In which a cis feminist has a serious and long overdue rethink.
Laura Woodhouse // 5 August 2008
I want to address some issues raised in Helen’s latest post, issues that I myself have been grappling with recently. The ongoing results* of said grappling have made me feel very ashamed of my past thoughts and misplaced beliefs with regards to trans people and trans issues. Here’s why.
I’ve always leant strongly towards the social constructionist theory of gender. As I discussed last week, this model has allowed me to challenge what society generally accepts to be the norm regarding gender roles, characteristics and identities, enabling me to embrace a female identity defined only by myself. I had previously struggled with the label “female” because I didn’t feel comfortable with what this label generally means and entails in patriarchal society. No more. In short, embracing the social constructionist theory of gender has been a liberating experience for me. Fuck gender, I’d say, let’s get rid of it altogether and then we’ll all be free.
Lucky, aren’t I? Not to mention arrogant. Because as a cis woman (by which I mean non-trans), I have the privilege of being able to write off gender, of deciding that it doesn’t matter to me any more. A little while back, when I first came across the term cisexual, I questioned its validity. Helen G said that, as a ciswoman, I must have ‘only ever experienced my subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned’. I found this strange, because I’ve never felt like a woman in my head – I just am.
Well exactly! Something in my brain is quite happy for me to exist with a female sexed body, and it is the very feeling of being myself – of not feeling gendered, but being comfortable with who I am – that indicates that my sex – female – is completely in harmony with the gender my brain – I, my soul, whatever – expects me to be.
I cannot begin to imagine what it would feel like not to experience that harmony. But I can imagine that if one does not feel that sense of just being oneself, of not being obviously gendered because one’s brain accepts one’s sexual body (i.e. if one is cisexual), if one’s brain, or soul, or being, whatever you want to call it, feels differently sexed to one’s body, it must seem insulting, arrogant and privileged to hear others claim that gender is just an illusion, that we should destroy it, that we’ll never be free until we rid ourselves of this socially constructed, patriarchal delusion.
I realise now that my previous beliefs that we could – and should – rid ourselves entirely of gender are all of those things. How convenient and easy it is for a cis woman to say that gender is nothing but a social construction. How arrogant to ignore the experiences of trans gendered people, not only because I was genuinely never aware of them before, but because they posed a threat to my convenient little theory of liberation that worked so well for me that it must work for everyone else on the planet!
Yes, the existence of trans gendered people challenges the social constructionist model held so dear by radical feminists in particular. That doesn’t mean we can just pretend they don’t exist – it means we need to rethink that theory.
The experience of trans gendered people indicates that there is at least some natural, biological component to gender. Accepting this idea does not mean that we cannot recognise and challenge the socially constructed nature of patriarchal conceptions of gender, of masculinity, of femininity, of our roles and qualities and characteristics as men and women, and the extent to which those qualities are valued within our society. Both cis and trans people suffer due to the restrictive nature of the patriarchal gender model. In Whipping Girl, trans woman Julia Serano describes how trans women seeking gender realignment surgery are often forced to conform to traditionally feminine modes of dress and behaviour in order to convince their therapists and members of the medical profession – whose concepts of gender are often firmly entrenched in patriarchal nonsense – that they are really committed to “becoming” women, that they really “understand” what it is to be a woman.
I’m sure any woman reading this – trans or cis – would tell them where they can shove their notions of womanhood. And I’m sure any woman – trans or cis – would be able to describe the effects that these patriarchal notions of womanhood – and in particular the sexism in which they are based – have on our daily lives.
No, we don’t all share the same experiences as women. Trans and cis woman no doubt have very different experiences of womanhood, and of life in general. But so do Black women and White women, gay and straight and bi women, able and disabled women, British and Indian, old and young. You get my drift. What unites is our common experience as the sexual underclass. The discrimination we face as women manifests itself in different ways for different women, and it does not override the other forms of discrimination many of us face, but it is something that can only be overcome if we work together, if we support each other. And that means fighting against all the forms of discrimination we face.
So, for those who like to “question transgender (politics)”: if the existence of trans gendered people upsets your world view, then perhaps – instead of trying to find a way to explain them away, to frame them as the enemy, to ignore their personhood because you feel that your politics is far more important than their well-being – you should give that world view a wee bit of a rethink. I know I have.
I wrote this post in the spirit of trying to be an ally (well, making a start at it anyway), so only supportive/positive comments will be published. Feel free to discuss other points elsewhere. Comments may take a while to appear as I am away from the computer for much of the day.