Word of the week: liminal

// 11 May 2008

LGBT rainbow flag with pen"Liminal": according to Ask Oxford (the online Compact OED), it means either relating to a transitional or initial stage or at a boundary or threshold, but I really like William Gibson’s explanation, referring to ‘liminal spaces’ he says: "They’re not even places, they’re thresholds that lead you into someplace else. I always find those interesting. Often there’s literally nothing going on in thresholds, it’s not the room, it’s not the house, but you can’t get into the house or room without going through the threshold.". (Via)

The concept has been in the back of my mind for a few days now. After my recent stint as Guest Blogger here came to an end, I was surprised to find myself in just such a liminal space. The problem was, I didn’t know what threshold I was standing on, or what lay beyond. I had a hunch that writing was going to be part of it: I have been keeping a personal Journal about my transition since 2006 and it has helped me realise that there were – are – things I needed to write about, matters with some bearing on my personal politics which I believe would also make a useful contribution to the wider debate about how transsexual women are viewed by, and contribute to, contemporary society.

Blogging at TFW had really helped me to start thinking about, not only feminist issues, but also feminism as an ideology, and how my experience as a trans woman informed my thinking, and vice versa. So I’m really delighted to have been invited to rejoin the team as a regular blogger; hopefully the rusty wheels which have begun to turn in my mind can gather a little momentum and my thoughts find an outlet here. I am still in search of a personal belief system, my own trans feminism, and I hope that by posting here we can all engage in a useful dialog that will help us to see things in a different light, and from which, maybe, we can learn.

In my liminal state I wrote a couple of pieces, one of which I’d like to (re-)post here. It’s primarily a reflection on the way my Guest Blogger residency has modified the way I see feminism, and I originally planned to make it my farewell post – how things change in such a short time… I apologise for any repetition to my friends, co-bloggers and any others who may recognise the content, but I think it’s a useful point for picking up the pieces before we move on to other discussions, other topics around the intersections and overlaps between feminism and trans* issues.

So here are some random thoughts from the past few days; I hope that I – we – can use them as a basis for further discussions, and I look forward to posting at TFW more regularly in future.


I believe that both maxims, ‘the political is personal’ and ‘the personal is political’ hold true and I came to TFW hoping that I could learn more about both aspects as viewed through the lens of feminism. I hoped to find a more political side to my ongoing transition, which is unarguably a personal experience first and foremost. Having focused on that personal side for some 18 months, my journey of transition had brought me to a point where I believed I was ready to think about other aspects apart from the ‘prime directive’ of simply surviving. Having been a reader of TFW for some time, I believed that there was a sense of community, of inclusivity and tolerance of a wide range of views and opinions. And I welcomed the chance to take a more active role in that community, if only for a short while.

During the early days and months of my transition, my sense of feminism seemed to come quite naturally, albeit in an almost instinctive/intuitive way. I don’t consider myself particularly well-educated; I find book-learning difficult and have tried to piece things together as best I can with the help of the interwebs, so there are, unsurprisingly, many large gaps in my knowledge. Perhaps more than anything, the so-called Real Life Experience aspect of my transition really helped me to see the inequality and injustices that women suffer, as well as offering a new perspective on the other problems facing me as I began to build a new life as a trans woman.

In putting these things together, I wondered if I could begin to find a synthesis of my experiences as both a trans* person and as a woman: a trans feminism in which I could reconcile my personal and political beliefs and experiences. I’m still looking for that holy grail, but at the time of writing, I’m not optimistic. My current thoughts are that my search for that synthesis has more in common with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The basic idea(s) of feminism made sense but didn’t go far enough: problems were identified but I saw no clear solutions. I began to look at radical feminism but, although it offered a suggestion (dismantle the patriarchy) it didn’t seem to have a definite plan for doing that. In that sense, it seemed remarkably familiar to Engels’ idea that, after the working class had risen up and seized power, the state would simply – somehow – just wither away.

And then there were the radical feminists… Or rather, some radical feminists, who would have me believe that, oh, d’yknow, I just don’t have the energy to rake over those old and cold ashes. Suffice it to say that I found myself fundamentally opposed to their "analysis" of trans women. And I’m not convinced that "once a man, always a man" is a particularly useful stance from which to discuss trans women.

Yes, the existence of transsexual people does pose a problem to certain feminists because it directly contradicts some very strongly held assumptions about gender, gender identity, gender roles and gender expression. The problem, I think, originates here: to me, as a trans woman, gender is first of all personal – whereas it seems that feminism views gender in political terms. And it is there, in the reconciliation of those two diametrically opposing views, that we should be searching for common ground. Instead, it has become a battlefield, and me, well, I’m a pacifist, I don’t see why there needs to be conflict, or yet another binary. Is it really so difficult to simultaneously hold two different views, or is it easier for me because I’ve had to do exactly that as a sufferer of gender dysphoria and its integral dissonance?…

Had de Beauvoir known about gender dysphoria, perhaps her assertion that one is not born woman but becomes one would have been less binaristic, less dogmatic, less silencing.

As long as transphobia of the magnitude that I have experienced continues to exist then I’m not sure I want to think of myself as a radical feminist. How can I possibly be part of a movement that condones such hatred towards me simply because of who I am, because I have the temerity to undergo massive social, hormonal, psychological and surgical changes in order to alleviate my gender dissonance and live in my ‘true’ identity as a woman, even though I was born and raised male?

All of which leaves me, where, exactly? At this moment, I really don’t have a definitive answer; I doubt I ever will. I feel isolated, confused, lonely, alienated, disconnected, disenfranchised, a long way from home (wherever that is) – but there’s nothing new there. I still think that women – including trans women – are oppressed by patriarchy, amongst other power structures, and I feel strongly that that imbalance needs to be addressed and redressed as a matter of urgency by everybody, irrespective of gender. But feminism needs a plan – a consensual and inclusive plan – of how, exactly, society is to change and be changed. I hope when that stage is reached, I will still be around to take part – although, given my age (51), I’m not sure how likely that is. Right now I’m feeling, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, a ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. It’s a massive disconnect and there is much work I need to do…

(Cross-posted at bird of paradox)

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Comments From You

Lauren O // Posted 11 May 2008 at 12:09 pm

Oh! “Liminal” is one of my favorite words! I learned it in a class about ritual musics of the world when we were discussing initiation rites, and ever since then I find an excuse to use it in as many places as I can, even though my spell-check will not believe me that it’s a word.

Anyway, this is a great post. I think one of the main problems with radical feminism is how often it becomes transphobic (hey, there’s another word my spell-check doesn’t recognize). That’s one of the two things that drives me away from the radfem movement (the other being its hatred and mockery of sex-positivism).

It is lovely to hear what an actual trans person has to say about these issues. Voices like yours are too rare. Thanks for giving the rest of us some insight!

Anne Onne // Posted 11 May 2008 at 1:08 pm

I love the word ‘liminal’, too. I can still remember the lesson I learnt it in!

I have a mixed relationship with radical feminism (or pretty much any branch of feminism), or rather, with the flawed and human views of people who align themselves with ideologies. Naturally, people make mistakes, and other people without realising. It comes from not recognising privilege, or sometimes from trying so hard to protect your rights, you don’t see you’re stepping on someone else’s.

Maybe it’s youthful oprimism (or the grim belief that even failing or doing little is better than doing nothing), but I hope we’ll make inroads into this area. Like other divides in feminism (and there are loads: the sex pos debate, WOC and feminism etc) it is something we need to address as much as we need to address the external issues, because it is harming women.

Given the context, it’s understandable that you feel liminal if society chooses to assert a permanent binary in which you do not fit, and if feminists, people supposed to be all about helping the gender-oppressed, and deconstructing gender binaries decide that you don’t fit the binary neatly enough. But there are also feminists who value your contribution, see it as a necessary addition to discussion on gender, and are willing to learn about your experiences.

I’m thrilled that you’re staying on at The F word, and looking forward to whatever thoughts you will bring in the future. :D

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