December 29, 2009

The Falsifiability Talk

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues at 3:30 pm by M L Clark

We need to talk about falsifiability.

This isn’t an easy conversation, so let’s talk first about why we need to talk about it. There are many different communities that apply the “inner truth” model to their real world actions, especially when seeking respect, tolerance/acceptance, resources, and access. In no chronological order:

1) The traditional feminist movement used it to highlight that gender is externally enforced, though not deterministic.

2) The queer community emphasized that gender roles and their expectation sets do not reflect the real world, with all the varying orientations within it.

3) The trans activist community forwarded the argument that we are who we say we are: If a sex-male identifies as gender female, she should be recognized and addressed as such. She should also be given access to resources to help overcome the perceived division between her sex and gender.

4) The trans ableist community argued that if we are who we say we are, it follows that there should be equal legitimacy and respect for people who feel their actual identities involve a physical limitation — an amputation or deprived sense — whether or not they actually have the physical limitation (yet).

5) The intersex community, having no clear social gender roles externally enforced, takes issue with the notion that physical realities, such as being intersex, can be inner self-identities, too.

In short, we have a discursive plane that straddles two very difficult realms: Personal perception and the physical world. And both are exceedingly important, because the denial of both is responsible for serious oppressions in the real world. But as with anything in life, where there are limited resources, there is conflict for the lion’s share — and in the course of that conflict, grievous missteps allow for the misrepresentation of one realm in the course of promoting the other.

The trans ableist community offers the best encapsulation of this discord, because along with the insistence upon a disabled “inner truth” regularly goes an envy towards the “privileged” who are already disabled. The true farce of this misuse of the word “privilege” can be seen in the case of a hypothetical cancer patient: If someone were to say, “Oh, you’re so lucky — you have cancer, whereas my inner identity tells me I should have cancer, but I’m not privileged enough to have it yet!” we would recoil in horror. We would call the speaker mentally ill, and in great need of medical assistance.

But wait, trans ableists point out: their community isn’t talking about cancer, or other fatal diseases — it’s talking about amputation and blindness and -plegic states. True, but amputation and quadro- or paraplegic states are also fatal in the natural world: Only the advent of science, and whole industries of care-giving, make it possible for someone to lose a leg and not die from gangrene, or be quadraplegic and not starve or dehydrate to death. This is why self-identity is such a tricky basis for real world policy: The only difference between these identities being recognized as legitimate or treated as manifestations of mental illness is the existence of a society that can maintain the livelihood of persons in those states.

The problem is that, working backwards from this theoretical argument, transsexuality also falls into sharp question — quite frequently, in fact, from radical feminists and mainstream discourse — because transsexuality would literally not exist [ETA: as a realized condition] without the advent of science. Eunuchs would, and have, existed throughout history, but these have been socially-imposed male bodies with either feminine manifestations (when cut prior to pubescence) or extremely masculine manifestations (when cut after pubescence). How, then, could one person’s inner identity be transsexual (i.e. a gender female that requires transition for realization) if the very realization of that identity is dependent on the existence of sustainable systems of medical transition?

This is the issue that often arises in radical feminist discourse, which sees any inner identity moored to the medical industry as one inherently moored to a strict gender binary. To this end, TheBeardedLady wrote a stunningly good encapsulation of how women feel in their own bodies here, which highlights the marginalization many born-sex-female women feel of their lived experience in trans/feminist discourse, wherein the central site of gender oppression against women is regarded as something they should feel privileged to have had since birth.

“All right,” you say: “So you’re arguing that inner identity doesn’t count for squat?” No. Not at all. Because, as many people have noted, regardless of whether or not the transsexual identity is moored to medical institutions, there is one clear fact at work here: Medical transition helps some transgendered people. It has a higher success rate than therapy. It lessens depression and related mental illnesses in trans patients. The post-surgical regret percentages are almost non-existent. So, they’re happy as individuals, and their invididual life choices aren’t intrinsically hurting anyone. To refuse a treatment you know will increase someone’s quality of life, when it in no way harms another person’s life, is therefore unethical. Regardless of where transsexuality “lies” in a person, it is in and of itself an outcome that legitimately benefits individual lives.

The trouble only arises when recognizing another person’s right to shared resources solely on the basis of inner identity pushes someone else’s right to shared resources out of the way. And this, sadly, happens in the one place that is ostensibly fighting the good fight against gender oppression on the whole: the activist sphere.

    — It is in this sphere we find lesbians who are uncomfortable with the thought that any male-sex person may, simply by identifying as being gender female, demand access to their safe spaces; and who are furthermore not okay with being called transphobic simply because, being lesbian, they are most often attracted to the female sex, not the gender construction.

    — It is in this sphere we find radical feminists who worry about government mandates saying no space can be female-sex only — and therefore losing funding if they have to choose between finding ways to involve victimized religious immigrant women in safe spaces, and maintaining an open door policy for all people who self-identify as women — regardless of whether they’re post-op or non-op transgendered — in every single women’s centre activity.

    — It is in this sphere we find born-sex-female women in general recognizing people in the women’s washroom who look like men, and (fearing harassment or assault) telling them to get out or calling a cop on them.

    — It is in this sphere we find trans women, post-op and non-op alike, regarding as transphobic the fact that these women in the bathroom question refuse to recognize them as women, too. (The “everyone needs a place to pee” issue.)

    — It is in this sphere we find brutal deaths for non-gender-normativity appropriated by various gender/sex communities with no regard for the actual self-identities of the people being brutalized. It’s bad enough that how you self-identify doesn’t matter to your murderer, who will impose his horrific punishment on you for being what he thinks you are: When activist groups then scrabble to differentiate between an effeminate gay man beaten to death, or a straight man in drag beaten to death, or a trans woman beaten to death, inner identity is again thrown right out the window.

This is why we need to talk about falsifiability — or rather, the lack of it, when it comes to creating gender/sex theory and policy on the basis of inner truths alone. Because no one can know another person’s inner identity, what we then have to operate on is a social system that supports those inner identities wholeheartedly when they do not deny anyone else’s lived experiences or access to resources, and likewise demands further, external measures in setting policy for all instances where two or more groups’ access to resources are in conflict due to dissonant inner identities.

What will these external measures look like? That’s a damn good question. Taking into consideration the conflicts I mentioned above, and any related ones I may have overlooked, I open the floor to you. What do you think we need to ensure our activism helps all people oppressed by their gender or sex?

December 17, 2009

On Gender Normativity, Privilege, and Oppression

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , at 11:32 am by M L Clark

A very thorough, engaging discussion on another post has finally led to the point where a fuller response is warranted than can be provided solely in the comment threads at hand.

The precipitous comments in question are as follows:

“If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege). So, really, if you deny there’s cis privilege, you’re denying there’s transphobia. Because the insistence that transphobia is just sexism or just homophobia or just gender non-conformity or that it’s even some combination of the three or something else again denies all the trans people who also experience those oppressions, have considered the matter, and still say that it’s not.

Which to me seems to bounce off another comment by the same poster here:

I guess the problem I have is when people reject being straight or heterosexual so they can reject benefiting from straight/heterosexual privilege. Because, we agree that it exists right? And it exists regardless of whether the people who benefit from it identify as such or not. If you’re a woman and you are only involved sexually and romantically with men and have no interest in another gender, then you’re straight/heterosexual as far as privilege goes. In fact, one of the usual arguments about and with bi/pan people is how much or even whether they benefit from straight privilege in straight-appearing relationships. Short version: If we only allow the labeling of people who benefit from privilege with whether they identify with it, then we lose the power to talk about the privilege. If there are no straight people, how can we maintain there is straight privilege?

I’m sorry. I don’t see how they don’t mesh. Could you explain how you see them as conflicting?

I was especially thrilled with the bi/pan engagement in this latter question, because it leads quite beautifully into my response. Specifically, in the first comment the poster lumps gender-normativity on par with sexism and homophobia, against which transphobia would then also be equivalent. I’d argue that the bi/pan question especially highlights how this is not the case: in actuality, gender-normativity is the huge umbrella term under which all other gender “isms” fall. This is because when we “pass” — either as a woman who fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who performs the sexuality that fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who fits all society’s expectations of their perceived gender/sex, period — we gain benefits within the gender binary. And anyone can pass: A heterosexual gender female/sex female, a bisexual gender female/sex female, a heterosexual/bisexual gender female/sex male. When any of us do, we achieve the highest state available to us in the gender binary: “woman.”

It then bears considering what this highest state entails. In a gender binary system where society is constructed around “male” being the default gender, the answer is quite obvious: “female” is itself non-normative. (I develop this notion more thoroughly in this earlier post.) It is, however, also the one state of non-normativity deemed “acceptable” — with the boundaries of this acceptable state decided by the dominant, normative gender: namely, male. This state of non-normativity is a behaviour and action set we call “woman.” If you are sex-female, and you fit this behaviour and action set, you are a woman. What does this guarantee you? Tragically, nothing: You may be everything a woman should be, and that may still result your endurance of gross abuses, violence, and discrimination. This is because woman is non-normative, and man is normative, and man sets these rules (here in a social contract sense, as well as in an absolute sense the world over).

This will get very important momentarily. Because what a system that pressures sex females to become the best “women” they can be does provide is an expectation set. If I’m prettier, boys will be nicer to me. If I’m nice, and don’t do anything to upset them, men won’t rape/harm me. The consequences of this are far reaching: Women with these expectation sets hurt other women in an effort to vie for a status that they think will grant them the most protection in the system. Women also often call out difference in others in order to prove themselves as “better” women for this same reason. All because of a desire for gender-normativity — even if, for women, that very normativity is non-normative, and offers no guarantees. This is the survival mechanism that comes into play in a gender binary.

This desire for gender-normativity then creates even huger problems when we realize, as individuals, that while we may pass for our gender-norm, we aren’t actually gender-normative at all. This creates intense fear of being “outed” among queer persons, and I would have to infer also trans persons. If you’re able to pass, and passing means hiding a part of you, that doesn’t feel much better at all. Whether you’re a trans woman who passes, but also wishes she felt safe airing her sex-based past; or a bisexual woman who wishes she felt safe airing her sexuality in full; or even a beauty-normative person who felt much more herself thirty pounds heavier, having to conform for fear of what happens if you don’t is not healthy: it’s oppressive. This too will become important momentarily.

Because then comes the third tier — the inability to pass as gender-normative. This has advantages just as it has disadvantages. The disadvantages are obvious: If you don’t pass, you’re far more vulnerable to the worst of our male oppressive gender binary. You’re vulnerable to violence and abuse and worst of all, the fear of both. This happens to sex females who openly eschew the behaviour and action set prescribed to our sex. This happens to sex males who openly eschew the behaviour and action sets prescribed to their sex. This happens to intersex persons who are proudly, openly so. But there is a slight advantage, too, for those who do not hate themselves for being different: You know who you are, you don’t feel like a fraud. While the bisexual woman feels shame when she keeps her sexuality a secret, or the trans woman bites her lip through a conversation about trans gendered persons being perverts, the people who do not pass and who embrace that they do not pass a) do not expect to benefit in the system, b) understand that only male normative persons truly benefit from the system, and c) draw strength from setting their own standards for success and failure instead.

This is the spectrum of gender normativity in the gender binary. So with this in mind, let’s look at “oppression” and “privilege.” “Privilege” refers to a set of benefits ascribed to a group of people. Often these benefits are described as expectation sets. Clearly, if you are a gender normative woman — either by birth, by happenstance, or by hard work and personal sacrifice — you get benefits for this condition, as outlined in an expectation set (regardless of whether or not they are fulfilled). And let’s be clear that I’ve omitted “without merit” from the privilege definition because, to a person struggling to achieve gender normativity, there is clearly a sense of “merit” in its attainment: but that’s not the kind of merit we refer to, so to lessen confusion I’m leaving it out.

And so here we run into a severe and important consideration: By this understanding of “privilege,” gender normative women have benefits, too. One list of them (not entirely accurate) is available here. These are occasionally legitimate benefits: What isn’t legitimate is how they are used to refute the claim that women aren’t oppressed. What these counter lists identify, in fact, is that benefits do not determine oppression. They can’t.

What does determine oppression is who controls the make-up of those lists. Because the benefits a gender normative woman experiences (in relation to a gender normative man) and the benefits a gender normative male experiences are both decided by one, central source: male dominant gender binary society. By virtue of having a greater overall threat of force, sex males have a dominance advantage over women, and get to set the terms of their societies. This is why we see societies the world over that have varying levels of shared gender power — everything from almost equal access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in parts of the Western and Eastern worlds), to zero permitted female access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in Saudi Arabia) — but never female dominance in any of these structures. Because men choose to share, or don’t. Full stop.

Oppression is decided by who or what creates the benefits lists for various groups. White people create the benefit lists for other cultures, and in the process themselves, in Western civilization. Meanwhile, the male dominant gender binary creates the benefits lists for gender normative men, non-gender-normative persons who are women, and anyone who fails to fit either of these two gender classes. Anything women can achieve, in terms of an expectation set that contains some superior outcomes to males, is set by men, and in so being, in no way disrupts the gendered power flow. Power always runs one way: To man.

This brings us back to the original comments, where the poster writes:

If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege).

This last line is key, because the jump being made is that there must be a corresponding privilege, and that that privilege must be cis privilege. This poster and I were previously talking about how I don’t use “cis” because it presumes knowledge of my inner gender, and all persons should have the right to self-identify their inner truths. In the second comment, the notion of causal cis privilege is taken in conjunction with straight privilege — even as the use of bi/pan sexuality embodies a complete refutation of its solidity as a concept, because it’s completely contingent on “passing,” not “being.”

I agree there is a privilege associated with transphobia, just as there is a privilege associated with straight persons. Just as this privilege associated with straight persons is contingent on someone passing as straight, so too is the privilege associated with transphobia associated with someone passing as non-trans, or cis. This is gender normativity privilege. This is the ability, if you pass, or seek to pass, to gain benefits from suppressing or neglecting those who cannot, or do not.

I say this with full equanimity: I do not accuse people of straight privilege anymore [ETA: automatically, I mean: obviously when they exert it in their actions I’ll point it out the same way I would a woman exploiting male privilege to oppress other women], because I know full well it’s not contingent on who you are but whether you pass, and that far too many people whose inner truths are not straight adopt this language of oppression in order to do just that. I know, personally, that I pass far too much for my own comfort: This has to do with deep-seated issues with my father that I am trying very hard to overcome. In the meantime, it means that I gain more benefits than many from a system that favours the performance of gender normativity. So I do not say any of the aforementioned to avoid mentioning those benefits I receive for this privilege.

But these benefits, and this privilege, do not amount to oppression. As I mentioned above, there are benefits for most every group, and these amount to privileges for most every group; thus, due to the ubiquity of these privilege lists, privilege cannot alone determine oppression. If both men and women have privileges, does it then follow that no one is oppressed? No. Absolutely not. Because women do not set these privilege lists. We can benefit from them, absolutely. We do, so long as we live up to the standards set externally for us; and so long as those in power do not change their minds. But even the best case scenario for female gender normativity has no guarantees — only expectations. Why? Because gender power lies with the male dominant gender binary. Men set the terms of gender normativity: therefore men also set the terms of acceptable non-gender-normativity (“woman,” with the specific behaviour and action set imbued therein), and unacceptable non-gender-normativity.

Does this give non-gender-normative men, or acceptably gender-normative women, or unacceptably non-gender-normative women, a free pass on discriminating against others, in an effort to survive in the existing male dominant gender binary? Absolutely not. Women and non-gender-normative men alike need to hold themselves severely accountable for the systemic abuses they perpetuate in an effort to survive a system set to favour gender normative males, and reward with unreliable expectation sets those women who perform gender normativity best. This means gay men don’t have a free pass on sexism. This means women don’t have a free pass on homophobia. This means sex-females don’t have a free pass on transphobia against sex-male/gender females. And this means trans women don’t have a free pass on sexism in turn.

There are horrible things done by all non-gender-normative persons in the current male dominant gender binary, out of a desire to survive, and a foolhardy expectation that if we do our best to pass we’ll minimize the threat of harm and marginalization that comes our way. These abuses need to be confronted for what they are, and from whence they stem. This means eschewing privilege wherever it’s confused with oppression, because the real oppressions are all about performing gender normativity — as the male normative, and therefore male dominant, gender binary determines this performance to be.

December 7, 2009

Personal Statement Update (The Short Version)

Posted in Gender issues, Public discourse, Women's issues tagged , at 9:58 am by M L Clark

I think I’ve perfectly come to an understanding with myself about gender now.

I know I absolutely refuse any “inner gender” label. I know some (not all! not even close to all!) trans persons would insist that I am female (unless I instead defined myself as gender male), because their own perception of inner gender is something that they have felt “from birth,” despite the social and sex-based cues that told them they belonged to a different gender-sex.

I have not felt female “from birth.” In fact, I don’t “feel” female now. I don’t “feel” present in myself at all in a gendered way. The sex-based cues, which cause such immense problems for my ability to identify whether a personal feeling is “legitimate” or based on where I am in my cycle (seriously — I ALWAYS cry two days before my period, and it’s invariably about something that seemed slight beforehand), are a constant threat to my sense of self-identity. Similarly, the social cues, which have led counsellors to call me “broken” or “damaged” when I say my number one desire is not procreation but adoption, and my father to call me a “failure of the genetic code” for being queer and also for desiring to adopt, are another immensely sore point for me.

I know some trans persons feel that my self-identity — as genderless, as human-first — is an implicit attack on their own self-identities. It is not. I wholeheartedly respect and would NEVER challenge the noumenological identity of another human being. You are what you identify yourself as, and you will NEVER see me refute the gender label you give yourself.

I furthermore acknowledge that gender-normativity is an incredible BENEFIT in the gender-binary system we all presently occupy. And I know that in many occasions, I DO pass as gender-normative. So do many other queer persons. So do many transgendered persons. So do many straight, non-trans persons. But the problem with our gender-binary system — the problem shared by trans persons, queer persons, and women (and some men) alike — is that the MOMENT one of us doesn’t “pass” as gender-normative (as in, not fitting the gender archetype prescribed to our perceived sex), we are all at greater risk of violence and discrimination.

This is especially relevant when we look at cases like Jorge Steven López Mercado, a self-identified gay (NOT trans) man dismembered and decapitated and partially charred and abandoned on the side of the road.

I absolutely do not reference his name to politicize his death for my uses. I am very saddened, though not surprised, that his name, and his brutal death, have been applied in this manner already. I instead reference him to point out that whatever he identified as has NOTHING to do with why he died. Because it truly doesn’t matter what nuanced term a victim uses for him or herself. It matters A WHOLE LOT, however, what term the perpetrator ascribes to the victim. Because in any sensible universe, there would be only one term, for everyone: HUMAN. In reality, however, there are more. And therein lies the problem.

In this way, I am firmly of the belief that the violent bigoted see no difference between trans and gay — that they think of trans women as gay men who are trying to “trick” them into being gay as well, by making them fall for “men” dressed like women. The thought experiment I like to use here is of the father who beats his child for playing with dresses and make-up: This action has NO relation to the outcome of the child. The child might end up identifying as gay. The child might end up identifying as transgender. The child might end up as a cross-dressing straight man (a VERY strong portion of the cross-dressing population!). The child might end up as none of these at all! You just don’t know. The ONLY thing this scenario says for certain is that the FATHER has no tolerance for non-gender-normativity. And in his limited experience with non-gender-normativity, he’s more likely than anything to perceive this action as “gay” (in the effeminate sense), and respond with that notion in mind.

What does this have to do with real world outcomes? Everything. It means EVERYONE who might ever have reason not to pass as gender-normative — either by being a born-woman who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for her gendered sex, or by being a born-man who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for his gendered sex, or by being a trans woman or trans man confronting similar, oppositional expectations due to his her/his gendered sex — is at risk in our system. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of queer men and women need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of women, period, need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of trans persons need to be taken very seriously by society. And it means that the exploitation and silencing of lived experience from all three groups needs to be taken very, very seriously as well.

But all of this needs to be done for one very crucial, rarely disseminated, wholly universalizing reason: Because the noumenological truth of our self-identities is OURS ALONE. Just as I have absolutely no right to tell a trans person what gender they identify as, no one can tell me I identify as “female” just because society sets out specific gender-female expectations for the sex I was born into, and I don’t identify instead as “male”.

Which means I have every fucking right to say I don’t have an inner gender identity. I furthermore have every fucking right to say I don’t feel “present” within myself at all in that regard.

And it means I can say this about myself without that determination EVER threatening another person’s equal right to whatever inner identity they recognize for themselves.

This is NOT transphobic. This is NOT cissexist. This is the nature of a system where all individuals should be equal, with equal rights and privileges, and equal assurances to the right of self-determination. It is, moreover, the nature of a system where all individuals are, in reality, only equal when they present as gender-normative; and where a slew of variations on our rights and privileges emerges when we, as individuals, cease to perform to that gender-normative standard.

This is what I’ve learned about myself, and the gender-binary we operate in, over the past few weeks. I welcome all comment, from everyone, about their own thoughts about such matters.

All the best, you wonderful human people you!