition services largely because of our social context of constant gender policing.  Ideally, I believe, what requires change are not trans bodies, but society.  It’s cissexism that drives so much of our preoccupation with body mods.  What we must most fight for is the social acceptance of visibly trans bodies as being fully as valid and attractive and as deserving of respect as cis bodies.  In an ideal future, when all gender identities are fully supported and respected, I believe trans people will seek to change our bodies less than we do now.  But since we live neither in that ideal future, nor on desert islands, we must cope with the fact that social change is slow, and we have to live in the world as it is now, even as we fight to change it. 

Right now, trans people of all genders pursue body modifications for three reasons: (1) to reduce the social risks of stigma and mistreatment that are aimed at visibly trans bodies, (2) to get the social benefits of respect that are currently granted only to cis-appearing bodies, and (3) to reduce internal gender dysphoria.  The first of these, reducing mistreatment, I see as a necessary evil: something we rationally try to do to protect our safety, but much more effectively addressed by putting an end to transphobic discrimination and violence, making protective camouflage unnecessary.  The second of these, seeking to appear cis to get respect, I see as a dangerous illusion, because we cannot control whether people will grant us that respect, and because it perpetuates the idea that trans bodies like ours are inferior.  It’s only the third—seeking changes in our bodies that reduce our personal, internal gender dysphoria—that I believe would persist, in a world that moved beyond transphobia, transmisogyny and cissexism.


May that day soon arrive.