Why is there so little temperate talk around transsexualism?

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.

4 thoughts on “Why is there so little temperate talk around transsexualism?

  1. I disagree, and find it sad that you end with what reads like a call for “left” unity, despite the fact that some “left” people are acting in ways which make the movement a space in which other “left” people don’t feel welcome. By calling out actions which do this, we’re trying to make a space which is closer to what we aspire to, not doing it purely to be divisive.

    I think our disagreement begins in our understandings of privilege, and also in our understandings of “cis”. The usage is “cis” is in line with scientific usage such as “cislunar” – not an association which is particularly insulting, if you ask me. And when conducting in depth discussions about gender, it is acknowledged that the way we think about “cis” is based upon concepts which are conceived of and constructed in different ways. “Trans” and “cis” people who use the term do so not because we want to dichotomise people, but because we need a vocabulary.

    Having a term for “not trans” also represents that this shouldn’t just be seen as “normal”. So, in a way, talking about “cis” people actually represents that both can be seen as products of a system.

    RE: Privilege. To claim that someone is privileged because they’re not trans is not to say that life is wonderful for them. The vocabulary of privilege frequently comes in alongside that of intersectionality, which acknowledges that we can be privileged in some senses but not others. I like stavvers’ blog on this: http://stavvers.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/how-to-be-better-on-intersectionality-privilege-and-silencing/
    Furthermore, and concentrating more specifically on the discussion at stake here, it is not to say that people in the “privileged” group have it easy. There are still pressures, yes. The thing is, that privileged people can pass better as meeting those pressures. This means that its easier for someone in a privileged position to make challenges to pressures on their own terms, in ways and at times that suit them. Someone who is not in a privileged group doesn’t have this chance. Often visibly, they cannot pass as fitting the system, so can at no point feign an apolitical existence.

    The anxiety of cisgender people that you describe is justified, and represents problems of the system we live in. The vocabulary you complain about is an attempt to explain this, not to imagine our utopia. That it acknowledges the present system does not mean its something the trans community and allies (for you seem to be saying its only us who use the terms) wants to last.

  2. While I actually disagree with several things he says, the main part of his argument which I find persuasive is his call for “discussions without recourse to abuse”. This is what I find most upsetting about the whole debate. There seems to be no way of engaging with it as a “cis-” person without causing offence, and while sympathetic people who say things considered homophobic (depending on the arena in which it is said) are often merely called out on it, because it’s possibly to say ill-informed as a sympathetic generally informed person. Even as an ill-informed person, one is entitled to open ones mouth and say things, and question things. But the “cis/trans” debate is so strongly cloaked in abusive language, that no-one can enter into the debate, which makes people feel alienated by it, and as long as that is true it will fail to move forward.

    He also makes a passing point about the concept of “cis/trans” reinforcing binary categorisations as a general group, a concept which much scholarship has spent the recent decades debunking. This is in fact the main issue I have with both the word “trans” and with the word “cis” is that it categorises us into two groups, in the same ways as “man/woman”, “male/female” or “self/other”, which is one of my least favourite things to do to people. As someone who has (for my whole life) sat between two binarised groups, I’m (a) acutely aware of the forgotten space which falls between binary groups such as these, and how much more difficult it can be to be there than in either group, and (b) concerned that such categorisations are focussed on difference and not similarity.

  3. I would offer that, although you have clearly spent much thought about trans*, your grasp of our situation, both collective and individual, is shaky, or at least falls short of what might needed. I would say that it lacks insight into what it means to be trans* on a daily basis. This is a community in which, statistically, more than two out of every three will comtemplate killing themselves. Half of those will actually attempt it. The hardships of being trans* are beyond the experiences of most of those who seek pass judgement, justify, explain or describe.

    Cisgenderism is the trans* equivalent of heteronormativity. It is the perspective that is predicated on the assumption that everyone is cisgendered (or heterosexual). From a trans* or homosexual standpoint, both can impact very heavily in daily life.

    I could give many examples and you might say “I understand, but…” or “But everyone has…”. The thing is….there is no respite, no let up, the pressure is constant. And this is before we start discussion bigotry and hatred, the assaults, the job losses, the family losses, the NHS care pathway.

    Trans* people are acutely aware of their gender in a way that few cis people can, in my experience, imagine. We have lived with it for almost our whole lives, 55 years in my case. It is insensitive, at best, and trivialising, at worst, to claim an understanding.

    The next time a potential employer asks me for my male birth certificate which outs me and quite possibly lose me the job, I will comfort myself with your views on cis privilege. When some one tells me that I should apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, I will explain (for the thousandth time) that I cannot apply for a GRC because I am still married, I will tell myself that J. P. E. Harper-Scott feels that using cis is just an attempt to start an argument.

    No. This is the equivalent of man telling a woman to “Calm down, dear”, the man being in a position of patriarchal privilege. It manages to be both patronising and to lack understand of the issues. Ironically, perhaps, it also reads as though it comes from a cis privileged position, although I do not profess the know the author’s gender status.

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