Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How Radical Feminism Gets Trans Wrong

A couple of utterances from a well known RadFeminist thinker came to light today that I think deserve to be addressed:

First is the following interview:  Sheila Jeffreys on Transgenderism and Feminism
Followed by this article on The Guardian:  Let us be free to debate transgenderism without being accused of 'hate speech'

I'll start off with Ms. Jeffreys' interview, as it contains a great many clues as to what is wrong with the Radical Feminist stance towards transgenderism. 

Right at the top, we find the following:
I understand transgenderism to be a diagnosis of the medical profession constructed in the late 20th century. It seems to have come from work that was being done by sexologists in the mid 20th century when the sexological profession – endocrinologists and so on – invented the idea of gender
There are several points in this sentence that I think are important.  She has confused the evolution of the notion of gender as distinct from physical sexual attributes with the work of Dr. Harry Benjamin.  Her reference to endocrinologists seems like a bit of an attempt to diminish the significance of the work that Harry Benjamin and others did in breaking ground for the treatment of transsexuals.  She is also conveniently ignoring the fact that formal study of cross-gender behaviour predates Dr. Benjamin quite significantly, with Magnus Hirschfeld having coined the term "transvestism" as referring to cross-dressing in the early 20th century.
there were two categories of them [men who wanted sex reassignment surgery]. One category was definitely homosexual men, and in fact the first transsexual surgery that got a great deal of publicity in the US was [performed on] a man called Christine Jorgensen, who actually specifically said that he was homosexual, and in fact we have it on record that it was his doctor who said to him “no, you’re suffering from a condition which affects every cell of your body” and so on. His was the first case, and that was basically about the gay-hating of the general society, which causes men like him (and unfortunately there are still many men like him) to have surgery because he could not bear to love other men in the body that he had.
Here's the next big point.  Notice that Ms. Jeffreys has chosen to use masculine pronouns with respect to Christine Jorgensen.  Not only is this profoundly disrespectful of Ms. Jorgensen's lived gender, it also makes it abundantly clear that Ms. Jeffreys has either not read Ms. Jorgensen's own autobiography or is choosing not to acknowledge much of the narrative that Ms. Jorgensen expressed in it.

As far as I can see, Ms. Jeffreys is falling into the trap of using sexual attraction to describe someone's gender.  This is a tactic that we see all too commonly from the "Christian" far right when they want to invalidate a transsexual.

Ms. Jorgensen may well have been attracted to men, but in her male past was unwilling or outright unable to engage with men sexually for a variety of reasons.  That may have resulted in her describing herself as homosexually attracted in her pre-transition state, but that doesn't make her homosexual per se.  In fact, it tends to suggest that she is a straight female.

The second point that I take great exception to is Ms. Jeffreys' insistence on attempting to frame transsexualism in the context of the homosexual world.  While a good number of transsexuals do inhabit the gay community for a variety of reasons, it is folly indeed to try and glue the two together as though transgender people are simply a subset of the GLB population.   By arguing that Ms. Jorgensen transitioned out of shame or in response to the social pressures against being homosexual, Ms. Jeffreys is denying the fundamental validity of the transsexual's drive to transition. 

Speaking for myself, I didn't transition out of any fear of consequences for being homosexual.  In fact, my own experience of the process of transition was that the pressures against a transsexual undergoing transition were at least as harsh, if not more so, than the pressures that homosexuals experience. 
Nonetheless, queer theory, which is very social constructionist, created this idea that gender is socially constructed – which is true – but then [within this framework] there can be all kinds of genders, and gender doesn’t have any kind of relationship to the actual material reality of the subordination of women and the dominance of men from which gender actually arises
Queer theory doesn't adequately describe transsexualism either.  Trust me, I've studied enough of Foucault, Butler, and others to long ago realize that social constructionist theories cannot account for some key aspects of transsexual narratives.  Among the key factors that transsexuals often express is an awareness of being different as one of their earliest memories, sometimes well before any development of socialized gender behaviours.  No constructionist view of gender accounts for this, and usually the response when confronted with this fact is to attempt to dismiss it as "unsubstantiated essentialism".
At the same time there was the development of plastic surgery. The medical profession had to develop certain skills in order to make transgenderism happen – they were indeed engaged in a project to create heterosexual correctly-gendered people, but they needed endocrinology, they needed plastic surgery, they needed anaesthetics in order to do transgenderism.
Here's the next bit of idiocy.  Ms. Jeffreys is now trying to conjure the idea that the medical professions set out to create an industry for themselves.  While there is no question that the treatment of transsexuals (and other transgender people) makes a small number of professionals a very healthy living, there is no evidence that this is a result of some kind of conspiracy on the part of them.  Having studied the work of so many of the early pioneers in the treatment of transsexuals, there is no evidence that supports that kind of hypothesis.
So there’s really a campaign of censorship on the net, which frightens people and it’s not just feminists that they do this to. There was an American sexologist called Michael Bailey who wrote a book back in I think 2004 called ‘The Man Who Would Be Queen’ in which he made arguments that transgender activists do not like — that transgenderism for, not those men who have been homosexual and do not wish to be in that category, but the other large category of those men who decide that they’re transgender who come from cross-dressing, who’ve been sexually excited by women’s clothes. Michael Bailey argued that for that category of men – which is a very large one – who’ve usually been married with a couple of children and decide they’re transgender in their 50s or so – he said that that was sexual and it was about sexual excitement, at least in its origins.
So, now she wants to martyr Michael Bailey.  Bailey wasn't shouted down by the transgender community simply because he argued for a particular model, but rather because that model was based on a horrendously bad set of research, assumptions and inferences.  Attempting to describe the entirety of transsexuals based on solely on interviewing people who hang out in drag bars is a guaranteed way to fail.  Bailey tried to defend an indefensible position by telling a lot of very clear-headed people that they were "deluded".  Hardly a way to "make friends and influence people.

In short, if Ms. Jeffreys wants to "debate" transgenderism in the context of feminism, that's fine.  Until such times as Ms. Jeffreys wants to start dragging into her space a whole bunch of utterly bogus assumptions about transsexuals that are so fundamentally flawed as claiming that we are really homosexuals, or dragging Bailey's autogynephilia nonsense into the conversation.  In short, if you are going to debate the subject, treat the people you are talking about with some respect.

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