On Transgender, Transsexuals, and Entrenching the Binary Gender System

It’s been years – almost two decades – since the last time I wore makeup or a dress. Why? I like dresses.

I recently noticed that – although I’ve never given the matter any conscious thought – that I always tie my hair back in a low ponytail. Even though a high ponytail would often be more comfortable (for instance, in airplanes, cars, and other situations with high-backed chairs). But a high ponytail is seen as “feminine” in our society, and I unconsciously chose to avoid that.

I spend a lot of time thinking about feminism and sexism and the need to fight our society’s coercive gender role structure. Yet when I shop for clothing, I do so in a way that implicitly condones those very roles. I dress like a man. I tie my hair in a culturally masculine style. I’m helping to entrench the system I oppose.

Yawning Lion at Fem-muh-nist writes:

I have heard the argument that transitioning from one sex to the other challenges the idea of gender as binary. I don’t understand how. If one moves from male to female or vice versa, there are still only two genders at work, aren’t there? It may become harder to distinguish who is who, or who was born what, but the binary gender system remains intact, and women remain at the bottom. If this is truly a challenge to the system and to patriarchy, I would like to understand precisely how that happens. What I see is that it further entrenches the system, while at the same time challenging the legitimacy of complaints against the system – after all, could being a woman be so bad if some people choose to become women?

1) Nothing about transitioning necessarily challenges the idea of gender as a binary. Nor does not transitioning challenge the idea of gender as a binary. Challenging gender as a binary is something we do with advocacy, not by being transgendered or not.

2) However, it should be noted that “male to female or vice versa” with “only two genders at work,” while perfectly valid, is not a complete list of how people are transgendered. Some people have explicitly fluid gender identities, or in some other way refuse to identify as simply “male” or simply “female.” Insofar as their “fluid” gender identities are made public, these folks implicitly challenge the idea of gender as a simple binary.

3) Furthermore, as Piny points out in YL’s comments, transitioning from one sex to the other implicitly “challenges the gender divider that this society seems most invested in: sex assigned at birth defines your gender position, full stop.”

4) In a sense, transsexuals who move from one sex to the other “entrench the system” of gender as a binary, because they are willing to dress and be identified in society as one gender and not the other. But that’s true of the vast majority of us, transsexual or not.

All of us make compromises with the patriarchal society around us, whether it’s getting married to someone of the opposite sex, or shaving (for women), or shopping only in the “men’s” section of the clothing store (for men), or wearing a low ponytail (for me). There are a thousand ways to compromise with patriarchy – no, ten thousand – and I doubt anyone fights against them all. And all of these decisions and actions could be said to help entrench the gender-binary system.

We all do what we have to do – to survive, to express ourselves, and to feel comfortable with what we see in the mirror. It’s illogical to single out transsexuals for criticism on this score – and yet, transsexuals are constantly singled out for this criticism. I call that discrimination.

5) Regarding “after all, could being a woman be so bad if some people choose to become women?” You might as well say that being gay isn’t so bad if some are out of the closet, or that transphobia isn’t so bad if some people choose to be openly transgendered, or that racism isn’t so bad if some POC who could “pass” for white choose not to. (Piny made this argument, as well).

Bottom line: Patriarchy is a huge edifice. We should welcome a lot of different approaches to challenging it. And virtually everyone has to compromise with patriarchy sometimes.

Finally, in my opinion, feminism has never been at its best or strongest when saying “keep out” to oppressed minorities.

NOTE: I actively limit who can post comments on my threads on “Alas.” If your comments aren’t getting approved for publication here, please consider posting your comments on the exact same post at Creative Destruction.

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84 Responses to On Transgender, Transsexuals, and Entrenching the Binary Gender System

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  8. 8
    Angiportus says:

    Some darn good points. When my library first got in some books on transitioning–for MTF’s anyway–I was startled at how they urged the person changing to adopt a very stereotypically feminine look, sound, whatever, instead of, say, just wearing women’s jeans, or coming up with something entirely new. And there was someone a good while before that who wrote a whole book, “Transexual Empire” I think it was, claiming that transfolks were just dupes to be slotted into the other patriarchal role and keep the system going. Transwomen were likened to actors in blackface in those old minstrel shows. When I met someone who wanted to change I figured it must be more complicated than that, but I’ve long wondered why anyone would ever want to become a member of an apparently oppressed group. Some cultural feminists out there claim that MTF’s are trying to get hold of some mysterious divine power inherent in womanhood, the same power that men supposedly invented patriarchy to suppress, out of sheer jealousy, but I am leery of such mysticism. I guess I figured my co-worker had his/her own good reasons, and left it at that.
    What really creeped me out is when I started reading how doctors could “assign” a gender to an intersexed person, as if laying down some divine fiat, taking no consideration of the individual’s wishes. I believe there were some Native American groups who let infants choose sides on their own, watching which tool they picked up. There were still only 2 choices, but it seemed slightly more humane. Of course, what adults think they have the divine right to do to the young is worthy of a whole nother rant (and don’t get me started on doctors either.) When I read somewhere that some infants in this country were being mutilated just to make them fit into a gender–and how telling that they were relegated to the subordinate one!–I about lost my lunch.
    You’re right, no one can flout every last rule; I guess we should just do what works for us, and support the freedom of others to do the same.
    As one who has never felt much identification with any group yet invented, I am watching this one, and appreciate your holding it up to the light.

  9. 9
    Jay Sennett says:

    More than anything, I think transsexuals challenged the idea that science is about “facts.”

    Facts and science are as socially constructed and determined as any other field. But we believe “biology” is correct. If a person is “XX” (how does one really know that?) or “XY” it must be true, because biology says it is true.

    Transsexuals interrupt this story time and time again. I no longer believe we are “biologically determined” as we are “scientifically determined.”

    If anything, trannsexuals underscore the performativity of science.

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    All of us make compromises with the patriarchal society around us, whether it’s getting married to someone of the opposite sex, or shaving (for women), or shopping only in the “men’s” section of the clothing store (for men), or wearing a low ponytail (for me).

    Saying “all of us” presumes that everyone has characteristics or desires that are at odds with what you view as the “patriarchy”.

    I had no desire to establish any kind of partnership with someone of the same sex, nor did I wish to live with my wife and have kids without marriage. I have no desire to go into the women’s clothing department for any reason other than to buy a gift for my wife (and what’s up with the crappy way that women’s clothing is made, anyway?). And I only wish I could grow enough of my hair long enough to make a ponytail out of it – I couldn’t even when I was in college (and I tried).

    What compromises am I making to what you call a “patriarchy”? Now, I can see where there may be a lot of people that do. If some guy wants to wear women’s clothing, I say go for it, but I know that there are other people who have a problem with it and that a prospective cross-dresser (sorry if I’m not using the correct term, I’m not trying to make a rhetorical point) would perhaps not do so in the face of such opposition. But on what basis do you presume that everyone has to make such a compromise?

    My story on men in women’s clothing; I was working as a network administrator for a now-bankrupt major retailer. Some of the male buyers in the women’s clothing department wore the goods they were buying, at work. One of my staff, who was born and raised in sub-Saharan Africa, told me that he would not go up to that floor to work anymore. He had some cultural objections. I informed him that he’d work wherever the work was, and that if he refused to work in that area he could either quit or get fired. He decided that a regular income was a bigger cultural issue than dealing with cross-dressers, and I didn’t go out of my way to send him into that department.

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    More than anything, I think transsexuals challenged the idea that science is about “facts.”

    Science is definitely about facts. But there are those who wish to use science in a non-scientific way.

    If a person is “XX” (how does one really know that?) or “XY” it must be true, because biology says it is true.

    A human’s genotype can be determined via well-established tests. While there are definitely exceptions, the general case is that all the cells in a given human body have either two X chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosome. Mental and emotional factors can affect how that’s expressed, but if you do a genotype of a group of people, it would be very unusual to find anyone who is not either “XX” or “XY”.

    Transsexuals interrupt this story time and time again. I no longer believe we are “biologically determined” as we are “scientifically determined.”

    I’m not sure what distinction you are making.

    If anything, trannsexuals underscore the performativity of science.

    What does “performativity” mean?

  12. 12
    piny says:

    A human’s genotype can be determined via well-established tests. While there are definitely exceptions, the general case is that all the cells in a given human body have either two X chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosome. Mental and emotional factors can affect how that’s expressed, but if you do a genotype of a group of people, it would be very unusual to find anyone who is not either “XX” or “XY”.

    Yes, but this is equally true of a cohort of transsexuals; what does that say about the idea that chromosomes determine sex?

  13. 13
    Jay Sennett says:

    Ron,

    Science is an evolving field, constantly under scrunity. What we are taught in schools, and read in the media, is often several years behind current research.

    Further studies of the human genome project suggests that genotypes may be far more complex than originally imagined. Priliminary results suggest a series of complex mechanisms that interact to create many more types that XX or XY.

    I suspect one day the science of XX and XY will look like the Ptolemiac universe.

  14. 14
    RonF says:

    Yes, but this is equally true of a cohort of transsexuals; what does that say about the idea that chromosomes determine sex?

    There was a whole “sex vs. gender” discussion once that I lost the thread of. With rare exceptions, people are born with either a penis or a vagina. You’re physically either male or female. Now, what you do with these body parts down the line is a different story, and one that can be affected by a few different factors. How you express secondary sexual characteristics is not necessarily tied to biology either.

    There are people on this blog that are a lot more knowledgable than I am on the non-biological issues of sex and gender. I’ll defer. I’m simply making the point that biology is a science and that there are certain facts that comprise it. When you start talking about transsexuals, homosexuals, etc., it takes more than biology to explain it. But the fact that biology doesn’t explain everything doesn’t mean that what it does explain isn’t valid. What is invalid is when people try to use a given discipline to try to explain things that has components that fall outside that discipline.

  15. 15
    piny says:

    What is invalid is when people try to use a given discipline to try to explain things that has components that fall outside that discipline.

    Which is kinda sorta Jay’s entire point.

  16. 16
    gothgate says:

    isn’t sex determend by chemistry as well as chromosomes? i’m not a doctor or scientist, but in my research pre deciding to transition, i read about various stages of fetal development and the hormonal effects on development. also there were some theories i read about medications that pregnant women took (especially in the 50s & 60s) to fight morning sickness that might’ve contributed to gender dysphoria.

    on another point,

    i don’t see why tearing down a binary sex status is a necessary part of feminism. i do see that destroying traditional gender stereotypes is a good thing, and a necessary thing to the liberation of women and men. but i don’t think it will ever be successful to make gender fluid, to where there are more than two boxes to check on forms, etc.

    now this is entirely thrown out the window when talking about the medically intersexed. it is terrible to assign them physical sexes as infants or young children just so they fit into a box. but don’t most intersexed people eventually feel more comfortable in one sex than the other and choose it later in life? this is usually made harder due to the butchering done to them as infants/children and their parents’ inablilty to accept them as intersexed. but those cases are more like parents who put their kids through painful surgeries to make them taller rather than accept them as dwarfs and seems to have little in common with blurring gender boundries.

    but for example, a small personal anectote, amongst goth circles it’s not uncommon for gothboys to wear skirts or dresses, makeup, nail polish, elaborate hair styles, and other “female” accoutrements. these things are considered “female” not by any inherent nature of the item, but by social stereotype. yet while wearing these things the gothboys at no time cease to be boys or desire to be anything but male, perhaps expressing their gentler “feminine” side. although i have seen some really traditional male aggression & acting going on by boys-in-skirts.

    likewise, my wife likes to dress up as a boy. she has a great picture we took, where she wore a high-quality fake goatee, a very victorian/goth get-up and looked just a dead-ringer for trent reznor from the “perfect drug” video. and in her real life, she dresses very masculine, she only wears dresses for renfaire (but she has a boy renfaire outfit too) or if she feels like getting all dressed up. walking around in a leather jacket & pants, despite “vast tracts of land” and long hair, she’d often get mistaken for a guy. it was just a little annoying to me but funny in a way, because at the time, she was “passing” better than i was & she absolutey isn’t trans. but i think it’s more a matter of how she carries herself than her clothing. she has a “masculine gait” (i.e. walks with confidence deterimation and no fear) and is often out walking during times of the night when “sensible women” are locked up in their homes.

    so i don’t see how genderfking has much to do with transsexualism. genderfking in and of itself is a good thing in that it challenges outside-the-box thinking on societally-imposed gender roles and those genderprison walls should be stormed and torn down.

    i remember in my early feminist reading, reading about someone who when it was mentioned to her that she was wearing “men’s” boots, the reply was, ‘i’m a woman, so these are women’s boots.’ there was not an attempt to clame maleness in her person, but to remove the insane social notion that inanimate objects have a gender.

  17. 17
    EL says:

    In a sense, transsexuals who move from one sex to the other “entrench the system” of gender as a binary, because they are willing to dress and be identified in society as one gender and not the other. But that’s true of the vast majority of us, transsexual or not.

    Thank you, Ampersand.

    This argument, made by a lot of (though not all) self-identified radical feminists that, somehow, transfolks should represent for everyone how to radically defy gender norms, while thecisgendered walk around representing one side or the other of the gender (and reaping the resulting privilege) is one of the most infuriating to me. Transpeople who represent one pole or the other of a binary gender system are in no way “worse” or “more culpable for the gender binary” than the majority of cisgendered people, including feminists, who live their lives according to these very binaries.

  18. 18
    alsis39.75 says:

    FWIW, I’ve always found low-tied ponytails more comfortable on the plane. With the elastic on at the nape of your neck, it won’t be digging into the back of your head every time you lean back. If you have a high-tied ponytail, with the elastic on or near that indent at the top of your skull, it probably will dig. Plus, the tail of hair will tend to scrunch itself flat when you lean back, which looks goofy and elevates the risk of hair getting in your already-dubious-quality airline snack.

    Just a tip from your favorite big-haired ultra-femme girly-girl. :p

  19. 19
    Rosemary Grace says:

    I work in basic science, the whole search for a “gay gene” or a “fat gene” has always struck me as missing the point: organisms are a result of both the version of each gene they recieve and how it ends up being expressed (or not). So someone could have the version of the gene for leptin that is known to be associated with increased bodyweight, but it does not garantee increased bodyweight, because the complex balance of every single gene, and how they are expressed might even out the “problem” caused by the whacky leptin gene. Which genes you have in your blueprint do not automatically determine every detail, it’s how the blueprint is read and translated into a working organism that does it. Gene expression is affected by so many factors it makes most scientist’s heads spin.

    I think this can be extrapolated to the sex chromosomes. Being XX or XY means that statistically speaking you are likely to look and feel like a female or a male respectively, but it doesn’t account for the wide variety of expression of sex charecteristics (both primary and secondary).

    Anecdote: I have more of an “hourglass” exaggerated female shape than my “boyish” body-typed sister. Does that make me more female? Nope. For some reason her body type is coming from our mother’s X, and mine is coming from our father’s X chromosome. We each got the same sex chromosomes, but our body types, secondary sex charecteristics, and I’m sure our sexual and gender-identity profiles are quite different.

  20. 20
    Nameless to protect the secretive says:

    The question of automaticaly conforming is very interesting. My husband also has long hair, and wears it in a low pony tail. He had it in a french braid for our wedding, but that took a little bit of convincing, he was worried it would be too radical for his family. Once he saw how it looked with the splendiferous kilt outfit he’d chosen to wear, he went for the braid. If he worked in a more liberal atmosphere he’d happily wear it braided more often, but his coworkers are highly conservative.

    Here’s the kicker, and the reason I’m not publishing my name with this one: he usually wears a bra and women’s panties to work. He finds them comfortable, and was doing it for years before he met me. On the surface he dresses very plainly and in a very stereotypically masculine style, but his collection of cute frilly undies is more extensive than mine. He has no interest in “cross dressing” with outerwear, he identifies as a het male. A het male who prefers women’s undergarments, it’s definitely not a sexual thing for him (I asked), it’s a clothing preference. Just like me wearing pants and non-femmey shoes.

    Sometimes I think it would be cool if he were “out” about this preference, to stand as an example of someone who does not fit standard categories and is still a functional member of society. However, he doesn’t want to be a transvestite activist, he really sees it as a non-issue. It’s just what he does. I wish it were this simple for everybody to dress and act how they feel most comfortable with themselves.

  21. 21
    Ledasmom says:

    Alsis, I agree that a low ponytail is more comfortable in any situation where you may have to lean on it. Unfortunately, when I try it, my hair finds ways of getting out of it and into my food, cup, mouth and anywhere else it’s not wanted. I have vicious attack hair.

  22. 22
    newbie says:

    Adding to Rosemary Grace’s and point, and hoping not to harp on something irrelevant: Perhaps we can agree that even good old fashioned science can see that there’s much more to biological sex than chromosomes. You have sex chromosomes, which, in my understanding, can align XXX, XXY, XX, XY, XYY (?) and probably many more combinations. You also have sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen (again, probably more) that are present in various levels across the sexes. Then, you have sex organs, which vary tremendously from person to person. There are interesting cases of people being born as a female and developing the sex organs of a male upon puberty, to give a women’s studies 101 example.

    And yet, none of this complexity enters into mainstream conversation about sex difference. And it doesn’t begin to touch the immense diversity of gender expression — across cultures, across ages, across sex, across gender identity, across pregnancies, across sexual desire, across almost anything actually.

  23. 23
    Mandolin says:

    RonF:

    There was a whole “sex vs. gender” discussion once that I lost the thread of. With rare exceptions, people are born with either a penis or a vagina. You’re physically either male or female.

    Yeah, it’s true the exceptions are rare… but I think they’re even biologically more varied than what you’re implying here (which I read as an allowance for intersexed individuals). There are people with XY chromosomes who develop entirely as female without having intersexed characteristics, and I believe who often aren’t diagnosed until problems with menstruation and infertility arise. There are people who appear biologically male who end up having a uterus. Those are the two that come to mind, but I’m sure there are more. (This doesn’t contradict your points.)

    Also, I guess the argument that ‘we all have little capitulations to the patriarchy’ is sort of framed as one to be read by those who are struggling against the patriarchy in some way. I don’t get the impression that describes you (though I could be wrong, of course, and if I am, I apologize). But if you aren’t struggling against the patriarchy, then it strikes me that you’re upholding the patriarchy in ways other than those that are listed here… so I still might argue that you’re complicit in supporting the patriarchy in the same way that I am when I, for instance, wear make-up despite my firm conviction that it’s silly. If I’ve misread you or what you’re saying or said something too personal, I apologize.

  24. 24
    bradana says:

    To further the conversation about biology, the binary nature of human sexuality is a function of the way we reproduce. Human reproduction requires that primary sex characteristics come one each from male and female. That aside, just like everything else about sex in our culture (and most cultures) has evolved out of the protection of human reproduction and thus is built to reinforce the two and only two genders.

    That said most of my friends are gay/lesbian/bi with a mix of drag queens, drag kings and transexuals of various degrees of transition. It seems to me that most transgendered people, whichever way they transition, have a number of highly complex emotional and psychological issues with their identity, most especially because they are renouncing one of the primary definitions of personal identity. In one sense they are reinforcing gender stereotypes while rejecting them by rejecting the very thing that gender stereotypes are based on, biology. The reinforcement usually comes with taking hormones, which alter a person’s behavior as well as their secondary sex characteristics.

    I don’t think that we are going to be able to alter the binary nature of human reproduction(not yet anyway), but we don’t have to reinforce all of the crap that we have tied to gender like behavior, psychology, fashion sense. I think its wrong to point fingers at each other, saying “your reinforcing gender stereotypes”. Rather I think we need to reinforce instead acceptance of all people’s style, regardless of whether is conforms to gender stereotype of rejects it.

    Incidentally, if a person is male and rejects male gender stereotype, aren’t they by definition embracing the opposite(female) stereotype?

  25. 25
    azbballfan says:

    bradana:

    Rather I think we need to reinforce instead acceptance of all people’s style, regardless of whether is conforms to gender stereotype of rejects it.

    I agree wholeheartedly with this statement and applaud those who share their own personal experiences which help expand our understanding of what is acceptable. I enjoyed Nameless’ sharing of her husband’s preference for women’s undergarments. I have to admit, twenty years ago my initial response would have been to laugh. I look forward to the day when you people openly discuss these things without fear of judgment.

    bradana, your following sentence puzzled me:

    Incidentally, if a person is male and rejects male gender stereotype, aren’t they by definition embracing the opposite(female) stereotype?

    I wonder if you really meant this or were just providing a nice fat juiceball down the middle of the plate for someone to jack out of the park?

    I look at the boys and young men growing up today and am happy that they are now able to challenge traditional male stereotypes without fear of judgment. Heck, it’s the best way to get more attention. Soon, it’ll be tough for any young guy who adopts tradional male stereotypes for fashion and behavior to be perceived as “normal”.

    And I’m all for it. Back when I went through high school and college twenty years ago, I was jealous that women had successfully fought for their rights to do whatever they wanted, wear whatever they wanted, and say whatever they wanted. I look forward to the day when men can follow in the footsteps of feminists to push the barriers of gender based social norms.

  26. 26
    Meteor Blades says:

    I was watching the Elizabeth I series on HBO (my English history is weak, so who knows how accurate the show is) and loving all the clothes. And thinking what a shame it is that men don’t have the general OK in our society to be “frilly.” I mean, you look at all those embroidered tunics and leggings and hats and amazing shoes and wish you’d been born in another era.

    Of course, the women then were stuck with dresses – albeit gorgeous – and the Church had nasty things to say about cross-dressers. But it just goes to show how incredibly malleable fashion has been. Male Scots and Greeks in kilts (I guess the Greeks don’t call them that); Toureg men covering their faces while the women go unveiled; Chinese women wearing pants at a time when men wore “dresses.” In Bali, where I spend as much time as possible, although pants are common on both, men and women wear sarongs, the only difference between them being the patterns, and no way can Westerners without a textile degree tell the difference between what’s proper for a male and a female.

    There were times and places – among the California Chumash, for instance – when men and women wore the same thing: loinclothes and no shirts. But, around the modern world, we seem foolishly locked into a cultural construct that probably won’t bite the dust until I’m long dead. How much of this is “patriarchy” and how much of it something far deeper I’m way unqualified to discuss.

  27. 27
    Laylalola says:

    This is one of the *key* issues on which the current radical feminist movement in the United States has gone sorely wrong — in fact, in the opposite direction of what radical feminism espoused 30 years ago. Radicals generally took the approach of looking either androgynous or butch — passing for a man was admired and frankly still is in many lesbian feminist circles, and the teen-boy-looking lesbian feminist is rampant. The point was not to *look* like a woman, as in women as a gender, to confuse the easy gender designations to emphasize the similaries of the biological man and woman when not all shaved and dolled up, if you will.

    But then along came not just drag queens but, with medical advances, transsexuality and transitioning, and now we have “radicals” absolutely insisting on being a “woman-born woman” — in other words, radical feminism has been flipped on its head. Biology is the be-all and end-all. More stridently so, arguably, than ever before. Intolerance reigns supreme. We have radical feminist “leaders” preaching outright hate and calling transgendered people actual “monsters.” And this is radical?! How, exactly? How short, too, our memories of our own political movement.

    In my book, it makes perfect sense that so many male-to-female transsexuals become feminists — they’ve experienced what it is to move like a man (gender) in this world and now they’ve experienced what it is to move as a woman (gender) in this world!

    But my all-time favorite observation on subversiveness comes from fem Joan Nestle, who told off our backs that to her of course the butch lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s was radical and outrageous and obviously targeted for violence and hate — but actually the more subversive has to be considered the femme. She *looked* like your compliant girly girl but here she was completely flipping the girly-girl world on its head in the way she lived.

  28. 28
    piny says:

    …While I think that high femme carries enormous potential for irony, I think that any attempt to rate one presentation over another in terms of revolutionary potential will inevitably fail. I think Joan Nestle was writing from an entirely justified defensive stance, and I respect that, but I disagree.

    I also don’t think it’s fair or accurate to tar radical feminists as bigots; there’s no clear bright political line between transphobia and acceptance, really. That gets muddy whenever you’re talking about a group of people who are cisgendered or cissexual attempting to make space. Transpeople have made some arguments for self-determination that are markedly similar to radical feminist critiques of patriarchy, and some radical feminists are not transphobic. Progressives and liberals are also sometimes guilty of using transpeople to support their own ideas about what’s real and what shouldn’t be.

  29. 29
    Puffin says:

    Laylalola, did you read some Califia, get high, watch The L Word marathon, and then come to your distorted conclusion of what radical lesbian feminism today is? Seriously, get a clue.

    If radical lesbian feminists “pass for men,” it’s not because they’re trying to. True, most radical feminists aren’t dipping their faces in make-up and botox and I suppose since THAT’S what defines being a woman nowadays, you assume not doing so must mean wanting to pass as a man.

    And the radical feminist opposition to trans politics has nothing to do with biology. Not even close. But I suppose to someone who sees gender as “moving as a man in this world” or “moving as a woman in this world,” it is that simple. So hell ya, let’s all get out our checkbooks, slap down $30,000 for SRS, start popping hormones, and fuck the Patriarchy over big-time.


    [Personal insults with no other content deleted by Amp. Puffin, please try to respect the moderation goals when you post here. Thanks. --Amp]

  30. 30
    azbballfan says:

    Puffin,

    I enjoyed reading your post (aside from the personal attacks) – and the exuberance oozing about your views.

    And the radical feminist opposition to trans politics has nothing to do with biology. Not even close.

    As someone who doesn’t understand the radical feminist opposition to trans politics, would you enlighten me?

  31. 31
    piny says:

    And the radical feminist opposition to trans politics has nothing to do with biology. Not even close. But I suppose to someone who sees gender as “moving as a man in this world” or “moving as a woman in this world,” it is that simple. So hell ya, let’s all get out our checkbooks, slap down $30,000 for SRS, start popping hormones, and fuck the Patriarchy over big-time.

    Oh, pleeeeease expand. With a definition of “trans politics” and transsexual experience as sophisticated as all that, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the radical feminist opposition to it.

    And not to be pushy or anything, but would it kill you to not add few more drops of medical misinformation to the already overflowing slop bucket? No fourteen-year-old trapped in Oberlin needs to read this and get the wrong idea about what transition entails.

  32. 32
    Robert says:

    No fourteen-year-old trapped in Oberlin…

    Is Oberlin really a hard place for trans people? It seemed like one of the most socially tolerant places I’ve ever lived (if you didn’t have the bad taste to be a Burkean).

    On the other hand, there are a lot of gay people in Oberlin (the College, anyway) and from what it seems like you’ve said, there is some mutual group antagonism operative there?

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  34. 33
    Mandolin says:

    I have a wonderful friend who is trans & she’s been good enough to talk to me in my position of ignorance & help me understand some of her experience.

    As a feminist, one of the things I find most interesting about her experience & theory is the idea that all people have a kind of ‘switch’ in the back of their brain which is aligned to either male or female. For most of us, that ‘switch’ is aligned with our physical sex. For some of us, it isn’t. And that produces feelings of gender dysphoria (if I can use the term just to mean dysphoria about gender and try to slip some of the DSM baggage…)

    This idea is both compelling and, for me, a little frightening. Because while it’s potentially really interesting that there could be some kind of biological switch that creates gender identification … it would also disappoint me a little, because it’s binary nature would to some extent preclude an ability to stake out radical territory that breaks the binary.

    For the record, my friend is emphatic that when she talks about this ‘switch’ it doesn’t have anything to do with gender roles — just gender identification. So, in this model, whether one identifies as male or female would be biological, but how one comprehends and expresses masculinity and femininity would be cultural. (This is part of where I have trouble applying the model to my experience – I have difficulty separating the concept of a ‘female gender’ from its performative aspects.)

    Anyway, I can’t guarantee that I’ve understood or am accurately representing my friend’s position. And I understand that there are many people here who are much more educated on experience and theory than I.

    I’m mostly posting this as information for azballfan and anyone else who may not be up to date on some of the spaces where feminist and transgender theory can potentially get fuzzy – from the perspective of someone who wholeheartedly supports transsexual rights, but who is still trying to work out some consistent gender theories in the back of her head.

  35. 34
    Angiportus says:

    “Contraceptive mentality”? Teehee, I didn’t know contraceptives even had minds…
    By the way, just how do you pronounce “cis-”? I’m glad someone is providing words where they are needed, but spelling and saying them can be tricky.
    Mandolin–the switch analogy is an interesting one, and I think what happens is a few people have it welded in the “other” position from what their body looks like, a few have it in neutral and can move it either way, and some just don’t have it, and might even be missing the wiring. That’s just my guess.
    Politics makes my head spin, and not in a good way. Whatever happened to all hanging together or else getting hanged separately? This particular
    issue, about transfolk and feminism, has gotten too tangled for me to make sense of any more. While growing up I ran afoul of people who wanted to do this and that to my body for their own purposes–I’ll spare you the details–but were aghast if I wanted to do anything to it for my own. So I now won’t presume for anyone else about theirs. Surgery queases me out bigtime, but so does the idea of forcing someone to spend their life in a body that does not look, feel, perform or smell like what they really feel themselves to be. It’s a personal decision that can be hard enough to make without having to worry about whether one is being a traitor to people trying to get justice in other areas. Still it’s a good thing to come up with some consistent theories…I just don’t think anyone has managed that yet.
    It may have been Olaf Stapledon who envisioned a far future society with 96 sexes. With my luck I’d be the 97th, but anyway. Someone once said to me, “You are who you think you are.” I’ll go with that. Even if in my own case I can’t even put it into words.

  36. 35
    nexyjo says:

    trans politics

    isn’t that just part of the whole “gay agenda” i keep hearing so much about?

  37. 36
    Mandolin says:

    a few have it in neutral and can move it either way,

    What an extraordinarily elegant solution, Angi! You’ve just made room for the switch theory and binary breakdown. Why didn’t I think of this? (Answer: I got too caught in my own binary of either/or thinking.)

    I get kind of bogged down in wondering about the biological/sociological theory of this stuff both because 1) I’m trained in the social sciences and 2) I write science fiction, so I’m always happy to find new ways and things to think/extrapolate about.

    But politically & pratcically, for my actions in the world, I don’t feel like these theoretical issues should affect me much one way or the other — as a liberal, a radical, a feminist, or whatever other identity I’m sporting at the moment. Whatever social, biological, or other mechanisms may affect transsexuality, it is clearly something people experience deeply & sincerely. And they should have the right to act in whatever way they find appropriate as adults with agency and an understanding of their own lives, with community support, help when and if they want it, and whatever medical treatments they choose.

    They shouldn’t have to be subjected to allegations of selfishness or monstrosity, from either side of the political continuum.

  38. 37
    piny says:

    Oberlin, Kansas, Robert. Different place in every conceivable way.

  39. 38
    brynn says:

    Wow, this discussion is way cool! I’m a female-to-male (ftm) transsexual and while I agree with most points here and disagree with a few, I am mostly blown away by the level of sophistication. If this dialogue is any indication, we as a society ARE advancing in regard to gender!

    To add my own points: many ftms chose not to undergo genital surgery for a variety of reasons, among them disappointing results, huge risk of serious complications, and cost. Some, including me, eschew surgery because our gender-identities are more complicated than man or woman. While we are most comfortable moving in the world as men, we choose to expand the categories to include men without penises. A subversive idea, I venture you’ll agree, and hardly one supportive of the binary gender system as it stands.

    For that matter, I am a man who is a mother. Being pregnant, giving birth and raising my daughter were among the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and not accomplishments I’m eager to turn my back on. True, I was in denial at the time of my pregnancy and through my daughter’s teens, but I have now mothered her for more than half her life as an ftm. It may be a stretch for many people, but for her and me no contradiction exists, although society’s prejudice and lack of imagination often put us in awkward positions.

    For the record, too, I am a staunch and vocal feminist. I did not transition because I “disliked” being a woman or believe men are superior. On the contrary, I think I’m biased toward women, believing them to be generally more evolved. I did not seek to make more money nor gain male privilege, most of the time I don’t know how to respond when they’re offered. Nor am I homophobic: I identify as queer, have bedded more genders than most ☺ and have the dubious distinction of having been queer bashed as both a dyke and a gay man.

    I rarely forget my differentness. I am always aware that something as ordinary as a roadside accident, an arrest during a non-violent protest, or a personal search at an international border could out me, and in some cases put me in danger of physical assault. As far as we have come, as evidenced by this discussion, most people are still threatened by transsexuals and sadly, for many that provokes violence.

    As Angiportus rightly pointed out, the charge that transfolk reinforce the binary gender system was leveled with vehemence in the book, Transsexual Empire. I’ve always found the subject emotionally fraught and difficult to counter. Thank you, Ampersand, and the rest of you here, for so articulately addressing it.

  40. 39
    Ledasmom says:

    Unless it is pronounced differently in this context, “cis” is pronounced just as “sis” is. Hah, I knew organic chemistry would come in handy sometime!

  41. 40
    curiousgyrl says:

    I’m intrerested in the comments about physical sex. True, reproduction is bianary, at least if you ignore cloning, but are genitals really a simple matter of two?

    Is reproductive function the essense of penises and vaginas? I’m not sure. Huge nubmers of us are not “functional” in that respect–either by choice, or becuase of age (young or old), illness, accident, etc. Are impotent men or men with vasectomies not men?

    If function isn’t the essense, is form? That argument seem sless convincing and puts an entirely different spin on the intersex topic.

    I’m not arguing that there isnt some link between body, reproduction, physical sex, and gender, but just unclear about the links. They may not be as obvious as they first seem, I guess.

    These are questions I haven’t answered for myself, but I wonder if more thoughtful folks have their own suggestions.

  42. 41
    StacyM says:

    The reinforcement usually comes with taking hormones, which alter a person’s behavior as well as their secondary sex characteristics.

    I know that I can’t speak for all transsexuals, but I’m often disturbed by how many people tend to attribute behavioral changes in transsexuals to the effects of taking hormones.

    Just for the record, hormones did little to change my behavior (I’m an M to F transsexual). There are only two changes in my persona that I can even begin to attribute to hormonal changes: I can cry more easily and I have a milder libido. That’s about it. The impact of these changes upon my life are far smaller than changes in behavior that have resulted from conscious acts of will, or as a result of simply living in the identity of a woman for eleven years.

    Attempting to explain the bulk of gendered behavior in terms of biological influences seems to be widely in vogue these days. Having lived on both sides of the gender divide, I couldn’t disagree more with this idea.

    As much as I dislike the anti-trans bigotry expressed by some radical feminists, I find their tendency to use sociological analysis rather than biological determinism to be quite refreshing.

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  44. 42
    cicely says:

    azbballfan Writes:

    Puffin,…………..As someone who doesn’t understand the radical feminist opposition to trans politics, would you enlighten me?

    I’ve been waiting for Puffin’s response to this because it does seem particularly relevant to this thread. I have seen it written by one radical feminist that she and her political allies (and I quote) ‘reject in whole the theory that underpins the idea and practice of trans, both transexuality and transgender. We find any form of trans or genderqueer to be little more than more gender enforcement, more purveying of gender stereotypes, and more confining and disrespectful of women *as women* rather than less of any of these things.’ This was written as part of an explanation for why transexual and transgender individuals were not welcomed into a particular self-described *women’s* space.

    I’d like to ask Puffin, or someone who agrees with most or all that’s stated in this view, to explain why they agree with it.

    brynn Writes:

    … I am a man who is a mother. Being pregnant, giving birth and raising my daughter were among the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and not accomplishments I’m eager to turn my back on. True, I was in denial at the time of my pregnancy and through my daughter’s teens, but I have now mothered her for more than half her life as an ftm. It may be a stretch for many people, but for her and me no contradiction exists, although society’s prejudice and lack of imagination often put us in awkward positions.

    Thanks for your whole comment, brynn, and this paragraph in particular – every word – really stood out to me. I can now imagine the two of you, and all kinds of possibilties and paths for human lives and relationships.

  45. 43
    B says:

    I don’t know if it is radical feminism or queer feminism but I believe that what troubles some feminists is the focus on sex and gender.

    If you belive that gender is learned and want to work for a world where sex doesn’t matter more than any other personal characteristic it is troubling to deal whith people who claim that there is some innate psychological difference between men and women and find this difference to be so important that they decide to remake their entire lives as well as their bodies because of it.

  46. 44
    piny says:

    If you belive that gender is learned and want to work for a world where sex doesn’t matter more than any other personal characteristic it is troubling to deal whith people who claim that there is some innate psychological difference between men and women and find this difference to be so important that they decide to remake their entire lives as well as their bodies because of it.

    “Innate psychological difference between men and women” contains a lot of terms that are problematic in their reductive connotations, but I see what you’re saying.

    This is an understandable reason, but it’s a crappy excuse.

  47. 45
    Mandolin says:

    If you belive that gender is learned and want to work for a world where sex doesn’t matter more than any other personal characteristic it is troubling to deal whith people who claim that there is some innate psychological difference between men and women and find this difference to be so important that they decide to remake their entire lives as well as their bodies because of it.

    I understand this. I agree with it to a certain extent, though I think the solution is to alter one’s personal gender theory to accomodate both the experience of gender as a socially learned construct and the experience of people who need to transition. What I don’t understand is the above statement can possibly turn into this:

    reject in whole the theory that underpins the idea and practice of trans, both transexuality and transgender. We find any form of trans or genderqueer to be little more than more gender enforcement, more purveying of gender stereotypes, and more confining and disrespectful of women *as women* rather than less of any of these things.

    How does “I am wary of the ramifications of making gender, at least to some extent, biological” turn into “I blame transsexual people for a system that oppresses both of us”?

    I suspect there are a few leaps of logic that have to exist there first. And I suspect one of them is refusing to give transsexual people the respect of assuming their experiences are genuine, and instead assuming they are “choosing” transsexual feelings in the same way that Christians assume homosexuals “choose” homosexual feelings. And I don’t like that at all.

  48. 46
    Laylalola says:

    I am talking of course about The Second Sex and how Second Wave radical feminists spelled out in books galore how the assumption of biological determinism had led to the oppression of women: Why educate women at universities, for example, when their purpose in life is in a secondary social sphere than men, etc. (It’s so easy to forget these actually were real-life issues for women one generation ago.) Biological determinism: bad thing to radical feminists. There is nothing about sex organs and reproductive capabilities that innately subordinate a woman’s human capacities to men in regard to contributing to the sphere outside of the home. There shouldn’t be a Second Sex, that is, that is subordinated and assumed to be subordinate based on biology alone. And surface indicators of biology — or one’s place in the hierachy of who is dominant and who is subordinate — would be anything or any behavior that appears to be “female” (gender) or “male” (gender). *Gender — what is “female” or “male” — is socially constructed, radical feminists argued.* One way of emphasizing how socially constructed maleness and femaleness is is to be androgynous — literally, as in your physical appearance, or more figuratively, as in your attitudes and personality and aggressiveness and attempts to make whatever mark it is you seek to make in the world beyond that which, according to “biological determinism,” you had no business even going into in the first place (be you a biological man or a biological woman — if a man, your role was to look like a male (gender) and to achieve in the male-sphere (worldy) as opposed to family sphere, to “act” like a male, etc.)

    What transgendered people and transsexuality and the like has done is *prove the early radical feminists correct!* Look at how fluid “maleness” and “femaleness” is in this society! They were correct, literally and figuratively, in saying that gender *is socially constructed*. You do not have to be surgically altered to now pass as a “male” when you were born as a biological female or vice versa. But instead of seeing that the advent of transsexuality proves everything they said early on, longtime radical feminists today see transsexuals in particular as a severe threat to them and as oppressors, even though of course anyone with an unclear gender designation — who doesn’t clearly fall into the socially constructed role of “male” or “female” — is to this day treated brutally, murdered for it, hardly dominant but a minute minority, discriminated against, supremely not tolerated, etc. That is, socially constructed indicators of male or female gender to this day are harshly enforced, as we can see when we consider the transsexual phenomenon.

    All of which is — or should be — directly relevant to a more informed radical feminist analysis of these social constructions and how to subvert them or overtly change them. Instead, radical feminists like Mary Daly argue that the transsexual *emphasizes* biological determinism by thinking that altering the sex/genitals/and/or reproductive organs is what will make a man a woman or a woman a man. But this argument, while it makes some sort of sense on its face, is actually a cover for her and her followers’ extreme intolerance of transsexuals and for their hypocrisy. The fact is whether a man or woman has surgery, it is indeed possible for a man to “become” a “woman” (gender) and experience what it is to move through this world as a woman (gender), and vice versa. What transsexuals show is that gender indeed is very constructed socially, and in a society where biological determinism is still assumed, who could blame the transsexual for thinking that what makes one a male or female is the biological sex? Like I said, it makes sense that transsexuals who are not political before surgery might *become politicized* after surgery and after moving through this world as the opposite “gender.” Of all people, it seems, they could tell us the differences in how men and women are treated, in what is expected of them, etc.

    So now we have this awful emphasis in radical feminism, made legit by the likes of Mary Daly, of extreme intolerance and hatred of transsexuals, who not only prove that early radical feminists were correct about the social construction of gender but who could better inform the movement of current differences in the treatment of genders than those of us who have always lived as one gender. And you have a near-hysterical insistence on “women-born-women” space, politics, etc. Back to biological determinism! Fundamentalist, even. This approach so utterly buys into the biology determines you, who you are, that it makes the radical feminist ostensible argument that transsexuals only emphasize biological determinism transparent as the radical feminist lie for intolerance and hypocrisy it is. I mean we have radical feminists these past 15 years arguing that a the presence of a baby boy’s penis at a women’s music festival is oppressive to them, that’s how completely outrageous and out-of-step this strain of radical feminism has become.

  49. 47
    Laylalola says:

    To put it more simply: Amp wrote about his conflicted thoughts about wearing a ponytail low, in the more accepted style for a man in our society. That was one example of the extent to which indicators of “maleness” and “femaleness” are still strictly enforced in our society, and by us individually internally. Yes Amp’s example *is* one of conflict and *is* relevant to a radical feminist analysis of how far or not social roles in this society have been broken down. If it struck you as a breezy personal passage about a small thing, well, I’m saying it’s all connected. At this time it happens to be transsexuals in particular who carry the brunt of society’s wrath for *not* fitting into clear-cut “male” (gender) or “female” (gender) roles based on what role their biology predestined them to fill/look like/act like. And whether it’s radical feminists like Mary Daly calling them “Frankenstein’s monsters” or bigots on the streets who reacted violently to *not* being able to clearly delinate who is a biologically born man and who is a biologically born woman, the attitude is the same: They are a threat and they must be punished and/or they must die (and they are murdered in too great of numbers).

  50. 48
    StacyM says:

    I think we may be looking past an elephant in our living room, pretending that it really isn’t there.

    As stated in earlier posts, much of second wave feminism was predicated on the notion that gendered behavior is rooted in social forces and that biological determinism is just another rationalization used to justify the oppression of women. These sociological explanations were used as a justification in pushing for positive change for women.

    More recently, perhaps in the last fifteen years or so, biological explanations of gender identity and sexual orientation and have been used as a justification for encouraging tolerance of queer people. Conversely, sociological explanations have been used by conservatives to justify the oppression of those who do not conform to heteronormative expectations.

    Now, this approach has served the queer community well. We have gained much tolerance amongst the straight populace by pushing some variant of the idea, “I did not choose to disobey heteronormative expectations. My biology made me do it.”

    Why has this tactic worked so well? The first answer that comes to mind is straightforward…it is unjust to hold a person responsible for conditions and traits that are inborn. Biological explanations of gender identity and sexual orientation tie in well with this notion. However, the idea that gendered behavior is innate has been around for a long time…it lies at the very heart of patriarchal oppression. So, if a person accepts that women and men behave differently because of biology, only a short distance need be traveled to accept that queer people behave differently because of biology. This ties in particularly well with the stereotype of lesbians and gays manifesting gender behavior deemed more appropriate for the opposite sex. Transgender people would be viewed as a more extreme manifestation of this type of biological variation.

    Simply put, using biological arguments to justify tolerance for queer people unwittingly harnesses biological determinism as a means of dismantling homophobia. Notice that I said unwittingly. I’m not trying to assert that anyone is intentionally doing this. Regardless of original intent, however, that’s how it’s filtering through the matrix of patriarchal belief that riddles society.

    I am a transwoman and a lesbian, so I reap benefits from the current approach in gaining greater acceptance for queer people. However, as a woman, I’m not very happy with the fact that patriarchal notions of gender are being reinforced during the process.

    I can’t count the number of times that straight, progressive men have pointed to research on “brain sex” as a means of being supportive of my decision to live as a woman. I also can’t count the number of times that these same men have asserted that “male behavior” and “female behavior” are eternally locked in by genes and hormones. They often reference this when I vent about their sexist behavior or the sexist behavior of others. Needless to say, I’m not impressed. I want to smack them over the head with the latest “brain sex” article in whatever magazine they happen to be currently waving around in the air.

    This problem is not going to go away by ignoring it. I understand some of the fears vented by the women who have written at questioningtransgender.org. Unfortunately, they have allowed their fear to refashion itself in the form of bigotry against transgender people.

    Where do we go from here? How do we deal with these issues? How do we formulate a means of fostering acceptance for queer people without becoming an unwitting tool of sexist oppression?

  51. 49
    Mandolin says:

    It seems to me that a first step lies in making acceptable a more complex matrix of nature versus nurture. I know most people who think about the issue a lot understand that both nature and nurture must play a role, but I think that people at large have a tendency to want the debate to be black and white. If there’s some way of convincing people that, despite their instincts to binary opposition, nature and nurture together play roles in sex & sexuality — then maybe there will be a way to create acceptance for both transsexuality as primarily biological and gender roles as primarily social.

    There may also be something to intimating that ‘gender identification’ and ‘gender roles’ are two different beasts, the first biological, the second social.

    I don’t guess this is feasible, but I would personally like to see the idea that it’s okay to punish people for things they choose go away. Homophobia shouldn’t be okay whether homosexuality is a choice, a constrained choice, or a biologically determined fact. Human rights shouldn’t be dependent on being able to wave an “I can’t help it!” doctor’s pass.

    Among other things, I think the dialogue of choice sets up a false dichotomy. Like the concepts of nature and nurture, I don’t think most things are either a choice or not a choice. Homosexual attraction may not be a choice, but the decision to live with a partner of the same sex is a choice — yet it’s not a “free” choice taken lightly or on whim, it’s a constrained choice that involves seeking joy & fleeing intolerable repression. (Likewise, the feeling that one is transsexual may not be a choice, but the decision to transition rather than living permanently unhappy & closeted is a choice.) Choosing to be closeted or to live as one’s birth gender are also choices — something which I think is often eclipsed by the concept of “lifestyle choice” as it’s presented by the right.

    Choices are not always free; they do not always entail choosing between equal options. And even when they do, why should people be punished for choices?

    If it wasn’t okay for us to punish homosexuality & transsexuality whether they were choices or a biological inevitabilities, then I think a lot of the biologically deterministic arguments would disappear from lack of necessity.

  52. 50
    cicely says:

    Mandolin Writes:

    It seems to me that a first step lies in making acceptable a more complex matrix of nature versus nurture.

    It seems obvious, doesn’t it? My feeling is that the fact that biological determinism has been (and still is) used most damagingly against women, isn’t a good enough reason for feminists to deny absolutely that nature or biology has any role whatso-ever in determining sex (if not gender) and also sexual orientation (for some or even most individuals, even if not all.)

    I agree that ‘we can’t help it’, while useful in helping create a fair and just attitude towards transexuals, gay men and lesbians, shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. And yet, some version of ‘we can’t help it’, is a deep personal truth we hear over and over again from those very people. (I include myself in this re my lesbianism. I experience it as innate.) This is not any kind of political strategy. It’s simply ‘this is how it was and is for me in my life.’ Many, many, homosexuals would never have chosen to be, had they actually had a choice. The only choice those people ever had was whether or not to act on those unbidden, unwelcome and even frightening feelings and attractions in a dangerously homphobic world. I remain utterly unconvinced that any kind of ‘social constructionism’, whether even that involved any element of individual choice or not, can explain all transexuality or all homosexuality. Homosexuality is trans-historical, trans-cultural and trans-national (not to mention its presence in the animal world…) and I imagine transexuality is as well, even though actual physical transitioning via surgery and hormones has only been possible in recent times. Sure, so is patriarchy all of the above things, but there is just no way of *knowing* that patriarchy alone constructed everything to do with sex, sexual orientation and gender. It’s theory.

    It seems to me that some radical feminist ideology is so rigid that it simply can’t entertain the possibility that it could be wrong – even where there can be no proof. It’s proponents are prepared to dismiss, sometimes ruthlessly, other peoples – other feminists even – understandings of their own lives and their actual experience, in the name of freedom for all women. I find this very diicult to understand.

  53. 51
    Laylalola says:

    All three of the posts above are excellent. :) I just want to add that my earlier posts deal primarily with looking at these issues from what I consider a back-to-original-meaning radical feminist view. There are multiple additional issues/viewpoints to add in too, of course. And I could elaborate on my own views on these matters outside of the radical feminist one — but mostly what steams me is how far off course the current radical feminist “movement” has gone and how hypocritical and how flat-out not even feminist, much less radical, much of the near-hysteria has become. I mean it really borders very much on classic fundamentalist blind hate and intolerance. And it’s shocking to me that this is what has become of the movement.

  54. 52
    Bitch | Lab says:

    Laylalola

    One of the biggest early critiques of radical feminists arguments were its implicit acceptance of a biological determinism. I’ll just quote Alison Jaggar’s seminal work, Feminist Politics and Human Nature:

    It is ironic, indeed, that radical feminist insistence on the political significance of reproductive biology should challenge traditional conceptions of the “natural” basis of human life, at the same time as many radical feminists themselves continue to treat reproductive biology as a given and the procreative process as natural. This is least true of the French radical feminists who are more deeply influenced by the historical approach that is characteristic of Marxism, but it is also quite evident in the work of many American radical feminists. It can be seen, for instance, in the way that Firestone draws the line between nature and culture. she described certain kind of social unit as “the biological family”; she views the relations that define this unit as “natural”; she looks forward eagerly to the victory of “culture” over “nature.” Authors such as Griffin, Daly, and the matriarchal theorists reverse Firestone’s values insofar as they are more hostile to what they conceive as culture, which has always been patriarchal and more sympathetic to nature. But they seem to share her assumption that women’s lives are rules to a greater degree than men’s by natural rather than social forces. Thus, they assume that, at least to some extent, the social relationship between women and men is biologically determined.”

    She goes on to explain why biological determinism is simply confused way to look at the world and why radical feminists failed (at the time Jaggar wrote the book) to adequately excise biological determinism from their work.

    She also criticizes radical feminists work on women’s and men’s psychology. Drawing on other critiques, Jaggar says that since radical feminists had, until then, failed to explain the reasons why men behaved as they di, they left unexplained the systematic differences between men and women they have rightly outlined:

    “Theoretically, radical feminism provides no explanations of why men have developed these characteristics and so leaves the impression sometimes reinforced by explicit suggestion that these characteristics are simply innate. As I shall argue in Chapter 9, this impression generates a political practice that is full of difficulties.”

    Poststructuralist critiques of radical feminist theory (and other types of feminist theory, as piny rightly points out) have very helpfully argued, as well, why cultural determinist thought or social constructionist thought ends up clinging to a biological determinism that it never fully eradicates. I think it helps explain the lacunae in feminist thought, particularly as we see here in what they have, themselves, described as a radical feminist response to the transfolk and their supposed unified politics.

    One pretty excellent critique of radical feminist thought is an article by Linda Alcoff which I just posted about at my blog and I’m blanking out on the title. In it, though, Alcoff gives us a close reading of the radical feminist Alice Echols works, delineating the differences between the rad feminists who tend to biological determinism and the radfems who tend to cultural determinism. She then goes on to show some of the drawbacks. In turn, she does the same with poststructuralists, arguing that neither extreme serves us well. it’s a pretty good article.

    She also has a heavy duty article on the topic on her site, alcoff.com

    I’ve been having fun wrestling through a lot of this on my blog for the last few months. I’m more interested in the connection between theory and political practice, and I’m also interested in the problem of a femnist thought that, as radfem does, insist on a “gender in the final analysis” framework.

    While individuals might not be racist, bigoted, etc., I do think we can look at the way the theories can reinscribe oppression. That way, we are addressing the theory which can then be improved on because of the critique. In this case, I think it’s the ‘gender in the final analysis’ argument that becomes the problem. And that kind of think, while central to radfem though, is also implicit in a lot of mainstream feminist thought.

  55. 53
    Mandolin says:

    Cicely,

    The only choice those people ever had was whether or not to act on those unbidden, unwelcome and even frightening feelings and attractions in a dangerously homphobic world.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; I put something about the political nature of choice on my blog a couple weeks ago.

    First of all, I hear you. I didn’t mean to imply that I thought homosexual attraction was a choice; I don’t. I do understand through my own experience that most people have no control over how their sexuality develops and fixates.

    But I do think the choice you mention gets too little attention in liberal political dialogue, though conservatives strut around with it all the time. Romantic love and sexual satisfaction are not basic to human survival, though they’re woven pretty firmly into our culture. I think there have been times and places where very few women and a minority men could reasonably expect romantic love — in fact, I think the idea of romantic love (or at least companionate love) as we think about it is a relatively recent construction.

    So, if conservatives (or anyone) are out there being the “choice” police saying “you can be homosexual as long as *every action you take as a homosexual is biologically driven and you never make a choice to do it*” — then practicing homosexuals would fail such a ridiculous litmus test.

    I apologize if I’m belaboring a relatively small linguistic point, but I think when we discuss homosexuality in these kinds of political contexts, there ends up being a semantic condense between “homosexual attraction” and “homosexual acts.” I think this is what allows a whole lot of wishy-washy conservatives to both believe that people can’t control sexual attraction and that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice.”

    As far as I can tell, the only way that people can make an argument that homosexuality (both attraction and acts) is biologically determined is if we take for granted that people must be free to pursue romantic love and sexual attraction. And I’m not sure that this is something conservatives agree with deep down, though I suspect many would agree with it on the surface.

    So since we end up back at this point of arguing about whether or not homosexual acts are a “lifestyle choice” anyway, I guess I’d rather just start politically with making choice okay rather than with making homosexuality all right through biological determinism. (Not that homosexual attraction isn’t biologically determined, just that I think it weakens everyone to define “rightness” as “that which is biologically determined.”)

    But for all that I’m a bisexual woman and a supporter of gay rights, I’m not living in a partnership with another woman. And that means I have no right to determine how people go about struggling for their rights. I can put my thoughts in public like this, but push comes to shove, I will always respect and support what people who are risking their life and happiness have to say and how they choose to go about it.

    Anyway, that’s a fairly large thread drift, but I think it relates to transsexuality. While the feelings of transsexuality may be innate, transitioning is a choice. (Not transitioning is also a choice, of course.) Given that the act of transitioning is a (constrained) choice, transsexuality (both impulse and transition) can only be constructed as biologically determined if everyone will agree that people have an inalienable right to pursue… happiness.

    And in practice, I don’t think everyone agrees on that.

    All my caveats above about supporting but not dictating apply here also. I’ll take my cup of STFU now.

  56. 54
    B says:

    Bitch Lab,

    What you are saying isn’t quite what i was told when studying literature. There we studied french feminism and anglican feminism. And all the radical feminists I’ve heard of fall into the latter category of anglican feminism. Scandinavian radical feminists also seem to look at anglican feminists for inspiration.

    Maybe we should try to decide what differentiates Radical Feminism from feminist that are radical.

    I’d also like to thank Laylalola for explaining what I tried to say much better than I was able to.

    When it comes to biological determinism that is a debate that has gone on and on here in Scandinavia for the last fifty years at least. The divide is betwen Särartsfeminister (separate feminists sort of), who believe in the idea of biological determinism and holds to the motto of “separate but equal” or sometimes believe that women are inherently better than men, and Likhetsfeminister (equal feminists sort of) who believe that we are inherently the same and that differences between sexes are due to gender or are smaller than differences within the groups or between other population groups.

    Lately the equal feminists are the ones given most credibility allthough the separate feminist continue to influence much of the popular culture and is what many ordinary people actually believe in. Equal feminism tend to be more leftwing while separate feminism is more rightwing.

    Still there are many issues where the two feminisms agree and I believe both are represented in the feminist party F! that are to enter into our elections this fall.

  57. 55
    Laylalola says:

    hello Bitch/Lab! I look forward to going to your blog.

    *I’ve been having fun wrestling through a lot of this on my blog for the last few months. I’m more interested in the connection between theory and political practice, and I’m also interested in the problem of a femnist thought that, as radfem does, insist on a “gender in the final analysis” framework.*

    In this in particular I fully agree. I’m concerned about the fundamentals of the political practice/tactics in that I think today so many feminists know feminism *only* through theories they read or through online boards that theory has become completely disconnected from the reality. We have so many feminists not knowing something as basic, from a political practice and tactics stance, as what is the difference between a liberal and a radical feminist, for example. (!) Well if you have no political practice other than to read theory or post to boards, then it might not seem relevant at all — and in fact becomes so much easier for the likes of Gloria Steinem, the postergirl for U.S. liberal feminism, to say with a straight face (and for young feminists to just accept) that she is a radical feminist, based on contorted and vague twistings of theory alone — as though theory alone would define what a radical is in regard to political practice. It’s so twisted now and distorted. (She says something about she’s a feminist who believes in going to the roots of oppression — classic blah blah blah tells-you-nothing words pulled from radical theory but absolutely having nothing to do with putting theory into political practice/tactics, which is where you see who is radical and who is liberal). I’m digressing. But at this point, given how disconnected theory is from reality and the political practice — that is, the political practice is virtually nonexistant to the point that those who only know feminism through theory don’t realize they don’t know the fundamentals of what kind of feminist they are in practice — I mean it’s fair to say we only have a movement in theory at this point, isn’t it? Literally. When the practice has no place in the consciousness of the thinkers and is so disconnected that it doesn’t even occur to the thinkers that they aren’t addressing how the theory would be implemented in practice or the different political tactics/liberal v radical/ then we don’t honestly have a political movement. We’ve got a lot of theory, though.

    Gender feminism isn’t one of my favorite topics or one I’m even passionate about or want to defend; it just happens that this is one of the first threads I’ve posted to here at Alas.

  58. 56
    cicely says:

    I’m more interested in the connection between theory and political practice…..While individuals might not be racist, bigoted, etc., I do think we can look at the way the theories can reinscribe oppression. That way, we are addressing the theory which can then be improved on because of the critique.

    Bitch/Lab (couldn’t get that straight line in your name…),

    I’m going to give this further thought. I do think the impact of certain feminist theories has been extraordinarily powerful in the street – and not in a good way. It has granted permission, on political grounds, for prejudices, for discriminatory practices and for easy dismissal or judgement of other peoples perspectives and realities, particularly when they’re not shared. You could even say that they’ve created a kind of narrow-minded approach or response to other people. That’s why I would describe some radical feminists I’ve come across as ideologues. That’s how I experience them. To me, this means that (I feel) they’re shut down to alternative possibilities. In all I’d rather have discussions with more curious and less certain persons.

    Mandolin wrote:

    Cicely,

    ‘The only choice those people ever had was whether or not to act on those unbidden, unwelcome and even frightening feelings and attractions in a dangerously homphobic world. ‘

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; I put something about the political nature of choice on my blog a couple weeks ago.

    First of all, I hear you. I didn’t mean to imply that I thought homosexual attraction was a choice; I don’t. I do understand through my own experience that most people have no control over how their sexuality develops and fixates.

    But I do think the choice you mention gets too little attention in liberal political dialogue, though conservatives strut around with it all the time. Romantic love and sexual satisfaction are not basic to human survival, though they’re woven pretty firmly into our culture. I think there have been times and places where very few women and a minority men could reasonably expect romantic love … in fact, I think the idea of romantic love (or at least companionate love) as we think about it is a relatively recent construction.

    So, if conservatives (or anyone) are out there being the “choice” police saying “you can be homosexual as long as *every action you take as a homosexual is biologically driven and you never make a choice to do it*” … then practicing homosexuals would fail such a ridiculous litmus test.

    I apologize if I’m belaboring a relatively small linguistic point, but I think when we discuss homosexuality in these kinds of political contexts, there ends up being a semantic condense between “homosexual attraction” and “homosexual acts.” I think this is what allows a whole lot of wishy-washy conservatives to both believe that people can’t control sexual attraction and that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice.”

    As far as I can tell, the only way that people can make an argument that homosexuality (both attraction and acts) is biologically determined is if we take for granted that people must be free to pursue romantic love and sexual attraction. And I’m not sure that this is something conservatives agree with deep down, though I suspect many would agree with it on the surface.

    So since we end up back at this point of arguing about whether or not homosexual acts are a “lifestyle choice” anyway, I guess I’d rather just start politically with making choice okay rather than with making homosexuality all right through biological determinism. (Not that homosexual attraction isn’t biologically determined, just that I think it weakens everyone to define “rightness” as “that which is biologically determined.”)

    But for all that I’m a bisexual woman and a supporter of gay rights, I’m not living in a partnership with another woman. And that means I have no right to determine how people go about struggling for their rights. I can put my thoughts in public like this, but push comes to shove, I will always respect and support what people who are risking their life and happiness have to say and how they choose to go about it.

    Anyway, that’s a fairly large thread drift, but I think it relates to transsexuality. While the feelings of transsexuality may be innate, transitioning is a choice. (Not transitioning is also a choice, of course.) Given that the act of transitioning is a (constrained) choice, transsexuality (both impulse and transition) can only be constructed as biologically determined if everyone will agree that people have an inalienable right to pursue… happiness.

    And in practice, I don’t think everyone agrees on that.

    All my caveats above about supporting but not dictating apply here also. I’ll take my cup of STFU now.

    First – what is STFU?

    I didn’t think you were implying that sexual orientation is a choice.

    I wasn’t clear enough when I said something like that “I can’t help it” shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. I agree that people should actually be able to make whatever choice about who they share their intimate life with for any reason (that doesn’t constitute abuse of any kind, obviously). Society doesn’t have a right to deny anyone this. My perspective on innateness is simply that the truth of it, sans political agenda, for those for whom it is a truth, should be respected. In no way does it need to be apologised for, or obscured as a means to a political end.

    I might agree that romantic love and sexual satisfaction are not basic to human survival – as are air, food and shelter – but, you know – bread and roses! They enrich our lives, and I’m among those who believe people should be free to pursue them. I’m not sure where you’re going with this – but it’s sounding like maybe you don’t necesarily agree….?
    And ditto for transitioning?

    (Perhaps the notion of romantic love is a relatively recent construction, and perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it isn’t any kind of construction. Perhaps, even though opportunities may have been limited for even the vast majority of the human population historically, the desire for it, or an achingly fleeting or elusive experience of it, even when it might not have had a name, was always common.)

    Well, that’s my contribution to the thread drift – except – I want to ask what the kernel of this part of the discussion is for you. Are you suggesting that a feminist who might have come to see transitioning as gender enforcement, and who also feels a deep need to transition her or himself, might have to be prepared to choose not to transition as part of a commitment to that political position? That’s dangerous ground in my opinion, which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t discuss it. It does take us back to the influence and impact of feminist political theory on peoples lives. Say, a very young person surrounded by adults who have these beliefs. How would that be less dangerous or harmful to that young persons development than being surrounded by conservative or religious fundamentalist adults, if they were to feel a need to transition?

  59. 57
    Mandolin says:

    I’m saying only that – even if we accept or prove transsexuality and homosexuality are biologically determined, choice is still involved in action. Therefore basing political arguments on biological determination will only carry the movements so far before opponents (which I am not) can start talking about choice again.

  60. 58
    nexyjo says:

    While the feelings of transsexuality may be innate, transitioning is a choice. (Not transitioning is also a choice, of course.) Given that the act of transitioning is a (constrained) choice, transsexuality (both impulse and transition) can only be constructed as biologically determined if everyone will agree that people have an inalienable right to pursue… happiness.

    i’m not so sure that “happiness” is what people who transition are pursuing. i know a lot of unhappy transsexuals. and while i also know many happy transsexuals, i might argue that happiness (or the lack thereof) may be a side effect of transition, as opposed to the objective.

    i’ll add that i personally found a lot of happiness before i transitioned. and i also found a lot of unhappiness after i transitioned.

    even if happiness is the objective of transition, at what point does happiness cross over into functionality? if someone is so “unhappy” because they cannot transition, that they become disfunctional – unable to hold down a job, care for themselves, be a productive member of society – how does that tie into a person’s inalienable rights? do people have a inalienable right to live their lives in such a way that enables them to remain functional?

    of course, this is a conditonal question. if a person’s functionality is dependent on harming other people, that’s another issue. or perhaps not – what harm does the small percentage of our population who transition cause? and how do we weigh the costs to both sides of that equation?

  61. 59
    Laylalola says:

    Well I agree Mandolin. It seems obvious there is choice: If you’re straight, for example, you *choose* to take this person as a lover (unless there is rape) but *not* this person, for example. This man, but not this man. You don’t go around screwing every possible man just because you are straight; you make the choice which ones you take as lovers. Or take none at all, for example.

    I know women who were around in the beginning of the Second Wave — radicals — who to this day “chose” to become lesbians out of their politics. Many were married to men, got political, and bought into the argument that a woman could choose to put her energy into women over men, including sexually. The one problem I have with this is that I did once have a lover who “chose” to be lesbian as a political statement — and it’s not fun or satisfying being someone’s political statement, it turns out. Of course you *can* have sex with anyone or anything including a ham sandwich and banana if you want to choose to do so. But that doesn’t necessarily … I don’t know. Mean that it’s a wise political decision on your part to be having sex with a turkey club sandwich and side of doritos when you’d really rather be having sex with a man. Or a woman. Whatever.

    So yes I’d agree there is both the element of choice and to some extent there has to be some biology involved in physical attraction — well we know for a fact that physical attraction does alter the body’s chemistry and heart rate and everything else. But yes. There are disadvantages to making it so black and white an issue either way.

  62. 60
    Laylalola says:

    Okay so I’m sounding even loopier than usual today, I apologize. My whole opposition to the notion about becoming lesbian as a political statement — a position that made sense to me, originally, in theory anyway — had as much to do with where radical feminists had taken the movement later on. First, it didn’t ring true in reality, when practiced. Second, what kind of political statement is it for women to have less-than-great sex, or sexual relations you only are lukewarm toward. That is, how on earth could it be empowering for women to politically choose not to live the fullest in their bodies (when the political choice opposed to some degree their physical attraction?) And now of course I’m getting into the whole sex area generally and the inability of the radical feminist movement to understand that theory does not always equal reality and that indeed at times they are doing a disservice to women. If you can’t be honest about something as fundamental as your body or women’s bodies then how on earth can your theory and practice be relevant to women in this society?

  63. 61
    Bitch | Lab says:

    B writes: “What you are saying isn’t quite what i was told when studying literature. There we studied french feminism and anglican feminism. And all the radical feminists I’ve heard of fall into the latter category of anglican feminism. Scandinavian radical feminists also seem to look at anglican feminists for inspiration.”

    Well, first I’m not sure what you’re complaining about? That Jaggar and Alice Echols characterize some of the French Feminists as ‘radical’? If so, then you might want to take it up with Jaggar. She’s considered a ‘dangerous prof’ by Horowitz, though, so watch out! ;p

    I think her arguments that _some_ Fr. Feminists are radical makes fine sense. I wasn’t so sure early on, either, but Jaggar work is seminal in so far as she spends a good deal of time explaining _why_ she uses the categories she uses. Consquently, her arguments have been used to explain why we make these distinctions in intro to Women’s Studies courses — why they make sense.

    If you can’t find Jaggar, a reader’s digest and updated version of her framework can be found in a book by Rosemarie Tong, the title of which escapes me at the moment.

  64. 62
    Bitch | Lab says:

    Laylalola wrote:

    and in fact becomes so much easier for the likes of Gloria Steinem, the postergirl for U.S. liberal feminism, to say with a straight face (and for young feminists to just accept) that she is a radical feminist, based on contorted and vague twistings of theory alone … as though theory alone would define what a radical is in regard to political practice.

    *nod*nod*nod*

    I’m not so sure Steinem’s into theory. Last time i read here, she was slightly confused about what poststructurlist theory was all about and wanted to hold it to blame for why we get nowhere. This is kind of silly since, of course, as someone once pointed out, poststructuralist academics tend to be far more politically active than old guard lefties.

    But more importantly, what Jaggar points out is that it’s hard to categorize radical feminists because they tended to disavow theory in the first place — it was a tool of the patriarchy. So, we don’t have a lot of theory to go by. What we do have is the activities people engaged in — such as separatist communities. when I first encountered white, mainstream feminist theory it was through the lesbian separatist peace encampment housed near a local miiltary base as protest.

    I think where we differ is with regard to the importance of theory but that’s a discussion for another day.

    Nice to read your work here.

  65. 63
    B says:

    Bitch / Lab

    I might read Jaggar later, since you think she is good. What I was commenting on was the confusion between radical feminist theory and feminists who are radical. Being radical isn’t the same as working in a radical feminist framework. From what I learned at university french feminism is very different from radical feminism.

    Then again, most of what I have learned is in the field of literary theory and what I’ve heard from friends studying gender studies. I am no theoretical expert.

  66. 64
    belledame222 says:

    Just to say:

    I also tend to have a problem with “it’s not a choice” (sexuality, gender identity and/or expression, what have you)–as a *political* tactic. Is it true, that “it’s ” not a choice? Personally, I’ve no idea. I think it’s different for different people; I think the whole notion of “choice” is wrapped up in the notion of “free will” and of consciousness, and one could talk for hours and hours about the nuances of that. Bottom line: I think it’s complicated. And if there were a way to divorce this kind of speculation/research from its political implications, I would love to really get into it. I think these are fascinating questions.

    But politically? I think, longterm, it’s a loser, for the reasons mentioned above (“i can’t help it” isn’t empowering; the roses part of the bread and roses), and also because I just think: since when do hardcore bigots actually care about this? More important, since when was the question of whether something about one’s identity was a “choice” what one’s civil rights depended on?

    I mean, I know people are using the “well, it’s a behavior choice, therefore their demands for rights aren’t as legitimate as those who came before them” *now.* What I want to know: who originated that line? Because it sure feels like a divide-and-conquer tactic to me. And it also feels deeply disingenuous. Did the 50′s and 60′s civil rights battles hinge primarily upon “well, okay, people can’t help being black, so…okay, give ‘em their rights”? Was that the winning tactic? Did women get the vote because it finally sank in that “hey, they can’t help not being men, so give them a break already”? Correct me if I’m wrong (please do), but somehow I tend to doubt it.

    For me, my sexuality comes back to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” always. I am pursuing my happiness; you (person trying to keep discriminatory laws on the books and/or make new ones) are impinging on my liberty to do so. The pursuit of my happiness is not interfering with anyone else’s life, liberty, or pursuit of their *own* happiness. Therefore, you can fuck right off. Period, end.

  67. 65
    belledame222 says:

    >Second, what kind of political statement is it for women to have less-than-great sex, or sexual relations you only are lukewarm toward. That is, how on earth could it be empowering for women to politically choose not to live the fullest in their bodies (when the political choice opposed to some degree their physical attraction?) And now of course I’m getting into the whole sex area generally and the inability of the radical feminist movement to understand that theory does not always equal reality and that indeed at times they are doing a disservice to women. If you can’t be honest about something as fundamental as your body or women’s bodies then how on earth can your theory and practice be relevant to women in this society?

  68. 66
    belledame222 says:

    dammit; why does that keep happening? anyway:

    …Wordy word word.

    For me, reclaiming my sexuality and the ability to live in my body is/was profoundly empowering. The apparently-still-lively notion that desire can or should be forced into some sort of ideological procrustean bed is one that drives me absolutely batshit. particularly when it comes from people who (I think) ought to know better. If you’re pissed off because it appears that it’s currently easier to (say) go to a women-only lapdancing party or take a flogging technique class than, say, get an abortion or be safe from abuse, well, I can understand that; but I hardly think it’s appropriate to lay the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of the “sex-positive” people. It’s both/and, not either/or. No means no. Yes means yes. Bread and roses never meant the bread wasn’t important anymore. It does however mean that attacking people because they finally got a chance at their very own rose is a pretty crappy way of getting more bread. Even if their rose doesn’t smell nice to you and you can’t understand what they’re getting out of it.

  69. 67
    cicely says:

    Mandolin writes:

    I’m saying only that – even if we accept or prove transsexuality and homosexuality are biologically determined, choice is still involved in action. Therefore basing political arguments on biological determination will only carry the movements so far before opponents (which I am not) can start talking about choice again.

    How far is ‘so far’, do you think? Whatever growth that has occurred in the acceptance of homosexuality in society in general (and this has been significant in recent deacades) can mostly be attributed or measured according to a corresponding growth in an understanding that it is as natural for a homosexual person to be homosexual as it is for a heterosexual person to be heterosexual. (heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common…) Oddly enough I think a growing acceptance of homosexuality based on what is an experienced reality of it for (I would suggest) a large majority of us ( especially prior to the emergence of politically rather than sexually identified lesbians) – is a good thing.

    Maybe I’m the one being pedantic, but there’s something slippery here that I’m trying to get a grip on. I’m possibly linking this discussion with arguements I’ve had with some feminists (who identified themselves as radical) over whether my own lesbianism is innate or socially constructed. I was recently asked the question ‘what informs you that your lesbianism is innate?’ A lengthy discussion ensued in which, among other things, I was attempting to articulate why my experience is real and important to me – and, I confess, resenting being asked to do so – and also being told that there is no political advantage in arguing for acceptance on the basis of innateness also partly for the reason you state above. So number one – my experience is not real, and number two, even if it is, it’s no use to feminism.

    The thing is, in my case, my being a lesbian had nothing to do with feminism. I was a self-identified ‘queer’ first (aged 11 in 1965), and later, (in my early 20′s) a feminist. Maybe what I have done, and still do, is argue for two separate things. Gay rights for people like myself based on who we actually are regardless of feminist politcs, and a feminist world in which people can choose to partner with anyone of any sex or gender, for whatever reason, and not be punished for it. I don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive.

    Question. Who are the people who would continue to argue against the inalienable right of even a *proven* innate homosexual to live a full life, including having sexual relationships?

    Answer. The same people who will continue to argue against the inalienable right of a woman to control her own body, and have access to a legal and safe abortion should she fall pregnant and not wish to have a baby.

    Wherever those utterly anti-choice people win, we all lose.

  70. 68
    cicely says:

    belledame222 wrote:

    But politically? I think, longterm, it’s a loser, for the reasons mentioned above (“i can’t help it” isn’t empowering…

    Let me re-phrase it then. The truth about me is that I am a woman who has never been attracted to boys or men at any time in my life. I never made any conscious choice about this, and in fact being attracted to other girls and women made life lonely, painful and difficult for me in my youth. I would have preferred my life to be less difficult at that time. I have been very comfortable and indeed happy about being a lesbian for many years now because I found a community. My community has been deeply fractured by feminist politics, but it is still a community in which I am able to find like-minded lesbians. This is me and my truth. Truth is powerful.

    Frankly I think the arguement that our enemies might use it against us so we shouldn’t speak the truth that we didn’t actively choose to be homosexual (for those of us who didn’t) is what is piss weak.

  71. 69
    cicely says:

    Ok, so no-one is saying I shouldn’t *speak* my truth – just that I shouldn’t argue for my civil rights based on it. I do get this, but, you know, it *is* the only thing that’s actually worked at all so far – despite being perceived as ‘not empowering’. Let’s not forget that. The homosexual men and women who’ve brought us this far (myself included) didn’t say to each other ‘Let’s just tell everybody we couldn’t help it’ as a political strategy. It was our starting point back then simply because it was the self-evident truth. What we would all like to achieve now is in addition to what has been achieved to date, not a substitute for it – in my view.

  72. 70
    Jay Sennett says:

    While the feelings of transsexuality may be innate, transitioning is a choice. (Not transitioning is also a choice, of course.) Given that the act of transitioning is a (constrained) choice, transsexuality (both impulse and transition) can only be constructed as biologically determined if everyone will agree that people have an inalienable right to pursue… happiness.

    My problem with the use of the term choice is that rarely do we discuss the contexts in which we make choices.

    Thus, my choice to pursue transition – in the absence of context – makes it seem like I was deciding between ketchup or mustard.

    I chose to pursue transition because the other choices available to me involved harming others or myself. Not very happy choices.

    So I chose to pursue a set of options that took eight years to complete. Along the way I continually recommitted to my choice. Unlike like squirting mustard instead of ketchup on my hot dog, choosing transition was not a one time, once decided, deal.

    My ability to make this choice was relatively free of constraints that can make other transsexual lives a living hell. I did not have a medical condition that made it impossible for me to have surgery; I am upper class and white and consequently, demand competent, affordable healthcare. When I didn’t get it, my race and class upbringing combined to inform me that the problem was with the system, not with me. I spoke the language of doctors and nurses and medicine.

    In america we do not all operate within equal contexts, have different constraints operating within our lives, and therefore, have different choices available to us.

    Pursuing my choice of transition has made me happy.

    I don’t know if it is an inalienable right, since everything is up for negotiation in the u.s., but I needed to do it for myself.

    Transition and transsexuality will never, in my opinion, resolve into easy solutions or equations. I’ve stepped far beyond the parameters of everyday language and conduct to place where often the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.

  73. 71
    NancyP says:

    abbreviations: STFU = Shut the F*ck Up

    People go on about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, but is that really such a big thing now? Isn’t it mostly a hookup scene, rather than a strong example of the culture? I have to say that I am much more concerned about LGB willingness to include T in potential ENDA-type state legislation than whether a few “womyn-made womyn” butt heads with a few transwomen over a hookup scene. Apparently I am not much of a comic-book radical, because I have always seen the goal of feminism to be the acknowledgement of the full humanity, and full economic worth, of women, ie, equality, and if female-bodied women and male-bodied men become equal, what’s the big deal about including female-bodied men and male-bodied women in the equality?

  74. 72
    cicely says:

    belledame222 wrote:

    Did the 50′s and 60′s civil rights battles hinge primarily upon “well, okay, people can’t help being black, so…okay, give ‘em their rights”? Was that the winning tactic? Did women get the vote because it finally sank in that “hey, they can’t help not being men, so give them a break already”? Correct me if I’m wrong (please do), but somehow I tend to doubt it.

    To paraphrase MLK (because I can’t remember the exact quote) ‘I’d like my children to be judged on the content of their character, not the colour of their skin.’ I always read this to mean that people shouldn’t be judged or discriminated against based on traits they were born with which don’t actually limit their potential as full human beings if it weren’t for discrimination. That is where the power in this enormously widely quoted statement lies. You could apply this to homosexuality as well. While nothing is set in stone yet (and it may never be…), there is evidence in existence that there is a biological component to sexual orientation. What is not now in dispute based on identical twin and other sibling studies ( and no difference is noted whether the siblings are raised together or apart) is that the greater the amount of genetic or otherwise biological material that is shared between any siblings, the greater the concordance for homosexuality. (i.e.the likliehood that where one sibling is homosexual the other one will be as well.) Concordance is always greater between siblings than in the background population. Also not in dispute is that sexual orientation is determined very early in life – usually before the age of ten – and is very resistant to change, whatever methods have been tried to achieve this. ( Also, in a recent poll , 73% of lesbians and gay men answered “Yes” to the question ‘Were you born gay?’ 43% of those polled were young – between 14 and 19 years of age. The reasons 27% answered “No” weren’t given, but among them I’m sure would have been some politically identified lesbians and social constructionists! ;)

    So the statement – “I would like my children to be judged on the content of their character, not the orientation of their sexuality.’ , while it doesn’t have the same ring, does have the same meaning, and should have the same power – in terms of peoples concept of justness – as MLK’s statement. And it does. In fact, as I’ve said earlier, studies *have* also shown that where there *is* an understanding that homosexuality is a trait people are born with, there is a far greater likliehood of acceptance of gay men and lesbians. That is the source of the improvements we have seen in the lives of homosexual people in recent decades. If you disagree with that, can you tell me what your alternative explanation would be, and can you demonstrate it?

    .

  75. 73
    Mandolin says:

    cicely,

    I’m really not arguing against the innateness of homosexual attraction. I think you said you knew that, I just feel like it bears repeating.

    I feel like I’m being confusing. Maybe that’s not true, and you understand what I’m saying, and you just disagree with it. That’s perfectly fine. But I’m going to try to give this another go anway, and if you already get it and don’t want to bore yourself with a re-read, that’s fine…

    So, to start with, I’m asking:

    1) What do we want to gain, as a political movement, by stating that homosexuality is innate?

    I believe the answer to this is “an acceptance of homosexuals as people who have equal rights in the society.”

    2) What kinds of rights are we looking at?

    Many, in regard to how one partners. Not limited to, but definitely including legality of marriage.

    3) Given that we want to make SSM legal, is the idea that homosexuality is innate a useful argument?

    My answer is “no.”

    I get there by the following route. Homosexual attraction is innate. Homosexual behaviors are based on innate homosexual attraction. However, homosexual behaviors are not innate, they are only based on innate things.

    In order to argue that homosexual *behaviors* are innate. I would personally (by this standard that I, admittedly, set up) have to believe that innate homosexual attraction is a sufficient and necessary cause to produce homosexual behavior. I believe this is a flawed hypothesis.

    Homosexuals can (often) partner with heterosexuals. Homosexuals can adopt asexual lifestyles. Homosexuals can remain closeted. Therefore, homosexual attraction is not a necesasry and sufficient cause to produce homosexual behavior. Therefore homosexual behavior is not innate.

    (Please note that I’m saying nothing about *desirable.* I think homosexual behaviors are very desirable. I just don’t think they meet the standards which I, admittedly have myself set up, for being innate.)

    4) Since I don’t think that homosexual behaviors can be proven innate, I would prefer to create a different argumentative approach toward convincing conservatives of my position, i.e. that SSM is good and desirable. To do this, I would set up something along the lines of:

    A) Homosexual attraction is innate.

    B) Marriages based on love and attraction are a good and desirable thing. (Yes, I know this isn’t an uncontroversial statement since some people dislike the concept of marriage in general.)

    C) Homosexuals experience intimate sexual relationships with other homosexuals as loving and sexually attractive.

    D) Homosexuals should be allowed to make the choice to enter into marriages.

    I’m not personally arguing for the abandonment of arguing that homosexual attraction is innate. That’s still a premise. I just still think the argument “homosexual attraction is innate, therefore we should be allowed to marry” skips a few steps and, therefore, leaves itself open to challenge from conservatives who want to paint it as a “lifestyle choice” (while ignoring that other kinds of relationships are also lifestyle choices).

    I have to confess that a big part of why I care about this point (though I do think it’s valid) is because I feel that when we use the political expedience of biological determinism to earn rights today, we not only leave ourselves potentially open to logical flaws but also weaken our ability to legitimate things that are choices in the political arena. And yes, I think that has a direct bearing on creating a society that’s more tolerant for people of all genders and sexualities.

    To whoever asked me what I meant when I said transsexuals had the right to pursue happiness… yeah, I was basically being flip when I chose that word because of its constitutional echo. I wanted to imply that reasonable people would understand that a transsexual who feels the need to transition should be allowed to pursue it. Another word might have been a better choice.

  76. 74
    Mandolin says:

    Two revisions to what I said (sorry):

    Homosexuals can (often) partner with heterosexuals. — I don’t mean that homosexuals can become heterosexual, just that many homosexuals (at least of my acquaintance) can engage in physical heterosexual acts.

    I’m not personally arguing for the abandonment of arguing that homosexual attraction is innate. That’s still a premise. I just still think the argument “homosexual attraction is innate, therefore we should be allowed to marry” skips a few steps and, therefore, leaves itself open to challenge from conservatives who want to paint it as a “lifestyle choice” (while ignoring that other kinds of relationships are also lifestyle choices). — ADD: I want to revise it to include the concept of choice, that it should be acceptable (and celebrated) for homosexuals who experience innate homosexual attraction to choose homosexual behaviors.

  77. 75
    brynn says:

    Likhetsfeminister (equal feminists sort of) who believe that we are inherently the same and that differences between sexes are due to gender or are smaller than differences within the groups or between other population groups.

    This is pretty much what I accept as true. I believe that the “gender-role” differences found within one sex are as diverse as the differences across male/female lines, especially if we include in the sample the femiest guys and the butchest women. Thus, I don’t really believe gender is inherently about behavior as much as it’s about identity. What do you see when you look into your heart? How are you most comfortable manifesting that identity in the world? For me, I see a man who’s a mother, a man without a penis. That concept is undoubtedly influenced by my body and my life-experiences, as well as by my brain chemistry or whatever it is that determines my personality. Because “man without a penis” is not a category readily recognized by society, the most comfortable fit for me is to move in the world as a man, yet not alter my genitals.

    One thing missing from this discussion so far it seems to me is a distinction between public gender and private gender. Before I transitioned, I could be content alone in my apartment without hormones or top surgery, although looking at myself in the mirror naked could be a minor challenge. I never felt “trapped in the wrong body,” however. My body was problematic mostly because it prevented other people from seeing me as I felt I was.

    Which brings up public gender. Add even one other person into the mix back then or take me outside my apartment into a world where I started relating to strangers, and dysphoria resulted. When I was perceived as a woman and forced to adopt a female gender-role, I felt like I was acting 24/7. I could pull it off, but I was almost always self-monitoring, wondering if I was getting it right. One thing I could never do was look into my heart for inspiration and trust that my actions would match the gender-role people expected.

    Now, I just am. Most of the time, my actions simply flow, without reflection. It’s such a liberation!

    Many of the ways I move in the world now are perceived as “effeminate” and I am often taken as a gay man…which is fine, as I identify as queer bisexual anyway. I rarely self-monitor and make no effort to censure or modify my actions, unless I perceive a danger of homophobic assault. I don’t feel compelled to appear “more macho,” because I believe that if I am a particular way or act a particular way, it is masculine for I am a man. And because I now possess the secondary sexual characteristics of a man…facial and body hair, lower voice, masculine musculature…my actions are perceived as appropriate for my perceived gender.

  78. 76
    brynn says:

    Oops, I didn’t get the italics right in that last post! Sorry…wanted them to be only for the word “am” and “it is.”

  79. 77
    cicely says:

    On reading your comment, brynn, I was taken back in time to the very early 70′s when I’d just left school and had my first job. I was 16. As a child I’d always longed for ‘boy’ type clothes – jeans, shirts and shorts. I envied boys the clothes they could wear, among other things, yet never felt that I actually wanted to ‘be’ a boy, although others came to that conclusion. I realised I was what was then called ‘queer’ at about 11, though. I’m not a butch lesbian but the androgynous look for lesbians that is widely attributed to feminist politics was exactly the presentation that appealed to me (but often with long hair still), or, to put it more accurately – that ‘was’ (and still is) me. When I went to my first job I had to wear a dress, pantyhose, ladies shoes etc, and I was incredibly uncomfortable and resentful. The way I felt was that I had literally disappeared. This person isn’t me. I couldn’t be confident, it was as if the core of my character or personality had been removed. Iwas actually fired from my second office job after a year because I simply refused to wear a dress, and in those days almost no women were allowed to wear trousers at work or certainly not in offices. My immediate boss had had some sympathy, without even any conversation about it, but when he left, the next boss did things by the book and gave me an ultimatum. I literally could not comply so I lost the job. I gave up office work and worked in factories and places where it wasn’t an issue from then on. Finally, via feminism, things started to change. I fully realise that what I experienced was a mere taste of what it would be like to feel a need to actually transition, and I am in no way suggesting that, however society evolves, there won’t always be people who feel that need. I also don’t see androgyny as an ideal for everyone for political reasons. I think it’s very important that people are free to present in whatever way is comfortable and expressive for them, as individuals. Just felt like sharing this because you made me think of it.

  80. 78
    brynn says:

    I think it’s very important that people are free to present in whatever way is comfortable and expressive for them, as individuals.

    Exactly! Thank you for sharing.

    I also want to reiterate that I don’t pretend to represent all transsexuals, nor especially all ftm’s. As much as society likes to lump us together, we are frequently united only by a desire to transition, not by common motivations or definitions.

  81. 79
    cicely says:

    Mandolin wrote:

    cicely,

    I’m really not arguing against the innateness of homosexual attraction. I think you said you knew that, I just feel like it bears repeating.

    I feel like I’m being confusing. Maybe that’s not true, and you understand what I’m saying, and you just disagree with it. That’s perfectly fine. But I’m going to try to give this another go anway, and if you already get it and don’t want to bore yourself with a re-read, that’s fine…

    Hello again, Mandolin :)

    Actually I appreciate your effort to communicate and I realise I could be being confusing too. I don’t think we are essentially disagreeing except about the effectiveness of using the innate arguement. I think it is honest, just *and* effective in the real world, even though it falls short of the ideal of anyone having the right to partner with or marry who they choose regardless of whether or not their sexual orientation is innate.

    Let’s say that over 70% of gay men and lesbians believe themselves to be born homosexual. The need to be understood as such is great. The remaining group, with other explanations or actual paths to partnering with a same sex person will still benefit from the civil rights gains of the 70% since it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be some kind of test to have people qualify as innately homosexual. There is no single gene that explains either homosexuality or heterosexuality and scientists doubt that there ever will be. I prioritise the needs of the 70% to both have equal civil rights and be understood.

    A goal for me is to teach that since homosexuality is most often natural, homophobic views and laws are perverse – homosexual people are not. The bigots can challenge all homosexual behaviour much more effectively while they can hold onto the idea that homosexuality itself is always unnatural. The reason homosexuality is an issue in so many churches even now is precisely that for many church going people the injustice of punishing people for an innate trait, something that is natural to them and doesn’t harm others, has become apparent. If, as political movements, either gay rights activists or feminists had prioritised arguing that anyone should be able to partner with a same sex person, and have full sexual relationships, I don’t believe we would have come as far as we have in the real world.

    Such a feminist argument falls right into the hands of the opponents of homosexuality, because their argument is at times essentially the same – it’s a lifestle/political whatever ‘choice’ – which for most of us it simply isn’t.

    Religious fundamentalists oppose all sorts of heterosexual *behaviours* too. Sex before marriage, sex using contraceptives, anal sex – whatever. The opposition to homosexuality *and* homosexual behaviour is just part of the contents of the same bag. But they don’t argue from a basis that heterosexuality itself is ever unnatural, so their arguement is weaker.

    So – to summarise – I don’t believe that *not* using the personal truth of the innate arguement is a more efective strategy to gain civil rights for all individuals who wish to partner with same sex people regardless of whether or not they consider themselves to be innately homosexual. I also think it is wrong to sacrifice the personal truth of over 70% of homsexual people in an efffort to gain acceptance for the approximately 30% with different understandings or paths to homosexual experiences or partnerships. I’m not sure exactly where your thinking is on this but some feminists do say it’s necessary, and I quote ‘to be hard on the innateness arguement’ because biological determinism of any kind needs to be avoided since it has been and still is used against women. As was written earlier by Bitch / Lab, radical feminists have found it difficult to completely eradicate biological determinism, whatever their overall approach. An innate lesbian, faced with a feminist who wants her to downplay her own personal experience and identity to make room for individuals who actually have a choice about who to relate to sexually, might not want to be so generous. That would describe myself. I also have a personal preference to have relationships with other ‘natural-born’ lesbians. Like laylalola I have had experiences with politically rather than sexually identified lesbians (who had not informed me of this beforehand) which I would rather not repeat. The quintessential lesbian-feminist saying ‘Feminism is the theory, lesbianism the practice’, amounts to the theft of innate lesbian identity to me. I’ve always thought lesbian-feminists should have called themselves feminist-lesbians to more accurately and honestly reflect their priorities. Many misunderstandings might have been avoided! I consider myself a lesbian and a feminist, but not a lesbian-feminist for these reasons.

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  83. 80
    lyssa says:

    Late comment…sorry
    I identified as feminist for 30 years before I transitioned to female. I’d like to think that my transition WAS a feminist transition…

    feministe… I’d love to hear what your idea of a feminist transition is. Sounds cool to me.

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