November 24, 2009

Questions in the Hope of Furthering Feminist Discourse on Trans Intersections

Posted in Gender issues, Women's issues tagged , , , at 2:43 pm by Maggie Clark

Pursuant to my last post, I’d like to pose a few questions about the kinds of issues I have trouble taking as Not Open For Discussion, or Cause To Be Termed Cissexist/Transphobic, in the much of mainstream liberal feminism. I greatly appreciate any and all insights therein — so thank you, in advance, to anyone who responds to them:

1) How does championing the transsexual necessity of surgery/hormones to achieve external indications of “womanness” within the feminist sphere affect the feminist mandate of teaching all women, including non-gender-conforming born-women, to question their desire for body modification surgeries (like breast augmentation or tummy tucks), love themselves just as they are, and otherwise explode the existing, oppressive gender binary?

2) How, in the sphere of feminist activism, are we to align the transsexual stance that transwomen were female from birth — just without the biology, and without the requisite physicality — when feminism as a whole sees “being woman” as a social construct foisted on born-women by the society we’re engaged with as we grow?

3) Pursuant to 2), how do we both accept (I stress again, “in feminism”) that transsexuals’ lived experience of femininity is that they were women at birth BUT that when they later strive to attain body modifications that are gender-norm-affirming, this is just the inevitable extension of their socially imposed perceptions about “what it is to be a woman”?

4) Why are good born-woman feminists expected to accept a list of privileges that does not conform to our perception of the lived experiences of born-women everywhere, when it is alternately considered transphobic and “othering” even to suggest that transsexuals may harbour residual male privilege that needs to be checked as part of their own, full transition into the feminist sphere?

5) Pursuant to 4), there are plenty of born-women who do not “pass” as a general rule, and a great many more of us who toe the line all the time with our choices, lifestyles, public presentation and actions — just the same as many trans persons do not “pass”, and many trans persons do. So why is it assumed that born-women are always identified by perpetrators of gender oppression as having “legitimate” gender identities, and all the “privilege” that supposedly arises therein?

Even if you only have the time to answer one of these questions, I would be greatly obliged. These are big, tough questions for me, and I would love to have them raised in mainstream feminist discourse: However, from my experiences to date, I have not seen them perceived as at all welcome — the argument being that questioning the actions of transsexuals in relation to feminism (as feminists already, rigorously and critically, question the actions of born-women in relation to feminism) is “othering”, “cissexist”, and/or transphobic. To me, this seems entirely counter-intuitive and unproductive, with huge implications for the calibre of feminist discourse going forward. But what are your insights on such matters?

I’ll be deconstructing each question in its own post in the coming days, so please feel free to jump in whenever you can in the discourse.

Many thanks in advance!

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21 Comments »

  1. Michelle said,

    I’ll comment briefly on the first question you raise about the intersection of GRS and HRT with other body modification surgeries such as breast augmentation.

    I do not think that we can lump HRT/GRS into the same category as breast augmentation, tummy tucks and other similar surgeries.

    Feminism is rightly critical of the social pressures that drive so many women to pursue a host of cosmetic surgeries – from face lifts to breast augmentation and tummy tucks. The exhortation to examine one’s motives in pursuing such surgeries is quite appropriate and reasonable.

    HRT and GRS are two legs of a triadic treatment model used to treat transsexuals. The third leg of that structure is Real Life Experience (RLE). In combination, this treatment path is ultimately about actualizing the individual as a complete human being. I won’t bore you with the inner struggles that many transsexuals face as they make their way towards becoming the person they were born to be – suffice it to say that it would be extremely rare for someone to transition fully and not have undertaken considerable introspective review of their motives for doing so; similarly, with reputable surgeons, one cannot get surgery without having experienced RLE for at least a full year; possibly longer – plenty of time to review one’s motives before surgery.

    Few pursue GRS out of a response to any kind of social pressure – in fact the very act of transition itself breaks an individual of their sense of conformity with social pressures – for those are often among the first hurdles to be overcome on the road to transition.

    If one views feminism in part as being about women actualizing ourselves as individuals apart from the myriad social pressures that we face – whether that is the beauty myth, or the pressures to be ‘supermom’ doesn’t really matter, then it seems to me fairly logically consistent to view HRT/GRS as consistent with the objective of actualizing the individual, and similarly consistent with the feminist critiques of surgeries such as breast augmentation. (or more correctly – the motives of the patients asking for those surgeries)

    • maggieclark said,

      Hi Michelle,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to the first question I posed. I was wondering if you could also comment on how the language used by both groups plays into this whole discourse. You argue that “Few pursue GRS out of a response to any kind of social pressure” but every transsexual I’ve spoken to has mentioned a desire to “pass” — and that in and of itself means “to be taken by other people as the gender one sees oneself”. How is that different from a young woman, frustrated that she isn’t “woman enough” because she doesn’t have breasts, seeking a surgery that will allow her to be seen by others as more of a “fully actualized” woman?

      Moreover, I cannot readily recall a transsexual who did not mention explicitly or through intimation that the choice to pursue surgery was the difference between desiring to live or desiring to die. Now, it’s very possible that language only emerges because our society requires transwomen to assume that kind of stance in order to be seen as “legitimate” enough for surgery, but it’s scary, scary language nonetheless: Young women regularly kill themselves out of an extreme hatred of the bodies they have, or else try to; and for a born woman to say that she will kill herself if she has to live in the un-womanly body she perceives herself as having would necessarily be seen as a sign that she needs help — not in the form of surgery, but in the form of counselling to get her to a place where she can love who she is, as she is.

      This language makes it very hard to understand how intrinsically different the two cases are; and if they’re not intrinsically different, how does feminism endorse one at the hypocritical cost of the other?

      Again, thank you for your response!

      All the best,

      Maggie

  2. Michelle said,

    Maggie,

    First, I need to clarify a few points regarding transsexualism, and in particular the impact and purpose of HRT and GRS.

    HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) operates on two key levels for a transsexual. The obvious physical effects certainly help with passability by reshaping the body silhouette. However, most MTF transsexuals also report significant changes in their affective state after being on HRT for an extended period of time. One can argue that HRT has a lot to do with ‘passing’, but in reality it only has a little bit to do with passing – other social signals have much more to do with passability.

    GRS (Gender Reassignment Surgery) has virtually nothing to do with “passing”. GRS merely reshapes the genital region of the individual in a manner the is more or less congruent with their outward presentation. Except for rare situations, we seldom get to inspect someone else’s genitalia in day to day interaction. GRS plays more of a role in an individual’s expression of their sexual identity and ability to share with others as part of a relationship that includes both physical and emotional components.

    Ironically, Real Life Experience (RLE), has more to do with passability than either HRT or GRS ever does. Because that is when the transsexual learns to live fully in their chosen gender role. That’s when body language and other social cues are learned … and the transsexual finds out whether they can move through the world in their chosen gender or not.

    You are correct that transsexual desires to pass socially are reflective of the same social pressures that all women experience. However, GRS has little to do with passability except in the most intimate of situations.

    When you speak of the “transition or die” claims of transsexuals, and draw parallels to women committing suicide for other physical reasons (‘not being feminine enough’ or whatever), I think you have drawn a false equivalence.

    Most suicide cases like you describe (the ones who are unsuccessful in their attempt, and end up in therapy) eventually develop the coping skills needed to accept themselves.

    This is quite different from transsexuals who find that no amount of therapy enables them to accept their natal gender.

    (* Please note: I do not wish to diminish the legitimacy of the pain that the other cases represent, rather I wish to underscore the difference in clinical responsiveness to therapy intended to help the patient accept *)

    The “transition or die” statement is a reflection of the emotional crisis that so many transsexuals experience before they seek help in transition. It is strong language, and it should be scary – it’s a scary place to be emotionally. Those that do experience that ‘do or die’ moment in life find themselves in a dark little place emotionally. It is a moment of realizing in the starkest terms where you need to be is at odds with where you are – no matter how hard one has tried to ‘fit in’.

    I think, in some ways, the distinction between HRT/GRS/RLE and other cosmetic surgeries that feminism is often critical of (e.g. breast augmentation) can be summarized in the words of Simone de Beauvoire: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”.

    In other words, are we enabling someone to become a more complete human being, or are we merely enabling a social construct that is undesirable? (e.g. the beauty myth)

    I would argue that HRT/GRS/RLE in combination are enabling someone to become a more complete human being – physically, socially and emotionally. I think it is important to address GRS in its complete context as part of a known, effective treatment protocol, and not in isolation as a surgical procedure.

    Breast augmentation (for example) often ends up perpetuating other cultural myths about femininity that feminism is rightly critical of such as objectification of women’s bodies.

    This is getting a little lengthy, so I hope it is making some sense …

    • maggieclark said,

      This is getting a little lengthy, so I hope it is making some sense …

      Yes, very much! And again, I appreciate the time you took to respond, and the thoroughness of the responses themselves. I am, however, confused about the omission of breast augmentation from all but the very last of your commentary; it’s been my understanding that “top surgery” is the only surgery many a transsexual undergoes, or else is a lead-up to GRS for many more. This surgery, as you said, absolutely ends up “perpetuating other cultural myths about femininity”; if this is as integral to the process for many transsexuals as “bottom surgery,” surely this creates its own set of “passing” standards — just as HRT has demonstrable physical consequences in that regard. Does this not make “passing” an integral element to the process? Would it be a bad thing to say that it’s a part of it? And if not, can it be evaluated in exclusion from other aspects of the surgical/hormone treatment process, by the same measures for which other acts of “passing” are considered in feminist discourse? Or is it impossible to disentangle such elements?

      But of even greater confusion for me is the comparable, real-world outcomes of transgendered persons who feel they need such treatments or surgeries if life is going to be worth living, and who are then “healed” in much greater numbers by pursuing these surgeries than born women who desire surgeries of their own. If there is a clear-cut, majority benefit to the mental health of born sex-males who seek out sex-female status to match their internal perception of gender-female, then yes, it seems only just and humane and right to protect their access to such surgeries.

      … But as a feminist, and one who especially believes that gender-female doesn’t exist, except as a social construct, and obviously excluding sex-female biochemical indicators, that outcome unnerves me, because it suggests that there must be a gender after all. One that exists outside biochemistry, outside society. After all, what else could allow for a transgendered person to feel like a complete woman after surgery, when born-women their whole lives through won’t feel that same way, no matter how they change their physical appearance?

      I by no means am suggesting that my discomfort should ever be cause for stripping other persons of the right to self-actualization (I should hope that goes without saying!), but my own lived experiences have been informed by a discomfort in my own skin, a loathing of socially-imposed gender expectations, and a very clear lack of gender identification in my own headspace. Is there room for this conviction when born sex-females have exceedingly lower success outcomes for coping with (for want of a better term) their own “gender dysphoria”, inside or outside of surgery, than born sex-males do?

      I honestly don’t see how one conviction can only be so readily resolved with surgery, when the other has no treatment process with equally high positive outcomes. Do transsexuals manifest any gender-related depression after their transition? I’d almost feel relieved if they did: I wouldn’t for a second consider advocating that they shouldn’t have had the treatment if that were the case, but I guess I’d feel… more confident, perhaps? That their notion of being perceived gender female matched up with the lived experiences of all born sex-female, gender females I know.

      In the absence of that… doubt, I guess? from transwomen about their own femininity post-transition, I’m left quite confused about my own engagement with gender. Not entirely sure where to go from there, so I’ll leave off before this gets confusing.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful, measured responses.

      All the best,

      Maggie

  3. Michelle said,

    Hi Maggie,

    Let me be quite clear – breast augmentation is not a “necessary part” of gender transition. A lot of transsexual women do have breast augmentation done, but it is not an “intrinsic part” of the transition process in the same way that GRS (what you call “bottom surgery”) is. Therefore, I argue that breast augmentation in transsexuals is subject to the same critique as it is among natal females.

    I may be misunderstanding you, but your comments are a little over-focused on the physical surgeries, and those are actually quite secondary in the overall transition process. Transition itself is a long process for many (upwards of a decade) involving psychotherapy, RLE and hormones (eventually). GRS is not available until the person has lived a minimum a full year in their chosen gender – by which time the individual’s social transition should be fairly well cemented, and the GRS in many respects simply completes the physical changes to align body and spirit. (metaphorically speaking) This is not to diminish the importance of that surgery to those who seek it out, but rather to put it in its place relative to the far more significant social and psychological changes that transition brings.

    “Passing” is an integral element of the process for most transsexuals the same way that ‘fitting in’ is so important for teenage girls in school. They have to start somewhere, so they often look around and adopt behaviours based on what they observe. Few will start to carve out their own sense of the feminine until they are living full-time and fully understand the social role into which they are moving. I don’t see this as being substantively different than the socialization that takes place during the teenage years.

    Do transsexual women experience the same discomforts and insecurities about their bodies in their post transition lives as natal females? For the most part, yes. Transition and surgery don’t magically make transsexual women immune to a myriad of other pressures, tensions and insecurities. What RLE/HRT/GRS does do is help the individual overcome a crippling sense of dissonance that they have lived with for years. The euphoria that so many describe is actually reflective of the person achieving the sense of congruence that others grew up with – it’s a new experience for them, and at first can be quite bewildering.

    On a theoretical level, I have to disagree somewhat with the notion that gender is a purely social construct that can be treated as entirely distinct from the physical and psychological aspects. I accept the deconstruction into social, physical and psychological domains, but I think it is overly simplistic to view them as “separate” entities without significant interactions.

    I must draw on the childhood experiences of both cisgender and transsexual people to explain myself. In both cases, there is a strong sense of gender identification long before any social cues come into the picture. In particular, transsexuals with early memory often describe awareness of gender issues long before most children even start realizing that little boys and girls are different. This invokes a certain essentialism to gender that I find hard to ignore.

    Further, there is an increasing body of knowledge that shows that male and female brains are differentiated significantly. Again, bringing the transsexual issue back into it, there were some very interesting papers presented at the last WPATH conference showing that even pre-HRT, transsexuals show significant cross-sex brain activation patterns. (using techniques like qEEG and fMRI)

    Now, interestingly, I have opened up a key area of feminist criticism of transsexual women – namely that there is no way that a transsexual woman can have experienced the hormonal cycle, menstruation, pregnancy or childbirth. All of these are true statements and to some extent do legitimately represent limitations of the transsexual experience of the feminine. However, it does not appear on balance to negate or differentiate the psychological and social experiences of the feminine overall for transsexuals.

    I do agree that gender has a significant social component – and that is subject to revision and criticism; but we cannot ignore the impact of the physical and psychological in such a discussion.

    • maggieclark said,

      Hi Michelle,

      I can’t respond in full right now, but I never said gender had no physical/biochemical premise. Just the opposite: There are many indications of sex-female, of which brain differentiation fits in quite perfectly. I only said that the gender value sets ascribed to male and female, in terms of expectations, are all social, external. I do NOT ignore the impact of “the physical and psychological” in such a discussions, but I find the “place” of gender in transsexuals who perceive themselves to be women to be quite without physical or chemical presentation, which begs the question: Where is gender? On the notion of brain differentiation, brain scans of adult transsexuals have shown possible correlation, but barring the regular brain scans of many infants through adulthood, it would be difficult to ascertain if socialization guides brain development, or vice versa.

      Again, sorry about the brevity of this response — thanks for your comments.

      • Michelle said,

        Maggie,

        In your prior post, you stated: “But as a feminist, and one who especially believes that gender-female doesn’t exist, except as a social construct,

        What I am postulating is that while there are significant external forces at play in the social definition of gender role, we should be extremely careful about confusing gender role with gender identity.

        I don’t claim that the evidence regarding transsexuals is complete by any stretch – but it is very interesting. I will point out that the brain scans involved are on adults who grew up and were socialized as male and are in the early stages of transition. This is significant in understanding the etiology of cross-gender identity and arguably in understanding gender identity across the spectrum in which it occurs.

    • maggieclark said,

      “But as a feminist, and one who especially believes that gender-female doesn’t exist, except as a social construct, and obviously excluding sex-female biochemical indicators”

      How can you not quote the full statement?

      [ETA: Again, apologies for any terseness being conveyed in the name of brevity — I should really wait until I have more time to fully response: Your thoughtful comments absolutely merit that.]

      • Michelle said,

        I apologize for not properly quoting you, but that one sentence underscores in part a significant difference in our respective understanding and use of the word ‘gender’.

        I find it useful in such conversations to deal with gender as having 3 distinct (but closely related) axis:

        Gender Identity, Social Gender and Physical Gender.

        I generally agree with much of feminist critique of issues relating to social gender and the experience of the feminine.

        Where I typically find myself in some significant disagreement is when the models used to critique social gender are applied to Gender Identity and Physical Gender.

        The challenge when it comes to understanding transsexualism comes from the fact that transsexualism is firmly rooted in Gender Identity and the treatment models are focused around addressing the issues with respect to Gender Identity first and foremost. (Note: Gender Identity is exclusively internal, and is subject to an individual’s ability to articulate it – this makes it exceptionally difficult to test or validate externally)

        The three-axis deconstruction of Gender that I propose here is perhaps overly simplistic, but it enables me to understand the dimensions of gendered behaviour more readily when it can be quite confusing – especially when considering issues that are foreign to one’s own personal experience.

    • maggieclark said,

      Hi Michelle,

      I think we are absolutely talking about the same manifestations of gender. The problem is, when we talk about “Gender Identity,” as you term that axis of the equation, we are quite clearly talking about something that is non-falsifiable. If there is no biological correlation, no chemical correlation, no physical correlation, and the social correlation is by definition externally imposed, what remains?

      You suggest that a child has an innate understanding of their gender identity, something that goes beyond all four of these correlations. To demonstrate such a thing, you’d have to see if children recognize such a differentiation of self in that direction without having ever seen someone of the other sex, without knowing the other sex exists. You’d need children raised in such an environment (which cannot be achieved in the lab, clearly, due to ethics violations, but which might necessarily have existed in some reclusive monasteries at some points in history, and in some regions of the world) to identify with a sense of “not feeling right” in the bodies they had — and not just because they wanted to become more “perfect” examples of the sex they were born into.

      Anything less, and it follows that recognition of such “otherness” only exists when such children are socially exposed to the idea of women (either by reference, in sight, or through contact). As such, the notion of” Gender Identity” is socially-derived — no doubt very early! But certainly externally, and so relating very clearly to the notion of “Social Gender” as a whole.

      Now, it bears mentioning that we do get something like that kind of hypothetical environment in the “many brothers” hypothesis for higher chances of a male child identifying as queer if he has many older brothers — but I honestly don’t know enough about that research to be able to ascertain its legitimacy offhand, and I do know that the trans community as a whole greatly despises the researcher responsible for forwarding this theory (oddly, I can’t recall offhand what the queer community thinks of his work). Furthermore, even if it is true, it would suggest that non-physical non-gender-conformity arises solely from the pre-existence of stronger gender-male-normatives in one’s immediate social environment, and the subsequent, individual adoption of less aggressive/confrontational behavioural patterns in the face of that overwhelming alpha male presence — an indication in and of itself that the dominance of male normativity (read: gender oppression with “male normative” as the privileged class) is what creates secondary, reactionary classes of behavioural value sets. Again, IF it’s true. And if it’s not… well, we go right back to non-falsifiability. Gender Identity just “is”.

      But the problem with something manifesting solely in the sphere of a person’s noumena (or “that which is unknowable through the senses”: the opposite of “phenomena”), and feminist theory and policy being based on that completely untestable, non-falsifiable source of gender reality, is that if a trans person’s gender differs from their lived sex on a noumenological level, how on earth can it be equally asserted that the trans community knows non-trans-identified people have a noumenological gender that perfectly aligns with their lived sex? By definition, it is as impossible for them to ascertain this fact of born women’s experiences as it is for born-women to ascertain the “true” gender identity of members of the trans community.

      This is an extraordinary double-standard, and will remain this way so long as a) this notion of gender identity lies out of the range of falsifiability, b) SOME people in the trans community require of born-women that they agree their own, noumenological gender identity matches up with how they are perceived by others, both in terms of “Social Gender” and “Physical Gender”, and that for this reason born-women have privilege over trans women, and c) SOME born-women in the feminist community impose the same, absolutist assertion that they know the noumenological gender of all other born-women matches up with their “Social Gender” and their “Physical Gender,” and that therefore any woman who does not acknowledge her privilege in this regard is “cissexist” or “transphobic.”

      As far as I can tell, there are only two ways out of this argument:

      1) You’d have to argue that there IS, in fact, a universal correlation between brain chemistry and trans outcomes — we just don’t have the research yet to prove this. But in this case you’re dealing with some difficult consequent outcomes, including the fact that if we do find a Physical Gender causation for Gender Identity, this gives us two equally comparable options for treatment: providing tools for medical transition through hormone therapy, GRS, and lived experience… or correcting the imbalanced brain chemistry, just as one would in any mental condition that distorts self-perception. There would be, in fact, no clear difference save for an imposed, or “social”, one.

      And frankly, being queer, I am exceedingly repulsed by the pursuit of innate genetic or biochemical indications for queer outcomes; and I would suspect many transgender persons might feel the same way about finding a “trans gene,” because it creates a benchmark for de-legitimizing individuals on the basis of not manifesting THE scientifically-accepted physical indicators of their personal gender identity outcomes. In contrast to this, I strongly feel people should be accepted at face value, for who they identify as, and it should be left at that. So really, the only issue here for me is that many trans activists and feminists want to tell me what my internal gender perception is, while insisting that trans gender identities are innate and unknowable to anyone else.

      Now, if we were to talk instead about the benefits of social gender normativity in a gendered, male-normative-dominant society, that would be one thing! Then we’d only be noting that people who “pass” as having the social gender that matches their sex are treated better than people who do not (and it’s true! they are!). But this isn’t the case with what is being demanded — namely, a specifically transgendered divide — and that’s when my ability to identify as I feel best reflects me is threatened.

      Anyway, back to the ways one would have to use to argue themselves out of the original point:

      2) You’d have to argue that, okay, there IS a role played by Social Gender in creating certain perceptions of noumenological Gender Identity. In this case, while the benefits of surgery to trans women are fairly indisputable in the research, you’re still dealing with a system of seeking to “pass” by externally imposed standards; and that absolutely underpins all the three of the transitional pillars you developed so thoroughly, and with great attention to informative detail, above. Thus, it becomes impossible to say that the ultimate root cause of this dissonance is anything but the current system of gender oppression that privileges male-normative men, and which ascribes social benefits therein to all members who pass as Social-Gender-normative.

      Now, in my opinion, this latter conclusion would truly unify all those with varying non-male-normative indicators — be they women, women who don’t “pass” as women, men who don’t “pass” as men, or queer persons who don’t “pass” as straight persons — as oppressed by normative-male-privileging gender and sex norms. But this isn’t the discourse we’re having, is it?

      Because SOME trans persons and SOME feminists insist that Social Gender and Physical Gender are not where transgenderism lies — that where it lies is in fact innate (though not physical). And from this noumenological, non-falsifiable gender identity arises the assertion that when I am told what my noumenological, non-falsifiable gender is (on the basis of not identifying as trans), I had better accept this imposed conviction as a mark of privilege, or else I’m cissexist and transphobic. So instead of furthering a discourse I am confident all feminists could easily rally behind — namely, the various advantages received at various times, and in various degrees, when individual persons’ social genders meet the approval of a male-normative-privileged society — we’re left with a discourse that instead empowers SOME trans activists and SOME feminists to tell other women what their Gender Identities are. Whether you agree or not, I hope it’s at least understandable how teribly alienating that can be to other feminists.

      In fact, let me leave off on that point: When I discuss such issues online or in person, my ultimate aim is to understand other people’s positions, and to articulate more fully and completely my own. Maybe your aims are different: I don’t know. But to this end of mine, I personally find this conversation a great success, because the whole of this particular response reads to me as my best articulation yet of precisely the problems for feminism that are yielded by this oppositional framework, and also a simple solution that allows feminism to more uniformly embrace the possibility that giving all women the choice to pursue gender-normative advantages in such a binary gender system is a reasonable way to help women cope, on an individual level, with the existing state of gender oppression as a whole.

      Again, maybe you wish to discuss this until I concede my views to yours, or until one of us gets fed up with the attempt. But if it is also beneficial to you to understand the strongest explanation of alternative perspectives, then I have just one question:

      Is the above explanation something you can recognize as a fully realized, cogent, alternative perspective — even if you don’t agree with some/any of it?

      Thanks again for all your very thoughtful responses.

      All the best,

      Maggie

  4. maggieclark said,

    “But as a feminist, and one who especially believes that gender-female doesn’t exist, except as a social construct, and obviously excluding sex-female biochemical indicators”

    How can you not quote the full statement?

  5. Michelle said,

    Maggie – In general I agree with much of what you say, and you make some interesting points.

    I agree with your point that Gender Identity is not externally verifiable at this time. However, I choose not to ignore it because to do so requires me to erase an entire spectrum of narrative that is out there – that of transsexuals and others who have varying degrees of cross-gender identity. I choose not to do so in my own attempts to understand human behaviour.

    As an aside, do you claim an essentialism to your own queer identity or in your mind is it similarly primarily a social construction?

    With respect to the question of identifying the causes of queer identities (whether those are sexual or gender centric), I share your reservations around what the consequences of such discoveries could be if used unethically.

    Such is the risk we take every time we seek answers. What price would humanity pay for eradicating sexual or gender variant individuals? Would it mean that we would lose the variation that results in artistic or mathematical genius? It’s hard to say, but certainly interesting to speculate upon.

    It’s clear you are an articulate, intelligent person – I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

    • maggieclark said,

      Hi Michelle,

      Very quick note right now to say I absolutely haven’t forgotten about this reply; I’ve just been caught up in an intense bout of work these past few days. I have things yet to thank you for, though, so please expect a proper response in a few days at the outside!

      All the best,

      Maggie

      • Lucy said,

        Having just read this thread, I have to admit I’m curious about how you view your queerness as well as to whether it’s a social construction or essential or some combination. Your latest post talks about how you don’t feel gendered but doesn’t deal with this at all.

      • maggieclark said,

        You make an excellent point about not bringing queerness into this. That’s because I use the term “impartial” for myself, whereas others would require me to identify as “bi,” and “bi” is a weird term to accept if you refuse a gender binary; if you instead recognize that gender identity manifests in exceptionally diverse ways. I consider myself “impartial” because a person’s gender/sex identity has absolutely no bearing on a) my attraction to a person, and b) my interest in pursuing a relationship with that person. Which isn’t to say I’m not nervous about ever having to deal with my father’s reaction to my future life partner perhaps being a woman — so yes, there are social gendering elements here — but I myself strongly believe “you love who you love,” and I do that on a person-by-person basis, not a gender/sex-by-gender/sex one. Where does the biochemistry for that arise? Well, there’s plenty of research noting consistent female arousal to pictures of just about any sexual stimulus, but even if that were universally true, that would only address a). So what makes b) so equally universal for me? I honestly don’t know. It’s a quality of openness and capacity to imprint with just about anyone, but I have no idea if that’s socially or genetically or chemically derived (or some mixture of all three). Sorry — that’s the best answer I have for that, to date. I no more “live” within my sexual orientation than I do my gender. It just is what it is: a subset of who I am.

        Would it be forward of me to ask about your own engagement with sexual orientation? Do you have a sense of being “present” within your sexual orientation? Do you have any thoughts about where that sexual orientation might arise from?

        Best,

        Maggie

  6. Michelle said,

    Hi Maggie,

    I’ll be quite frank with you – sexual identity is a picture that I am only beginning to draw.

    Prior to transition, I nominally had adopted the mantle of being heterosexal – but like a lot of other things in my life at that time, I was doing what I thought others expected of me. Perhaps the best way to reflect upon that time of my life is that I was very much “the observer” – present, but not fully engaged.

    While I was working through the myriad issues that transition brought me to explore and deal with honestly, I had parked sexual issues on a mental shelf – I was essentially asexual for a long time.

    Today, I find myself in the unusual position of just beginning to honestly address my sexual identity. To be certain, my understanding of myself sexually is unquestionably as a woman; as for whom I am attracted to – that’s a fairly open slate. I don’t find myself strongly attracted to, or repulsed by, the idea of intimacy with people of any particular gender.

    Just as I worked for a long time to reach the core of my gender identity, I expect it will take me a long time to understand my sexual self as well.

    I believe that like gender identity, sexual identity occurs along a spectrum, and how plastic that spectrum is for me remains to be determined.

    I hope that this sheds a little bit of light on my experience of the subject of sexual identity … albeit, that’s a chapter yet to be written in my life.

  7. Michelle said,

    Hi Maggie,

    I tried to write a follow-up post yesterday and it apparently got lost when I clicked ‘submit’ … or I forgot to hit submit – either way it didn’t arrive.

    First, I spent some time a few days ago trying to address the falsifiability issue you raise with respect to gender having a dimension beyond the physical and social. The result was rather longer than appropriate for a comments section, and it’s posted here on my blog instead.

    Second, with respect to sexual identity, I have a somewhat limited amount of insight into that domain.

    While I was busy sorting out the issues related to gender identity, I pretty much put sexuality on a shelf. (For me, working through whether I needed to transition, and then actually transitioning, was a big enough task on its own, without adding in the complexities of sexual relationships into the mix.

    Prior to that, I had adopted the cloak of being nominally heterosexual. However, I suspect that like a lot of other aspects of my life at that time, I was mostly doing what I thought others expected of me rather than actually understanding myself.

    So … in many ways, my sexual identity is a picture yet to be fully drawn. I’m only just beginning to explore what it means for me to be a sexual being as a woman. (I’m absolutely clear on the woman part of that statement – and have been for a long time). As for what interests me, like you it’s far more than someone’s physical attributes, and has to include a lot to do with someone’s social character as well.

    I find myself still shedding the cloak of being celibate – if not outright asexual – for the last several years, so it’s going to take a lot of exploration for me to understand where my sexual identity really is.

    (as an aside, I tend to suspect that sexual identity, like gender, has some component to it that is core to our being. It is entirely possible that because I am transsexual, that my own sexuality is far more plastic than others would experience – so I may well end up landing quite happily somewhere in between – who knows)

    I hope this answers the question you raised in your previous comment.

    Respectfully,

    – Michelle

    • maggieclark said,

      Hi Michelle,

      About to go into an exam soon, but I just wanted to say I am THRILLED you linked to your blog, and I can’t wait to read it once I’m out of my exam. I’m going to add it to my blogroll in the meantime — if that’s something you’re not comfortable with, please let me know and I’ll remove it.

      I also want to thank you for your insights about sexual identity. It’s an absolutely curious subject from the non-gender-binary perspective, because I truly question whether it would even BE an issue if gender weren’t already. But that deals with a plane of intersectionality I’m not very good at yet (and for which I made an inexcusable ass of myself yesterday, elsewhere on this blog), so for now I’m more than happy just to read and reflect for a bit.

      I’ve really appreciated our conversation, and look forward to continuing it when these exams are over — here or on your blog — in the future.

      All the best,

      Maggie

  8. […] and feminism. The first one is called “My Gender Is Not My Own”. The follow-ups are here, here and here (the newest one is a great analysis of gender normativity, and how it relates to […]

  9. polly said,

    One thing with regard to the falsifiability of gender identity. What is frequently expressed is ‘I know I am a woman’.

    This is impossible. It is possible to strongly feel one wishes to have the physical sex characteristics of a female human being. It is possible to strongly feel one wishes to fulfil a gender role of ‘woman’.

    It is not possible to say one has the internal reality of a ‘woman’ because one does not know what the internal reality of other ‘women’ is to make a comparison. Unless you can know another person’s internal consciousness, which as far as I am aware is not possible.

  10. Michelle said,

    This is impossible. It is possible to strongly feel one wishes to have the physical sex characteristics of a female human being. It is possible to strongly feel one wishes to fulfil a gender role of ‘woman’.

    It is not possible to say one has the internal reality of a ‘woman’ because one does not know what the internal reality of other ‘women’ is to make a comparison. Unless you can know another person’s internal consciousness, which as far as I am aware is not possible.

    Polly, I respectfully must disagree. I think you have mischaracterized the gender identity narrative – especially as it is expressed by transsexuals.

    Your error falls in the fact that you have attempted to view the issue of another individual’s identity from a purely external view. In doing so, you make the assumption that gender variant people make their assertion based on their understanding of the reality that others experience.

    This is not necessarily the case at all. I think in the most dramatic of individual cases, the transsexuals, you will find that the narrative is much more clearly from within – and it is distinct from the individual’s understanding of both social and physical aspects of gender.

    (as an aside, I have addressed the conceptual nature of gender identity as a distinct and separate entity from physical and social gender here on my own blog, which was written in response to a similar objection that Maggie raised earlier in our discourse)


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