The Hijacking of Gender: A Feminist Take on Transgenderism
By T M Murray –
Gender used to be a cool concept. Baadddass feminists like Simone de Beauvoir used it to distinguish what’s between your legs (sex) from what’s between your ears (gender). You were born with the former. The latter you were taught. What was put between your ears got there by means of patriarchal cultural indoctrination.
When women tried to work their way into roles or positions that were the preserve of men, propagandists of patriarchy resorted to ‘nature’ to reinforce the patriarchal system. This tactic worked because the cultural landscape was so saturated with stereotypes that they did seem almost ‘natural’. A theory of biological determinism was wheeled in to explain why patriarchy is not a political issue but biological necessity. Sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson insisted that patriarchy persists because genes anchor culture.
This approach was nothing new. Freud had rooted patriarchal culture in the penis and vagina (mostly the almighty penis). Christian traditionalists had always attached patriarchal social arrangements to reproductive functions as given in “Creation”, defining women’s social roles as mother and wife accordingly. Eve’s transgression and punishment by God further reinforced the female’s subservient relationship to her husband. To this St. Paul added a dash of New Testament authority, stating that women should “submit themselves to their husband” as to the Lord. The sacred institution of marriage was a human invention, but it sustained “God’s” intentions.
Some stubborn feminists refused to go along with this kind of “naturalisation” of patriarchy and its concomitant biological determinism, instead seeing the explanation for male domination in social, cultural, theological, academic and economic institutions. Existentialists like De Beauvoir were loathe to accept explanations for human behaviour that claimed it is determined by some fixed ‘essence’. Both she and her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, insisted that character is formed by an individual in response to his circumstances, through his free choices. We find ourselves thrown here, in situ, confronted with our own free will, and our choices must be made against a background of facts that we cannot change, such as the biological sex into which we have been born. But what we ‘make’ of this is up to us. While it is clear that only women can bear children, the implications of this are quite undetermined and the current social division of labour is only one of a variety of possible social arrangements available to us.
Just like ye ole feminists of yore, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals once transgressed the gender stereotypes their culture had taught them. According to normative and widespread heterosexist gender myths, these queer folks were labelled “butch”, “sissies”, “dykes” and “fairies” — epithets intended to stigmatise anyone who refused to perform and dress according to the sexist and heterosexist gender roles they had been taught. Thus did ‘fags’ and ‘dykes’ choose to reclaim these derogatory monikers, owning them and wielding them as a mirror held up to the intolerance of cultural mythmakers in the face of dissent.
By turning gender norms into a form of theatre, drag performers showed that one could adopt and mimic gender roles irrespective of one’s genitalia, thus exposing the fact that gender is not natural but a conventional form of role play which can be put on or taken off (pace Judith Butler). Queers were incarnations of gender’s failure to stick to real people. All of this was progressive, because it laid bare the sexually conservative fiction that all men share heterosexual personality attributes different to all women, and vice-versa.
Hot on the heels of feminists, queers began to point out that, chief amongst the social myths about the ways that ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ as such feel is the notion that they all feel attracted to the opposite sex. Much of gender is constructed around heterosexism and heterosexual ‘role play’. Culturally normative male or female social roles (i.e. gender) become ritualised as part of a Western Christian cultural fetishisation and eroticisation of sexual difference. Exaggerating differences between men and women, mystifying the opposite sex, and making sex acts taboo only heightens the excitement of penetrating the mysteries of the ‘other’ and overcoming barriers to sexual fulfilment. Presupposing humanity’s innate heterosexuality facilitated the bifurcation of humans into two opposite, mutually attracted types. Just as feminists had rejected a definition ‘woman’ that represented her as opposite to the male ideal, so homosexuals refused to see themselves as defective or disordered heterosexuals.
For both feminists and queers of the late twentieth century, the natural was repressed by the social. But at the same time, the “natural” was also produced by cultural and theological assumptions. Ideas about gender are not just outcomes of empirical observations; they are the premises of the ‘research’. Consequently, when individuals do not conform to sexual stereotypes, they are allegedly ‘reversing’ (presumably real, fixed) gender roles, not exposing gender roles as fictions. If individuals, when observed, do not actually conform to the social ideas of gender, then this ought to be taken as evidence that social ideas of gender are flawed. Instead, the gender roles are presupposed a priori, and evidence conflicting with them is interpreted as ‘abnormal’ or deviant, not as an indication that the presupposed ‘norm’ was flawed in the first place. There is a problem of circularity in the whole conceptual frame within which gender is ‘researched’. John Gray’s bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is a study in this unscientific methodology.
The new transgender movement is not an extension of past efforts to deconstruct sexist and heterosexist mythology. It does not bring feminists and genderqueer people together in solidarity, as a united front opposing heterosexist mythology and sexual stereotypes. Rather, it divides and conquers this once-powerful countercultural movement, hijacking its language and mimicking its political posture to disguise its opposite intent. The transgender individuals who have led the new counter-queer revolution are actually few; but they are well-positioned establishment figures who have the full backing of the media in promoting their cause – another thing that separates them from their genderqueer predecessors of the 80’s and 90’s.
In the past several years ‘gender’ has been radically re-defined by a reactionary movement that has transformed it from a set of conventions and constraints on what men and women can be or do, to an interior mental state. Chrissie Daz is right in saying that something fundamental has changed in the way in which gender is understood in the twenty first century, with the new transgender warriors representing a major paradigm shift in gender thinking over the last forty years. An idea once wielded by the liberal left against conservative sexist and heterosexist social norms, gender has now been retooled as a weapon in the armoury of a regressive politics that is not only sexist but homophobic. Today’s transgender movement reinforces the myth that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are altogether different species of human beings, not just reproductively, but mentally — with different desires, different needs, different aptitudes, and different minds. Now transgender spokespersons support the traditionally conservative naturalisation of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as innate psychological states, intrinsic in the human subject from birth and arising from brain chemistry or other hormonal interactions of the body. The progressive idea that there is no uniform way that all boys as such (or all girls as such) necessarily ‘feel’ or ‘think’ has been scrapped.
Instead of railing against a rigid heterosexist gender binary (as their rhetoric would suggest) the new Trans warriors assume that their innate sense of self (‘identity’) is inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to any socialisation. Apparently, the influence of cultural indoctrination is negligible. Gender has been de-politicised, naturalised and medicalised in the same stroke.
Gender is now a concept that appears to do the kind of political work once associated with the civil rights movement. In reality it reverses the logic by which civil rights were achieved. Civil rights activists of the past claimed that discrimination based on biological differences like skin colour or sex failed to acknowledge the equal humanity of all persons as moral agents. Grouping people according to common physical traits neglected their individuality and their character as persons. Groups of individuals were defined by reference to skin colour or genitals, not by human agency, character and behaviour. Thus were persons reduced to their bodies (or parts of their bodies) while the more important and distinctively human attributes of intellect and will (aspects that should ground an appraisal of character) were neglected.
Present day gender rights activists do not demand to be treated as individuals, nor do they see their character as a choice. They emphasise that they belong to a ‘minority’ defined by gender identity, or sameness with others who share their allegedly biological condition. Whereas civil rights activists made biology irrelevant, gender rights activists treat it as all-important. The ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ of their psyche is treated as an innate condition akin to hair colour or skin pigmentation. Since they are ostensibly a category of people defined by reference to this innate biological difference, they should not face discrimination any more than women or black minority ethnic persons. However, whereas women and BME persons of the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement were keen to disassociate themselves from reductionist biological definitions of their identities, urging others not to define them by reference to genitalia or skin colour, today’s transgender activists demand recognition of their allegedly “biological” difference, believing that membership in a biologically distinct group should entitle them to civil rights.
Adopting this biological determinist account of their ‘condition’ (an innate gendered psyche) requires that we first accept conservative premises about gender. As we saw above, one thing that is built into gender is the heterosexuality of ‘men’ and ‘women’. However, if heterosexist gender ideology means that being female includes being an erotic ‘match’ for men, then lesbians might not identify very strongly with ‘femininity’ (a female gender role), since they are not attracted to men and do not wish to be an object of male sexual attention. Likewise male homosexuals will find it hard to ‘fit’ into heterosexual masculinity with its accompanying erotic assumptions.
Once binary gender has been naturalised and turned into one of two heterosexually gendered psychological states, this leaves only one option for biological females who feel a strong affinity with normatively ‘male’ behaviours and/or sexual attractions – they must actually become biological males. If they had an innate desire to “act like men” while being biologically female, they would be sick (“dysphoric”). The same goes for biological males who feel a stronger affinity to normatively “feminine” roles and sexual tendencies. In this context, it would be unsurprising if homosexuals felt confused.
Transgender’s clinicians identify gender dysphoria (unhappiness) as an abnormal psycho-sexual condition. But if the dysphoria is really an effect or symptom of society’s misunderstanding of natural sexual biochemistry, then the disease is not intrinsic in the ‘patient’; it is the outcome of a relationship between the patient and his surrounding culture. Indeed, both liberal eugenicist Nicholas Agar and Christian bioethicists Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan construe disease as a socially constructed concept, or “in a sense, a relationship between a person and society”.
However, queer activists of the past argued that it is the nature of the relationship – not the nature of the patient – that makes the ‘patient’ feel unhappy. A social ‘dis-ease’ with difference is re-conceptualised, then, as a psychosexual abnormality within the constitution of the patient. The subject’s “disordered brain” is seen as the cause of an unacceptable interaction of individuals and social organizations. The political consequence is that of deflecting criticism away from social institutions that might need reforming, and towards the aberrant individual demanding reforms. He must be altered to fit the institutions.
To get some purchase on how this works in practice, we need only consider the situation for queers in Iran. Iran is a sexist, intolerant, homophobic theocracy, where fundamentalist religious laws strictly enforce the hetero-normative status quo. The official state solution to homosexuality is to either (1) punish or execute those who practice it openly, or (2) ‘encourage’ homosexuals to transition, surgically, to the ‘correct’ sex so that they can fit back into the heterosexual norm, i.e., the only norm Iran tolerates. Consequently, Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world, second only to Thailand. This seems analogous to chemically lightening a black person’s skin to make him more comfortable in a racist society, when what should be done is to tackle the society’s racism. It seems politically regressive. Instead of rejecting or deconstructing the heteronormative binary, the medical industry seems to be facilitating the transgender individual’s literal ‘deconstruction’ of herself – literally her very body — so that she can re-make it in the binary heterosexist image required. This is violence masquerading as compassion.
This is not entirely dissimilar to the Soviet-styled ‘medicine’ of the early 1970’s, in which the Soviet state used violence only as a last resort in dealing with her dissenting intelligentsia who had begun to press for greater political freedoms. Psychiatric investigations and diagnoses of mental illness (typically schizophrenia) became the preferred instrument through which the dissident’s incarceration in a psychiatric hospital could be effected. In light of the politically fraught historical relationship between the LGBTI rights movement and establishment political institutions, the current Transgender ‘treatment’ trend might best be analysed in light of Michel Foucault’s argument that the entire category of psychological disorders is the expression of power relationships within society. In a simplified form, Foucault’s view is that madness is not a property of the individual but a social definition wished by society on a non-compliant proportion of its population.
The seemingly compassionate progressive medical and clinical ‘recognition’ of the transgender ‘patient’ may in reality be reinforcing the heteronormative binary that long caused suffering and alienation for a variety of gender queer people. We need not object to informed, consenting adults surgically transitioning to a body they feel comfortable living in. However, perhaps liberal progressives should consider for a moment the rush to embrace this option uncritically, or as the primary solution for those who suffer gender dysphoria.
There is simply no way to test whether being unhappy with one’s biological body is a by-product of dogmatic gender enculturation or an innate condition, since all cultures indoctrinate kids with gender, albeit in a diverse variety of ways. There is no control group against which we could compare gender-indoctrinated individuals. But the Trans activists’ claim that some biological females are inherently ‘masculine’ while some biological males are inherently ‘feminine’ assumes what it needs to prove: namely, that gender is natural and intrinsic in the psycho-sexual make-up of the individual, rather than a set of culturally circulated fictions that he or she has internalised. While there is no problem accepting that sex and sexual orientation are essential or innate in our biological constitution, this does not commit us to accept an essentialist theory of gender. Indeed liberal queers and feminists thwart progress by relinquishing the nature – nurture distinction that the past concept of gender served to illuminate.
In the context of a biological determinist account of gender, it becomes difficult to distinguish the homosexual from the transgendered person. The latter is conceptualised as a heterosexual ‘male’ or ‘female’ psyche trapped in the ‘wrong’ body. But “wrong” according to whom, or what? Whether one is homosexual or heterosexual, binary gender norms represent a set of industrial strength constraints on how a person with male or female genitals may act. Homosexuality represents one good reason why a subset of people simply cannot feel ‘at home’ in their bodies, given the sexual expectations built into (heterosexist) gender norms. But some straight people also find it incredibly hard to identify with the many behavioural expectations of their gender. Some people simply find gender too alienating and cannot adapt themselves to its generalisations about ‘men’ and ‘women’. This is not a disease in those persons, but a symptom of social ‘dis-ease’ with diversity. All individuals are strongly ‘encouraged’ to believe that they will be better off and happier if their ideas about their biological ‘selves’ mesh with the culturally acceptable ones. And so they too might be happier to transition than to cross-dress or to live with the constant rejection that haunts the non-conformist. In a liberal society, this option should not be off the table, but again, it should not enjoy precedence over the fight for new social reforms and it should be a decision taken by adults who are fully aware of the part that culture plays in their understanding of themselves.
To grasp the looming political implications of the current transgender rights trend, we need to be clear about how its core concepts function in relation to women’s rights and LGBI rights, as well as to “liberal” eugenics. Transhumanists/”Liberal” Eugenicists (Nicholas Agar, Julian Savulescu, James Hughes, Nick Bostrom, David Pearce, Gregory Stock, John Harris, Johann Hari, et. al.) combine their biopolitics with free market economics to arrive at an ostensibly ‘liberal’ social policy on the use of biotech. These self-described ‘Liberal eugenicists’ are arguing for unlimited and/or unregulated use of reprogenetics. They distinguish reprogenetics from eugenics in that the latter implies state coercion with the presumption of benefit. The former would be voluntarily pursued by individual parents with the aim of improving their children according to their preferences. This is “privatized” or “free-market” eugenics (so there is of course a financial incentive to promote its use).
Inside the seemingly progressive Transgender Trojan Horse’s belly is a regressive sexual politics that is prepared to use medicine and biotech to, first, surgically and chemically – and later, maybe even genetically – engineer us back to our traditional roles within the age-old heterosexual binary. Social engineering traditionally done by means of discipline and punishment could soon be accomplished through biotech, pre-natal hormone treatments and/or genome editing.
IF a biological cause of homosexual attraction exists, eliminating it will almost certainly reduce homosexual behaviour. To deny this is to pretend that voluntary sexual acts are unrelated to involuntary sexual attraction. The very purpose of reprogenetic interventions will be to eliminate individuals’ voluntary homosexual behaviour by eliminating their involuntary biological predisposition for it. This will happen not by taking away the individual’s free will, but by biologically steering the direction in which it is most likely to be expressed. Can those whose primary sexual orientation is heterosexual still engage in homoerotic acts? Of course they can. But that misses the point. Reprogenetic interventions to prohibit homosexual desire would constitute a form of social engineering that is not therapeutic in any medical sense, but aims at constraining another individual’s behaviour (without her consent) to the kinds of life goals that parents prefer. The future would be one in which homosexual persons would never rebel against the indoctrination of homophobic parents by “coming out” because they simply won’t wish to do so.
The new Trans movement (whether intentionally or not) removes the only barrier that would prevent parents being able to assume the patient’s implied consent for this kind of pre-natal eugenic ‘treatment’ of his psycho-sexual ‘condition’. In order to define and target homosexual orientation as a medical condition suitable for ‘treatment’, it will first be necessary to distinguish this ‘treatment’ from homophobic medical violence, which would be too objectionable. All that is lacking to make the distinction viable is the assumption that the patient would happily consent to such a ‘treatment’. In their haste to embrace “Transgender rights”, well-meaning liberals and homosexuals are furnishing just that assumption. A homophobic eugenics movement has searched for the holy grail of biological sexual orientation with the aim of finding a way to change it. If they ever do locate a biological cause(s) for homosexual orientation, all they will lack to be permitted to ‘cure’ it is a conceptual framework that will allow homophobic genome editing or pre-natal hormonal treatment to appear benevolent. Since the ‘treatment’ will be done to an unborn foetus, clinicians will need to pathologise homosexuality in such a way that parents can assume the patient’s (offspring’s) consent for its ‘cure’.
They could only make such an assumption if existing individuals with non-binary sexualities would consent to changing themselves. The Transgender movement fights for recognition of the deviant’s ‘condition’ as a clinical one and patients’ ‘rights’ to access medical assistance in transitioning back to a socially conservative definition of health.
If some who have transitioned do not actually end up being heterosexual, they will have nevertheless supported the heterosexist notion that gender is, for some subset of individuals, an internal biological condition that makes them feel bad. As voluntary patients who accept the theoretical medicalisation of their unhappiness, they will have played a role in the theoretical re-branding of political issues as clinical pathologies. While Trans supporters are motivated by good intentions, they unwittingly help social conservatives to sell a eugenic agenda to the public, casting it as a form of enlightened compassion or tolerance for diversity.
There is no reason why we cannot have compassion for people who feel that they are trapped in the ‘wrong’ biological body. What is troublesome is not how these individuals feel. Rather, the issue is how their feelings are being framed or interpreted, and this is partly owing to the socio-political contexts in which their feelings arise in the first place. As Sarah Ditum has argued, “the fact of suffering is not evidence that the sufferer has unimpeachable insight into the source of that suffering.” If societies were organized around the assumption that natural human sexuality (attraction) includes both heterosexual and homosexual variants, not only would this go some way to eliminating the stigma associated with being born intersex, it would greatly diminish homophobia and (to a large extent) sexism. And because it would also break down sexist myths about gender that alienate those who do not, and cannot, feel ‘at ease’ with the social roles assigned to people of their genital sex, it would likely increase the well-being of those who presently feel they are trapped in the “wrong” bodies.
T M Murray, PhD. is the author of Thinking Straight About Being Gay: Why it Matters If We’re Born That Way
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