December 29, 2009
The Falsifiability Talk
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?