Saturday, 1 November 2008

Transgressions Against The Binary

After both The Atlantic and Penny Red wrote articles on the matter my mind began to ponder in earnest the phenomenon of total gender deviants. The former article gives an overview of the matter in America, with a focus on children, while the latter (as usual) gives the most rational feminist view possible (still not as rational as the post-feminst argument, as ever, but remarkably convincing. With regards to Victoria Beckam being as "fake" a woman as any transexual is, that is. The whole Whipping Girl argument that disdain for transexuals stems from disdain for feminity, though, is nonsense: if that were the case female-to-male transexuals would attract no negative attention, which those with even a basic knowledge of the life of Brandon Teena will know is not the case. Transexuals are targetted because they are damaging to the Mighty Binary fiction and destabilise the worldview of its believers. And society's disdain for masculinity is substantial as well: energetic warriors have no place in the classroom. Frankly its unsurprising that both misandry and misogyny are rife: nobody likes a cliche. But feminism doesn't offer much to combat the root of gender problems in the contemporary Anglosphere since it remains focused on the tiresome, outmoded "Men as oppressor" model. Until we get a decent movement attacking the Mighty Binary rather than the already defunct Patriarchy we aren't going to change much).

I would also continue to point out along with my condemnation of the known bigot Julie Bindel that this is the sort of thing inevitable with a movement that aims to advance women's rights in the stead of aiming to wiping out gender inequality (along with, as far as possible, the entire notion of gender rigidity). Such an ideology is bound to attract misandrists and narrow minded fools. But this is not to be yet another piece of polemic concerning the inadequecies of feminism for confronting the confusing world of re-inforced binary but rearranged bigotry and re-directed bile. No, I type today to talk of transexuality. 

The most interesting part of the Atlantic piece was the way that childhood transexuals have somehow come to be used as the ultimate put-down for believers in gender as a cultural construct. This nonsense is hard to even comprehend, so I'll leave the explanation to this extract:
Diamond now spends his time collecting case studies of transsexuals who have a twin, to see how often both twins have transitioned to the opposite sex. To him, these cases are a “confirmation” that “the biggest sex organ is not between the legs but between the ears.” For many gender biologists like Diamond, transgender children now serve the same allegorical purpose that David Reimer once did, but they support the opposite conclusion: they are seen as living proof that “gender identity is influenced by some innate or immutable factors,” writes Melissa Hines, the author of Brain Gender.

This is the strange place in which transsexuals have found themselves. For years, they’ve been at the extreme edges of transgressive sexual politics. But now children like Brandon are being used to paint a more conventional picture: before they have much time to be shaped by experience, before they know their sexual orientation, even in defiance of their bodies, children can know their gender, from the firings of neurons deep within their brains. What better rebuke to the Our Bodies, Ourselves era of feminism than the notion that even the body is dispensable, that the hard nugget of difference lies even deeper?

I am afraid that they will have to do much better than that. Gender is a concept which exists to be embodied, with a set of ideals and heroes just like any other of its kind. In addition to there being characteristic behaviour, speech and thought there are certain individuals or characters that epitomise the notions. The most obvious examples for girls are already endlessly commented upon, but copious examples are present for boys as well which receive rather less attention. An example is this sinister character:

His name just about says it all, doesn't it?

The two characteristics of both masculinity and femininity pertinent to our present consideration are that they are both a totality and they are both appealing. By 'a totality' here I mean that they are a complete set of mannerisms, garb and attititudes for the acolyte to follow. Both of these traits are necessary for their continued existence: if they were incomplete then they would not suffice for the construction of a rigid binary. If they were unappealing nobody, let alone an overwhelming majority, would want to attach themselves to either.

So how does this 'attachment' work, exactly? Simply, and early. The behaviour which those such as Dr. Diamond alleges is inherent appears long after differing treatment begins. Studies have shown that nurses will treat children dressed in pink in a different fashion to those dressed in blue. We can see clearly that this treatment predates by a good few years any divering behavioural traits and as the difference in treatment pre-dates the difference in behaviour it would seem that this parental treatment is the origin of the differing character, rather than visa versa. But this is an old and long-ago won argument. What relevence holds this to transexuality?

Children are, from birth, introduced to the two complete and conflicting concepts: feminitity and masculinity. Each defines the other, via contrast. They are conditioned to adopt the one 'suitable' to their genital set. Transexuality is simply the child failing to latch onto the correct one.

This is highly problematic for a binary-reliant society exactly on account of the aforementioned self-contained nature of gender: if they latch onto the wrong concept there is a fully outlined set of traits for them to take up. They are a 'boy' or 'girl' in all respects that a 'real' boy/girl save the set of privates that their culture considers correct. That's it, in all other respects they have all needed. They have a complete system to inform their conduct. But does the fact that they act precisely as the opposite gender and wish to alter the greatest trait that belies their chicanery truly indicate the physically rooted origin of gender? No, it simply demonstrates the extent to which the binary brooks no ambiguity.


Simone said...

While I identify as female and have done so my whole life, there were always some parts of the feminine stereoptype that I responded to, but others that I didn't. If I'd been born biologically female, I'd have been a hell of a tomboy, and even now that I'm transitioning, I haven't turned into a Stepford Wife either.

That said, I do agree that, as a closeted trans-person, I never felt free to express the feminine aspects of my personality for exactly the reasons you've described - I was conforming as hard as a could manage. Having finally made peace with myself I'm free to express those feminine traits, but that doesn't mean that I'm suddenly going to reject what are traditionally regarded as masculine traits because they don't "fit".

I'm not really sure whether I'm agreeing with you or not here - yeah I can be unbelievably dense given half a chance - but to me my identity has always been a constant from as far back as I can remember - it's the self-acceptance and presentation that has shifted throughout the years. I didn't choose it, nor did my interactions with society create my gender identity. From my point of view anyway, it's always been a constant.

Bad hair days said...

By talking down the scientific proove you again make the same mistake I read over and over from feminists.

Confusing gender identity and gender role.

gender role might be a product of culture, gender identity is a product of the neurology.

Squadron Leader said...

BHD - Incorrect. I acknowledge that you wish the two to be separate, but I would suggest that it is culture which creates the identity in order for each sex to fulfil their gender role.

As for "talking down", well yes, I consider that the only appropriate response to something that's been quite so heavily, and inordinately, talked up.

Simone - That you fail to fit properly into either side of an entirely artificial dichotomy is hardly surprising. See my latest post for examples of those that have.

As for your memory of yourself, I believe that the most vital part is pre-"as far back as I can remember". You'll have been getting cultural signals from long before then. Irrespective of what clothes you wear today I suspect that back then it was either pink or blue.

Simone said...

To make an arbitrary statement that gender identity and role are the same thing seems a bit hasty to me. My gender role has fluctuated throughout my life depending on external influences and my own developing personal philosophy. (not to mention my transition :D ) My gender identity, by contrast, has been a constant for as long as I have been alive. I've tried to suppress it at times (cause for a while there I thought I was gonna go to hell ;) ), but that has proven impossible in the long run.

I'd be interested in your opinion on intersexed individuals born with ambiguous genitalia, who are then raised as the gender assigned by parents and doctor, only later to reject that gender assignment and transition to the gender they identify as. Another interesting case was that of John/Joan, whose penis was destroyed in a botched circumcision at 8 months old. He was reassigned and raised as a girl, but later asserted his identity as male.

There is considerable evidence that male and female brain structures really are different, and that transsexual people have the structures of the gender they identify with.


For interest sake:

Squadron Leader said...

1) Not hasty at all.

It's been long considered and deliberated over. And I don't doubt that you simply trying to reset something so well establish achieved little. That's to be expected, you can not just dismiss a core element of your psyche.

2) Intersexuality is an interesting case, as unless they are somehow to be defined as non-persons it does a huge amount of damage to the one-or-other gender set up. Hence the eagerness of doctors to chop them into one shape or the other.

Which, of course, I am opposed to. Along with infant non-theraputic circumcision. I've read quite a bit concerning the case you cite and there are some important things to bear in mind: firstly the circumcision was as unnecessary as the the castration (he had an identical twin brother who was scheduled to have the same performed to him afterwards, but due to the power surge and the resulting damage had it delayed. His supposed "phimosis", something which it is impossible for an infant to suffer from since at birth the glans and foreskin are naturally fused with a substance similar to the one which binds your nail to their bed, cleared up a few months later. There is no reason to believe that his unfortunate brother would not have experienced the same if left alone and it was medical negligence to have him performed upon at all).

Secondly this is not really an ideal example for demonstrating anything much. In addition to the exceptional factor of an unrequired castration (unquestionably something which I would never advocate) a massive amount of trauma was likely to have been caused by the presence of the foul sexologist who recommended the
second disfiguring operation the poor infant endured, who according to both of them molested the twins in a variety of depraved ways. How things would have turned out without this factor is unclear, but I would wager the answer is "better".

I don't really think, in short, that we can deduce much from this sad case. Apart, of course, that you shouldn't have surgery performed upon your children's genitals unless there is a need.

3) The evidence seems fairly flimsy to me. An instance of people pursuing a point with erroneous data. Certainly nothing conclusive.

Simone said...

Cool. I think that, ultimately the question of whether gender identity is a social construct or a biological one will remain an open one for a long time. From my perspective it is a very real, very insistent part of who I am, one that has been with me for as long as I can remember. I was lucky to be able to live in London as I was coming to a greater acceptance of myself. (waaaay more open and accepting than where I come from ;) ) I tried crossdressing, relationships with both guys and girls, and became much freeer in my self expression and the roles I adopted. Ultimately it just wasn't the solution. Only transition has given me peace within myself. It was never a question of how free I was to act according to my nature or to be with the people I was attracted to or anything else. It was all about how I perceive myself.

I think it's probably impossible for cisgendered people to really, fundamentally understand what being transgendered means, in the same way that it's impossible for me to understand what it feels like to have identity and body line up. Ultimately though, theoretical and philosophical questions aside, I think we can agree on what needs to happen in society in terms of dismantling patriarchy and male privilege and valuing people on who they are rather than what they are. At the end of the day we are individuals, each deserving of freedom and acceptance and equality purely on the basis that we are living, thinking beings.

Been fun talking to you, and I look forward to reading more of your stuff.


Jane said...

Interesting post, MysteryDykeSquadron, which I found via PennyRed.

I particularly agree with your points re. Serano's 'Whipping Girl'. Whilst I thought it was a overall an interesting book (and I think to be fair it was only intended as her personal account as she saw it), it does tend to make statements that might be true for how society invariably relates to male to female transsexuals, but which then causes all kinds of contradiction for how society relates to female to male transsexuals.

Whilst of a trans-history myself, I've always been of the total belief of gender as a social construct. I don't believe gender identity exists as such - whether some are trans or not. I don't care much for masculinity or femininity either.

As 'gender' is social and cultural and changes from place to place, then it can't, in my mind, be 'real' or inate. 'Gender role' I feel is nothing more than patriarchal-based sexism based on our birth sex.

If that appears to negate my existence, well, it doesn't in my opinion. I think I was 4 when my parents first took me to a GP, followed by a psych for my insistence that I was actually a girl not a boy, and that there had been a huge mistake (I threatened to cut off my penis at 6, was convinced that puberty at 14 would correct all the problems). My parents, whilst obviously concerned, were pretty open-minded ones who allowed me a childhood where I could openly express or experiment as much as I wanted. Despite that, it wasn't gender expectations or 'dress' that was the problem, it was the sex of my body. I didn't want to dress like a girl, or play with dolls, or whatever other silly stereotype you can think of, I just wanted to correct what I felt had been a mistake at birth.

Whilst I cannot understand the reasons for the why/whats of being transsexual, there are those of us where you can take away 'gender', and we'd still be there.