The current top hit on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site is this piece by Julie Burchill, which defends Suzanne Moore from charges of ‘transphobia’. I’m unimpressed by the language of the piece, and her implication that the people she is battling are academics is wide of the mark, but I recognize it as a voice of dissent against a very strongly asserted liberal position, and want to consider its position more thoughtfully, as a leftist feminist, than I’ve so far seen in the instant, reflex, super-animated, and rather boring Twitter condemnations of Burchill.
One of the most interesting ironies of the now very frequent attacks that are made, generally on Twitter, generally by people who call themselves leftists, Marxists, and gender theorists, is that they use a Latinate insult word, ‘cis’, as part of their claim that (an apparently monolithic class of) other people are privileged. I don’t accuse them of hypocrisy, since I’m sure that not all of them are privately educated, and even state-educated people like me know what ‘cis’ means without having studied Latin at school, but I’m concerned for other reasons. I see only a qualified leftism, no Marxism, and a rather confused gender theory in a position that insists both on a position called ‘cis’ and on a linking of that position with ‘privilege’.
The first reason to find the insistence that ‘cis’ people are privileged relative to ‘trans’ people unpersuasive is this. Identification with the gender behaviours that society insists are proper to one’s biological sex – which is what ‘cisgender’ means – is quite evidently not a ‘privilege’. It is not a ‘privilege’, for instance, to be a woman who identifies with socially sanctioned behaviours such as accepting lower pay, leaving work to take sole responsibility for children, submitting to men in every public and private sphere, and so on. It is not a ‘privilege’ to be thrown into the ridiculous performative space of gender construction, whoever you might be. It is a curse, a humiliating and degrading undergoing of ideological torture. And ‘trans’ people are actually caught up in the same struggle, not a different one, since in the same way that a straight, gay, bi, whatever individual of a ‘cis’ biological sex has to juggle the competing urges of a perceived social pressure and a personally felt desire to link body and behaviour in some acceptable sense, ‘trans’ people too are finding ways to negotiate – with more or less medical assistance – the same cultural and personal pressures. Everybody, irrespective of their body and its ‘trans’ or ‘cis’ state, is in the same boat. So the insistence that it is ‘easier’ to be ‘cis’, or that ‘cis’ people ought to pipe down a bit because they don’t understand the pain of ‘trans’ people is really not a very good argument. I wouldn’t encourage it, but it would in many ways be easier, in fact, to argue that it is ‘trans’ people, who declare their ill-fittingness with ideologically forced associations between gender and sex, who are the ‘privileged’ ones, since it is they who are resisting the ideological pressure and campaigning (as those who enter into the ‘trans’ v. ‘cis’ wars do) for a privileged status as the only position of suffering in respect of a human body. Rather than pitting ‘trans’ against ‘cis’ in the way that people who use those terms do, it would be more profitable to recognize that everyone, even those who don’t experience their relation to their gender as essentially antagonistic or traumatic, is subject to the same forces, is potentially suffering in the same way. (I sometimes hear that only ‘trans’ people suffer verbal or public abuse because of their genitals. Not true: ask any schoolboy worried about the size of his penis or any schoolgirl who is told her vagina is disgusting because she hasn’t shaved her pubes. And why are genitals more of a worry than facial birthmarks, hare-lips, etc.?)
At the very least, the battle lines that are currently drawn have the effect of producing a hierarchy of suffering in respect of gender, with one, more or less arbitrarily selected, group at the top. And within the specific confines of the difficulty experienced by every human being in respect of their gender identity, it should surely be possible to appreciate that, from outside, that insistence looks rather selfish.
The nub of the problem, as seen from the perspective of feminists outside of the circle of people who talk about ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ as a dialectical pair, is precisely this. If you are ‘cis’, then – according to the main argument that is used against ‘transphobic feminists’ – it doesn’t matter what sex, class, nationality, race, disability, etc. you have: you are de facto speaking from a position of ‘privilege’. So we can chuck Marx, or any subtle theories of ideological interpellation, of structures of power, out of the window. It is straightforward to imagine how, with little exaggeration, this blanket assertion might appear to a ‘cis’ person. It means that if you’re happy with your body, you should pipe down. That is unless, of course, you had to have surgery to reach a stage of being happy with your body. Then, even though you are now happy with your body, you’re allowed not to pipe down, because you were formerly not happy with your body. But you were formerly not happy with your body in an approved way: you were ‘trans’. If you are today, or were formerly unhappy with your body because your breasts were too small/large, your nose too small/large, and you suffered bullying among your peers or from your family or husband or whatever, but you are ‘cis’, then you are still on the piping-down side of the divide, because you are not ‘trans’. If, as ‘cis’, you change your body to conform to the expectations of the people whom you feel to be causing you pain, that is not the same as the ‘trans’ experience of changing a body to conform to personally felt pressures (however much or little those are inflected by societal pressures). ‘Trans’ people are forever on the non-piping-down side, however much or little they are anxious in the face of ideological pressures; ‘cis’ people are forever on the piping-down side, however much or little they are anxious in the face of ideological pressures: there is a hierarchy of suffering, and anybody who speaks against this hierarchy is a ‘transphobe’.
I support ‘trans’ people’s decisions in respect of the ideological gender pressures they feel, because they are equal sufferers with all of us in this particular cultural disease. There are some people who don’t support these decisions, just as there are some people who don’t support feminist or gay activism. But just as not all ‘trans’ people are misogynist (which is an accusation sometimes levelled against them), not all feminists who (a) support ‘trans’ people who want to redefine their relationship to gender and sexuality but (b) want to keep talking about the pressures that led to that decision, and that lead to more universal human suffering in respect of the same pressures – not all those people are ‘transphobic’. If we can’t talk in an open, intellectual way about the pressures that cause people to suffer, and to take action to limit the effects of that suffering wherever they can, then we are in an impoverished space. The attempt to shut down discussion by labelling it ‘phobic’ is ungenerous and contrary to belief in free speech, but it is also unhealthy.
When Suzanne Moore says that all women essentially feel the pressure to comform to the beauty ideal of a Brazilian transsexual, a response that is sensitive to the cultural pressures that she is talking about would not be, as has been seen, a harrying of her until she left Twitter under the cloud of ‘transphobic’ shame. It should be something more like this: ‘It is clear that in our society women – and men too – are essentially required to aim for a standard of beauty or of conformity to some other kind of expectation that requires high levels of bodily intervention. While some individuals may feel individually comforted by their transition into such a form, that possibility is neither open to everyone nor desirable as a universal experience. Surely we shouldn’t live in a culture which makes mere bodily existence a locus for trauma. So we should consider the cultural pressures that lead people, fairly universally, to feel demeaning pressures of this kind, and which lead people to feel the need for medical intervention to be happier inside their bodies. We should remain sympathetic in the moment of their anxiety with individuals who want to change their noses or breasts or genitals, etc., in response to these pressures, but we should consider, with them, the effects of their decisions in contributing to new forms of cultural pressure, new visions of “normality”, of which the figure of the Brazilian transexual is merely an eye-catching example.’
We should be able to have these discussions without recourse to abuse. We can be angry, by all means, but the correct focus of the anger, as Marxists and gender theorists know (and which is why I find so little of either in this debate), is the symbolic structure, the ideology, the structure of power itself, not our joint sufferers under its terrible sway. The language of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ is bandied about simply to enable subdivisions that encourage argument. It doesn’t matter whether anyone is a ‘cis’ or ‘trans’ slave to ideologies of gender: the arbitrary separation into the two groups doesn’t change the fact that everyone is a slave – except insofar as the distraction tactic prevents the real theoretical argument, about the very arbitrariness of it all, to continue in an open and fruitful way that would be of benefit to all people.